I’m delighted to be taking part in the tour today for Widdershins (publishing 1st July) organised by Impress Books. I’m sharing my review plus Helen Steadman is sharing with us inspiration for her novel. First, here’s more information about Widdershins:
Paperback: 250 pages
Publisher: Impress Books (1 July 2017)
‘Did all women have something of the witch about them?’
Jane Chandler is an apprentice healer. From childhood, she and her mother have used herbs to cure the sick. But Jane will soon learn that her sheltered life in a small village is not safe from the troubles of the wider world.
From his father’s beatings to his uncle’s raging sermons, John Sharpe is beset by bad fortune. Fighting through personal tragedy, he finds his purpose: to become a witch-finder and save innocents from the scourge of witchcraft.
Inspired by true events, ‘Widdershins’ tells the story of the women who were persecuted and the men who condemned them.
The 17th-Century Witch Trials in Newcastle according to John Wheeler
Before writing Widdershins, I’d planned for some time to write a book about witches. But it was only in the course of carrying out initial background research in 2011 that I learned about the Newcastle witch trials, which were reported in Ralph Gardiner’s book.
This book has possibly one of the longest and most interesting book titles in recent history: England’s Grievance Discovered, in Relation to the Coal-trade; the Tyrannical Oppression of the Magistrates of Newcastle; their Charters and Grants; the Several Tryals, Depositions, and Judgements Obtained Against Them; With a Breviate of Several Statutes Proving Repugnant to Their Actings; With Proposals for Reducing the Excessive Rates of Coals for the Future; and the Rise of their Grants Appearing in this Book.
Ralph Gardiner’s book includes a deposition given under oath by John Wheeler of London, along with Elianor Lumsdel and Bartholomew Hodshon. In that testimony, Wheeler states that the Newcastle authorities imported a witch-finder from Scotland. In cahoots with the local bell ringer, the Scottish witch-finder arbitrarily rounded up thirty women from the streets of Newcastle, took them to the town hall and stripped them to the waist. He then proceeded to test them for witchcraft and found twenty-seven of them guilty.
What intrigued me most about Wheeler’s report was that the witch-finder was interrupted during his examination of ‘a personable and good-like woman’. The interrupter was one Lt Col Hobson, who revealed the witch finder as a fraud. As a result of Lt. Col. Hobson’s intervention, the woman being tested was declared innocent and set free. However, despite the revelation of the witch-finder being a fraud, fifteen (or sixteen) people were still executed for witchcraft and the witchfinder was allowed to go free.
Source: Ralph Gardiner
It’s not clear why one woman was set free. From John Wheeler’s statement, we can only assume that being ‘personable and good-like’, she was saved by her good looks. This strange state of affairs stuck in my mind. It’s very hard to understand why anyone at all might have been executed for witchcraft. But it’s even harder to come up with any rational explanation as to why the authorities felt justified in executing people once the witchfinder’s abilities had been proven fraudulent.
My novel Widdershins is my fictional attempt at imagining what might have gone on in Newcastle during these very strange witch trials, which resulted in the largest number of people executed for witchcraft on one day in this country.
Ralph Gardiner (1849 ) England’s Grievance Discovered in Relation to the Coal Trade. North Shields: Philipson and Hare. Ch. 53.
*A = hangman, B = bellman, C = two sergeants, D = witch-finder taking money for his work.
Narrated in turn by witchfinder John Sharpe and apprentice healer Jane Chandler, Widdershins takes us on a journey of stark horror that blends fact and fiction. It’s a story that is written with so much atmosphere (how does an author do that?!) and easy to attach to the characters giving the story an emotional tug that stayed with me, even when I wasn’t reading.
John’s traumatic childhood, first losing his mother and being blamed by his father for the loss (one horrendous scene made me shudder) sets him on the path of hunting out witches. Helen Steadman writes in such a way that the line between religion (John’s Uncle James) and obsession is clear. Despite his childhood, I felt no empathy with John. Scenes with his wife Lucy made me feel uncomfortable, his attitude towards Dora and Kirstie and his coldness in working out how the witch ‘pricker’ worked and consequently used left me empty and feeling nauseous. There’s no redemption for him in my heart.
Jane learning the use of herbs from her mum and cunning woman Meg, falling in love with Tom … sounds good doesn’t it? I really enjoyed living this way of life alongside our characters. In tune with the earth, nature and all her chaos. I didn’t like Tom’s best friend Andrew from the moment he steps into the story. You instantly know the type of person he is. Harrowing scenes you know existed in reality (pressgang, the House of Correction!) are brought to life on the page through Jane’s narration. I enjoy a story that has this type of ending and I’m still pondering off and on what will happen and what actions might follow.
Weaving the facts about the Newcastle witch trials with her imagination, Helen Steadman has created a powerful story that will stay with you a long time after you’ve finished reading.
If you live in or near Newcastle, a ghost walk all about the Newcastle witches looks spooky!
Helen Steadman lives in the foothills of the North Pennines, and she particularly enjoys researching and writing about the history of the north east of England. Following her MA in creative writing at Manchester Met, Helen is now completing a PhD in English at the University of Aberdeen. When she’s not studying or writing, Helen critiques, edits and proofreads other writers’ work, and she is a professional member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders.
Connect with Helen Steadman
Don’t forget to check out the other hosts on tour.