Fleetwood Shuttleworth is seventeen years old and the mistress of Gawthorpe Hall. After three devastating stillbirths, while pregnant for the fourth time, she comes across a letter which reveals that she isn’t expected to survive another pregnancy. It seems like fate then, when she comes across a young midwife who claims she can help Fleetwood see the pregnancy through and have a healthy baby. This is Alice Gray and, unfortunately for both her and Fleetwood, Lancashire in the early 1600s is a dangerous time to be a woman with knowledge of herbs and healing.
The Familiars is written by Stacey Halls, set at the time of the Pendle witch trials, with suspicion and accusations infecting the communities of the North West of England. The writing style is quite spare, with efficient use of description, which helps to make it a quick read. It’s also a very absorbing story, with a vibrant and appealing main character.
Our protagonist is the aforementioned Fleetwood Shuttleworth, and she begins the story in a state of both physical and emotional distress. She’s pregnant, suffering from horrendous sickness, and she’s just found out that, not only does her doctor believe another pregnancy would kill her, her husband has neglected to inform her of this risk. Even so, she’s determined to continue going about her usual activities to the best of her ability; playing with her dog, walking and riding. These are small rebellions—against her own illness as much as against her husband’s expectations—but they tell us up front that this isn’t a character to take bad news lying down. Throughout the book, this is a character determined to take action and seize whatever agency she can in her life. Sometimes this determination backfires, or fails entirely, in predictable ways, but Fleetwood’s naivety in these moments makes a lot more sense when you remind yourself that she’s only seventeen. Plus, her refusal to sit back and accept situations she doesn’t agree with makes her a delight to read.
Pretty much all of the characters that we spend any significant time with in the story feel like they have real depth to them. Fleetwood’s husband, Richard, I found a little irritating. He does seem to genuinely care about Fleetwood, but his actions and attitude don’t consistently bear that out. He also felt like of the less fleshed-out characters in terms of motivation, which meant he seemed to hover around the edges of the plot for most of the story. Which is perhaps as it should be, since this isn’t a story about Fleetwood and her husband so much as it’s a story about Fleetwood and Alice.
Alice Gray is hard to pin down, and remains essentially mysterious, but not because of a lack of character. Although she’s grown up without the social, educational or economic advantages Fleetwood seems to have enjoyed, Alice has developed a keen intelligence and an extraordinary instinct for self-preservation. She’s a very private character, but through the relationship she develops with Fleetwood we get glimpses of somebody pragmatic, but compassionate. Independent, proud, and possibly a little lonely. The friendship that builds between her and Fleetwood is the heart of this book, and it’s a lovely thing to watch develop in amidst the mounting danger of the witch hunt going on in the area.
Does it matter whether Alice is a witch or not? Fleetwood doesn’t seem to think so, although it’s a possibility she clearly considers. While I was reading, I felt like there was something interesting in the way Fleetwood is able to make things happen – to divine information via reading (which Alice has never learned to do) or wield social power – in a way that could look almost like magic to someone with less knowledge and influence. Each of these young women has gifts the other can’t access or fully understand but, rather than using this as an excuse to mistrust or fear each other, they are prepared to use those gifts to each other’s advantage.
There are a few elements of the plot which never felt like they resolved beyond hints and speculation, which was a shame as I was interested to see where they would go. The through-line of the story seemed determined to resist complication, possibly for the best as I imagine it could have easily ended up too busy and unfocused, but there were moments when I wanted to follow those tangents further than the author did. I won’t go into any great detail regarding these, for the sake of avoiding spoilers, and they definitely didn’t stop me from enjoying the book.
It feels worth pointing out that I like historical fiction, but I’m not deeply invested in the accuracy of said historical fiction. I did appreciate the author’s note clarifying exactly how much of the story was true to life (very little) and how much pure speculation and invention (the overwhelming majority), but not because it matters to me either way. If you’re looking for a true historical account of the Pendle witch trials, you will be better served elsewhere, but in this book Halls takes a small detail from historical record and spins it into a story about female friendship, trust and loyalty.