Widdershins by Helen Steadman

I like to browse the ebook section of my library’s website from time to time, and I was delighted when, a few weeks ago, I found a newly published historical fiction novel set in the North East of England, which is where I am from. It’s not often I come across anything at all set in this part of the country, so of course I had to read it!

Widdershins, Helen Steadman’s debut novel, is inspired by a real historical event: the witch trials held in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1650 which resulted in either fifteen or sixteen people (including one man) being executed on the city’s Town Moor – the largest number of people in England’s history to be executed for witchcraft in a single day. Steadman takes this as a starting point to create fictional stories for two of the people involved in the trials – one is the Scottish witchfinder responsible for proving whether the witches are guilty or innocent and the other is one of the accused women. Their narratives alternate throughout the book, giving two very different sides of the same story.

The first thread of the novel follows John Sharpe as he grows up in Scotland believing that he was the cause of his mother’s death in childbirth. Dora, the midwife who delivered John into the world, had been unable to save his mother, and listening to his father vent his anger at both Dora and John himself, the boy has been instilled with a deep-rooted resentment and dislike of midwives, healers and women in general. Spending several years under the guardianship of his Uncle James, a pastor, only increases these feelings further and by the time John is an adult, his purpose in life seems clear: to hunt out, denounce and punish any woman he believes to be a witch.

Meanwhile, Jane Chandler is a young woman living in a rural village near Shotley Bridge, several miles away from Newcastle. From her mother Annie and the local ‘green woman’ Meg Wetherby, Jane is learning the healing properties of the herbs and plants which grow in the countryside and how to use them to prepare remedies and treatments to help the people of her village. In the seventeeth century, of course, activities such as these are misunderstood and viewed with suspicion – and when John Sharpe is summoned from Scotland with his special ‘witch-pricking’ device, Jane could find herself in terrible danger.

Both of the main characters in Widdershins have interesting stories to tell and although they seem quite separate at first, they do soon begin to converge. There is a certain sense of inevitability – with one character being a witchfinder and the other engaged in pursuits which could easily be construed as witchcraft, the outcome may seem obvious – but actually, unless you have read up on the trials beforehand, there are a few surprises in store!

John is a truly despicable person and any warmth I may have felt for him as a small frightened child at the beginning of the book quickly disappeared; his sections of the novel are often uncomfortable to read and although I would have preferred a more multi-faceted villain rather than one who was just purely evil, I admired the author’s attempts to get into the head of such an unpleasant individual and provide motivations to explain his actions. Jane, on the other hand, is much easier to like and to sympathise with as she faces one tragedy after another. She is also involved in a subplot following her romance with childhood friend and neighbour Tom Verger and this adds something extra to the story on top of the witchcraft aspect.

Helen Steadman scatters a small amount of dialect throughout both the Scotland and Newcastle chapters of the book, but not enough to cause readers any problems, and actually I would have liked more of it, to give more distinction between the novel’s two settings. I was disappointed that, even bearing in mind how different the landscape of the North East would have been in 1650, Steadman’s descriptions never really brought the area to life in a way that I felt I could recognise. A lot of the action takes place in and around Jane’s village in the Derwent Valley, but it could have been anywhere, and even when her adventures took her into Newcastle or Durham the sense of place wasn’t as strong as I would have expected.

I did enjoy this book, though; it made a nice complement to The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown which I read earlier this year. We should be able to look forward to more books from Helen Steadman; according to her website, she is working on a sequel to Widdershins, as well as two novels about the swordmakers of Shotley Bridge and lighthouse keeper’s daughter Grace Darling, a 19th century heroine.

House of Shadows by Nicola Cornick

After reading Nicola Cornick’s time-slip novel The Phantom Tree earlier this year, I was hoping for an opportunity to read her previous book, House of Shadows – and my chance came when I spotted it on the shelf on a recent visit to the library. Although House of Shadows doesn’t include physical time travel in the same way that The Phantom Tree does, it still features storylines set in different time periods with several close links between them. It’s not my favourite of the two books, but I did enjoy it.

It’s difficult to know where to begin writing a summary of a book like this, so I’ll start in the modern day where we meet artist and glass-engraver Holly Ansell who has just received a desperate call from her niece, telling her that her father (Holly’s brother Ben) has disappeared. Heading straight for the old Mill House in Ashdown, Oxfordshire, where Ben was last seen alive, all Holly is able to learn is that prior to his disappearance he had been researching his family tree and had discovered the diary of Lavinia Flyte, a 19th century courtesan.

Hoping for clues that will lead her to Ben, Holly begins to read Lavinia’s journal and quickly finds herself caught up in the memoirs of a brave, resourceful young woman who once lived at nearby Ashdown House. But before we can understand the links between Lavinia and the Ansell family, we have to go further back in time, to the 17th century, to follow the story of Elizabeth Stuart, known as the Winter Queen. The daughter of James I of England and VI of Scotland, Elizabeth was briefly Queen of Bohemia, through her marriage to Frederick V. However, it is her relationship with the soldier William Craven which provides the connection to the other two threads of the novel.

All three storylines are interesting and I’m sorry I can’t say too much about any of them without straying into spoiler territory. What I can say is that there are two objects which play an important role in each of the time periods – a mysterious crystal mirror and a priceless jewel known as the Sistrin Pearl, both believed to possess magical powers and said to have been used in the divination and prophecies of the Knights of the Rosy Cross. It seems that Frederick and Elizabeth really are thought to have possibly had some involvement with the Knights, so this aspect of the novel is not as far-fetched as it may sound – although I’m assuming the mirror and jewel themselves, or at least their powers, are fictional.

The Elizabeth sections of the novel were my favourites, partly because I know so little about her and partly because I enjoy reading about 17th century Europe. As far as I can tell, there is no real evidence to prove whether William Craven was romantically involved with Elizabeth, but they certainly knew each other and the story Nicola Cornick weaves around them is maybe not beyond the realms of possibility. Lavinia’s diary entries set in Regency England also held my attention – although they are quite brief, compared with the longer chapters devoted to Holly and Elizabeth, she is a vividly written character with a strong voice. I did also like Holly, but I found the contemporary storyline the least interesting – possibly because most of the action takes place in the historical sections, while Holly has more of a passive role, trying to piece together the stories of the other two women.

Ashdown House in Oxfordshire, the house at the heart of the novel and the one pictured on the front cover, really exists; it is now owned by the National Trust and Nicola Cornick volunteers there. It’s always nice to discover that the setting for a novel you’ve been reading is based on a real place – I’ve made a note to try to visit it if I’m in that part of the country.

Nicola Cornick has written several other books, but they seem to be more conventional historical romances, so I think I’ll wait and hope that she writes more that are similar to this one and The Phantom Tree!

Midnight Blue by Simone van der Vlugt

Midnight Blue is a novel set in the Netherlands in the 17th century and written by Dutch author Simone van der Vlugt. Originally published in Dutch, this edition from HarperCollins features an English translation by Jenny Watson.

As the novel opens in 1654, we meet Catrin, a young woman who lives in the village of De Rijp and who has recently been widowed. Hoping to make a new start, Catrin says goodbye to her family and sets out on the long journey to Amsterdam, where she has been offered work. Arriving in the city, she takes up her new position as housekeeper to the merchant Adriaan van Nulandt.

As she settles into her job and gets to know the family, an attraction forms between Catrin and Adriaan’s younger brother, the charismatic and adventurous Matthias. She also watches with envy and fascination as Adriaan’s wife, Brigitta, is encouraged to pursue her passion for painting, something for which Catrin also has a talent. It’s not long, however, before a face Catrin thought she had left behind reappears, threatening to tear apart the new life she has built for herself – and so she decides it’s time to move on again, this time to Delft and the home of another Van Nulandt brother, Evert. Evert owns a pottery workshop and it is here that Catrin finds an opportunity to put her artistic abilities to good use at last…

Although Catrin’s personal story is fictional, the world in which Simone van der Vlugt places her is grounded in historical fact. My knowledge of Dutch history is very limited, picked up mainly from the few other novels I’ve read set in the country, and it’s always good to have the opportunity to learn something new! The period covered by the novel includes such notable events as the Delft Explosion of 1654 and an outbreak of the plague. Life in Catrin’s home village of De Rijp and the cities of Amsterdam and Delft is vividly described, and as Catrin spends so much time travelling from one place to another, we are also given descriptions of the scenery seen from the canals and rivers which link her various destinations.

The time during which the novel is set – known as the Dutch Golden Age – saw art, science, trade and industry flourishing in the Netherlands, including the pottery industry which forms such an important part of the story. You can expect to learn a lot about mixing chemicals, painting designs, glazing pots and firing them in kilns…and you’ll come away from the novel with an admiration for Delft Blue, the blue and white pottery produced at Evert’s workshop. Several historical figures from the art world are incorporated into the story too, although I found it difficult to believe that Catrin would have come into contact with so many famous artists of the period – Rembrandt, Vermeer, Nicolaes Maes and Carel Fabritius all make an appearance and all have words of advice or encouragement for Catrin.

Catrin herself is an interesting character. The novel is written in first person present tense, which is not my favourite for historical fiction, but it does mean that we get to know our narrator quite well. Even so, we don’t know everything about her immediately; Catrin keeps some parts of her past hidden to be revealed later on – and when the past does begin to catch up with her, this introduces a thriller element to the novel which adds another layer of interest. I was occasionally pulled out of the 17th century by the use of a word or phrase which felt too modern, but it’s difficult to say how much of this was due to the translation and how much to the original text.

Midnight Blue is a light and entertaining novel which I would recommend to readers who have enjoyed other books with Dutch settings such as Girl with a Pearl Earring or The Miniaturist. I read this as part of a blog tour, so if you would like to see more reviews, you can find the rest of the schedule below. And thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of the book for review!

To Sleep No More by Deryn Lake

I had never come across Deryn Lake’s books until recently, but it seems that she has written a large number of historical fiction novels, detective stories and romances, published from the 1980s to the present day. I decided to try To Sleep No More, a book which first appeared in 1987 under the name Dinah Lampitt and has now been reissued by Endeavour Press as a Deryn Lake novel. It’s an unusual book as it feels almost like three separate novels in one, but with some very important links between the three and all set in the same small community – the village of Mayfield in Sussex.

We begin in the 14th century with the story of Oriel de Sharndene, whose father marries her off to the innocent and childlike Colin, brother of Archbishop John de Stratford. As she tries to settle into married life at Maghefeld Palace, Oriel finds that although she is fond of her husband and captivated by his extraordinary musical abilities, their marriage is never going to be a very satisfying one. The man she truly loves is Marcus de Flaviel, a squire from Gascony who has recently arrived in England and has been appointed companion to Colin by the Archbishop. Colin likes Marcus almost as much as Oriel does, and for a while the three are quite happy. Eventually, though, Oriel’s relationship with the Gascon squire leads to tragedy and at that point the first part of the novel ends.

Moving forward to the year 1609, we find ourselves in the village of Mayfield (formerly Maghefeld) again – and with a new set of characters to get to know. This time we follow the story of Jenna Casselowe who decides to resort to magic to win the heart of the man she loves, Benjamin Mist. Jenna needs to be careful – if anyone finds out what she has been doing she risks being accused of witchcraft. Finally, there’s a third story set early in the 18th century, when the roads and beaches of Sussex are alive with illegal activity. Lieutenant Nicholas Grey arrives in Mayfield on the trail of highwayman Jacob Challice and a gang of smugglers – could another chain of events be about to be set in motion which will again have tragic consequences?

Three stories which all seem very different at first, but as you continue to read some of the parallels and connections start to emerge, although others are not clear until the end of the book. I don’t think it’s spoiling anything (as it’s clearly stated in the blurb) to say that reincarnation is involved and that characters we meet in one time period correspond with characters from another. It’s not always clear who is who as they don’t necessarily keep the same appearance, sex or position in society from one life to the other, but if you’re patient there are eventually enough clues to be able to fit the pieces together.

I have to admit, when I first started to read To Sleep No More I didn’t expect to be very impressed by it (maybe it was the cover of the new edition that gave me that impression) but I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. Although it took me a while to adjust to each new story – as I’ve said, it’s almost like reading three different novels in the same book – and a lot of concentration is needed to keep track of the characters and who they may have been in a previous life, it’s not quite as confusing as it all sounds!

Each section of the book has its own sense of time and place reflecting the different era and the changes in language, culture and attitudes over the centuries. It was obvious that the author had done a lot of research into the local history of the area and into each period in general, although I was not convinced by the work of a doctor who, towards the end of the novel, is carrying out experiments involving hypnosis and regression – his methods were surely too scientific for 1721. On the other hand, without that particular plot development it’s difficult to see how else the various threads of the story could have been pulled together.

Reading Deryn Lake’s author’s note at the end of the book, I was surprised to see how many of the secondary characters and events in the three stories were based on historical fact. For example, Alice Casselowe, Jenna’s aunt in the novel, really was accused of witchcraft and there really was a gang of smugglers operating in Mayfield in the 1720s. The author also incorporates the legend of St Dunstan (allegedly Mayfield’s founder) into the story, with several characters seeing ghostly visions of a monk working at a forge. The supernatural elements of the story are usually quite subtle, though, and are used sparingly to add to the eerie atmosphere of the novel.

Have you read any of Deryn Lake/Dinah Lampitt’s novels? What did you think?

Pamela Belle: Wintercombe and Herald of Joy

Having read and loved Pamela Belle’s wonderful Heron series, I knew I would also have to try her other series, of which Wintercombe (originally published in 1988) is the first. Although I was looking forward to reading it, I have to admit that after being so captivated by the adventures of the Heron family, I doubted whether I could possibly enjoy this book as much. Of course, I was wrong. What I found was another beautifully depicted setting, another moving story to become absorbed in and another set of characters to fall in love with (or to hate, as the case may be).

Our heroine this time is Silence St. Barbe, whose unusual first name was bestowed on her by her strict Puritan father as it represented one of the qualities he valued in a woman. When we meet Silence at the beginning of the novel, she has been married for several years to another Puritan – George St. Barbe, a man much older than Silence and with little love or compassion for his young wife. With the outbreak of England’s Civil War, George has gone off to fight with the Roundheads, while Silence stays safely behind at Wintercombe, the family’s country estate in Somerset, with her three children and two step-children.

When a troop of Cavaliers descend upon Wintercombe, however, it seems that it is not such a safe haven after all and soon the house is full of noisy, drunken soldiers under the command of the vicious and ruthless Lieutenant-Colonel Ridgeley. As she struggles to keep her family and servants safe and her lovely home intact, Silence is grateful for the help of Captain Nick Hellier who is able to provide some protection from the worst of his Colonel’s cruelty and violence. But much as Silence comes to value Nick’s friendship, she still isn’t sure whether she can trust him…he is one of the enemy, after all.

I have read a lot of novels set during the Civil War but one of the things I liked about Wintercombe (and also The Moon in the Water and The Chains of Fate) is that, although the progress of the war is followed and battles and significant political events are mentioned, the focus is on the lives of ordinary people, showing how, in one way or another, the effects of war eventually touch even those who have stayed at home and aren’t directly involved. A Parliamentarian house being garrisoned by the Royalist army is an aspect of the war that I haven’t read about in fiction before and I really felt for Silence and her family as they tried to prevent their beloved house and gardens from being destroyed. According to the author’s note, the model for Wintercombe is Great Chalfield in Wiltshire. I have never been there but it looks beautiful and is now on my list of places to visit if I’m in that area of the country.

There is also a romantic thread to the story, although I won’t say too much about it other than that I loved both hero and heroine and enjoyed watching their relationship slowly develop, giving them time to get to know each other – and the reader time to get to know both characters. But there are also other relationships which I found it interesting to follow, particularly the ones Silence has with her two teenage stepchildren, the difficult, troubled Rachael and the gentle, loyal Nat.

After finishing Wintercombe I couldn’t wait to continue with the story, so I moved straight on to the second book in the series, Herald of Joy. *Spoiler warning – you may wish to avoid reading the next few paragraphs until you’ve read Wintercombe.*

Herald of Joy takes up the story about six years after Wintercombe ended. Death is approaching for George St. Barbe, Silence’s husband, but it seems that his eldest daughter, Rachael, is the only person at Wintercombe who will truly grieve for him. Silence’s marriage to George has never been a happy one and even in death he manages to cause more problems for her. She and her stepson Nat are dismayed by the contents of his will, which leaves Silence reliant on Nat’s goodwill and Rachael faced with marrying a man who, as the rest of the family can see, is completely unsuitable. To complicate things further, Silence’s younger sister, the inappropriately named Patience, has recently been involved in a plot to restore Charles II to the throne and has been packed off to Wintercombe by their brother, where he hopes she will be kept out of trouble.

For Silence, George’s death means she is now free to be with her lover, Nick Hellier, after six years of separation – but Nick is fighting in Charles’ army at Worcester and is unaware of events at Wintercombe. When the battle ends in defeat for the Royalists, Nick is forced to go on the run. Will he and Silence be reunited at last?

Following Wintercombe’s emotional final chapter, I was hopeful that this novel would have a happier ending. But although some of our characters do find happiness by the end of the book (I’m not saying any more than that, of course) they have to endure more drama, betrayal, heartache and danger before they get to that point! While the story of Silence and Nick is at the heart of the novel again, I also enjoyed catching up with the rest of the St. Barbe family, their servants and friends, and seeing how they had developed and changed during the intervening years. The new characters are great too, particularly the lively, irrepressible Patience, the aristocratic Mervyn Touchet, who bears a striking resemblance to the King, and, best of all, the children’s ‘profane and Royalist’ parrot.

*End of spoilers*

I loved both of these books and will definitely read the other two in the series, A Falling Star and Treason’s Gift. However, I’m aware that they deal with the next generations of the St. Barbe family so I will wait a little while before reading them as at the moment I would probably just want more of Silence and Nick!

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

The Witchfinder’s Sister is Beth Underdown’s first novel. I was drawn to it first by the title and the cover, but the subject – the English witch trials of the 1640s – appealed to me too.

The title character is Alice Hopkins, a fictional sister of Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General who was believed to be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of women in England over a period of several years in the middle of the 17th century. At the beginning of the novel, following the death of her husband in London, Alice is returning to Manningtree, Essex, where her brother still lives. The two have not been on good terms ever since Alice married the son of a servant, Bridget, whom Matthew blames for the childhood accident which has left his face scarred. Now, though, she hopes they can put the past behind them and move on.

Moving into her brother’s lodgings at the Thorn Inn, Alice is relieved to find that he is willing to let her stay with him – but she quickly discovers that the years have changed Matthew and that he is not the same man she left behind. She hears disturbing rumours about him in the town, linking him with accusations of witchcraft against local women, and when she discovers that he is making lists and collecting evidence, Alice must decide whether or not to intervene.

The novel gets off to a slow start as characters are introduced and background information is provided, with lots of flashbacks to earlier events in Alice’s and Matthew’s lives, but after a few chapters the pace begins to pick up. Not knowing much about the real Matthew Hopkins, I found Underdown’s portrayal of him very intriguing. The lack of known facts relating to his early days gives her the freedom to create a convincing backstory for him, and I appreciated the way she delves into his personal history, revealing family secrets and trying to show how incidents from his childhood may have helped to shape the man he will become. Only seeing him through Alice’s eyes – the novel is written in the first person – makes it difficult to penetrate below the surface and really understand him, but that just makes him all the more chilling and unnerving.

I thought Alice was a less interesting character, maybe because her main role as narrator is to tell the story of Matthew and the women accused of witchcraft rather than taking an active part in events herself. I found her slightly bland – although I did have some sympathy as she was forced to stand by and watch as her brother carried out his terrible deeds, not knowing what she could say or do to help his victims. It would have been nice to have had the opportunity to get to know some of the so-called witches in more depth; most of them were little more than names on the page, and I think if I had been able to care about their fates on an emotional level that would have added an extra layer to the novel. Having said that, I was fascinated by the descriptions of Hopkins’ methods of identifying witches, particularly the one referred to as ‘watching’ – I had heard about that before, but hadn’t fully appreciated the discomfort and torment involved in it.

The book ends in a way that is slightly difficult to believe, but I liked it and thought it added a good twist! Based on this novel, I think Beth Underdown can look forward to a successful writing career; there were things that I liked about it and others that I didn’t like as much, but on the whole I enjoyed it and would certainly be interested in reading more by this author.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier

frenchmans-creek Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca has been one of my favourite books since I first read it as a teenager, but it’s only relatively recently that I started to explore the rest of her work. Since 2010, I have now read several of her short story collections and one of her non-fiction books, as well as working through almost all of her novels, saving Frenchman’s Creek until near the end (as it sounded like one that I would particularly enjoy and I wanted to have something to look forward to).

Set in the 17th century, Frenchman’s Creek is the story of Dona St Columb who, at the beginning of the novel, is growing disillusioned with her marriage and bored with life in London. To alleviate her boredom, she has been joining her husband Harry and his friends in some increasingly wild escapades, but as the mother of two young children she has started to feel ashamed of her behaviour. Unable to bear it any longer, she decides that what she needs is to spend some time away from her husband and London society – and so she takes the children and heads for Navron, Harry’s estate in Cornwall.

On arriving at the house, Dona is surprised to find that only one servant is present; his name is William, a quiet but perceptive man with whom Dona forms an immediate bond. Despite signs that suggest someone has been sleeping in her bedroom while the house stood empty, she soon begins to feel relaxed and refreshed in the peaceful surroundings of Navron. Her new neighbours, however, seem to be less at ease and it’s not long before Dona hears tales of a French pirate who is said to be terrorising the coast of Cornwall. On a walk through the woods one day, she discovers a ship resting in a creek and suddenly everything makes sense.

The Frenchman (who, you will have guessed, is the owner of the ship), dispels all of Dona’s – and probably the reader’s – preconceived ideas of what a pirate should be. Polite, cultured and intelligent, he couldn’t be more different from Harry and his friends, and it’s no surprise that Dona falls in love with him. I couldn’t quite believe that a man like the Frenchman would have chosen to be a pirate (the reasons he gives for his way of life didn’t seem very convincing) but I thought he was an intriguing character and I enjoyed watching Dona’s relationship with him develop. And yet I didn’t become fully engaged with the story until halfway through, when Dona and the Frenchman embark on an adventure together and the consequences of this threaten to bring their happiness to an end. From this point on, I found the book unputdownable, right through to its poignant ending.

Du Maurier’s writing is beautifully atmospheric and evocative, more so than almost any other author I can think of. The description of Dona’s first walk along the banks of the creek, where it widens into a pool and she comes upon the pirate ship for the first time, is so vivid I could nearly see the scene laid out in front of me. The whole book has a dreamy, almost hypnotic feel. Although we are told once or twice that our hero’s name is Jean-Benoit Aubéry, he is referred to throughout the novel as simply the Frenchman – it’s little things like these which really add to the air of mystery and haziness.

Although I did enjoy this book very much, particularly the second half, it couldn’t quite equal my top four du Mauriers, Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, The Scapegoat and The House on the Strand. I’m planning a re-read of Rebecca soon and then I would like to read Castle Dor, the only du Maurier novel I still haven’t read.