The Bewitching by Jill Dawson: ‘Is there any reason you should not be hanged?’

Cover image for The Bewitching by Jill DawsonJill Dawson incorporates historical figures and events into much of her fiction, often giving them a slightly subversive spin. Her last novel, The Language of Birds, explored the Lord Lucan case from the perspective of the nanny he murdered, neatly redressing the balance of the aristocracy-obsessed media’s coverage which seemed to have forgotten there was a victim. The Bewitching takes her readers back to the sixteenth century, a time of superstition and social inequality when misogyny was rife, with the story of the Warboys witch trial.

Look where the old witch sits! Did you ever see one more like a witch than she is?

Robert Throckmorton has been installed at Warboys by Sir Henry Cromwell, tasked with reporting seditious activities. John Samuels, their nearest neighbour, had been a leader in the Muchwood Riots, an attempt to reclaim Cromwell’s hunting ground as common land. His wife, Alice, is a healer, given to outbursts of temper, who closely guards the secret of her rape many years ago. When Alice calls on the Throckmortons, their youngest child is seized with a fit, pointing her finger at Alice and denouncing her as a witch. This is not a happy household: seventeen-year-old Gabriel has been sent away in disgrace although no one seems to know why, leaving his sisters confused and troubled; Robert and Elizabeth Throckmorton seem constantly at odds. As each of his daughters becomes afflicted by fitting, Robert seems peculiarly unwilling to take action against the Samuels, seeking out Martha, the children’s nursemaid, for reassurance and kitchen gossip, until eventually he has no choice. For Cromwell, a trial is both politically and personally expedient, gleefully supported by Elizabeth’s brother a divinity scholar eager to advance his career. Arrested along with her husband and daughter, Alice thinks the only way to save them is to confess.

Bessie is right: our mouths are sewn up. I picture mine like a little purse, the stitches drawn together. And where there are secrets, where there are things hidden and impossible to bring to light, there the devil must live   

I’ve long been interested in cunning women, the term given to healers often blamed for the many misfortunes that befell those around them and frequently accused of witchcraft. They were women with a great deal of power, too much for many to accept. This is the spin Dawson puts on Alice’s story, loosely basing her novel on a pamphlet written shortly after the events which began in 1589. It’s told from the perspective of Martha, the orphaned nursemaid, whose position gives her an intimacy with both family and servants. Dawson evokes a febrile atmosphere of paranoia and fear in an age when people were terrified of being labelled papists, pointing the finger at others to deflect attention from themselves, while superstition fanned the flames. Throckmorton and Cromwell are only too eager to see the back of the Samuels while the girls hope that with them gone, their lives will return to normal: Gabriel will come home, their parents will be happy and they will be well. An engrossing story, not perhaps my usual neck of the literary woods but Dawson’s such a reliably good writer I knew she’d deliver.

Sceptre Books: London 9781473654662 320 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)

12 thoughts on “The Bewitching by Jill Dawson: ‘Is there any reason you should not be hanged?’”

  1. Very fraught atmosphere to be living in. This is the second review of a book around witchcraft accusations I’m reading in as many days and it sounds well worth exploring. Much of the time, one often thinks in terms of those who knowingly raise fall accusations but what of those who believed as it seems for the daughters here.

    1. Absolutely! We have to remind ourselves that we have so much more, knowledge to help us explain the world to ourselves these days. It must have been almost comforting to have someone to blame. Throw in the paranoia of political intrigue and you have a very potent mix. Fascinating times but I’m glad I’m not living in them!

  2. I read this recently and thought it was fascinating, particularly as it’s based on a true story (which I previously knew nothing about). I haven’t read anything else by Jill Dawson, but The Language of Birds sounds intriguing!

    1. She has such an interesting way of working events and personalities into her fiction. I’d highly recommend The Language of Birds, also The Crime Writer which is based on Patricia Highsmith’s life.

  3. This sounds excellent, I am also fascinated by those cunning women. Oddly I haven’t yet read anything by Jill Dawson though have often thought how good her books sound.

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