Book review: The Witch and Her Soul by Christine Middleton

Four hundred years after their deaths, the Pendle witches continue to fire the imagination of readers and historians all over the world.

The mystery of their alleged dark arts and deeds has spawned hundreds of books and articles ... but who were these nine Lancashire women and two men, tried and condemned as evil, supernatural murderers?

Retired lecturer Christine Middleton from Samlesbury, one of the centres of Lancashire witching folklore, has returned to the scene of the ‘crimes’ to reconstruct the lives of the leading players, deconstruct the myths that have grown around them and give the witches a human makeover.

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The Witch and Her Soul, a stunning debut novel from a writer on the threshold of her 80th birthday, is a fascinating and utterly compelling fictionalised but fact-based account of the ‘witch hunt’ that gripped the county in the summer of 1612.

Middleton succeeds where many other writers have failed by humanising this group of disparate characters, putting their ‘offences’ into the context of a period of religious suspicion and turmoil, and allowing us to see them as innocents pursued by authoritarians and fanatics.

This is the tale of the Pendle witches told through the eyes of Jane Southworth, illegitimate daughter of Sir Richard Shireburn of Stonyhurst and later wife of Sir John Southworth of Samlesbury Hall.

And the result is moving, shocking and brutal... the realities of persecution, treachery and frenzied accusation are reborn in the graphically re-enacted trials and traumas of those closely involved in the terrible events that led to the gallows at Lancaster Castle.

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As she sits at her dying husband’s bedside in 1612, Jane Southworth begins her extraordinary diary, her confessional into which she commits a series of raw, evocative, deeply personal writings revealing her world, her forbidden beliefs and her desires.

Around her, the pursuit of those accused of witchcraft is just beginning in a county reputed to be one of the most unruly parts of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth’s realm.

From her early years at rural Stonyhurst, Jane was surrounded by controversy. Despite being a bastard child of Sir Richard, she was brought up in the main house alongside her mother and siblings.

It was a household that courted danger by secretly keeping alive the old and forbidden Catholic faith in a country where harbouring priests could still be legally punished by being crushed beneath a wooden slab.

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After a brush with two local crones, old Mother Goggins and the Demdike Elizabeth Southern, Jane is convinced she has a special ‘power.’

But when she is sent to lodge with widow farmer and philanthropist Alice Nutter at Crow Tree Farm in Roughlee, near Pendle, Jane sees another side to life and faith because principled Alice practises a secret religion called the Family of Love, ‘a litany of sweet congratulation’ totally at odds with the harsher Catholic tenets of hellfire and punishment.

Slow to judge and quick to see the good in others, Alice publicly speaks out against the mistreatment of so-called witches, declaring that they have no real power to do harm and ‘it is only ignorance and fear that lend them reputation.’

However, the whispers that Alice sees as ‘malevolent but insubstantial’ start to grow and powerful enemies from both inside and outside Lancashire are waiting for an opportunity to take terrible revenge...

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Middleton’s writing is elegant and richly descriptive, enabling the past to spring to life with startling authenticity and compelling drama.

The Witch and Her Soul is about flesh-and-blood women – not witches, not murderers, not purveyors of magic and mayhem but real, complex, vulnerable characters, downtrodden, often poverty-stricken, marginalised, misguided and abused.

Seventeenth century Lancashire revisited is an eye-opening, unforgettable experience; a history lesson, a page-turning thriller and a window into the soul of an age whose queen famously declared that she had ‘no desire to make windows into men’s souls.’

(Palatine Books, paperback, £7.99)