I should imagine that many people have heard of the Pendle Witches. The witchcraft trials of the early seventeenth century have become the stuff of legend, and a whole industry has sprung up around the unfortunate people who were accused of bewitching their neighbours, and even of murder, and were sent to Lancaster to answer to their “crimes”. What Rowan Scot-Ryder has done, in this captivating book, is give those people a humanity. They no longer seem like names of almost mythological beings, but real people, caught up in the most horrific events.
A great deal of the book is taken up with the story of Jennet Device, the youngest daughter of one of the families accused. It is Jennet’s sister, Alizon, who in effect starts the whole terrifying business, when she encounters a pedlar, John Law. In the witchcraft trial, it was stated that Alizon demanded pins and Law refused to give them to her, firstly because of the expense, and secondly because he feared what she would do with them. (It was well known that pins were used in witchcraft.) It was stated by Law’s son Abraham, that Alizon had no intention of paying for the pins, and when Law wouldn’t comply with her request, she cursed him, causing him to fall ill.
The author takes this event and gives it a new slant, looking at it from Alizon’s point of view. What she shows is the terrifying speed with which events start to snowball from that point, leading to the arrest of Alizon, her brother Jem, mother Elizabeth, and grandmother, known as Demdike. Not only the Device family are named, but neighbours, too. Friends of the family, and bitter enemies, the Whittles – including Demdike’s nemesis, Chattox.
Jennet Device is on record as being nine years old when she was called to give evidence against her family. In this book, the author states that her mother told the authorities she was nine to protect her, but in actual fact she was eleven, and had turned twelve by the time the trial started. Either way, there’s no doubt that she was still a little child, vulnerable and afraid, yet she was made to stand on a table in front of a room full of angry people, and tell them all of the things she had “seen” and “heard” her family and neighbours do.
It’s not entirely certain what happened to Jennet after the trial which saw her family hang, but it is known that a woman by the same name was jailed for witchcraft offences some twenty or so years later. Rowan Scot-Ryder uses this to continue her story, and in this fictionalised account of the events, we learn that it is indeed the same Jennet. What brings her back to Lancaster and leads her to being accused of the same crimes as her family is a fascinating tale and, again, the author weaves in facts to give it a very authentic ring.
I have to admit, I read this story with growing anger. Anger because the way the poor were dismissed and ignored is just appalling. Anger because women were used as scapegoats, and any woman who refused to stay in her place, or give a man what he wanted, risked being accused of heinous crimes that those in authority were all too keen to believe. And anger because those with money and power used their position to levy a justice that was no justice at all. Those with no money had no voice, and there was no such thing as a fair trial.
I also felt desperately sad and helpless. They were caught in a situation there was simply no escape from. Anyone different was viewed with suspicion, and even the elderly – sick and blind at that – were not given any reprieve. It was frightening to see how things were developing, and how quickly more and more people were caught in the web of accusations and lies. Whichever way they turned, whatever they said, they were condemned, and it was clear that they had no way out of the situation they were in.
My heart broke for Jennet, who carried the guilt for the result of her “evidence” for the rest of her life. What she suffered was just awful, and although it’s said that her mother screamed and cursed at her in the courtroom, I much prefer to believe this version, and actually find it easier to believe. It must have devastated Elizabeth Device to see what they had done to her child. No doubt she had spent months worrying about her, and about what they were doing to her. To hear Jennet saying the things she said, must have confirmed her worst fears and broken her heart, too.
Interestingly, the author chooses to weave in the mythology of the area. She includes events that can only be viewed as magical, and, rather than dismissing the talk of “witchcraft” as nonsense, she leads us to conclude that there was indeed something different about the Device family, at least, although it becomes clear that there was nothing evil about it. It’s quite telling that she has some of her characters speaking Latin occasionally, a language that the “old queen” Elizabeth the First has banished, because of its Catholic connotations. In that sense, it becomes obvious that anything not complying with the official protestant religion is unacceptable. It’s the narrow mindedness of the puritanical movement that deems anything outside its own parameters as evil. I thought this was handled well in the book. It opens the reader’s mind in a way that simply letting us believe that events were black or white would never do.
As the book continues on to the next generation, and history repeats itself, we get at last the hope of a happy ending. Jennet’s daughter Beth finds happiness, and it seems there will be a new start for the family.
The author leaves us with one last twist, and what a twist it is. Shocking, and yet, somehow, inevitable. I won’t say any more as I don’t want to spoil it for other readers. I will simply end this review by saying that this is a book that will stay with me, and will make me look at the historical facts with new eyes, and a huge amount of compassion. A really compelling read. 5/5
You can buy Daughter of Pendle here.