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Review: The Familiars by Stacey Halls

Review: The Familiars by Stacey Halls

‘Fleetwood Shuttleworth is 17 years old, married, and pregnant for the fourth time. But as the mistress at Gawthorpe Hall, she still has no living child, and her husband Richard is anxious for an heir. When Fleetwood finds a letter she isn’t supposed to read from the doctor who delivered her third stillbirth, she is dealt the crushing blow that she will not survive another pregnancy.

When she crosses paths by chance with Alice Gray, a young midwife, Alice promises to help her give birth to a healthy baby, and to prove the physician wrong. 

When Alice is drawn into the witchcraft accusations that are sweeping the North-West, Fleetwood risks everything by trying to help her. But is there more to Alice than meets the eye? 

As the two women’s lives become inextricably bound together, the legendary trial at Lancaster approaches, and Fleetwood’s stomach continues to grow. Time is running out, and both their lives are at stake. 

Only they know the truth. Only they can save each other.’

The Familiars is an accomplished work of historical fiction that follows the path of Fleetwood, a seventeen year old woman in the early stages of her fourth pregnancy, and Alice, the midwife she first meets when they encounter each other in the grounds of Gawthorpe Hall. Fleetwood is desperate to produce a living child and heir for her husband, yet she soon encounters the news that she will not only not manage this, but is highly likely to not survive herself if she should try. Despite knowing very little about Alice, Fleetwood appoints her as her midwife, convinced that only her assistance will enable her to carry a child to term. However, accusations of witchcraft are claiming the lives of healers, wise-women and any believed to be behaving in a suspicious fashion, and Alice is not exactly forthcoming about the details of her life.

From the title of the novel, some may be expecting the presence of witchcraft as seen through the eyes of those perceived to be practising it. Though this is not the case, magic is nonetheless present throughout the story in the suspicions and paranoia of characters who claim that women they do not like, have acted against them or appear to have magical powers to heal are actually witches causing damage to the communities they live in. Here and there, there are hints of a more tangible magic, yet these remain subtle and without proof, down to the reader to interpret, just as for the characters in the story.

I have seen some comments that Fleetwood can be considered weak, but I really do have to disagree with this assessment of her character. Firstly, her rights, status and what she has been raised to believe are all very different in the context of the novel when compared with the modern day, and so it is rather unfair to judge her by modern standards and expectations. There is also the matter of the situation as regards her pregnancies and her age. Women were married younger and expected to be mothers sooner, yes, but the toll of so many pregnancies so young is bound to have had an impact both on her body (as addressed in the novel) and her mental state. Faced with the prospect of being unable to do what she has been raised to believe she is meant to, in terms of producing heirs, is it any wonder that she sometimes doubts her worth and capabilities and needs her husband’s reassurance? Her character development over the course of the story, both in her faith in herself and in acting against powers that would keep her quiet and subdued is a pleasure to see. That she does not merely accept her husband’s behaviour, as would be expected of many women, and takes steps to make him understand the impact of his actions is a huge risk for a woman in a time when their husbands had the ability to take everything away from them. There are moments where she is defiant in word and deed, her independence early in the novel often afforded owing only to her class. The world in which she lives does not provide her with the opportunity to act as she often attempts to, the restrictions placed on her not a personal failing.

The relationship between Fleetwood and Alice is an interesting one for many reasons, one of the most prominent being how much of a risk it is for the both of them. They appear to genuinely care for each other beyond the reason that brings them together, despite all that should keep them from doing so, and there need be no better reason for this than women looking to protect and aid each other in a time when one wrong step could mean death. Alice not only has the misfortune to be born a woman in a time when that alone is dangerous, but she is born into a class that further strips her of rights and agency. That it is a woman with only marginally greater advantages who speaks for her seems only right and further highlights the threats faced by women in a world of male power.

The Familiars is a layered and captivating read, out in February 2019. Thank you to Bonnier Zaffre for the ARC!

Publisher: Bonnier Zaffre

Pub date: 7th February 2019