Tuesday 6 June 2017

BLOG TOUR: Widdershins - Helen Steadman

I have a real treat for you today.  A fabulous guest post from Helen Steadman along with my review of Helen's truly exceptional novel Widdershins.

How a 'personable and good-like' woman escaped the hangman's noose in the Newcastle witch trials

While carrying out research for my novel, Widdershins, I became intrigued why one woman was first found guilty of witchcraft at the 17th century Newcastle witch trials, but after the witch-finder was revealed as a fraud she was then set free. The woman was not named, but she was described by John Wheeler as a 'personable and good-like' woman, from which we might infer that her good looks saved her.

In his deposition, John Wheeler states that thirty women were brought into the town- hall. The witch-finder stripped them and then thrust pins into their bodies. Using this technique, he found twenty-seven of the thirty guilty.

In discussion with Lt. Col. Hobson, who was present, the witch-finder claimed that he knew whether women were witches or not based purely on their looks. When he began testing the aforementioned 'personable and good-like woman', Lt. Col. Hobson intervened and said 'surely this woman is none, and need not be tryed'. However, the Scottish witch-finder said she was a witch because the town had said she was a witch and that she must be tried.

According to Wheeler, the witch-finder then, 'in sight of all the people, laid her body naked to the waste, with her cloaths over her head'. He then drove a pin into her thigh, but she did not bleed. According to Wheeler, fright and shame had caused all her blood to contract into one part of her body. Of course, bending double would make the blood rush to her head. The woman was declared to be guilty and a child of the devil.

Wheeler says that Lt. Col. Hobson had 'perceived the alteration of the foresaid woman, by her blood settling in her right parts' and he insisted that the woman be tested again. This time, her clothes were pulled up to her thigh, and he required that the witch-finder push the needle into the same place. This time, under the close supervision of Lt. Col. Hobson, 'it gushed out of blood' and the witch-finder cleared her and said she was not a child of the devil.

Shockingly, despite the fact that the Scottish witch-finder was clearly a fraud, and one prepared to send innocent women to a terrible death, he was still allowed to collect his wages and move on to further, even more lucrative work in Berwick. Even more shocking, fifteen(or sixteen) of the people he'd found guilty were still executed for witchcraft.


John Wheeler's deposition in Ralph Gardiner (1849 [1655]) England’s Grievance Discovered in Relation to the Coal Trade. North Shields: Philipson and Hare. Ch. 53.

So, after that enlightening guest post, shockingly based on actual events, let's see what I thought of Widdershins.

'Did all women have something of the witch about them?' 

Jane Chandler is an apprentice healer. From childhood, she and her mother have used herbs to cure the sick. But Jane will soon learn that her sheltered life in a small village is not safe from the troubles of the wider world. From his father's beatings to his uncle's raging sermons, John Sharpe is beset by bad fortune. Fighting through personal tragedy, he finds his purpose: to become a witch-finder and save innocents from the scourge of witchcraft. Inspired by true events, 'Widdershins' tells the story of the women who were persecuted and the men who condemned them.

What did I think?

Widdershins is an absolutely exceptional book, based on real events that took place in the North East of England, where I live.  The story is told from the perspective of two outstanding main characters: John Sharpe and Jane Chandler.  As we watch these two youngsters grow up several miles apart, we see them evolve into adults whose stories are destined to fatefully intertwine in Newcastle upon Tyne.

John Sharpe who was brought into the world in Scotland by local midwife, Dora, who unfortunately couldn't save his mother.  John was born with a set of teeth which gave his father the perfect excuse to blame John for his mother's death, when he wasn't blaming Dora of course.  Dora took John for safekeeping and brought him up until his father died and John was sent to live with his Uncle James.  Uncle James plants poisonous seeds in John's young mind that grow into deadly vines dripping with hatred against innocent women who use herbs to help people's ailments.

Jane Chandler lives in a small village near Shotley Bridge on the banks of the River Derwent, 15 miles outside of Newcastle upon Tyne. Both Jane's mother, Annie, and local woman Meg, are well-known healers who prepare remedies for the sick.  Some of the children call Meg a witch, but Jane and her friend Tom hold Meg in high regard and it's not only Meg who knows that Jane and Tom are destined to be together.  For Jane, however, the course of true love doesn't run smooth.  Jane's future has her destined to cross paths with John Sharpe and his deadly witch pricker in a breathtaking showdown where only one of them will survive.

Reading Widdershins is like having a time machine into the past as Helen Steadman completely immerses us in the 17th Century.  I could almost smell the herbs in Jane's village and the foul stench of the Tyne as Jane and her mother queued to get through the town wall.  I absolutely adored the authenticity of the regional dialect as words that are part of our Northern heritage are used and I realised that sadly so many of them have been lost over time.  There really isn't a word out of place in this exceptional book.

Widdershins is an immersive and compelling debut, I was completely transfixed from start to finish.  It's a mark of a good book when I am so absorbed that I almost forget to drink my morning cup of tea!  Top marks for an exceptional debut that was written for Helen Steadman's master's degree.  A recommended read and one I will most definitely read again.

I chose to read an ARC and this is my honest and unbiased opinion.

My rating:

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