Mary Sharratt Interview
April 14, 2010
the author of Daughters of the Witching Hill
It was a pleasure to interview Mary Sharratt, author of Daughters of the Witching Hill, on April 14, 2010. Her intriguing novel is based on the testimony from an actual English witchcraft trial.
How did you discover the account of the Pendle Witches' trial?
In 2002 I moved to Lancashire, England, near Pendle Hill, so beautiful and brooding and steeped in tales of the Pendle Witches. At first I believed that this was just folklore. But then I studied the true history behind the legends. Nine people from Pendle Forest were executed in the 1612 witch trials, and two of the accused, Demdike who died in prison and Chattox who was hanged, had established reputations as cunning women, or traditional healers.
In your novel, you write about some of the occult happenings described in the trial testimony as though they were factual but dismiss others as embroideries or fear-based imaginings. How did you decide which to write about in which way?
The belief in familiar spirits was the cornerstone of traditional English folk magic. No cunning woman could work her charms without the aid of her familiar. So for Demdike, telling the magistrate that yes, of course, she had a familiar spirit, made absolute sense. Likewise Chattox confessed how she and her daughter made clay figures to curse her landlord's son after he threatened to rape her daughter. What other power could these impoverished women hope to wield? Their testimonies have their own internal logic and realism, given the folk magic beliefs of their time.
But Demdike's grandson James Device's confessions seem far-fetched and irrational. He talks of hares boxing his ears and of his family's plot to blow up Lancaster Castle with gunpowder - something that poor folk could probably not get hold of but that easily fed into King James I's paranoia following the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. In The Trials of the Lancashire Witches, authors Edgar Peel and Pat Southern came to the conclusion that James Device was probably either very ill at the time of his interview, or possibly had learning difficulties, and that those interrogating him asked leading questions and manipulated his statements. We do know from the primary sources that when James came to trial after four months' imprisonment, he was so weak that he could neither speak nor hear nor see and had to be carried by two prison guards.
Have you ever had a personal brush with mysterious forces like those your characters encounter?
As a twenty-first century woman, my experiences can't compare with that of my characters who lived in a world steeped in magic and peopled by spirits. But I did experience a powerful sense of ancestral voices in the landscape while writing about the Pendle Witches.
Review of Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt
See listing for Daughters of the Witching Hill at Powell's Books
See listing for Daughters of the Witching Hill at Amazon.com
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