Book Review – 'Widdershins' by Helen Steadman


‘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. [Description from Amazon UK]

This was our book club pick for January 2020, and I really enjoyed reading it. It’s based in my hometown of Newcastle Upon Tyne and is based on a true story of 15 (or 16) witches executed on the Town Moor in 1650. Witchcraft is an interesting subject, and this novel didn’t disappoint as it examines the lead-up to an accusation in the lives of two very difference people. It’s cleverly done, and everything comes together in the end, if not in the way that you expect.

Steadman’s writing is engaging and swapping between the two different sides – one chapter from the view of a witch hunter and one from the view of an accused witch. Both have very different demons to deal with, and it takes them in very different directions, but their lives will ultimately intertwine. Jane is very much an innocent throughout the novel, taking things at face value and not asking too many questions, almost accepting. John had so many bad experiences that he translated it into blaming someone else and wanting those people punished. He moved from victim to abuser and watching that journey is enlightening, but I still don’t fully understand it.

The book is very atmospheric and really brings to mind what life must have been like at that time. There was also great period detail which reminds you of when the book is set even when you’re focused on the characters rather than the time period or events. The author depicts a time when misguided judgements and superstitions were commonplace and led to a fear-driven craze as people wanted to remove what they didn’t understand.

The afterword adds a lot of clarity to what you’ve read when you’ve finished the novel, listing the women who, in real life, were executed in the Newcastle witch trials. The author handles the whole event sympathetically and makes sure in her note at the end to separate fiction from fact and what changes she made to the factual account.

It is a fictional portrayal of an event I knew very little about, though I have studied the European witch-craze as part of my degree. My favourite thing about the book is the way it is written because it’s so atmospheric and really gets into the heads of the two main characters, from whose point of view the story is told.

Author: Helene Harrison

I have an MA in History, with a thesis entitled 'The Many Faces of Anne Boleyn: Perceptions in History, Literature and Film'. I have an interest in the Tudors and the Wars of the Roses along with my love of reading and literature.

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