Title: Mist Over Pendle
Author: Robert Neill
Format Read: Paperback
In seventeenth century Pendle (Lancanshire, England) a group of women were executed for witchcraft. Robert Neill’s 1951 novel follows the events that led to the trial, introducing real people and real events as part of its story, and one wholly fictitious character, Margery.
You’re introduced to Margery right from the start. Her family considers her an anomaly, with a reddish glint in her dark hair and a crinkling smile. Her brothers are annoyed. Her sister is exasperated. All because the said Margery is too independent, too sharp, and too different from them for their liking. Who’ll marry a girl like that? Her brothers are worried, and since they have no parents, write to a distant relative to take Margery in for a while. Maybe, they reason, just maybe, this said older relative, will provide for her and secure her a good marriage alliance somewhere.
The relative in question is Roger Nowell, the first of the book’s many real historical characters.
To Margery’s relief, Roger Nowell also has a crinkling smile, and when she goes to stay with him in Pendle, things aren’t as bad as she thought.
But there are witches, or rumours of a family of women being witches. People die mysteriously, often raving. There’s Alice Nutter, a very, very enigmatic gentlewoman who makes Margery uncomfortable with her good deeds.
And of course there are the Demdikes, the supposed witches, who live in squalor and are almost unbelievably vicious. Given the rigidity of the times and the hostility of nearly everybody towards them, the Demdikes allow themselves to say and do things that get themselves whipped fairly often. They are not particularly likeable characters in the novel – neither the grandmother nor her squinting daughter, or the mutinous granddaughter.
It moves along slowly, this book – or at least I thought so. It takes time to fully get used to the writing style, and there are a lot of characters to keep track of. Sometimes you do get a little confused with who’s who. But some things are pretty clear. There are religious conflicts and rigid, puritan views that some characters hold. Roger Nowell is a man of justice, but he is repulsed by the squalor the witches live in. Superstitions and fear have a free run in 17th century Pendle.
Also…the Demdikes and other accused witches are somehow shown to be a little less than human. Their driving personality trait, it seems, is a marked maliciousness, with no redeeming qualities.
This is a very well-crafted historical novel, though, and some of the descriptions of Pendle are poetic. There is suspense (albeit long drawn out) and conflict and a good deal of insight.
Definitely worth reading!