The story Stacy Halls weaves is about a young woman who defends herself, her unborn child, and her closest friend from the political intrigue and injustice of King James the I’s England. In a regime that sets out to hunt down and kill women, this young woman forges her own life and, life long connections, with the women around her to survive.
Hall’s main character, Fleetwood Shuttleworth, is dealt with in a very genuine way. She does not behave out of the ordinary for her time, but she still remains strong. She is not a beauty, nor is she a genius, but her character and resilience are built up through the text by her ability to navigate her surroundings and learn from the other characters around her. She reads information, she understands people and their behaviours and acts in a way that is suitable for the period in which the novel is set. The author does not forsake historical accuracy in terms of the way the characters interact and behave with each other, for the sake of 21st-century readers, which I appreciate.
Instead of trying to push for a divorce, or having an affair, when she finds out that her husband has taken a mistress while she is pregnant, which is what many 21st-century readers would expect, she goes to her mother’s house and stays there. For me, the fact that she does not do any of these things is what makes it a great feminist book. It shows a woman remaining strong despite all of her restrictions and not doing anything that would that wouldn’t have been done
The novel revolves around her, trying to save her baby. It’s evident from the beginning that children and childbirth are at the centre of the novel, which is fitting because during that period children and birth was the reason a lot of women were condemned as witches. After all, the realm of childbirth and the woman’s body was so alien to the ruling male elite. They deemed it unholy simply because they did not understand it. I also think it is interesting that Halls has made the character powerful through her pregnancy and her wish to be a mother. In a lot of texts, this yearning to be a mother and this heralded position of being a wife would be used to make the woman seem weak or pandering to the wills of. But Fleetwood’s power comes from her being a woman, a soon to be mother, a daughter, and a friend to another woman. These ways of looking at the traditional positions of women in a way that does not demean them are refreshing.
My opinions of her husband, Richard Shuttleworth, went up and down throughout. Mostly though, I like him. He is not a good man, but he is also not a bad one, and he does try to make her happy in the way that men sometimes think woman need to be satisfied. His character is rounded and for all his mistakes, in taking the mistress, in misunderstanding Fleetwood, and misunderstanding women in general, he manages to redeem himself in the end through his love for his wife. This love enables him to free Alice, which I think is part of the final message of the book.
But her friend is the real star of the text. Alice is not the main character, but the message of the book comes to us through her. As a working-class woman young, attractive, talented in the ways of women only, Alice is an integral threat to the male-centred and dominated institutions of early Jacobean England. She is unmarried but has previously lived with a man, and with an adopted daughter. She works in at an Inn, she is a midwife, and she understands herbs and nature, which is the exact opposite of what King James was trying to promote in the early years of his reign. Around the time in which the events of the novel are taking place, King James I published his Malleus Maleficarum (The Mallet of the Witches), which condemned almost all women for being fundamentally different from men. Alice is wild, untamed, natural and from the earth, as opposed to being ordered, yoked, scientific and a part of organised religion and society in the way that Fleetwood is.
The two women are from very different worlds, one from Gawthorpe and Reed Hall, part of the Northern Gentry; used to pretty dresses and being tied to the world of their husband. The other is free, uninhibited, knowledgeable, wild, and the two come together to help one another exists in a world that would see them destroyed. The union also enables the relationships between Fleetwood and other women (her mum, even her husband’s mistress) to coexist. It allows for new life to be brought into the world. The message here is not that men are terrible, but that women helping each other, and people loving each other, will fix everything. Despite class differences and differences in upbringing, female unity and love and understanding can make a better world both legally and politically, and in terms of physically bringing healthy happy lives into the world and perpetuating human existence. There is no rose-tinted world in The Familiars and no salaciously unrealistic events. It is merely a very well written period piece that seeks to draw its own themes and conclusions from the very real history of Lancashire. Stacy Halls brings an uplifting story and form of escapism to any 21st Century reader looking for a belief in the power of sisterhood.