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Historical fiction set in EAST ANGLIA, mid 17th Century

17th April 2023

The Witching Tide by Margaret Meyer, historical fiction set in EAST ANGLIA.

Historical fiction set in EAST ANGLIA

The Witching Tide by Margaret Meyer is a gripping novel based on the 17th century witch trials in East Anglia, set in the fictional village of Cleftwater. It is a tale of human endurance against impossible odds, and it highlights the cruel inhumanity of the witch hunts and particularly the role that men played in the persecution of women.

Martha Hallybread is a servant in the village of Cleftwater. She has worked happily in the household of her master, Kit, for many years. Martha is a midwife, indeed she delivered many of the babies in the village, including Kit. She is also a skilled herbalist, having learnt her skills from her late mother. She even keeps her mother’s little box of equipment and a wax doll, or poppet. She wonders about her mam’s belief the poppet had powers to bring good or ill at the command of its owner. Martha is mute and communicates using a system of signing, which only her closest companions understand. (I think the film of the book will need subtitles!)

When the book opens, the household is looking forward to the arrival of a baby, to Kit and his wife, Agnes. But trouble is coming to Cleftwater, and nobody can foresee the dangers that lie in store for its womenfolk. One day villagers hear that a witchfinder has been sent to nearby villages. When he arrives in Cleftwater, fear spreads around the community. Soon women are being arrested and tried, including Martha’s friends. Even the most devout Christians are vulnerable to being denounced by their neighbours. For the most part, men are immune to the accusations and soon they are using the opportunity to settle old scores. Even the petty slights from the past could result in the accused being hung, so the stakes are high. The Witching Tide describes a situation where the loyalties of friends and fellow townspeople are tested to their limit. The prisoners find that it’s impossible to deny witchcraft because that’s what is expected of ‘the Devil’s brides’. Confessions are beaten out of the women, or they might be swum, where the verdict was guilty if you floated and innocent if you drowned. Anyone who is familiar with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible will recognise the dilemma.

The Witching Tide is tensely written, with beautifully detailed descriptions of the location. The wild weather coming onto the coastal village from the North Sea matches the mood and plays a critical part in the story. The author has said that she based the location on a town in Suffolk that she knows well. It isn’t hard to visualise the village’s narrow, cobbled alleyways leading down to the shingle beach and the river inlet (or Cleft) that gives it its name. Equally well described is the natural history of the place, its animals and particularly the herbs and vegetation that are part of Martha’s craft. But this is the 17th century, and Meyer doesn’t spare us the grim details of the conditions in which the prisoners are kept or indeed what everyday life in East Anglia was like at the time.

Initially Martha seems safe from the accusations of the fearful menfolk in the village – indeed she is recruited against her will to help identify who among her fellow villagers is a witch. We hope against hope that Martha can do as her master asks and save the accused women, her mistress and eventually herself. But before long the accused begin to turn against her and implicate her. Martha’s past actions, her skills with herbs and potions, and her inability to speak to defend herself all count against her. Desperate, she hopes that her mother’s poppet can help her but in using it she risks everything. If it is discovered, she will surely die.

The Witching Tide explores some situations, such as class, that divide society and other situations, such as childbirth, that are experienced in the same way by all women. Martha herself is a true flawed heroine: she is committed to what she believes in, but she’s tempted to deny the truth to save her own life. Such is the sense of involvement that had developed by that stage, I really felt for her as she faced the dilemma.

Sue for the TripFiction Team

Catch the author on Twitter @Margaret_Meyer

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