Mist Over Pendle
This is a new edition of Robert Neill’s classic 1951 tale of the notorious 1611 Pendle witch trials. Young orphan Margery Whitaker is viewed as a ‘cuckoo in the nest’ by her strict Puritan siblings. They pack her off to live with her elderly cousin, Roger Nowell, who, they hope, will curb her worldly tendencies. Nowell is one of the king’s justices in Lancashire, an important man. Margery has been well educated, and she becomes Nowell’s amanuensis. And there is much to do. The abandoned Malkin tower is home to old mother Demdike; her malevolent daughter, Squinting Lizzie; and her granddaughter, the sly Alizon, all known to be witches. The locals are terrified, for those they ill-wish have a habit of dying unpleasantly. Margery, like Nowell, is sceptical of accusations of witchcraft and against the use of torture to extract ‘confessions’. Then she meets Alice Nutter. Handsome but ice-cold, she is not a woman to cross. But how far would she go to satisfy her social ambitions? Suddenly, there is a lot more at stake than the rantings of the Demdike brood.
I first came across Mist over Pendle many years ago and found it a cracking good read with a wonderfully brooding atmosphere. That still holds. All the same, although Robert Neill is far too skilful to use what R.L. Stevenson called ‘tushery’, he does go for more formal language than is common nowadays in an historical novel. Take Margery’s stern brother: ‘How,’ he demanded, ‘may such a girl as you, undutiful and undevout, be wedded to a godly man?’ I got used to the language very quickly, and it certainly felt appropriate. Although some readers might find such language irritating, in my view, it’s worth persevering. Mist over Pendle remains a terrific story, told by a master storyteller.