Inspired by the Newcastle witch trials of 1650, this is the parallel story of two people on a collision course towards disaster. One is Scottish witch-finder, John Sharpe. The other is English Jane Chandler, healer and midwife. We follow their lives from youth to maturity, in John’s case from birth, when he was ironically ‘saved’ from certain death by a midwife who he later is certain is a witch. Brought up first by a cruel father and then a bigoted priest, it is inevitable that he learns the witch-finder craft, which is nothing more than misogynistic trickery.
This was a difficult novel to read at times because of its cruelty, but compelling none the less. Impeccably written, full of herbal lore and the clash of ignorance and prejudice against common sense, as well as the abounding beauty of nature, it made for a great read. There are plenty of books, both fact and fiction, available about the witch-trial era, but not only did I not know about such trials in Newcastle, I have not read a novel that so painstakingly and vividly evokes both the fear and joy of living at that time. I have one criticism. I like uplifting endings, but here I felt it too much a case of deus ex machina. That aside, I thoroughly recommend Widdershins and look forward to reading more by Helen Steadman.