- Author: Robert Neill
- Publisher: Arrow (Apr 4 2011)
- Paperback, 416 pages
- ISBN-10: 0099557037
- ISBN-13: 978-0099557036
The classic tale of witchcraft. Reissued for the first time in 14 years. Seventeenth century England is a place of superstition and fear. Deep in the Forest of Pendle, people have been dying in mysterious circumstances. The locals whisper of witchcraft, but Squire Roger Nowell, in charge of investigating the deaths, dismisses the claims as ridiculous. Until a series of hideous desecrations forces Roger and his cousin Margery to look further into the rumours. And what they discover brings them face to face with the horrifying possibility that a coven of witches is assembling, preparing to unleash a campaign of evil and destruction.
Robert Neill’s novel is a classic tale of witchcraft set in a wild inaccessible corner of Lancashire and in a time when the ancient fear of demons and witches was still a part of life… and death.
Since I recently started doing book reviews, I thought it would be great to review my absolute favourite work of fiction. Mist Over Pendle was first published in 1951, and is the first published work of author Robert Neill. He went on to write a total of 16 books between 1951 and 1979, with Mist Over Pendle arguably being his greatest work. It was an immediate world-wide success, enabling Neill to become a full-time writer.
Neill had always had an interest in historical fiction, which he described as arising from his liking for historical buildings and for Lancashire history and legend. He was a critical reader, alive to errors in detail and accuracy, and began, with his aunt’s encouragement, to consider that he could do better himself.
His work was based upon extensive research into original sources, such as Parish Registers, and contemporary documents, using textbooks only as a means of identifying such sources. He would visit the scenes of intended novels, going over the ground personally, to ensure that his books would be completely authentic. Neill told a tale of one Lancashire bookseller who, before putting Mist over Pendle on display, checked all places and distances in the book, stating that if there were any inaccuracies, his customers would bring the books back.
Mist Over Pendle is based upon events in 1611-1612, leading up to the real-life witch trial of a group of supposed witches in the Pendle Hill area of Lancashire, England. From Wikipedia:
The trials of the Pendle witches in 1612 are among the most famous witch trials in English history, and some of the best recorded of the 17th century. The twelve accused lived in the area surrounding Pendle Hill in Lancashire, and were charged with the murders of ten people by the use of witchcraft. All but two were tried at Lancaster Assizes on 18–19 August 1612, along with the Salmesbury witches and others, in a series of trials that have become known as the Lancashire witch trials. One was tried at York Assizes on 27 July 1612, and another died in prison. Of the eleven who went to trial – nine women and two men – ten were found guilty and executed by hanging; one was found not guilty.
The official publication of the proceedings by the clerk to the court, Thomas Potts, in his The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, and the number of witches hanged together – nine at Lancaster and one at York – make the trials unusual for England at that time. It has been estimated that all the English witch trials between the early 15th and early 18th centuries resulted in fewer than 500 executions; this series of trials accounts for more than two per cent of that total.
Six of the Pendle witches came from one of two families, each at the time headed by a woman in her eighties: Elizabeth Southerns (a.k.a. Demdike), her daughter Elizabeth Device, and her grandchildren James and Alizon Device; Anne Whittle (a.k.a. Chattox), and her daughter Anne Redferne. The others accused were Jane Bulcock and her son John Bulcock, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, Alice Grey, and Jennet Preston. The outbreaks of witchcraft in and around Pendle may demonstrate the extent to which people could make a living by posing as witches. Many of the allegations resulted from accusations that members of the Demdike and Chattox families made against each other, perhaps because they were in competition, both trying to make a living from healing, begging, and extortion.
The fiction in Mist Over Pendle comes in the form of Margery, the 16 year old protagonist of this story and cousin to Squire Roger Nowell, newly arrived in Pendle from London. Her quick wits and curiosity in the people and area of Pendle makes her an invaluable asset to Roger Nowell and his seemingly hopeless quest in bringing the two witch families to justice. It is through her investigations and ability to piece things together that by the end of the book, the Pendle witches are rounded up and the proof of their guilt established. All seemingly live happily ever after (except for the witches, of course).
Why do I love this book? It all comes down to Robert Neill’s attention to detail. Neill is a great storyteller, but this book is made all the more greater because of the detail he adds to the story, as well as historical and geographic accuracy.
I have an active imagination and can easily visualize what I’m reading in a book. Neill takes it to a whole new level with the detail he gives on everything. Nothing is neglected in this book. The clothing people are wearing, the description of houses, the geographic details, even how it feels in each building/house (cold, warm, light, etc.). Neill take such great pains to make you feel like you’re there, almost letting you believe you’re a character in the story instead of the usual invisible observer.
Because he traveled to Pendle District for research while writing this book, he is able to describe the locations in such great detail, that you can go on Google Maps while reading this book, and very easily locate not only the major landmarks of the area, but the locations given in the book, as well as the old tracks Margery travels throughout Pendle Wood, now paved roads.
The pacing of the book is excellent. There are no parts that feel draggy and irrelevant to the story. Some readers may find Roger and Margery’s trip north during Christmas irrelevant and a bit boring because it doesn’t directly relate to the main story, but I don’t. Again, because Robert Neill put so much detail into every page, I find reading about these old Christmas traditions fascinating. Plus, I see it as a turning point for Margery, the point when she truly comes into her own as a woman, which I think is reflected in her actions throughout the rest of the book.
I’ve owned this book for five or six years now. I’ve read it maybe 10 times or so, and have never been bored with it yet. As a matter of fact, during my third or fourth reading of it, once I got to the last page, I immediately turned to page one and began to read it over again. This book has put a spell on me, and I urge anyone interested in stories of witches, real or fictional, to pick this book up and give it a read. You won’t be disappointed.