Three Women, Centuries Apart, Cast Their Spell
By Neil Nyren
- Altha, 1619
“Kate is staring into the mirror when she hears it. The key scraping in the lock….Panic flutters in her, like a bird….She can’t let him see anything is different. That anything is wrong.”
- Kate, 2019
“’She talks to the animals. Even the insects!’
“There was a pause.
“’I suppose you think I’m ridiculous,’ Miss Poole had said.
“’Oh no, dear,’ said Mrs. Kirby. ‘Well, we’d be the first to tell you that there’s something different about the child. She’s quite…how did you put it, Ruth?’
- Violet, 1942
Three women across five centuries. In Emilia Hart’s WEYWARD, there is a great deal that connects them, although each must find that out the hard way. Altha is accused of witchcraft after a farmer is stampeded to death by his herd. Kate flees an abusive partner, taking refuge in the small cottage inherited from a dimly-remembered great-aunt, but terrified of being found again. Sixteen-year-old Violet is trapped on her father’s crumbling estate, forbidden an education, and promised in marriage to the cousin who raped her.
“I am not a learned woman,” says Altha, “other than in the ways my mother handed down to me, as her mother handed down to her. But I know goodness, evil, light and dark. And I know the devil. I have seen him.”
And they will beat him.
Told in separate narratives that intertwine ever tighter as their stories unfold, WEYWARD is an epic drama of three remarkable women finding their strength and power through the words of each other and a unique common legacy:
“There was something about us—the Weyward women—that bonded us more tightly with the natural world. We can feel it….the same way we feel rage, sorrow, or joy. The animals, the birds, the plants—they let us in, recognizing us as one of their own….
“The wildness inside gives us our name. It was men who marked us so….Weyward, they called us, when we would not submit, would not bend to their will. But we learned to wear the name with pride.”
And wield it as a weapon. There is nothing ordinary about these women, though it will take time for some of them to realize it. And when they do….
Look closely now. That woman on the bus with the jewelry in the shape of an insect. That woman in the park with a crow upon her shoulder. Are they eccentric…or are they Weyward?
“I was inspired to write WEYWARD during the early days of the pandemic in 2020,” Hart says. “When I was living in rural Cumbria (in the northwest of England.) I’ve been a Londoner for many years, and this was my first proper experience of the English countryside. I really fell in love with the wild landscape—Cumbria is quite rugged, with windswept fells and valleys, but also very beautiful, teeming with stunning plants and wildlife. I really wanted to capture some of that magic on the page.
“I also learned about local history—in particular the ‘Pendle’ witch trials that took place in nearby Lancaster in 1612 (so called because most of the defendants were from the Pendle Hill area.) There seemed to be this juxtaposition between the stunning, peaceful countryside and this dark history of misogyny. As I listened to radio reports about rising rates of domestic violence in lockdown, I began to feel that this misogyny was echoing through the ages. I wanted to write something to interrogate this—to ask how far we have really come in the struggle for women’s rights—and also to showcase female strength and resilience.
“I started thinking about three things: persecution, escape, and the power of nature, which coalesced into the idea for WEYWARD.
“I started off by writing Altha’s story in full first—in many ways she feels like the core of the book, given her tale has such an impact on the lives of the other characters. She was the initial thread that I wove Violet and Kate’s stories around.
“In order to retain my characters’ distinctive voices, and so that I could feel immersed in each period, I wrote each timeline separately first before plaiting them together. There was then a lot of jumbling around—sort of like a jigsaw puzzle. I must confess that I used a few spreadsheets so that I could keep track of what was happening to whom!”
Did she feel closer to any of the women in particular? “They all have a little piece of me: as a writer, I think it’s hard to avoid leaving a bit of yourself in a character, almost like a signature. I’m probably most similar to Kate: obviously we’re from the same time period, but she has a particular struggle with self-belief—something I’ve experienced in my own life, though for different reasons. Kate also loves reading: she and I both take great solace in books and storytelling. On a lighter note, Kate is frightened of birds when she first arrives at Weyward Cottage. She and I have that in common.
“I wish I was more similar to Violet! I find her very brave and I really admire the delight she takes in life’s small moments, and in the natural world. I aspire to be more like her.
“Altha is probably the most remote, being from the 17th century. But she has a keen sense of justice—something I like to think I share with her.”
That sense of justice may well have been enhanced by Hart’s own background as a lawyer, something that also helped her when it came to writing the book.
“I’ve written stories for as long as I can remember, but I don’t think I really found my ‘voice’ until I became a lawyer. The studying and practice of law emphasized to me the importance of precise, concise language—I try to ensure that every word earns its place in a sentence.
“For a long time, I was quite fearful of starting a novel. I’d never finished my many attempts, and so I stuck to short stories and poetry. But when I had the idea for WEYWARD I thought: if I can prepare complicated legal advice and draft legislation, perhaps I can write a novel. How hard can it be? As it turns out, writing is much, much harder than law—for me, anyway. But I’m glad that working as a lawyer gave me the confidence (or the hubris) to try.”
Research also helped.
“I read some brilliant books about witch trials—both the witch trials in England more broadly and then some specific titles about the Pendle witch trials. The Pendle witch trials are rare in that they are extremely well-recorded, thanks to a pamphlet titled The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster published by Thomas Potts in 1613. Thomas Potts was a law clerk who attended the trial (overseen by Justices Altham and Bromley) and his account presents itself as an accurate record of the proceedings. This was fascinating to read, but as modern historians have pointed out, it is extremely biased and sensationalized!
“I also found Tracey Borman’s James I and the English Witch Hunts extremely helpful: it brilliantly explains how James VI and I—the author of the infamous Daemonologie—brought the witch hunt frenzy with him from Scotland to England when he acceded to the throne.
“Of course, I also had to do a lot of research for Violet’s 1940s timeline. I really wanted Orton Hall and its inhabitants to feel authentic. In this regard, I’m indebted to Lesley Lewis’ memoir, The Private Life of a Country House: a brilliant conjuring of a pre-war manor house. Fittingly enough I found my copy in a glorious secondhand bookshop in Cumbria.
“Sadly, I wasn’t able to incorporate the most bizarre fact that I uncovered, so I’m grateful for the chance to relate it here. I was very surprised to learn that up until the 1960s, frogs functioned as pregnancy tests! A frog would be injected with a woman’s urine and if she was pregnant the relevant hormones would cause the frog to produce eggs. I’m quite glad that technology has moved on since then!”
The research turned up another key piece of information as well. The three Weird Sisters in Macbeth? In the First Folio edition, they weren’t “Weird”—they were “Weyward”—and only in later versions was it changed.
“I knew that I wanted a word with ‘witchy’ connotations to use for the family’s last name, as well as the name of the cottage,” Hart says. “Macbeth seemed an appropriate place to look—the three witches around their cauldron are, I think, a huge influence on representations of witches in our culture—and it felt like serendipity to discover that the ‘weird’ sisters had originally been ‘weyward’. I wanted to take the traditional image of a witch and turn it on its head, asking the reader what sort of woman attracts this label. Perhaps someone who doesn’t—or won’t—conform to patriarchal standards and expectations.
“Also, anyone who knows me knows that I absolutely adore puns—so the link to ‘wayward’ was definitely intentional!”
There was nothing “wayward” about the way Hart got published, however—although women did help her all along the way:
“I’m not sure if I would have written this novel—or indeed any novel—without the experience of lockdown,” she says. “That feels strange to say, as of course the pandemic was such a horrendous time for all of us. I was so fortunate to be somewhere safe and in stable employment, but my job was very busy and heavily involved in the pandemic response. It was a frightening and uncertain time—writing the novel kept me sane. I wrote 1,000 words every morning before work, and it was the best part of my day. I’m not sure I’d have coped without having this magical world to immerse myself in.
“Once I’d finished it and felt brave enough to show it to a couple of people, I got some positive feedback, which I was quite surprised by. Then I decided to enroll in the Curtis Brown Creative’s Three Month Online Novel Writing Course. My tutor, Suzannah Dunn, was brilliant and encouraging—as were my fellow classmates, many of whom have now signed with agents themselves.
“I also entered the Caledonia Novel Award and was lucky enough to be
shortlisted! After I was shortlisted, the lovely people at CBC connected me with my dream agent, Curtis Brown’s Felicity Blunt. She and I worked on the book together for a few months, and her editorial suggestions were just incredible. There’s no way the novel would be what it is today without her.
“Felicity sent WEYWARD out on submission, and I was absolutely blown away to have offers from Carla Josephson (Borough Press) and Sarah Cantin (St. Martin’s Press). I feel so privileged to have worked on WEYWARD with Carla and Sarah—they’re both incredible editors and I think the three of us make a great team.”
It is a team that will reunite for another book as well.
“I’m in the process of writing my second novel, which really is as difficult as people say,” Hart says. “Having said that, I’ve loved writing it, and I’m excited to share it with readers when it’s ready. I won’t give too much away, but like WEYWARD it focuses on strong female characters, this time with themes of sisterhood and the lure of the sea.”
A lure readers will certainly feel as well, once they come under the spell of WEYWARD.
Neil Nyren is the former EVP, associate publisher, and editor in chief of G.P. Putnam’s Sons and the winner of the 2017 Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Among the writers of crime and suspense he has edited are Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, John Sandford, C. J. Box, Robert Crais, Carl Hiaasen, Daniel Silva, Jack Higgins, Frederick Forsyth, Ken Follett, Jonathan Kellerman, Ed McBain, and Ace Atkins. He now writes about crime fiction and publishing for CrimeReads, BookTrib, The Big Thrill, and The Third Degree, among others, and is a contributing writer to the Anthony/Agatha/Macavity-winning How to Write a Mystery.
He is currently writing a monthly publishing column for the MWA newsletter The Third Degree, as well as a regular ITW-sponsored series on debut thriller authors for BookTrib.com and is an editor at large for CrimeReads.
This column originally ran on Booktrib, where writers and readers meet.