This book was my 2019 Jolabokaflod book; each year we indulge in the Icelandic Christmas Eve tradition of new book, chocolate and we add our own twist of new pyjamas. This book came heavily recommended and I was so excited it was devoured by Boxing Day.
However, this book has particular significance with today, the 1st May, known as May Day, Beltane, Bealtaine and by other names so it seemed a perfect pairing with my other post today which is Wilde by Eloise Williams a stunning middle grade book about a modern day witch child released today in the UK.
Have you ever read a book and something just clicks in your soul? … that is how I felt reading The Merrybegot, also known as The Minister’s Daughter in the USA. With its talk of bumwaving piskies, fae in their merry hill, herb-lore, cunning (in the old sense of the word) and a celebration of the Old Ways, I was in my element, despite the shadow of the Witch trials overhanging the narrative.
It is the spring of 1645 and Nell is a Merrybegot, a child conceived in the hedonistic pleasures of May Day revelries and so blessed by nature and The Powers. Living with her grandmother, the village cunning woman and training to take over one day, in a place of piskies and faeries and Old Magic but there are dark clouds on the horizon.
The new minister is a strict Puritan breathing hellfire and damnation from the pulpit and brought with him two daughters; one proud but devious and lustful for the blacksmith’s boy; and the other rather odd and plain. Together, they will bring about the end of everything Nell has known as one daughter tells us in her confession of 1692.
Really, someone ought to think about appeasing those pinkies with a bit of cake, or a few primroses scattered in the lanes
I loved the way the historical context of the West Country in the Civil War Era is explored through a vague awareness of the conflict (though life continues as normal), reference to its players and the contemporary fear that the rise of the Puritan movement invoked in congregations to root out ‘witches’ in their parishes. Of course Nell and her grandmother and their business of cordials, potions, charms and spells alongside midwifery and increased avoidance of church (heartbreakingly to obscure the onset of dementia) mark them immediately even if they and others no longer risk celebrating rituals in the Old Ways.
The references to modern interpretations of bewitchment as the machinations of tightly controlled girls, spiteful insinuations and gossip fuelled accusations is both a clever and frightening narrative of the lengths girls will go to in petty revenge and out of fear.
and they gather in huddles outside, to murmur and then to argue, as suspicion feeds on rumour and spreads from group to group.
Yet the most interesting point for me is over how Nell never fits the Puritan definition of a ‘witch’. In a post-modern Neo-Pagan ‘reclaiming’ context it’s absolutely a resounding yes; she is a child immersed in reverence and understanding of nature and it’s cycles and working with plant cunning, lunar and esoteric energies to help and heal those in her community. Thanks to the fantastical elements of the book she is aware of Fae energies and even acting as a midwife from womb to tomb in both human and faerie realms.
All of this is like catnip to my senses, a magical indulgence that unashamedly walks a line between West Country folklore and fantasy with a dash of 20th century spellcraft to boot as spells are dotted throughout the narrative.
Moving dreamily she makes her way further into the field. and as she walks, she remembers the rituals performed long ago, in this very place to mark the Summer Solstice.
But in a Puritan cavorting with Satan, blood magic, cursing and suckling imps and whatnot definition? Absolutely Not.
That really is an interesting point of this book in the context of the historical witchtrials with a strong streak of feminist discussion running throughout alongside exploring and teasing out of internalised misogyny and visceral fear within the villager women, and the Minister’s daughters that they were so prepared to throw independently capable and minded cunning women who had served their communities for generations under the hooves of Witchfinders to save their own skins. And then, (no spoilers!) beyond.
And are those roses Nell sees in the bushes as she is whisked off her feet? Newly-opened white roses already going brown around their centres? Or a cluster of piskie bottoms raised in outrage, as the fairy horse rears onto its hind legs, peppers the path with a whinny of glitter, and takes off, away from the village?
Between the folklore, the fantasy and the history I was blown away by this book and the way it spoke to my soul. I recognise though it will be divisive though, some will be like meh, others it will not even glimmer with them but for those with the song in our souls it will be nothing less than definitive.
The Merrybegot by Julie Hearn is published and reissued by OUP in the UK. It is known as The Minister’s Daughter in the USA and published by Atheneum.