Tag Archives: witchcraft

Kate Hardy by DE Stevenson

When Covid ‘ended’ I thought it would be a little like VE Day, wild celebrations followed by renewed hope and planning. How wrong I was. It has never ended in the way that VE Day ended World War Two in Britain and instead has been followed by an absence of hope and planning. 

Despite those contrasts, both experiences affected every person in the population. Covid was a universal experience of fear and restriction and adjustments. I am fascinated by the post-war period, partly because of the contrasts with the aftermath of Covid, but also because I grew up in the shadow of the war. The Second World War engulfed Europe for six years, and was a time of general mobilisation, restrictions, and shared effort to win as well as fear, danger, and death. The relief when it was over was well expressed by the euphoria of VE Day. Communal effort had led to insights about how people wanted the country to be changed after the war.

This novel was first published in 1947 and is set in the immediate time following the end of the war. DE Stevenson shows some of the things that had changed and sets a romance against the backdrop of those first post-war months.

Kate Hardy

Kate Hardy is an independent young woman, a novelist, who has spent the war in a flat in London, giving shelter to her sister and niece when they were bombed out. With the war over she decides to move to the country and buys a house in the village of Old Quinings, on a whim, certainly sight unseen. 

The house is the Dower House on the estate of Richard Morven, and it became empty when his mother died. The question of housing, sharing houses, what is appropriate and proper decorum related to staying in other people’s houses, and so forth, runs through this novel. Kate has the money to attend to the defects in the house, but there are rules about the use of materials, employment and so forth that continued after the war and made life complicated.

Kate Hardy is from the class that expects to have servants and people to fix things for her. She brings loyal Martha Body from London, and employs Mrs Stack, from the village, to help with the heavy work. A man to sort out the garden presents himself, but Mr Seagar, who runs the carpentry business, finds it hard to provide the service he would like, and furthermore he is obliged to take back men who served in the war which causes staffing issues. 

Richard, the lord of the manor, is quite taken with Kate because she is independent and speaks her mind. The reader believes they might end up together. She is the author of three best-selling novels, ‘adventure stories with a difference’, and wants to work on the fourth in peace and quiet in the country. Richard has read these books and admires the hero, Stephen Slade. Although she publishes her books under a male pseudonym, Kate represents a kind of ‘new woman’, who makes her own decisions, is independent and not necessarily looking for marriage. In contrast, Kate’s sister and niece are very selfish, and expect other people to look out for them, including Kate. 

Mrs Stark’s son Walter has just returned from 7 years in the East. He has served with distinction in the army and learned how to fit in with his fellow officers, despite his modest background. Now he is back, he is much resented by the men in the carpentry firm. Back at home he finds it hard to fit in. Some war experiences changed the old relationships, and produced resentments.

And the question is – how will this assorted group of characters arrange themselves in this new post-war world. The events of the first few months of Kate’s residence in Old Quinings provide the answer, but not without some rather nasty events which link to witchcraft and Kate’s gardener and include poison pen letters.

As the story unfolds, we see many contrasts in those post-war years: town/country; tradition/modern; parenting styles in US/UK; open-/closed-mindedness and so forth. Some things are never questioned, however: class system, supported by land ownership in particular. Some episodes in the novel arise from class consciousness.

An enjoyable, but not deeply significant novel by a prolific author – I counted 50 novels in the listings. It was an easy read, with no great dilemmas or insights.

For another and more enthusiastic review, see the blog of Northern Reader in September 2023. She particularly praises the well-drawn characters.

Kate Hardy by DE Stevenson, first published in 1947. Republished by the Dean Street Press in 2022. 192pp 

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The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Eleven years ago, in January 2011, I joined a cruise at Tromsø, Norway, going north and then east to Kirkenes, a few kilometres from the Russian border, far inside the Arctic Circle. It was an amazing trip in many ways, not least because of the dark landscape through which we sailed. This was a time of the year when the sunrise was also the sunset.

Sunrise/sunset Kirkenes Norway January 2011

When I was given The Mercies for Christmas I was intrigued to find that it was set in the same area, on an island, Vardø, which we had sailed passed. The dark story matches the darkness of the landscape. In the early seventeenth century, there were dark deeds afoot, cruel attitudes to people who had little power, and men who would profit from the misfortunes of others.

The Mercies

On the remote island of Vardø there was a small community, living off the sea, far away from King Christian IV in Copenhagen. The king wanted to unite his kingdoms, even the farthest reaches, through the power of the church. 

In 1617, on Christmas Day, a sudden, brief and brutal storm destroyed the fishing fleet that had set out from Vardø, and the men were all lost. They left behind a village of women who had to find ways to live out the rest of the winter and continue their lives thereafter. When they were almost out of food, the women set about fishing and managed to survive until the spring. 

This part of the story is narrated from the point of view of Maren, a young woman who lost her fiancé in the storm, along with her brother and father. We see how the women work together to survive until they begin to divide into the pragmatic group, led by Kirsten, and the church group headed by spiteful Toril.

In pursuit of controlling the people of Finnmark, the king’s Lensmann, a fanatic known for ridding the seas of pirates, summons Commissioner Cornet from Scotland to bring the people of Vardø to order. On the way through Bergen he picks up a wife, Ursa. Her point of view now joins Maren’s. Ursa is naïve and unskilled in the arts required of a wife on Vardø. Maren comes to her aid and the two become friends. Ursa’s husband begins his campaign of bringing the women to order. He is a fanatic Calvinist, and so he sees the independence of the women as a challenge to the church’s authority.

The plot takes on a darker form as first the Commissioner goes after the Sámi peoples who live in the area, including Maren’s sister-in-law. And then he finds witchcraft among the women of Vardø. Two of the women are arrested, imprisoned in the grim Vardøhus and when one, Kirsten, will not confess, she is given a public trial by ducking. If you float it is proven you are a witch, if you don’t you probably drown. You lose, you lose.

As the two young women draw closer and the search for more witches looks as if it more of the women of the island will be arrested, tortured and put to death, the two women are forced to act.

 

Off the coast of Norway, inside the Arctic Circle, January 2011

Fanaticism, more than the dangers from the elements, or the harshness of life on the island, threatens the women of Vardø. This novel is based in historic truth. There was a storm, and witchcraft was ‘discovered’ and prosecuted in Finnmark, prompted by King Christian IV. There is a memorial to the women on the island by Peter Zumthor and Louise Bourgeois. You can see it in the illustration for the review of The Mercies by Sarah Moss in the Guardian here

Kiran Millwood Hargrave

This is the first adult fiction book by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. She earned many awards for her children’s fiction, including for The Cartographer’s Daughter (2014). Born in 1990 and currently living in Oxford, Kiran is also known for her poetry.

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, published in 2021 by Picador. 342pp

Thank you, Sarah, for another interesting novel set in the past, featuring women who are determined to live as they decide.

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