Book Review: Widdershins by Helen Steadman

Did all women have something of the witch about them?

WiddershinsAbout the Book

Publisher’s description: Jane Chandler is an apprentice healer. From childhood, she and her mother have used herbs to cure the sick. But Jane will soon learn that her sheltered life in a small village is not safe from the troubles of the wider world. From his father’s beatings to his uncle’s raging sermons, John Sharpe is beset by bad fortune. Fighting through personal tragedy, he finds his purpose: to become a witch-finder and save innocents from the scourge of witchcraft.

Book Facts

  • Format: Paperback
  • Publisher: Impress Books
  • No. of pages: 250
  • Publication date: 1st July 2017
  • Genre: Historical Fiction

To pre-order/purchase Widdershins from, click here (link provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme)

Find Widdershins on Goodreads

My Review

Inspired by true events, this is a fantastically atmospheric book that immerses the reader vividly in seventeenth century north east England and Scotland. The narrative alternates between two main characters: Jane, whose mother is teaching her the skills of midwifery and herbal medicine; and John, a young man brutalised by his mother’s death and violent father. How their two stories will converge and at what point provides the narrative hook to the book.

I loved the period detail and depictions of everyday life such as the evocative description of the Newcastle fair.

‘The craftsmen were there to show off their skills and market their wares. Smiths, tanners, dyers, fullers, weavers and tailors galore. And farmers’ wives and girls sold their produce. Warm cider, weak ale and spiced mead sloshed from jugs. Hogs roasted over fires, filling the air with savoury smells and the crackle of fat melting onto flame. And above it all was the sweet smell of singing hinnies and gingerbread.’

The author does a good job of depicting a time when ignorance, intolerance, fear of change and superstition drove acts of great cruelty, in a lot of cases fuelled by misguided religious belief or a very fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible.   Women – especially midwives and herbalists – were a particular target for this and the author depicts in shocking and chilling detail the horrific examinations they were subjected to in order to ‘prove’ their innocence or guilt of the charge of witchcraft. These seem to have been driven by a kind of depraved, sexual hypocrisy.

Jane comes across as very much an innocent, not necessarily understanding all that she sees of her mother’s work and with an open, trusting nature. It’s not difficult to feel empathy with her, especially during the tragic events that lie in wait for her.  The author has a more challenging task to provide convincing motivation for the actions of John, who is a monster really.   His transformation from abused child to abuser is vividly described but whether it can completely explain his subsequent actions is open to question. There is such a thing as pure evil and it seems to me John is the incarnation of this.

I thought this was an impressive debut and the author succeeded in conjuring up a believable sense of time and place. Because of the subject matter, an uncomfortable read at times, but a really compelling story.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of publishers, Impress Books, in return for an honest review.


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In three words: Evocative, chilling, compelling

Try something similar…Witchwood by John Buchan, The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland

HelenSteadmanAbout the Author

Helen Steadman lives in the foothills of the North Pennines, and she particularly enjoys researching and writing about the history of the north east of England. Following her MA in creative writing at Manchester Met, Helen is now completing a PhD in English at the University of Aberdeen. When she s not studying or writing, Helen critiques, edits and proofreads other writers work, and she is a professional member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders.

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9 thoughts on “Book Review: Widdershins by Helen Steadman

  1. Newcastle and the 17th Century – sign me up! Going to Amazon in a minute.
    It was the title that made me click on the tweet – I remember hearing the word when I was a child, and it scared me silly 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks, Cathy 🙂
        Indeed! 😉 Is it a small press? I might approach them for a review copy!


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