The Bewitching

Alice Samuel might be old and sharp-tongued but she’s no fool. Visiting her new neighbours in her Fenland village, she can tell Squire Throckmorton’s family is troubled. Yet when one of the daughters accuses her of witchcraft, Alice fails to grasp the danger she faces.

The Throckmortons’ maid Martha, uncomfortably aware of strange goings-on in the household herself, is reluctant to believe that Alice is a witch, but as a collective mania sweeps the community, she struggles to find a voice.
Drawing on the 16th-century case of the witches of Warboys, this is a novel of searing imagination that vividly conveys the way fear can turn into paranoia and victims be made to believe in their own wickedness, especially when those in power hold all the cards.

Published July 2022


‘[A] compelling story and imaginative reconstruction of past beliefs… [The Bewitching] highlights the swiftness with which a community can turn on one of its own.’
Sunday Times

‘An important novel which gave me fresh insight into the wicked mechanism of misogyny. The truth and sadness of it is breathtaking, and the writing is just wonderful.’
– Sadie Jones

‘A deeply satisfying and highly feminist novel from the ever versatile Jill Dawson, who has a knack for putting you right in the time and place, dousing you in terrified concern and setting you alight. Highly recommend.’
– Louisa Young

‘This powerful novel seizes the reader from the first page to the unavoidable conclusion. Though set in the late sixteenth century it makes us aware of how gossip still traps us, as victims and as perpetrators. Awkward outsiders, family envy, hidden violence, and insidious talk cluster dangerously. We hear them all at work through the minds of those caught in the web. With her gift for penetrating into peoples’ motives and silences Jill Dawson here succeeds in awakening the reality of long-past events in the Fens and beyond them.’ 
– Dame Gillian Beer, author and literary critic

‘Jill Dawson is our most consummate historical novelist.  She crafts magic out of darkness and light.  Nothing evokes the past as vividly as her deft prose.  And dark as The Bewitching is, with its eerie echoes of our own times, we know we are safe in her superb, story-telling hands’.
– Philip Hoare, author of Albert and the Whale

‘The Bewitching is a compulsive and thought-provoking account of guilt and persecution.’
– Paula Hawkins author of The Girl on the Train

‘Jill Dawson is a magnificent writer. I would read her shopping lists.’ 
– Cathy Rentzenbrink, author of The Last Act of Love

‘Jill Dawson really has the gift of tongues: The Bewitching tells an ancient and terrible tale, of women silenced, monstered and vilified and makes it profoundly involving, vivid and new.  Dawson has a talent for evoking a time and place and people that is so nuanced and compelling it feels uncanny and she brings all a poet’s skill for the seductive texture of life to this breathlessly exciting narrative.’
– Christobel Kent author of The Loving Husband

‘An important novel which gave me fresh insight into the wicked mechanism of misogyny. The truth and sadness of it is breathtaking, and the writing is just wonderful.’
– Sadie Jones

‘The Bewitching – such a fascinating and deeply disturbing tale of witchcraft, male power, and the age old fear of women. It will stay with me for a while.’
– Caitlin Davies, author of Queens of the Underworld

‘A vivid retelling…From the first farcical accusation to the novel’s tragic denouement, the plot unfolds with the unrelenting pace of a psychological thriller.’
Financial Times

‘Dawson’s ability to maintain an interesting voice and tell a story at the same time is a lesson to any novelist.’
– The Critic

‘Dawson brings out the characters’ genuine terror of the supernatural; even level-headed Martha starts to believe in a witch’s power. Stories of abuse by prominent men like Jeffrey Epstein emerged while Dawson was writing, and fed into the text. What if the girls’ hysteria signals a buried trauma bursting to get out and tragically misses its mark? And what more easy way to stifle an obstreperous woman’s accusations than to accuse her first? Dawson’s vivid retelling doesn’t leave us with any comforting notion that human nature has advanced much.’
– Suzy Feay in The Spectator

Dear Reader,

Witches are in the news again. Nicola Sturgeon has just offered an apology for the ‘egregious historic injustice’ done to the thousands of people – mainly women – tortured and executed for witchcraft in Scotland between the 16th and 18th centuries, while in January the Catalan parliament formally pardoned hundreds of women who were put to death as witches.  

These were ordinary people, not criminals. Their trials were usually forced confessions. Many of us – especially if our ancestors were servants, or poor, or lived in rural communities – might well be related to someone who was tried and executed for being a witch.

The Bewitching tells a true story: in Warboys in the late 16th century, five girls accused their neighbour of bewitching them, and the place was soon in the grip of witch mania.  What took place  has much in common with the Salem witch-trials a century later but it happened in Cambridgeshire, about half an hour’s drive from where I live.

I live in a Fen village of two hundred people. During the pandemic my husband and my mother were both shielding, so I felt particularly cut off. On my walks I rarely bumped into even one villager, although I did frequently see hares, which found their way into my novel. Theories about who was to blame for Covid, conspiracy theories, misinformation, rage at our governments, new suspicions about whether people were likely to contaminate us, all swirled around me, echoing the fears of the period I was writing about.  When illness or misfortune strikes, those without power feel their lack intensely. What can they do, who is to blame?

Sir Henry Cromwell and his wife were real figures and the Muchwood riots were true events.  During the time I wrote the novel, powerful men like Jeffrey Epstein and Prince Andrew were in the news. Girls and women were finally speaking out.  Words have legs and wings.  I hope very much you enjoy The Bewitching and thank you so much for reading it.

Jill Dawson,
March 2022