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Stacey Halls

THE GEORGIANS RETURN TO VAUXHALL

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After her success with The Familiars (click to read the review) Stacey has moved on a couple of centuries to the 1750s. Bess Bright has reluctantly abandoned her baby daughter Clara to the mercies of London’s Foundling Hospital. This astonishing institution, founded by Thomas Coram on 1741, took in babies whose mothers were unable to care for them.

Foundlings3Zosha Nash (left), formerly Head of Development at The Foundling Museum explained, the care and love bestowed on the children was remarkable, even by modern standards. Their life expectancy exceeded that of many children at the time, and all were taught to read and write. The hospital was also famously associated with Handel, and it was in the  chapel that Messiah was performed for the first time in England

Stacey (below) explained how she had visited the museum and been overwhelmed by the poignancy of the exhibits, particularly the tokens – sometimes a scrap of fabric, sometimes a coin scratched with initials – left with the children so that they might be identified at a later date when the mothers’ circumstances had improved.

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Six years after leaving her, Bess Bright returns to claim her daughter, to be greeting with the shattering news that Clara is no longer there. She has been claimed – just a day after Bess left her – by a woman correctly identifying the child’s token, a piece of scrimshaw, half a heart engraved with letters. The authorities are baffled, but convinced that a major fraud has been perpetrated. Bess’s shock turns to a passionate determination to find Clara.

The Foundling will be published in February 2020.

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A STORY WITHOUT WORDS

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GIFT
INSIDE
BROKEN SEAL
BEAUTY
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THE FAMILIARS . . . Between the covers

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Fleetwood’s peace of mind and the healthy bloom in her cheeks are short-lived, however. First she discovers a dreadful secret that husband Richard has been keeping from her, and then Alice is caught in the gathering storm conjured up by an ambitious and over-zealous magistrate. It is, quite literally, a witch hunt, and people who are guilty of no more than carrying out folk medicine are rounded up and flung in jail, with the prospect of summary trial and execution. Fleetwood is forced to defy her husband – and convention – to seek a stay of execution for a young woman who, she believes, is all that stands between her and another stillborn child.

Stacey Halls has written a vivid and memorable account of a dark period in English history. The Familiars is based on the infamous events that we know as The Pendle Witch Trials. With the ominous bulk of Pendle Hill louring over events, we meet many real life characters. Roger Nowell of Read Hall, Justice of the Peace for Pendle is there, as are the Device family of whom Alizon, Elizabeth and James were hanged on Gallows Hill in Lancaster on 20th August 1612. Gawthorpe Hall, home to Fleetwood and Richard Shuttleworth is now run by the National Trust.

The Familiars is so much more than a dramatisation of historical events, however. Stacey Halls has a prose style which is uncluttered and often pared to the bone; this has the effect of making her descriptions diamond sharp and brilliant. What is left when unnecessary verbiage is chopped away is a memorable account of a determined young woman, exposed to social expectations which would now be termed abusive, but with a soul of steel.

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Stacey Halls has produced something that is little short of a modern masterpiece. The Familiars is full of passion, the distant poles of human weakness and strength and, above all, has a central character who lives and breathes so vividly that we share her hopes, fears and vivid nightmares. Fleetwood’s courage burns through the book like a white-hot iron, and she tells a tale which is, in turn, both disturbing and heart-warming.

“More men were approaching now. The gate clanged open and an iron grip held my arm. Alice and I were wrenched apart and suddenly I was outside the gate and she was being marched back down into the darkness.
          ‘Alice!’ I cried. ‘I’ll come back! I’ll come back!’
While a fierce bulk of a man escorted me back to the gatehouse, the door to the dungeon clanged open and the shrieking grew louder.
          ‘She’s dead! She’s dead! She’s dead!’
The words flew out like crows from a forest, echoing around the walls with nowhere to land.”

The Familiars is published by Bonnier Zaffre, and is out on 7th February.

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