Book Review: Thornyhold by Mary Stewart

Quick review (read on for full review)

A richly described setting and an almost whimsically enchanting tale combine to create this gentle, charming read. 3.5 / 5

Summary (from inside cover)

To Gilly Ramsey, during her lonely childhood, the occasional brief visits of her mother’s cousin Geillis were a delight, appearing to the unhappy child like the visits of a fairy godmother. Years later, when Cousin Geillis was dead, and had willed her house, Thornyhold, to Gilly, the latter discovered that ‘fairy godmother’ was close enough to the truth. For Cousin Geillis, with her still-room, and her herbalist’s practice – and her undoubted powers – had long been known to the locals as a witch. And Gilly, inheriting ‘the witch’s house’, inherits, too, in spite of herself, her cousin’s reputation. She is approached by neighbours, some innocent, some not so innocent, but all assuming that she, too, is a witch, and a possible addition to the local coven. There is some truth in this, for Gilly, to her own surprise and discomfort, finds that in difficult moments she can call on power of a kind; it is as if Cousin Geillis is still somewhere in house and garden, weaving her own spells.

Gilly, once so shy and insecure, is gradually forced, by the very real powers at work in Thornyhold, to choose her own path through the enchanted woods. This, with the aid of an engaging small boy with a sick ferret, and then of his father, and even of her too-helpful nearest neighbour, Agnes, she finally does. Thornyhold, with its enchanted defences against evil, puts an end to loneliness and insecurity, and allows Gilly to move forward with confidence towards a new and satisfying life.

Favourite Quote

I suppose my mother could have been a witch if she had chosen to. But she met my father, who was a rather saintly clergyman, and he cancelled her out.

(From Thornyhold by Mary Stewart, page 7)


Set during the years following World War II, this book is made up of a little bit of everything: a journey of self-discovery, witchcraft, fantasy, romance, suspense, sadness and even comedy, and that makes it quite a difficult book to place, I think.  What I can say, is that I enjoyed it.

Gilly Ramsey’s early life is bleak and lonely due in no small part to her parents.  Her mother comes across as cold and distant and her father is preoccupied with his duties as a clergyman.  I couldn’t help but wonder as I read, if either had really wanted a child.  The only glimmer’s of light the young Gilly receives come in the form of her mother’s cousin, Geillis, after who she is named.  She appears, often out of the blue, and comes across as if not a little strange, at least a little unusual, and naturally, she is.  Gilly’s life is influenced and shaped greatly by these three people, and it rather sadly, takes the death of them all to come into her own.

The witchcraft described in the story is of the hedgewitch variety – country herbalism, folklore and low magic.  I could read endless passages on the magical and medicinal properties of growing things.  The English countryside is richly described: flora and fauna, Stonehenge, the ruins of an old house, villages and hamlets, farms, fields and woodlands.  But it is Thornyhold that captures the attention and the heart: an old cottage (though fairly sizeable in dimension) surrounded by forest and wildlife.

The pace felt quite slow to begin with, and reading about Gilly’s childhood was not particularly fun, but as the years moved on and she arrives at Thornyhold, Gilly not only discovers who she really is – compared with who she has had to be her whole life – but learns about the strange and mysterious Cousin Geillis.

I would love to have had more information about Cousin Geillis’ relationship to Gilly’s mother, and even how her mother felt about her cousin.  Did she envy her life and freedom? Was she jealous of Geillis’ apparent closeness to her daughter?  As I moved through the story, I thought there might be more to this storyline than kindred spirits, but if there was, it never materialised.  And, as I wasn’t completely convinced by the romantic element to the story, or how the suspense element was resolved, yet overall enjoyed reading the book, 3.5 stars sounded like a fair rating.


3.5 / 5



Book Review: Witch Child by Celia Rees

Mary is the grand-daughter of an old woman who was hanged as a witch.  Not knowing her mother or father, a woman turns up on the day of the hanging to take her away, but life is anything but settled for Mary.  Although the woman rescues her from danger, for the locals already suspect she might be a witch as well, the woman sends her away.

Even though she is provided for, Mary is abandoned and alone, forced to start a new life in the New World.  In amongst her new things she finds ink, paper and a quill – the means to make a journal.  And so Mary begins a record of all that happens to her…

However, the danger she is supposedly being protected from at home – falling under the same suspicion as her grandmother – follows her across the ocean.  Superstition and mistrust is worse in the New World than the Old one.  How will Mary fare?

This was a very interesting, unusual read.  Told in the form of diary entries, we hear Mary’s tale told in her own words.  The people she meets are interesting; some are really kind, and some are quite the opposite.  And the descriptions of the places she visits are clear and evocative.

Although this book is aimed at teenage readers, I found it gripping, holding my attention to the very end.  I needed to find out how things turned out for Mary and so I couldn’t put the book down until I had finished it.  It is simple yet engaging as it manages to evoke the terror of the period for someone accused of witchcraft especially when it comes to the basic fact that you cannot reason with people who are scared of what they cannot explain.

Short Story Review: The Duchess and The Doll by Edith Pargeter

The Duchess and The Doll is the retelling of an actual event that occurred during the reign of Henry VI, where the Duchess of Gloucester was accused of witchcraft and heresy.

Eleanor Cobham of Sterborough was the daughter of a minor noble who became the second wife of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, a Plantagenet prince.  Although the Duke was very popular amongst the commoners, she was not.  It wasn’t only her relatively low-birth that they took dislike to, but also the manner in which she became the Duchess.

And so, because of this, the Duke soon also fell out of favour with the people, and his opponents quickly capitalised on the situation.  They were just as happy to see him fall from grace because of his wife’s faults as his own.

The story takes us through the trials, both secular and religious, and introduces us to those who are named alongside her, before concluding with how it ended for those involved.  As a compelling case for witchcraft and heresy is made against the Duchess, the ultimate question is whether or not the intention behind it was treason.

I found this story surprisingly moving, to see how the wife viewed how the accusations levelled against her affected her husband.  It was all the more fascinating because it was based on something that actually happened.  The historical detail of the surrounding events added colour, context and interest to the tale.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable read, one that commanded my attention from start to finish.

This short story was found in The Mammoth Book of Historical Detectives, ed. Mike Ashley.