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.
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.