As Emilia Hart’s debut novel opens, it’s 2019, and 29-year-old Kate Ayres is plotting her escape from both London and her abusive boyfriend. She’s recently learned she has a secret place to run to: Her great-aunt Violet, an eccentric entomologist whom Kate barely remembers, has died and bequeathed her niece Weyward Cottage in the remote village of Crows Beck, Cumbria.
The story then drops back to 1942, when 16-year-old Violet Ayres is confined to the grounds of her father’s Cumbrian estate, Orton Hall, and looked after by a governess and nanny. Violet’s father won’t let her visit the nearby village of Crows Beck or go off to school, though Violet doesn’t know why. He disapproves of the way the girl spends so much time outside, climbing trees and rescuing animals, and he warns that Violet is beginning to turn out like her mother, who died when Violet was a toddler.
Interspersed among Kate’s and Violet’s stories is the first-person account of Altha, a young woman from Crows Beck who is being tried for witchcraft in 1619.
These three timelines—2019, 1942 and 1619—braid together the quests of Weyward’s women, keeping the tension high as each character faces danger and difficult decisions. As Kate and Violet begin to understand their connections to other women of Weyward Cottage and to the natural world, each also begins to rely on her own strength.
Featuring beautiful descriptions of the plants, animals and insects of rural Cumbria, Weyward also makes good use of objects, such as family pieces passed down through generations. And as befits a gothic story, the novel includes plenty of tropes—the madwoman in the attic, an anxious main character, a dark and crumbling mansion, even a servant named Miss Poole (an apparent nod to Jane Eyre). Most of the novel’s men are portrayed as unremittingly villainous, and some readers will wish for a little more complexity there. Still, Weyward is a satisfying, well-plotted historical page turner and a welcome addition to the feminist field of “witcherature.” It’s perfect for fans of Sarah Penner’s The Lost Apothecary.