Philippa Gregory has written dozens of historical novels, some of which I have read: THE WHITE QUEEN, THE RED QUEEN, THE QUEEN’S FOOL, THE VIRGIN’S LOVER, THE OTHER QUEEN, THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL. She knows the Tudors well. In THE WISE WOMAN Gregory delves into sorcery.
King Henry VIII has become the head of the English church in order to denounce his wife, Queen Catherine, and marry Anne Boleyn, then Jane Seymour. The Catholics are out of power, as well as out of favor, being called papists and heretics. Monasteries, nunneries, and abbeys are ransacked, emptied of treasure, and destroyed. Priests and nuns are murdered, raped, and burned at the stake for heresy.
Into this world, a young child named Alys finds herself orphaned and impoverished. She lives with an old wise woman, Morach, in a tiny, dirt-floored cottage on the moors. Morach is a hard woman with healing skills and the sight. She also offers sorcery and spells to those who seek her help, but carefully protects herself from being called a witch. To Alys she teaches about medicinal herbs and childbirthing but is no substitute for an affectionate mother. The young girl is worked to the bone, occasionally beaten, and fed little. The filthy cottage is cold and drafty in winter, and Alys longs for food, warmth, cleanliness, and comfort.
After a few years, Alys is taken in by a wealthy abbey and receives love from the abbess, as well as proper food, warmth, clean clothing, and no hard chores. She learns to read and write, which comes in handy later. One night, the abbey is attacked by Castleton’s Lord Hugo and his men, then burned. Only Alys escapes and runs back to Morach’s hovel, having nowhere else to go. She mourns the loss of the abbess, who treated her as a daughter. She is not safe with her belief in God and desperately misses the cleanliness, food, comfort, and prayer routine of the abbey. Her clothes turn dirty and her hopes of fleeing to another nunnery wither.
When Lord Hugh’s men come to take Morach to the castle to heal the aging Castleton monarch, she pushes a very reluctant Alys to go in her stead. Lord Hugh’s son, Lord Hugo, who burned the abbey and killed the gentle and kind abbess, will be there. Alys stays out of Hugo’s way as much as possible, while nursing his father back to health so she can leave. However, when Lord Hugh is well again, he decides to retain Alys as his personal clerk, since she can read and write in both English and Latin.
While Alys likes the food, baths, clothing, and relative comfort, she is not happy. Hugo scares her with his lust and temptation, and his wife, Lady Catherine, is jealous and vile. The old lord will not let Alys leave his service for another year or two, until she helps his daughter-in-law conceive and provide an heir. Alys visits Morach on the pretense of needing more herbs but, instead, seeks knowledge of the dark arts. Morach warns Alys of the danger of using wax figures to put spells on and hex human beings, but the teenage girl is desperate. She gives up her God and accepts the devil in order to live as she feels she deserves.
From that time on, Alys believes her life to be better. She and Hugo love each other, the long barren Catherine becomes pregnant, and the old lord is satisfied, though tired. Morach is brought to the castle to care for Catherine, because Alys has lied that she is also with child by Hugo. The young woman seems to get almost everything she wants but cannot find contentment. She wants more and more, as she feels her power to harm others grows. Lady Catherine becomes obese and miscarries, not a child but something very disgusting…
At this point, my interest in the book waned. I finished it, though the protagonist had warped into a selfish, manipulative, and destructive creep. The ending does not redeem her; it’s too little, too late, and very ridiculous.