In 1324 in Kilkenny, Petronilla de Meath was the first person to be burned at the stake for sorcery and heresy. She was the maidservant of moneylender Dame Alice Kytler, one of the earliest recorded women accused of witchcraft. This pivotal yet neglected witch trial is reimagined in Niamh Boyce’s second novel Her Kind, following her 2013 debut The Herbalist.
Bébinn arrives in the dead of night at the door of her childhood friend Alice Kytler, now a wealthy moneylender and powerful figure in Kilkenny, who agrees to give Bébinn and her daughter Líadan refuge as servants in her household, but renames them Petronelle and Basilia to hide their Gaelic heritage and warns Petronelle to conceal their past connection (editor’s note: Boyce renamed Petronilla, as referenced in the introduction, to Petronelle to give some distance between the real and reimagined characters). Initially Petronelle seeks only to protect her daughter and herself from the prying gossip and political expediency of the Kilkenny townsfolk, but soon becomes embroiled in the social diplomacy and a more sinister plot to destroy Alice’s household.
My knowledge of Irish history is limited, but I was intrigued by the promise of the synopsis, the striking cover design, and glowing endorsements from favourite authors such as Louise O’Neill. Feminist retellings of history have seen a recent resurgence and are dominating literary prize lists and Boyce’s Her Kind is a haunting addition to this coterie. Boyce gives a voice and multi-faceted history to figures shrouded in mystery, and crafts a world and narrative which immerses the reader firmly in the natural and political landscape of medieval Ireland without becoming mired by historical detail. The prose is atmospheric and foreboding, complementing a narrative full of suspicion and half-truths.
Through Petronelle’s fragmented history, Boyce demonstrates her skill of blending the fictional and historical fact harmoniously, and allowing the reader to consider the themes of the novel both as a contemporary reader but also empathetically as a person living in those times. “I lifted [the ring] up. It was inscribed with one of the only written words I knew: Bébinn.” Boyce’s decision to focus not on Alice, but on Petronelle, an illiterate maid, is a refreshing redress of historical narratives often written by and about the educated, wealthy, and powerful. The complexities and injustices of the social mores of the time are explored with a fierceness which is tempered by avoiding a dogmatic or moralistic approach to the issues of systemic misogyny, racism, and fear of the supernatural other. The author deftly gives the reader an insight into her characters by shifting perspective predominantly between Petronelle, Basilia, and Alice’s accuser Bishop Ledrede, as well as utilising free indirect discourse.
There are evocative images of an anchoress bricked alive behind church walls, demons rising from the underworld to fornicate with women, and my favourite frame tale of a cunning princess and beheadings. Boyce contrasts the beauty and harshness of the wild, where wolves roam freely and Bébinn and Líadan could exist within their true identities, with the urban, where the dangers are as real but insidious and the women must conceal their inner selves. Another duality in Boyce’s writing exists between the sacred and the intimate; female power and agency, whether social or sexual, is denounced as witchcraft by powerful male figures in the church and men who covet Alice’s wealth and influence. One of these men is Sir John, the latest in Alice’s line of husbands, and at first a match seemingly motivated by lust rather than avarice. The growing tension between Dame Alice and the church comes to a head when Sir John falls ill and Alice’s step-daughters accuse her of poisoning him using witchcraft. Helene, one of Alice’s servants, highlights the true danger Alice poses against the bishop; she is a wealthy and politically influential woman. “Alice doesn’t practise magick, and even if she did, no one was ever banished for such petty craft. Was Margaret Dun ever banished for selling magickal pouches or healing stones”. Helene emphasises other lower class townsfolk widely known to be practising similar crafts, who are not being hunted like Alice.
For the women of the novel, intimacy and tenderness must be guarded behind closed doors or in private thoughts, and memory becomes a sacred space, specifically for Petronelle who must untangle the multiple narratives of what has occured in Kilkenny in the years of her absence. Boyce’s creates an explicit link between loving and consensual sexual relationships, which is idealised through Petronelle’s memory of Otto, and the hallowed: “Say your beloved prayers? Damn her. When Otto entered me, he whispered ‘Alleluia’ in my ear and I became a prayer.” This is in stark contrast to the language of Bishop Ledrede, which is entrenched in misogyny and racism against the Irish, referring to women as “mares” and believing the Irish to be genetic “pollution”. He is power-hungry and hypocritical, explicitly linking Irish Paganism and female sexual ‘depravities’ with witchcraft, distorting female sexuality to extreme taboos such as sodomy, bestiality, and demon incubi. Bishop Ledrede himself is “tormented by an old urge: the longing to bury his face between the legs of a woman”, despite vehemently forcing the town’s priests to shun their families and throw them into the streets under a pretence of piety.
Boyce’s retelling gives depth and complexity to these enigmatic historical figures, but the author chooses to show a flawed ugliness within the three main female characters: Alice, Petronelle, and Basilia. The fraught history between Alice and Petronelle is unknown to Basilia who admires her mistress; Alice is educated and respected, fiscally-minded, and elegant in contrast with Petronelle’s practical, cautious, and humble nature. Basilia is on the verge of womanhood, and like other women in her family, is touched by foresight. She is considered strange by the rest of Alice’s household and the townsfolk because she chooses not to speak. Basilia is chosen as Alice’s favourite, bestowed an education, and becomes privy to the mistress’s secrets, but never Petronelle’s. Basilia’s perspective is the perfect tool for a narrative so concerned with the manipulation of a person’s own words against them. “The crowd had waited for her to speak, to cry out, to defend her name, denounce the devil, proclaim her innocence, her guilt, anything. But she did not give them that.” For the women of the novel, silence is often a powerful weapon in the face of misogyny and wilful ignorance.
Niamh Boyce draws in the reader with a well crafted narrative that begins at the end of the plot with the preparation of the pyre, and circles back to reveal the escalation of events that led to this witch hunt. The horror in the novel is grounded in reality and in the characters themselves, with Boyce peeling back the veneers of piety and power which are the twin roots of the atrocities that occur. The prose is rich and vivid in its beauty and haunting qualities, which isn’t surprising as Boyce is also a poet. Through multiple perspectives, Boyce succeeds in conveying both the vast scope of the viewpoints of the townsfolk and the intricate workings of the minds of her main cast of characters. Her Kind is a powerful reimagining of the Kilkenny Witch Trial which stayed with me long after I had finished the novel. I’m glad to have been introduced to this compelling voice in Irish writing and can’t wait to see what Niamh Boyce writes next.
Her Kind is published by Penguin Ireland and you can buy the book here. If you enjoyed reading this review (or reading Her Kind), be sure to listen to our podcast interview with Niamh Boyce on the book.