Book Review: The Age of Witches by Louisa Morgan

The Age of Witches is a tale of witchcraft in late 19th century New York; of two different traditions of magic; and of the ways in which magic impacts upon its practitioners and those around them. It is the story of the descendants of Bridget Byshop, hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692. Harriet, descended from Bridget’s daughter Mary, is in the tradition of a wise woman, making traditional remedies and helping others. Whereas Frances, a descendant of Bridget’s second daughter, wants to use her powers for her own advancement. Both women have an interest in the future of Annis, who is Harriet’s great-niece and Frances’ stepdaughter.

The story moves from New York to England, taking in fashionable London and an impoverished country estate in Dorset. As the action progresses Annis, who prefers horses to polite society, and who has no wish to marry, starts to learn about her family’s heritage, and has to make decisions about her future. Decisions that may put her at odds with her ambitious stepmother. Ultimately this is the history of three strong willed women, battling for survival in what is still a man’s world.

I enjoyed Louisa Morgan’s earlier novel A Secret History of Witches, and I found this one equally engrossing. In both cases the author starts from the premise that witchcraft and magic are real, that they are necessary tools for women in a society where men hold all the power. But their magic is rooted in the everyday: Harriet’s remedies are based on herbs and other plants, and she emphasises the importance of words and intentions. And Frances’ maleficia is used as a supplement to, and not a substitute for, ordinary sexual attraction.

One of the pleasures of this book is the descriptions of the herbs that Harriet gathers, and the mixing of the remedies. Another is the character of Annis, a determined yet principled young woman, and her prickly relationship with James, the English aristocrat her stepmother intends her to marry.

The Age of Witches is a must for anyone who enjoys novels about witchcraft. It is also recommended as a work of historical fiction, with strong characters and a compelling plotline.

The Age of Witches, Louisa Morgan, Orbit, 2020, £9.99, 9780356512570

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