A Secret History of Witches
by Louisa Morgan
It was a night shrouded in dense clouds in the year 1821 when the grizzled and gray Ursule Orchiére realized that her family was not safe. Urging her granddaughters and their husbands along a gritty path with the overlapping waves of an uneasy ocean guiding their way, Ursule tried to spirit her loved ones as far away from the town as she could. For in that town, they were beginning to burn witches.
As the leader of the medieval Romani clan, Ursule had a lot to protect. A line of witches, their power passed down from daughter to daughter, is a precious thing and something that must be cultivated through the art of ceremonial charms and gatherings, and must be protected at all costs. Armed with her mysterious scrying stone and the oaken walking stick that emits a power only she can wield, Ursule casts a spell to hide the coven from those who hunt them. Using all of the force she can muster, Ursule projects everything she inside of her into weaving a charm of mystic secrecy and protection and as a result, she depletes herself down to the very core. Her last instructions to her clan is to head to a house beyond the seas and above a cliff; a house with a thatched roof in need of many repairs. The rising moor behind it will hold more for the Orchiére women than she can describe in her last moments on Earth, but Ursule urges her granddaughters to blindly push on ahead to this place of hidden sanctuary . . . and to get as far away from men like the evil Father Bernard as they can get.
It is Nanette who finds her grand-mère in the morning when the sun first peeks from the clouds; the old woman’s weathered and wrinkled skin is cold as ice. She has passed from this world and on to the next, and although Nanette worries that they cannot possibly move ahead without the guidance of their leader, the Orchiére women must persevere.
A Secret History of Witches is a study of five generations of women who must live their true lives in absolute secrecy. A line of witches descending from the powerful blood of the Romani, the book chronicles the lives of five individual women, their ascent into their own personal powers, and the choices they make with their new burden .
Nanette, the granddaughter of Ursule is the only one of her clan who chooses to mix and mingle with anyone outside of Orchiére Farm. She’s watched her older sisters move on with their lives as if nothing ever happened that night on the dusky beach where they left their grand-mère, pulling together to mend the brokenness that was the farm where they now make their living. Her sisters put the past firmly behind them as soundly as one shuts a door with a bolt, and only live for the tasks around their home and life with their husbands. But the death of her grand-mère has stuck with Nanette, and she wonders if perhaps there is an undercurrent of the magic she witnessed that night still flickering around her. Her visits to the village each week to sale the family’s homemade goods have begun to grow uneasy, as the eyes of the strict and callous Father Bernard seem to watch her every step. She doesn’t know why he’s always staring at her, but she has heard the whisperings of the word “witch” in conjunction with her family. As the years go by and Nanette grows older, she becomes acutely aware of the peculiar goings-on around her farm. Her sisters sneak out in the dead of night and make their way up the moor regularly, and Nanette dreams of the day she can finally join them in whatever it is that they get up to there. When the night finally arrives, she steals away into the blackness along with the others and finds herself in a cave, watching the elder sisters chant and perform curious ceremonies around a scrying stone set upon an altar. Everyone is surprised when Ursule’s old crystal responds to Nanette, and it is through the youngest of the clan that the power of the Romani witches will endure.
Ursule was begot by magic. After conjuring a handsome Irishman for an evening spent in pure pleasure, a daughter was born to Nanette. Her love of the land comes from some place deep within her and she cannot ever imagine leaving the confines of Orchiére Farm, a place where she has spent hours cultivating the gardens with her own hands and tending to the animals with loving care. Ursule grows into a woman as the aunts around her pass away to death, and she watches her mother Nanette furrow her brows with worry at the ending of the line of power. After Ursule marries a solid man from down the way, she finds herself yearning for a child to continue the heritage of witchcraft. But after she is unable to conceive or convince her husband that it is even worth trying, she becomes desperate. After a torrid affair with a beautiful traveling troubadour finally results in finding herself with child, Ursule knows she must act fast to hide the infidelity from her husband. Finding a spell in her great-grandmother’s tattered grimoire, she creates a potion sure to remedy the problem. But all backfires on Ursule when her husband calls her mother out for a witch and gets the village involved. With danger at her heels, Ursule flees her beloved farm on the back of her horse, making her way to safer pastures with a baby growing in her belly.
Iréne hates her life. Yearning and fervently dreaming for a comfortable existence as a lady of the manor instead of as a servant girl, Iréne becomes difficult to live with. Her mother Ursule will never be able to scrub the dirt from her fingernails or ever have a clean head of hair; she lives to work in the gardens that lie below the grand home they are servants to. Refusing to follow in her mother’s meager footsteps, Iréne dedicates her time and energy in to using the newfound power passed down to her for her own personal gain. After bewitching a rich older man with a potion and forcing him into marriage with her, she steals away with her mother’s scrying stone and the ancient grimoire, thankful to put the life of a peasant behind her.
Morwen is nothing like her mother Irêne. She is sweet and kind and beloved by all who know her. After coming across a curious bedraggled stranger in the ruins of a nearby castle, she has questions that only her cold and aloof mother can answer. Forcing her way into her mother’s presence is not easy, and it is troubling to Morwen to find that Iréne seems to know more than she should be able to. Startled and horrified to find that her mother is a witch who spies on her every move, Morwen has to think fast. Forcing her mother into spilling the tale of their family’s lineage and trusting her with the powers of the stone and book, Morwen is unfortunately more confused than ever. The woman living in the castle ruins claims to be her grandmother – but is that possible? When Morwen’s father begins proceedings to enter her into marriage with a much older man and without her own permission, Morwen must make a choice that will either be a staggering success or an abysmal failure.
Veronica, daughter of Morwen, has visions that frighten her. Closing her eyes, she can see her sweet, tender brother falling in battle. Seeking out the man who has always treated her like a daughter, Veronica is told a tale of the immense power that runs in her very veins and of her place in the Orchiére lineage. And as the war around them begins to take its nasty toll and Hitler infiltrates the sanctity of the countryside, Veronica will join forces with another band of witches and work to bring down a monster. But will her power destroy everything around her, including her chances at a love of her own?
Spanning over a century and five generations of strong, opinionated, and powerful women, A Secret History of Witches is the new novel by Louisa Morgan. While I had extremely high hopes for this book (given the title, the blurb, and the beautiful cover), I found myself disappointed. The premise was good, the opening was (dare I say) magical, but the rest of the book read like repeat after repeat after . . . repeat after repeat. Each story of each woman only had slight changes, and curiously enough, the most interesting of all of these women was Iréne – the bitch. I had a very hard time investing myself in these characters who never seemed to really feel any true emotion or actually (outside of a few potions to make men fall in love with them) perform any actual magic! When a title mentions witches, you have to believe that you’re in store for a world full of charms, conjuring, and covens. In fact, the only real coven was in the first chapter, but even then the women didn’t seem to like each other very much. That resulted in me not being able to really like them either.
Each chapter and “book of” melted into the next with no real solid transition other than “okay, we have moved on to the next girl and she is a teenager about to get her first period, and after that she will figure out that she has power and she will be super surprised.” What the heck?! I WANTED MORE. I felt like this book was a waste of time.
I give A Secret History of Witches 3 out of 5 stars, and I do NOT liken it to Alice Hoffman, as so many other websites are trying to.