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About The Book

Named a best historical novel of the year by The New York Times Book Review and “reminiscent of both The Scarlet Letter and Hamnet” (Jezebel), The Witching Tide is a powerful debut inspired by the true events behind a deadly witch hunt in 17th-century England.

East Anglia, 1645. Martha Hallybread, a midwife, healer, and servant, has lived peacefully for more than four decades in her beloved seaside village of Cleftwater. Having lost her voice as a child, Martha has not spoken a word in years.

One autumn morning, a sinister newcomer appears in town. A “witchfinder,” Silas Makepeace has been blazing a trail of destruction along the coast, and his arrival in Cleftwater strikes fear into the heart of the community. Within a day, local women are being detained. Martha is enlisted to search the accused women for “devil’s marks,” and finds herself a silent witness to the hunt.

Martha is caught between suspicion and betrayal; between shielding herself or condemning the women of the village. In desperation, she revives a wax witching doll that belonged to her mother, in the hope that it will bring protection. But the doll’s true powers are unknowable, Martha harbors a terrible secret, and the gallows are looming…

Set over the course of a few weeks that forever changed history, and for readers of Hilary Mantel and Margaret Atwood, The Witching Tide “illuminates a dark historical period and cautions against its recreation” (Kirkus Reviews).

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for THE WITCHING TIDE includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these suggestions will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


The once peaceful seaside village of Cleftwater is thrown into a state of terror when witch-hunter Silas Makepeace arrives. Almost instantly, local women are arrested and subject to violent investigation. Martha Hallybread, a well-respected midwife, tries to put a stop to the cruelty by drawing on the power of a wax witching doll she inherited from her late mother. In an attempt to protect her, Martha’s employer volunteers her to help examine the accused women for Devil’s marks. While Martha wants to defend women she knows are innocent, she is put in an impossible position: condemn her neighbors or herself. As the situation grows more and more dire, Martha must find a way to take a stand.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. The novel is divided into sections representing the four humors of Hippocratic medicine: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood. This system of medicine was largely popular until the 1850s. Each humor was believed to represent a different temperament: yellow bile for a choleric or irritable nature, black bile for melancholy, phlegm for a reserved nature, and if these humors were balanced in the blood, that would indicate a sanguine nature. Discuss Meyer’s choice to organize the novel this way. How do the events in each section reflect each humor?

2. Martha is unable to speak and often has trouble breathing “because of the thing in her throat . . . a serpent, a worm” (pages 6–7). The “worm” is referenced several times throughout as the reason Martha can’t speak. Why might Martha describe her condition in this way? What is your interpretation of this affliction?

3. Though Martha is nonspeaking, she communicates with a form of sign language. The author indicates this by putting Martha’s dialogue in italics or describing her hand motions. What did you make of Martha’s method of communication? How does being nonverbal affect her relationships and her life in general? Discuss the different ways her silence reflects the themes of the book.

4. Throughout the novel, health issues are often associated with witchcraft. For example, Marion’s newborn had “almost no neck” and “its top lip was over-large” (page 17). Later, Marion’s sister Jennet accuses Martha of cursing the baby and then has a seizure herself. Martha saves her but worries what would happen if “news of the fit reached the witch man” (page 39). Though we now understand these medical conditions, discuss why our ancestors interpreted illnesses as spiritual signs.

5. Religious faith is central to the events of the novel. Martha believes her faith is unconventional because it has “some basic defect, its restless inner needle always roving, from conviction to disbelief to shame and around again” (page 25). Talk about the different ways in which the characters turn to their faith throughout the novel.

6. When Martha first brings out the poppet, she describes it as having “two faces” (page 10). How does this theme of having two sides appear throughout the novel? Who else is described as having a dual nature? What is significant about this refrain?

7. The poppet, the wax doll, the witching doll, is so important a figure that it is practically a character. How is it characterized, and how does its relationship to others evolves as the story progresses?

8. Though Martha and Kit are practically family, Kit puts Martha in a difficult situation, offering her services to the witch man in identifying “Devil’s marks” on the accused women. Why do you think Kit made this recommendation? What do you think of Kit as a character?

9. The fear of witchcraft makes even long-term friends question one another. Even Martha has her doubts and thinks, “How dreadful it was, how unworthy, to harbour this singular terror—primitive, ancient—that among them, these women, her friends, there could be a witch” (page 18). What is Martha lamenting? Does her struggle have any parallels today?

10. Martha and Jennet have a tumultuous relationship. They support and protect each other at times, and mistrust and doubt each other later. Talk about their strained friendship and about the female friendships throughout the novel.

11. There are several instances where Martha has visions—of the poppet, of her mother—and interprets some meaning from these events. Sometimes she believes them to be a warning, other times a sign. What do you make of Martha having these visions?

12. When Martha is facing an interrogation by Master Makepeace, she realizes that she is “reduced” in his gaze, “one more nonentity in a host, a multitude, a legion of women . . . countless women, those who had been and those yet to come; those already dead and those yet to die at his hands” (page 268). Consider how misogyny is at play in the way the women are accused, inspected, and sentenced. What were the consequences for supporting women? What were the rewards for condemning them?

13. In a dream, Martha witnesses a great coming together of women and hears their voices saying: “We are monstrous, legion; We are too many, We are never enough” (page 292).

Discuss the meaning of this passage. Talk about the solidarity among women (or lack thereof) in the novel.

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Martha has a “physick garden” where she grows a variety of herbs for medicinal uses (page 8). Some of these herbs are commonly in use today, including rosemary, mint, and sage. Look into the modern medicinal uses of herbs.

2. In her acknowledgements, Meyer referenced numerous works of nonfiction which informed the writing of The Witching Tide. Consider looking at the works mentioned to supplement your reading experience.

About The Author

Photograph by Andi Sapey

Margaret Meyer was born in Canada, grew up in New Zealand and now lives in Norwich, England. She worked in publishing before becoming a therapist, and has a degree in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. The Witching Tide, her first novel, was inspired by the events of the 1645–7 East Anglian witch hunt and is dedicated to the more than 100 innocent women who lost their lives.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (September 5, 2023)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781668011386

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Raves and Reviews

“Meyer’s atmospheric debut novel transports readers to a community gripped by fear, paranoia and accusation, vividly conveying a hysteria that threatens to engulf all reason.” New York Times Book Review, Editors' Choice

“Meyer is a formidable storyteller; her sharp descriptive powers offer readers an immersive experience... The Witching Tide is the remarkable story of the women who survived cruel, unjust imprisonment and went on to reclaim their rightful place in a community forever diminished by the hanging of so many innocent women. It is also a forceful interrogation of what happens when pious paranoia, stoked by ignorance, engulfs men already drunk on their own power.” Shelf Awareness, starred review

“Immersive… The author offers a stirring depiction of the selfishness, revenge, and fear behind the accusations. This evocative narrative is sure to pique readers’ curiosity about the witch trials.” Publishers Weekly

“Meyer’s saga of prejudicial ignorance and the horrors that result from innuendo campaigns is replete with period and chilling atmospheric detail. Meyer’s narrative illuminates a dark historical period (and cautions against its re-creation).” Kirkus

“With characters refreshingly of their time, rather than straw men parroting the mores of ours, this novel is an immersive tale of the East Anglian witch trials as seen through the eyes of an absorbing protagonist. It showcases the horrors inflicted by social hysteria, and offers a three-dimensional view of individual participants whose roles and motivations are differently shaped by religious faith, interpersonal connections, and intellectual acuity. This is an accomplished debut work by an author to watch.” Booklist

“A fraught tale of prejudicial assumptions, ignorance, misogyny, and the horrors they can give rise to.” Paste Magazine

“Reminiscent of both The Scarlet Letter and Hamnet... extremely well-executed historical fiction.” Jezebel

“The Witching Tide is one of those rare novels that pulled me in and wouldn't let go. With diamond-cut prose, Meyer makes 17th century witch hunts feel vivid, new, and highly relevant to the current moment. The chaos, the twisted logic made me wonder if it was possible these historical events actually happened; the essential truths of human nature as seen in these characters made me worry they could happen again.” —Mary Beth Keane, author of The Half Moon

“The Witching Tide is propelled by the utter conviction of the writing, in prose that is both stylish and raw. Martha seizes the reader’s sympathy and does not let go.” —Anne Enright, author of The Gathering

“A beautiful, haunting and utterly transporting novel that takes the reader back to a terrifyingly real witching England: a paranoic society where women’s lives are decided by gossip and grudges. Told from the perspective of a silent woman whose inner voice insistently pulls the reader along, The Witching Tide is atmospheric, moving and lyrical.” Naomi Wood, author of Mrs. Hemingway

“Meyer evokes the uncanniness, the appalling cruelties of the witch trials in a way that is also thoroughly humane. To read this book is to step inside time, to feel the bite of the sea air, to walk in the grime alongside Martha as she fights the tide of suspicion. It is a powerful, riveting read, each sentence pristine and haunting.”Elizabeth Macneal, author of The Doll Factory

“A timely, visceral novel that hurls the reader into a community riddled with suspicion, fear and recrimination. Margaret Meyer expertly creates an atmosphere of creeping dread, where no one is safe, and women find themselves punished for their own misfortunes and those of their erstwhile friends and neighbors.” Natalie Haynes, author of A Thousand Ships

“Utterly haunting and entirely riveting; The Witching Tide is an unflinching account of the horrors of witch trials, told in a mesmerizing voice from an extraordinarily talented author. It sent shivers down my spine and brought me to tears.” —Jennifer Saint, author of Ariadne

“The Witching Tide casts a spell that carries readers back to 17th century days of actual witch hunts, when fearmongers spread rumor and false accusations to wield power over women. In bewitching language, Margaret Meyer paints a portrait of a brave midwife determined to outwit the zealots who threaten her, and defeat a contagion of hysteria and violence."
—Kate Manning, author of Gilded Mountain

“Meyer is a superb writer. The world she conjures here is elegant and haunting, utterly beguiling and convincing of time and place. I was gripped by Martha’s plight, captivated by the gleaming details of the prose and horrified at the wider picture they revealed. As with all great historical fiction, The Witching Tide gives voice to the unspoken and brings light to dark places, drawing to the surface those stories that need to be told and need us to listen.” —Emma Stonex, author of The Lamplighters

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