With women’s social and reproductive rights, as well as the environment, attacked on a daily basis across the globe, is there any better time to read a novel like Emilia Hart’s Weyward? Weyward is a unique debut novel, one that, by utilizing a cross-generational plot, prompts readers to remember that female resilience conquers oppression, abuse, and silence. The novel bears a more relevant message, given current legislative battles concerning women’s choices.
Weyward follows three women — Altha, Violet, and Kate — from the same family across five centuries. Altha lives during the 1600s, a time when fundamental Christianity and witch hunts drive many women to courtrooms and executions because their gifts, talents, or individuality do not conform to society and religion’s expectations. In the 1940s, Violet is a young woman coming of age during World War II. Raised by her hypermasculine father in the luxurious confines of Orton Hall, young Violet grapples not only with the mystery surrounding her father’s death, but also his denial of her education and her fruitful, adventurous life outside of his expectations of marriage. In 2019, Kate is a young woman forced by her boyfriend, Simon, to live in isolation and under extreme surveillance in London. When Kate finds an escape opportunity, she leaves London and begins making a home at Weyward, the mysterious home she inherited from her great-aunt Violet.
The novel’s momentum lies in its adept prose, which is just as otherworldly and magical as the gift Altha, Violet, and Kate each carry. How each woman uses her gift is only part of the novel’s portrayals of choice, nonetheless. The choice Altha must make — about whether to use her supernatural gift in the way her mother warned her to never use it — differs greatly from Violet’s. Attitudes about pregnancy outside of wedlock were much different in 1940s England than today, and when Violet becomes pregnant after being raped by her cousin, her father banishes her to Weyward cottage. There, Violet discovers her mother’s and ancestors’ secrets. Her isolation grants her another gift that she has never been offered — that of choice — so when Violet discovers a recipe for a tansy petal tea which results in abortion, she makes a decision that results in disownment by her father. Though times have changed since the 1940s, Violet’s character still serves as an example of life-threatening scenarios contemporary women face.
Kate’s domestic abuse experience is depicted vividly. Kate’s experiences mirror Violet’s, and despite generational separation, their parallel encounters with men speak to violence’s cyclical nature, not only within families but also societies and cultures. Kate’s years-long silence prior to her escape to Weyward is a sad, eyebrow-raising testimony to how women are denied safe access to resources that allow them protection from their abusers. The police warn Kate that “even if he’s found guilty, Simon could be out in two years. Sooner, probably with good behavior.” This simple statement speaks profoundly about a system that continues to disenfranchise women and favor the abuser.
While Weyward centers on female resilience, it also establishes itself as a platform for those combatting climate change. The Weyward cottage is nestled on a fruitful, naturally rich piece of land where birds, plants, and insects thrive. The Weyward women derive their strength from the natural world, and when they are denied access to it, they wilt physically and spiritually. The Weyward women’s intimate connection with nature is a stark reminder of what humanity ultimately loses when environments are threatened and destroyed by humankind’s follies. This concept plays in tandem with the novel’s discussion about how patriarchal societies forbid women from using their talents. These themes place the novel in conversation about social justice with books like Katy Simpson Smith’s The Weeds.
For a debut, Weyward is quietly brilliant. Its linguistic subtlety juxtaposes its address of violence against women and the environment. This juxtaposition ultimately places emphasis on the issues about which many would prefer to remain silent. Weyward is an exhilarating debut, one that hums with endurance and carefully places a magnifying glass over the complexities of the female experience.
By Emilia Hart
St. Martins Press
Published March 7, 2023