Though his first and most famous novel, Mist over Pendle, remains in print to this day, Robert Neill is very much a forgotten writer in the Twenty-First Century. A Google search reveals nothing more than a brief Wikipedia entry on his career that mentions neither his birth or death, yet for three decades he was one of Britain’s favourite authors of historical fiction, and his books are still examples of thoughtful, entertaining, thrilling, lively fiction, and, above all, unobtrusively accurate in their portrayal of times and places of centuries earlier.
Neill was born in Manchester and studied science at Cambridge, which did not suit him. He was a research worker for the Scottish Marine Biological Association, a schoolmaster and an Electrical Lieutenant in the RNVR during World War II. After leaving he Services, he was a professor of biology and zoology at Saint Paul’s College. He lived in Cheltenham and, for several years, was part of the Literary Festival Management Committee, but resigned to move back to the Northwest, settling in Cumberland. At one point, he described himself as too much of a northerner to be content south of the Mersey.
Neill had a lifelong interest in historical fiction, which he had always read critically, aware of its errors and believing that he could bring a fresh perspective to developing stories. This was put into practice with Mist over Pendle, published in 1951 and an immediate success, both in Britain and America where, Pendle being meaningless, the book was re-titled The Elegant Witch.
He would go on to write a total of sixteen novels over the next three decades, his final novel, The Devil’s Door, appearing in 1979.
Neill’s work is based on detailed research in original sources as to the periods in which he set his stories – frequently in periods of upheaval, or the aftermath of upheaval – when people are trying to build their lives under the shadow of events that threaten peace, in one manner or another. Being a Lancastrian, Neill sets most of his books in or around central Lancashire, and whilst he varies his time-periods, most of his work is set in the Seventeenth Century – the Stuart Century – which was far from a time of peace.
The fruits of that research are never thrust at the reader as evidence of the cleverness or thoroughness of the author. Neill is always willing to explain unfamiliar things to his readers, in the words his characters would use, but there is never the sense that research is being regurgitated because the author has spent all that time finding things out and doesn’t want to feel it would have been wasted if it isn’t shoe-horned in, nor is there ever any “As-you-know” moments, where characters tell each other what they already know for the benefit of the reader.
Instead, the knowledge is there in the descriptions of places, the things they do, and in the author’s quiet and never too detailed settings. The books are solidly grounded in what actually happened – if Neill describes a certain day as being full of rain and wind, you may be sure that he was read the parish records for that day and set his story in the weather of the time.
The books, however, always centre on the personal story of people, usually relatively young, and there is always a relationship to be forged, in one manner or another.
I first discovered Mist over Pendle in my mid-teens, in abridged form in one of those Readers Digest Book Club anthologies, in which four often wildly different novels would be compressed (or was it crushed?). I recognised the title, though from where I’ve no idea, and enjoyed the adaptation enough to want a copy of the full novel for myself, though I’m not particularly a lover of historical fiction.
In those days, indeed for most of the Seventies, Pendle and its first three sequels, together with Neill’s more recent book, Witch Bane, were commonly available as Arrow paperbacks. The intervening six novels were nothing more than intriguing titles. I bought all those available, and have my original copies still, reading his succeeding books from the library. I even managed to read the earlier, Cumberland-set, The Devil’s Weather, but it was not until the 2000s, and the advent of e Bay, that I was able to collect the now rare mid-career novels.
Given Neill’s commercial success, as much as the high standards of his work, it’s disappointing to see him slipping into obscurity. I’ve recently dug out my collection of his works and I’m proposing to read them all in publication order, for the first time, and to review each book in order. I’ve already finished Pendle, for what must be the dozenth time: it’s a fine, deep yet smooth read, and I’ll be composing my thoughts on it and posting my comments shortly.
Though those mid-period books are rare, and can be expensive to collect, there are still many of the paperbacks that can be had for very reasonable prices on Amazon or e Bay, and if you’ve any liking at all for historical fiction, you should try a couple of them.
68 thoughts on “Recognising Robert Neill: Introduction”
Just found this page. I have always been a fan of Robert Neill, and have almost all of his books, many in first edition, one signed.
It is a pity he is now almost forgotten. We need a “Robert neill’ web site!
Re, Wikipedia on Robert Neill. I noted one mistake, Golden Days was first published in 1972, not 1974 (according to my first edition). One addition Song of Sunrise became Mills of Colne in the USA.
Hello Ron, it’s great to find another fan of Robert Neill, especially one who knows more of the man than I do. I entirely agree about the web-site.
That the reason for the two names for ‘Song of Sunrise’ should be American publication comes as no surprise, and is entirely logical. After all, both ‘Mist over Pendle’ and ‘Moon in Scorpio’ were renamed for Brother Jonathan’s sensibilities, but that in itself creates a couple of issues. First, that my own copy of ‘The Mills of Colne’ is a British paperback, second, that the American titles of Pendle and Scorpio never supplanted the original titles, and most unusual, that it seems very odd that Sunrise would be given a title referring to a place not one in a million Americans would ever have heard of.
After all, this was long before the days when names and even printing were standardised for cost-effectivity world-wide, leading to the gruesome reference in one of Primo Levi’s books to ‘scalpers’.
Coincince: I’ve just been re-reading Robert Neill.
I can put up a web site, no problem. What name do you suggest, robertneill seems the obvious one, but the Mist is probably the best known book. Could we put your essays there? any copyright problems – or personal wishes. ( It would have to be something like xxx.catterall.net, xxx.oaxmex.net, or xxx.oaxweb.net )
I grew up with the understanding that Neill had been at Colne Grammar before Manchester, but I have absolutely no evidence, just local knowledge. I originate from Nelson, but left there a long time ago (1961 I think). I know he ended up living in the Lake District for many years. Local excitement when he was in Colne to write Song of Sunrise. Currently I am living in Oaxaca, Mexico for the last 18 years, so I’m rather out of touch with NE Lancashire although we do spend vacations in Ribblesdale. Some details of my life below, sorry it’s in XML, but still readable.
My literary work negligible, see http://papers.oaxmex.net
Ron Catterall gained a PhD in Chemical Physics in 1964 and a DSc in 1976. He held faculty positions in the UK and the USA and worked at the Centre Européan pour les Recherches Nucléaires (CERN,Geneva), the Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL, Grenoble), the Tri-Universities Meson Facility (TRIUMF, Vancouver) and spent sabbaticals at the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC) Daresbury Laboratory and the Atomic Energy of Canada at Chalk River, Ontario. In 1985 he changed to computing and after building and heading the Computer Centre at Sultan Qaboos University, became Head of Computer Services at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) in London for whom he built a nation-wide internet in 1988 and linked it to the Internet. In 1990 he was a founder member and President of the UK Internet Consortium, and was a member of the Executive and the Technical team building the European backbone for the Internet (EBONE) in 1991. In 1991 he founded IPNetworking Ltd in London offering Internet consultancy services to many major UK enterprises and organising the IPNetworking conferences which hosted the first Internet link to the Soviet block in 1991. he was the European member of the database design team for the Human Genome Database. In September 1993, the Joint Academic Network (JANET) in the UK finally committed to providing Internet services as their main function, and in September 1994 Ron moved to California as Director of World-Wide networking, remaining in that position until the final commercialisation of the Internet towards the end of 1995. He then retired to Oaxaca in Mexico, and built the first email and Internet provider there (Antequera Red). As a consultant he designed the networking infrastructure for the new research institutes at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and the University Hospital at CASE Western University. in 1909 Angewande Chemie published an issue commemorating his work in chemical physics on the occasion of his 72nd. birthday. Finally retiring permanently in 2001, he concentrated at last on Middle English poetry, and was President of the Oaxaca Lending Library in 2002-4. From then on he has been a member of the archaeological seminar group investigating the pre-Mayan, Zapotec origins in the Valley of Oaxaca. His wife Luz was a long time member of the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York where they still have an apartment. Children: Simon, Janet, Tim, Nikki, Katrina, and Kristina.
You have some serious advantages on me there: I wasn’t even born when Mist over Pendle was published (depending on the month of publication, Black William may have been the first to be around at the same time as me, though reading was a long way off at that moment). I’m Mancunian, through and through.
I’d love to assist you on a Robert Neill website, and I would be very happy to have the essay series form part of that. I am the copyright holder, and the cover photos that accompany each book are, with the exception of Song of Sunrise, which I don’t own in that format, the covers of the editions I own. And my error in writing, then forgetting to post Witch Bane in its proper order can be corrected!
You can contact me direct via my official e-mail address, email@example.com.
I look forward to seeing a Robert Neill website. Like many others I first read ‘Mist over Pendle’ as a teenager and was totally absorbed by it. Over the years I’ve managed to collect most of his other novels in either hardback or paperback. One I’d very much like to read again is his only Regency novel, ‘The shocking Miss Anstey’. I had it from the library decades ago but it now seems to be a very expensive rarity.
Watch this space. A Robert Neill website is a distinct possibility.
A temporary web-site is up now, try this:
http://robertneill.info (points to this page. More content still to come)
I have a very battered paperback of Anstey which I hope to be retiring soon in favour of a decent copy. I’ll be happy to donate it in due course.
Strange book: better when you get deeper into it.
I was reading Mist a few days ago and said to my husband ‘ Why do I know the name Sabden?’
‘Its where I grew up ‘ was his reply. We dropped everything and drove there. We spent the day exploring the area which was very satisfying and enjoyable. We’d been to Lancaster Castle a few weeks before where the witches trial had been talked about. My son in law who lives in Aberdeen, as did I till 3 years ago when I married my husband, found Mist in a charity shop and gave it to me. I now live in Yorkshire and am getting to know about the area so Robert Neill is a treasure. His writing is so skillful. I have loved it and shall scour the second hand and charity shops for more of him. Its been great to find like minded people.
Welcome Maggie, it’s great to add another devotee of the late Mr Neill. As you can see, I have and have reviewd the whole of Neill’s work (no-one else seemed to have done so, so why not?), and if you look at Ron Catterall’s comment above, you’ll see that the first website dedicated to Robert Neill has been established. He and I are hoping to expand upon my essays as attribute to such a compelling writer. As for further novels, many are available through eBay for very reasonable prices in paperback, but there are a half dozen mid-period novels that are likely to prove more expensive to collect. I envy you your future reading!
Thanks Martin. Having been an avid bookworm all my life I cant believe I’ve never come across Robert Neill before now. Its such a joy to discover a really good writer and I shall look forward to reading your blogg and using the new website.
You’re always welcome. I home the other reviews inspire you, and if you disagree with any of my assessments, I’ll be eager for your opinions.
Good to see Robert Neill books still being enjoyed today.
We are still here, we readers. Keep an eye on this blog: a website is being prepared, though information is hard to track down.
Ive been looking threw family photos to many go threw all i found was of Robert Neill mayor of manchester that was Robert’s great great grandfather.
Are you actually linked to Robert Neill’s family? If so, I would love to hear anything you know about him biographically. I believe I’ve identified his year of birth to a three month period, but otherwise information is almost non-existant. If you’d like to contact me direct, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Just sent email not sure if sent ok. Robert related to my husband.
Nothing immediately, but let’s give it chance. If you don’t have an acknowledgement from me by 9.00am Friday, can you try again? I’ll embed a link in the About section – should have done that ages ago.
Keswick last place of resident. My late father in law prof read all the scripts.
Great to have some real contact with the Neill family.
I have been away from the project for some days.
I just found this link to finding first editions of Robert neill’s books – there seem to be plenty, but some come rather expensive. UK site:
We got a lot of the books i dont know how many 1st edition and signed they have been split between my hubby and his brother and sister we are still sorting out my in laws house so my house upside down and where everything is at moment i went threw 1 box photos theres another 3 some where i know my late father in law got Robert’s pocket watch and thats know been given to brother in law it be while before can sort any info out.
Keeps coming up failer to send to your email address sorry martin.
I’m sorry to hear that, Linda. I can’t work out what the problem is and I’m trying to locate another address you could use. Thank you for confirming Mr Neill’s middle name, and also that he used to live in Keswick, which I know very well.
I just tried to different ways let me know if you get either of the emails ive got gmail account as well.
Having just found details of our family tree we have found that we are related to Robert Neill, Mayor of manchester, originally from Musselburgh in the early 19th century, and i think that Robert Neill the author is also a descendant. we are trying to find out further information about our family tree, could you confirm that we are correct. Also i understand he died in Keswick, is he also buried there.
Hello Simon, good to hear from you. Yes, Robert Neill the author was a great-grandson of the former Manchester Lord Mayor, and you’re correct in thinking that he died in Keswick. However, I’ve no information on where he was buried. It would be logical to assume that, having made his home there, he is probably buried there. If you’d like to contact me privately at arduous.publications47(at)gmail.com, I can provide some additional details from birth and death certificates.
Hi Simon what else do you need to know about family tree of the Neill’s and how far back have you gone.
Full name Robert Geoffrey Neill.
My first Neill was Black William, left behind by an uncle who’d been staying with us on leave from his job in Nigeria. I went on to read them all in my mid-teens. I must go back and try them again.
Very pleased to hear from you. As you’ll see, if you want to explore the site further, I’ve discussed all sixteen novels, and I’ve joined with a fellow Neill fan in a project to produce a web-site dedicated to Neill and his work. I hope there’ll be things in there to interest you further.
Ive sent you email.
Hi all Neill fans.
Wonderful to hear there will be a web page dedicated to him – I read Mist as a schoolgirl and went on to read many more of his fabulous books. Unfortunately my local library stopped stocking him then closed.
When I first tried to get them online there were very few outlets for used copies of Mist. Recently though I’ve found more on Amazon including a few more titles. Hopefully it indicates a bit of a revival!
Good luck with the website x
Hi Sharon, and welcome. It’s great to meet another enthusiast.
At the moment, things are going very slowly due to personal commitments on both our parts, but more will be added to the website as materials evolve. You’ll have seen there are reviews of all the novels on this site, which I hope helps you towards filling your collection. And if you have any thoughts or opinions you’d like to express, there’s room for all Neill fans to contribute.
Thank you for your detailed introduction which I was pleased to discover tonight. I too am at a loss to understand the lack of popularity of this excellent author. There is a time of year, when the clocks go back and winter begins to tighten it’s grip, that I find Robert Neill\’s books deep and richly satisfying. I can read his books again and again, and still smile at the dry humour which twinkles every now and then – the lovely Penny, or Cadbury the Astrologer in Moon In Scorpio and the no-nonsense Jane in Black William. The description, in Black William, of the preparation of a dinner for twelve and the gruesome tasks involved in killing, preparing and cooking the animals is graphic but matter of fact in the way that it would have been then.
In Mist over Pendle, his attitude to witches seems to me quite straightforward but in Watchband and Witchfire at Lammas, his description of them appears to be more sympathetic, especially in view of the dreadful treatment meted out to them.
What do you think?
Thank you again for providing this information, Like you I do hope that he will eventually be accorded the appreciation he deserves.
Hello Ian, always nice to talk to another appreciator of Mr Neill.
You raise an interesting question about the difference of attitude between Pendle on the one hand and Witchbane/Lammas on the other. One explanation could just be time: Witchbane was the best part of two decades, and Lammas almost three after Pendle – which was Neill’s first book. The intervening years could have caused a change of heart. On the other hand, Pendle was based upon existing and true history, and Neill is firm in that book about witches having no power save malice. Even in the fast-driven ending, the charges laid against the witches ae knowingly false, a ‘means to an end’ approach to bringing down Alice Nutter.
Witchbane comes from the point of view of a proper, respectable woman forced to undergo witch-finding activities (notably,, the novel appeared between the book and film versions of the controversial ‘Witchfinder General’. It’s not based on anything in truth, and Neill himself is at pains to point out the absence of the research he preferred. Lammas is just a poor book, at the end of an otherwise wholly respectable career. I suspect, without evidence of any kind, that Neill was under pressure, commercially, to use Witches in an attempt to recapture a cruder version of Pendle’s success, but that in the absence of a true story with some strong narrative elements, he found the witch theme unconducive and unconvincing.
Thank you so much for your reply, especially as my spellchecker decided that Robert Neill wrote a novel entitled “Watchband”. If you ever come across it, let me know how it compares to “Witchbane”……
I was surprised to read your description of “Lammas” as a poor book. For some reason I did not form an opinion about it other than I don’t re-read it, and realise that my subconscious had formed the same opinion as yours. Others, including Pendle, Moon in Scorpio, Rebel Heiress et al continue to entertain repeatedly. Even “Wonder Winter” has a slightly bizarre charm, seeming to be far more quaint because of it’s setting in living memory. Well mine anyway.
I note that you also reviewed “His Lordship” by Leslie Thomas, another largely forgotten author whose later novels I greatly enjoy re-reading, with of their compassion for the frailty of human nature.
“Chloe’s Song” and “Kensington Heights” have a sweet sadness about them which is missing from his earlier works. “His Lordship” reflects just how far our attitude towards and tolerance of sexual activity has changed, but even 40 years ago I remember finding the novel somewhat distasteful. I will see if I still have a copy, and if so, discard it. You can’t be too careful these days….
Thank you again. You may be interested to know that I live in Cumbria and like many Cumbrians, leave the Lake District to the visitors, only venturing there when we have guests staying with us. Our favourite haunts to walk and cycle are on the eastern side of the M6.
Hi again, Ian
Much as I love Neill’s work overall, it’s hard to find much that’s positively good in Lammas, especially when re-reading the ouevre in order. I won’t repeat my thoughts from the essay as they haven’t changed, but that and The Devil’s Door have the feel of ‘old men’s books, written by a practiced writer who no longer has the strength of imagination to live up to his standards.
The only Leslie Thomas books that would interest me now would be the ‘Dangerous Davies’ quartet, assuming that the three sequels are comparable to the first novel. I cannot recall if I did read the second: I certainly didn’t the later pair. However, until I can move into somewhere with vastly more library space, they’re very far down the wish list.
Cumbrian, eh? You lucky dog. I am a quarter Cumbrian on my Dad’s side, the Crookall family descending from the Robert Crookall (my Great Grandad) who was Stationmaster at Ravenglass. I’d love to live there and get at the fells whenever I chose (visitor at heart, I suppose), though I’d need somewhere with a decent Broadband connection…
I gave away Mist Over Pendle a few years ago to a young friend and, inevitably, never got it back. Following your kind responses to my messages I bought a copy. I had forgotten how well written it was, and how his sry observations kept the somewhat sinister story flowing along. So thank you for giving me the necessary shove to reacqainting myself with the best of his work.
Lucky dog living in Cumbria? Me? Well, I suppose. Here’s a few pictures I took the other day while on my cycling among the fells near Ruckroft. Nowt much to look at at all……
Ian Kellett >
Glad to hear that I’m being a good influence, I’m sure my late mother would be surprised…
Given the choice of places to be on a rainy day with nothing to see, Cumbria would still count very much higher than Manchester: I’ve had some good days in the fells when it’s been wet, as a recent post recalls.
So glad you have written this. Thank you. I too consider him one of my favourite authors. I first read Mist over Pendle when I was unceremoniously transplanted from Kent to Colne by divorcing parents who couldnt be in the same location without wishing to do serious bodily harm to each other. I spent a few years falling in love with and hating it at the same time,often on the same day. Neil describes Pendle weather perfectly, and the hill, dark brooding, satanic… oh boy he wasnt wrong, and yet, you get clear beautiful days where the sun shines and suddenly its a different world. I found Mist to be very believable as an impressionable teenager, and wrote to the bbc (points of view as it was then) to lobby them strongly several times to adapt Mist for TV. I suppose they decided to ignore my pleas as we had already recently been given Juliet Bravo instead. They missed a golden opportunity imo. I used to cycle out around the area visiting the villages and places mentioned, I climbed the hill with a cousin of mine and witnessed the astonishing vista change from sun to low cloud and rain before we reached the bottom again, and I scoured the libraries in Colne and Burnley for history, eventually finding ancestry I was unaware of, and that my own history (despite the inadvertant transplant) was woven into the area as much as any local born and bred. Although I eventually moved away, I remember the area with the fondness that time and looking back bring, and realize that deep inside me is a yearning to go back, take my own family and show them the area and hope they get it as much as I did on the first day I stood breathless from the cycling and stared straight at Alice Nutters front door and think wow… the history in the book, its here and find the same connection to the area as I did all those years ago. Truth or fiction, it all gets stranger the more and more you read of it. Neills work captured my imagination and fostered a love of those wild untamed hills and the Pendle people, lived up to the title of Salt of the Earth and still do. Its an amazing history, an amazing place and well worth visiting. I read Moon in Scorpio after that and went on to read others, sadly lost in the mists of my time, but as I jsut finished rereading Mist over Pendle two days ago, I can say in all honesty, Pendle will stay with me forever.
Thank you. It’s comments like this that make the day worth while.
Martin sorry i haven’t got back to you with any more info due to my mother in law getting worse so my husband hasn’t had time to go through things with me to confirm which letters are from Robert the Author.
I’m sorry to hear about your mother in law and I hope things improve for her and your husband. Please feel free to help when you can: the Robert Neill site has had to go on the back-burner for a while and whenever you can assist will be fine.
As a child, I delivered Mr & Mrs Neills milk, we had a dairy farm a few houses away and I still live on the farm now. They were both always very kind and during one milk delivery Robert gave me a signed copy of ‘The fire of London’ as he knew I loved to read. 🙂
After they both passed away another author bought the house. Mr Bob Langley (Pebble Mill TV)
Hello Hazel, and thank you for commenting. Details like this are always fascinating, more so for being about Keswick, which I know well. I had already started reading Mr Neill’s work before he passed away and it’s strange to think that I had been in Keswick for many years whilst he was there: I may have passed him in the street for all I’ll ever know. I’m not familiar with ‘The Fire of London’ – is this a book by Mr Neill? If it is, could you tell me more about it? Is it non-fiction?.
The book Mr Neill gave to me was written by him, it was a childs book, non-fiction and heavily illustrated with a couple of sentences below each picture. The book was maybe 30 pages, hardback, and everything on the cover was red. I can picture the book now although I no longer have it as we had a fire of our own at the farm which started in my bedroom and burned all my books. Also lost in the fire was a signed copy of a book written by Lorna Hill who lived on the opposite side of our farm to Mr & Mrs Neill.
If you have ever walked up Springs Road in Keswick you will have passed Mr Neill’s house.
Hazel, that is fascinating information. I have never come across reference to any books by Mr Neill, other than the sixteen novels. I now have a new ambition, to find a copy of this book (I don’t suppose you know if that was a one-off, or whether it was part of a series, do you?) How awful for you to lose all your books like that.
I have indeed walked up Springs Road, on a day’s walking to Bleaberry Fell and Walla Crag, though this was long after Mr Neill passed away.
Just discovered this site! I read Mist (under its American title) in my teens, mentally cast it with actors from that era, reread it at least once, and this evening began wondering whether it ever HAD been filmed. I also liked Black William (similar situation, as I recall) but was disappointed by one of his later ones, which presented a more positive view of witchcraft. (That wasn’t the reason I was disappointed; it just seemed to me not to live up to his earlier work.)
I also learned some years after reading Mist/Elegant Witch that most of its characters were historical people. Barbara Michaels’ Prince of Darkness (set in a fictitious version of Middleburg, Maryland, about an hour from where I live) refers to the Pendle witches and the Demdyke family, and I was sorry to learn even later that Jennet Device grew up to follow in the family footsteps and was hanged.
Hello Mary, nice to hear from another fan of the Master. I think that whilst the good now, and it’s certainly too subtle. The later book that’s more positive about witchery must be Witchfire at Lammas, and it certainly does fall short of Neill’s standards. There are reviews of that and Black William on the blog which go into more detail. Have fun reading them.
i am a relative of robert neill
It’s very kind of you to comment. I know very little of Mr Neill’s family and would be interested to know more from you. If you don’t wish to say more publicly, you are very welcome to contact me via the e-mail address in the About section of this blog.
I’ve come across letter Robert sent my late father in law in signed book he sent of song of sunrise from 7th November 1958.
Hello Linda. it would be wonderful to see that letter, unless it’s too personal in content. Is there any way i could get a copy of it from you?
Recently found MIst Over Pendle in a 2nd hand bookshop in Prague, Arrow edition 1969. I,ve just reached the Mill at Wheathead. Enjoying it, fine descriptions, good characters.
Glad you like it! Look out for the rest, you’ll enjoy many of those too.
I remember reading Mist Over Pendle and Song of Sunrise when I was 16 in 1963. I started as an apprentice in a small engineering firm that had a unit in one of the mills mentioned in Song of Sunrise. I was totally absorbed in both books. Brilliant
Nice to hear from you, Peter. I envy you your direct connection to one of the books’ locations. Neill was always superb at instilling a sense of place.
Here’s another fan – I was just broodling (combinatiton of browsing and doodling) because I wanted to check on the titles of all Neill’s books – I’ve recently started to re-read them and I wanted to supplemeny the half dozen or so that I have on my own shelves (well, mostly in boxes, because I haven’t enough shelf space). So I m delighted to find this site. In fact, my son-in-law is a Neill and is related to the late Robert – second cousin once removed, or something like that
A pleasure to hear from you, and yet another with a connection to the great man himself. My closest link is that i once walked past his house en route to a day’s walking near Keswick, but only after he’d left us.
The Robert Neill site is rather frozen and circumstances mean it is unlikely to be further updated, but the reviews will remain here, and at least I got the Wikipedia entry expanded a little.
Geoff Britland. Hi. I’m a Manchester lad and I was introduced to Robert Neill c 1970 when I came across “Witchbane” in the library at St John’s College. I enjoyed Witchbane immensely and the coincidentally found that my parents were reading “Mist over Pendle”. I read the latter in turn and later took my parents to visit the places mentioned in the book. Imagine my joy when I first came across the signpost to The Rough Lee! About that time I also read “The Lancashire Witches” by the Victorian author William Harrison Ainsworth (another Mancunian born at 21 King Street in 1805). The latter novel offered a fascinating contrast between it and “Mist over Pendle” but, for me, the Robert Neill book scores best.
My favourite Robert Neill novels are Mist, Moon in Scorpio and Hangman’s Cliff. I also enjoy Rebel Heiress in which there is great interplay between the characters, but I am hesitant to accept the commercial viability of an inn that apparently seeks to avoid custom! Black William is also on my shelves.
I am currently seeking a copy of “The Devil’s Weather” and will then consider my Neill collection to be complete. Although I enjoyed Anstey –once — I don’t feel any need to re read it whereas all of the abovementioned books have been read and re read and are old friends. For reasons I cannot explain, I never got on with Lillibolero or Crown and Mitre.
May I congratulate you on this site. So nice to “meet” other Robert Neill enthusiasts!
You’re welcome, Geoff, and good to hear from someone who’s visited the Pendle sites.
Interesting how we view certain books. I agree that ‘Anstey’ doesn’t repay repeated readings, though for me the only real disappointments are ‘Wonder Winter’, which chases itself down entirely the wrong story, and the final two books, which represent a drastic tailing off of quality.
Based on your preferences, I’m sure you’d enjoy ‘The Devil’s Weather’, and may I commend you to my review of it, if you haven’t already read it. It’s the only Cumbrian setting in his works, which prejudices me in its favour, but it’s very good nonetheless.
Just browsing the web for Robert Neill novels. Very interested to read the comments on here. Recently took my grandchildren to Lancaster Castle and they were fascinated with the Pendle Witches story. Prompted me to read Mist Over Pendle again some forty years after the first time. I have also still got Song of Sunrise and So Fair A House which I found fascinating at the time. They will be my next reads. Forgot how much I enjoyed his books until now.
Hello Chris, and nice to hear from you. If I’ve in any way inspired you to re-read Robert Neill, I’ll be happy. I’ve blogged all the books, but I’d rather you read your other two before hearing my opinions. If you’ve any thoughts to share, I’d love to hear them: the ‘middle six’ or so seem to have really slipped into obscurity.
I’ve just managed to buy a copy of Mist over Pendle on Kindle!! – let’s hope that this finally heralds a resurgence and the rest will also be available in the future 🙂
That’s excellent news! Kindle is an ideal, low-cost way of making available books with a small audience cheaply, and of developing that audience into something larger. Fingers crossed!
One of my favourite Robert Neill books is Song of Sunrise. The author acknowledges his debt to local historian and Colne Librarian, Wilfred Spencer, but I had not realised until last year how many of the characters in the book are based on fact. Nicholas England, Robert Shaw and Anna England were real people in Colne and feature in the parish registers of St Bartholemew.
What really surprised me as I reasearched the Robert Shaw – Anna England marriage was that Robert Neill is descended from them on his maternal grandmother’s side. Robert Shaw’s daughter Eleanor was the mother of Anna Maria Cottrill who in turn was Robert Neill’s mother.
Another surprise was to find that Robert Neill’s great-grandfather, also a Robert Neill, was a very successful building contractor in Manchester, twice Lord Mayor, built Manchester Town Hall and when he died in 1899 left a serious amount of money – over £254,000. That is nearly £31 million today.
Hi, Keith and thanks for commenting. I was aware of the link to great-grandfather Robert, and his two mayoral stints, but not that the Song of Sunrise characters really existed. It doesn’t surprise me though: the book is more a social realist history than the usual historical fiction associated with Neill, and its rooted aversion to anything remotely melodramatic is very much in keeping with maintaining respect for actual people. As you’ll see from my two reviews of this book, I don’t rate it so highly as you, but it is far from the tired disasters of Neill’s last two books.
Possibly I am biased by the fact that my maternal grandfather was born in Colne.
As you should be!
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