The Writing on the Hearth

Style: Good

Attitude: Positive

In Brief: Edifying and interesting historical read. Some ambiguous elements of witchcraft.

Cover of The Writing on the Hearth

Author: Cynthia Harnett

Publisher: Puffin

Published in: 1971

Age Range: Pre Teens+

Period: 15th C

Genres:  ClassicFamilyHistorical


  • Stephen is a boy whose mother and father are dead and who is sponsored by the local Lord once his sister is in a convent.
  • Meg is an old woman who lives up in the woods. She is kind and good at healing, but seems involved in some kind of witchcraft, claiming she can see the future in a pool of water.
  • Dame Alice is the wife of the Lord of Suffolk and it is principally she who persuades her husband to take Stephen on, partly in memory of the service his father had offered his Lord.


Stephen, whose father was bodyguard to his Lord of Suffolk, is under taken into the Lord's household when his stepfather remarries and his sister enters a convent. Stephen is keen to learn and to enter the University at Oxford under the patronage of his Lordship's chaplain, but he becomes embroiled in some mild political intrigue when he believes he has let a copy of an indiscreet letter fall into the hands of his Lordship's enemies.


As with most of Cynthia Harnett's books, there is edification galore in this 15th century story. The thinnest of plots is merely a line on which to hang a wealth of historical detail about the politics and the day-to-day circumstances of the years around 1440.The author's clear purpose, stated several times in the book, is that people — and in particular Stephen — learn to sift Good from Evil. And she uses the device of possibly witchcraft, dealing with the devil, to force her characters to consider such things. Although sensible points of view are held by those people in the story to whom we look for wisdom, it's the tiniest bit unclear at the end what we are supposed to believe about Meg, the old woman in the woods who seems to see the future in a pool of water.

Sunday 31st July 2005