The novella Lois the Witch (1859) is a fictionalised account of the Salem witch hunt, as well as a sharp meditation on the thin line between virtue and sin.
The story revolves around the eighteen-year-old Lois Barclay, a recently orphaned English Anglican girl who travels all the way to Salem, Massachusetts, in search of her uncle’s family. The Hicksons are her sole living relations: Grace, her uncle’s wife, is a strict Puritan; Faith, her eldest daughter, is an agnostic who has a crush on the curate; Prudence, the youngest, is a mischievous, attention-seeking girl; and, finally, Manasseh, Grace’s only son, is mentally disturbed. To make matters worse, Lois’s uncle is in his deathbed. It is 1691, and the newcomer will become mistakenly involved in the Salem witch trials.
The highlight of the novella, for me, was its tense, claustrophobic atmosphere. From the very beginning, we feel a sense of dread that keeps escalating, building on itself, until the final breakdown of everything that kept both the Hickson family and the Salem community together. When Lois arrives, the community is already on its tipping point: fractured over the choice for a religious leader between Pastor Tappau and the younger pastor Nolan, and recently depleted of its elders, who have all died within a short period, the community seems to have lost its moral compass. Worse still, they seem to be living in constant fear of the surrounding wildness – the forests, the animals, and also the indigenous people.
Repressed by a restrictive culture, and haunted by a pervasive sense of evil, the members of this community could never build any form of meaningful connections with each other. On the contrary, they seem to live in a constant atmosphere of mistrust and competition against one another. Morality, for these people, is not a sense of what is intrinsically right, but only a vague idea of what prevents one from standing out from the rest. It’s no surprise, then, that, when the accusations of witchcraft finally break out, the citizens’ squabbles resurface, and everyone is turned out against each other: the community implodes from inside out, totally overcome by hysteria, anger, and fear.
This repressive atmosphere is also mirrored in the Hickson family dynamics: Faith, Prudence and Manasseh seem to be leading completely parallel lives, disconnected from each other. To make matters worse, Lois’s genuine efforts of affection find no resonance within her family: on the contrary, because she is different from everybody else, the newcomer becomes the recipient of each of the family members’ fears and frustrations. Everything that Lois is finds its antithesis in each of her relatives: because the girl is genuinely pious and pure, she is a mirror for Grace’s own meanness and spiritual superficiality; because Lois is vivacious and warm, she is a mirror for Manasseh’s repressed sexuality, as well as for his profound mental problems; because Lois is different, she robs Prudence of the attention she is constantly seeking; and, finally, because Lois is desired by Pastor Nolan, she becomes a repository for Faith’s jealousy and unrequited love.
Seeking attention, and fuelled by Faith’s jealousy toward her cousin, Prudence accuses Lois of witchcraft. To make matters worse, Manasseh insists that he can hear a voice telling him to marry the newcomer – and, terrified that the community might find out that her son is mad, Grace ends up further accusing Lois of having bewitched him. As an outsider, Lois is the perfect scapegoat both for a family of lunatics as for this disintegrating community: both are desperately seeking for an external reason for their internal problems.
I also enjoyed the way Salem’s hysteria mirrored the family internal dynamics: Manasseh’s madness seems to have taken hold of the entire community. We have a madman at the head of the Hickson family; likewise, we have hysterical male authorities in charge of the massive persecution of innocent women in the community. Rather than natural for women, hysteria and madness here seem to be the symptoms of unquestioned male domination.
Your choice to make Lois believe in witchcraft further enhances the tension in the story: condemned by the local ministers, the girl starts to wonder if she is really a witch. She loses her sense of self, and starts to disconnect from reality and to enter the fiction created by the people around her. Lois’ downfall into hysteria is then suddenly prevented by her fleeting contact back with reality: she feels her ankle, bruised by the leg iron. The physicality of pain enables her to see truth again: she is no witch, just a human being, trapped in a cell by someone else’s madness. She goes further still, and overcomes her personal fear of witches, by taking care of and trying to comfort another innocent woman who had been accused and thrown into her cell.
Moreover, Lois refuses to lie to save her life, and thereby condemns of sin the very men who are prosecuting her: “Sirs, I must choose death with a quiet conscience, rather than life to be gained by a lie. I am not a witch. I know not hardly what you mean when you say I am. I have done many, many things very wrong in my life, but I think God will forgive me for them for my Saviour’s sake“. She protects herself from the sin suggested to her by the very people who thought themselves pure; and she does so, by remaining true to a spirituality they profess to be protecting, when in reality they are not.
One of the most beautiful scenes on the book is the one immediately before Lois death: her last word is a cry for ‘Mother!’. Her cry is the final indictment of those who have falsely accused and prosecuted her: she is pleading for the maternal love and compassion no one was able to give her in the end. Only then, when it is already too late, the members of community realize their mistake – and thereby their sin: Lois’ cry is their wake-up call. Only then, they are awakened to their responsibility: hysteria ceases, and they become finally silent.
Lois was the lamb offered in sacrifice for the sins of others. The purest, kindest member of the community was not accepted in its midst because the community itself was neither pure nor kind. They have put to death precisely that which in them could have saved everybody.
“I never heard much about it, for my father said it was ill talking about such things; I only know I got a sick fright one afternoon, when the maid had gone out for milk and had taken me with her, and we were passing a meadow where the Avon, circling, makes a deep round pool, and there was a crowd of folk, all still — and a still, breathless crowd makes the heart beat worse than a shouting, noisy one. They were all gazing towards the water, and the maid held me up in her arms to see the sight above the shoulders of the people; and I saw old Hannah in the water, her grey hair all streaming down her shoulders, and her face bloody and black with the stones and the mud they had been throwing at her, and her cat tied round her neck. I hid my face, I know, as soon as I saw the fearsome sight, for her eyes met mine as they were glaring with fury — poor, helpless, baited creature! — and she caught the sight of me, and cried out, “Parson’s wench, parson’s wench, yonder, in thy nurse’s arms, thy dad hath never tried for to save me, and none shall save thee when thou art brought up for a witch.” Oh! the words rang in my ears, when I was dropping asleep, for years after. I used to dream that I was in that pond, all men hating me with their eyes because I was a witch; and, at times, her black cat used to seem living again, and say over those dreadful words.’” – Elizabeth Gaskell, Lois the Witch
“‘They might be godly men who left their churches on that day of which you speak, madam; but they alone were not the godly men, and no one has a right to limit true godliness for mere opinion’s sake.’” – Elizabeth Gaskell, Lois the Witch
‘I like the prayers of our Church better,’ said Lois, one day to Faith. ‘No clergyman in England can pray his own words, and therefore it is that he cannot judge of others so as to fit his prayers to what he esteems to be their case, as Mr. Tappau did this morning.’ – Elizabeth Gaskell, Lois the Witch
‘The voice said unto me “Marry Lois,” and I said, “I will, Lord.”’
‘But,’ Lois replied, ‘the voice, as you call it, has never spoken such a word to me.’
‘Lois,’ he answered, solemnly, ‘it will speak. And then wilt thou obey, even as Samuel did?’
‘No, indeed I cannot!’ she answered, briskly. ‘I may take a dream to be truth, and hear my own fancies, if I think about them too long. But I cannot marry any one from obedience.’ – Elizabeth Gaskell, Lois the Witch
‘The sin of witchcraft.’ We read about it, we look on it from the outside; but we can hardly realize the terror it induced. Every impulsive or unaccustomed action, every little nervous affection, every ache or pain was noticed, not merely by those around the sufferer, but by the person himself, whoever he might be, that was acting, or being acted upon, in any but the most simple and ordinary manner. He or she (for it was most frequently a woman or girl that was the supposed subject) felt a desire for some unusual kind of food — some unusual motion or rest her hand twitched, her foot was asleep, or her leg had the cramp; and the dreadful question immediately suggested itself, ‘Is any one possessing an evil power over me, by the help of Satan?’ and perhaps they went on to think, ‘It is bad enough to feel that my body can be made to suffer through the power of some unknown evil-wisher to me, but what if Satan gives them still further power, and they can touch my soul, and inspire me with loathful thoughts leading me into crimes which at present I abhor?’ and so on, till the very dread of what might happen, and the constant dwelling of the thoughts, even with horror, upon certain possibilities, or what were esteemed such, really brought about the corruption of imagination at least, which at first they had shuddered at. Moreover, there was a sort of uncertainty as to who might be infected — not unlike the overpowering dread of the plague, which made some shrink from their best-beloved with irrepressible fear. The brother or sister, who was the dearest friend of their childhood and youth, might now be bound in some mysterious deadly pact with evil spirits of the most horrible kind — who could tell? (…) There were others who, to these more simple, if more ignorant, feelings of horror at witches and witchcraft, added the desire, conscious or unconscious, of revenge on those whose conduct had been in any way displeasing to them. (…) Then, again, the accused themselves ministered to the horrible panic abroad. Some, in dread of death, confessed from cowardice to the imaginary crimes of which they were accused, and of which they were promised a pardon on confession. Some, weak and terrified, came honestly to believe in their own guilt, through the diseases of imagination which were sure to be engendered at such a time as this. – Elizabeth Gaskell, Lois the Witch
No! she never could fly out of that deep dungeon; there was no escape, natural or supernatural, for her, unless by man’s mercy. And what was man’s mercy in such times of panic? Lois knew that it was nothing; instinct more than reason taught her, that panic calls out cowardice, and cowardice cruelty. – Elizabeth Gaskell, Lois the Witch
About the book
- Penguin Books, 2008, 256 p. Goodreads
- The collection was originally published in 1861
- The novella, included in this collection, is 124 pages long, and was originally published in three parts, in October 1859, in the weekly All the Year Round, edited by Charles Dickens
- My rating: 4 stars
- I read this book for R.I.P. – R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril and Victober (Ange’s challenge: Read a book by one of the hosts’ favourite Victorian authors)