Novella review: Lois the Witch by Elizabeth Gaskell (1861)
It’s 1691 and the orphaned Lois Barclay travels to live with her uncle and his family in the New World. When she finally arrives in Salem (here’s where I went “oh … I see where you’re going with this”), her uncle is on his death bed. Still, her aunt and cousins take her in. Perhaps it would have been better for Lois to travel back to England and take her chances, but … alas.
Her aunt is a devout church-goer who loves to have the local preacher over ever so often. The cousins range from the older daughter, Faith, to the only son, Manasseh, and a girl of 12, Prudence. As Lois soon finds out they’re not her friends – or her allies.
Faith mopes about because she had a crush on the curate, who then left town for various reasons. When he returns, Faith thinks Lois is a rival, even though anything she might have done has been to encourage the young priest (who is none the wiser to Faith’s fervent interest) to fall in love with Faith.
Manasseh takes a shine to Lois and insists the Lord is talking to him, and the Lord says that he must take Lois as a wife. Lois is, understandably, creeped out by this and wants nothing to do with him, but he’s very insistent. Because of course he is.
Young Prudence is simply an unpleasant little shit who enjoys being spiteful for the sake of being spiteful and horrible to everyone.
When there’s talk of witches, with the way the cousins are acting, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the ball starts rolling and Lois gets caught in its way. And that’s not a spoiler, considering the title is “Lois the Witch”, which rather does give away what’s going to happen.
That’s right, Elizabeth Gaskell shows us her take on the Salem witch trials, in which a lot of people were convicted and executed for practising witchcraft. Mass hysteria, we call it these days. Once one person got accused of being a witch, others soon followed. For Lois, you can imagine how it ends.
While there was a lot of “as it were” in the text, Gaskell paints a vivid picture of the 1690s settlers and how they lived their lives. It’s fascinating from a historical point of view, and it’s chilling. Once I read “Salem” in the text it was a red flag. Oh gosh, she was going to tackle the Salem witch trials. I don’t know a lot about them, but I have read a lot about the witch craze in Sweden, which were at their height ca 1660-1670. Not a pleasant read.
Lois the Witch gives us a glimpse of what the Salem witch craze was like. If you didn’t realise what the witch craze that swept across Europe in the 1600s were about, and how easy it was for people to get accused – and executed – this puts everything into perspective. Lois is a nice girl who has the misfortune of ending up with a family of lunatics who also happen to be pious Puritans. (Not that there was any other kind, from what I’ve learned on Horrible Histories.)
It’s a great history lesson. I can’t say for sure, but I think Gaskell has done her homework and if it’s not 100% historically accurate, I’d be surprised. It feels very genuine. A great read, even though my dread kept on escalating all the way until the climax of the story. Don’t expect a happy ending – in fact, the ending was unhappier than I expected, and that’s saying something.
But wow, what a writer Elizabeth Gaskell was. I need to read more.
4.9 out of 5 pyres.