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Films on the to-do list

  • Armageddon Time
  • Black Widow
  • Chimes at Midnight
  • The Killing of a Sacred Deer
  • Last Christmas
  • Remember Sunday
  • Shazam! 2
  • Thor: Love and Thunder
  • Spy Guys

Lois the Witch by Elizabeth Gaskell (1861)

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.


An easily distracted and over-excited introvert who never learns to go to bed at a reasonable time. Enjoys traveling (when there's not a plague on), and taking photos of European architecture. Cares for cats, good coffee and Boardwalk Empire. A child of her time, she did media studies in school and still can't decide what she wants to be when she grows up.

10 thoughts on “Lois the Witch by Elizabeth Gaskell (1861)

  1. LOL, of course there were backsliding Puritans. In fact, some historians have argued that one of the dynamics of the Salem Trials related to conflicts between progressive and less progressive elements of the church. The Salem villagers were caught in an economic and political subordination to the people of Salem town (a port community), and may have lived out their aggressions about this situation via witch trials. It also didn’t help that Massachusetts colony was in a practical interregnum at the time due to the Glorious Revolution, which meant that the entire colonial government had to be replaced.

    For a good introduction and overview to the many theories about the causes of this incident, along with lots of useful documentation, I recommend Richard Godbeer, The Salem Witch Trials: A Brief History with Documents. It also explodes many of the popular myths about the incident. If you would like greater access to the documents I recommend the documentary works of the recently deceased Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, along with Boyer’s monograph, Salem Possessed. His is not the definitive account but is the one with which all challengers have to reckon.

  2. > Lois is a nice girl who has the misfortune of ending up with a family of lunatics who also happen to be pious Puritans.

    Great summary!

    I read this a few years ago and found it very interesting but so unrelentingly grim that I doubt I will be rereading it anytime soon.

    1. Not to say all pious Puritans were lunatics, although … they did think a whole lot of things were sinful, like Christmas …

      Yeah, I read it with an ever-increasing sense of dread for Lois. The ending was particularly heartbreaking. Just wish she had thought “I’m not having this! Bleedin’ nutters the lot of ’em!” and gone back to England!

  3. i guess we’ve always had ‘puritans’ in one form or the other – people who insist on everyone to behave as they do or at least as they want you to. then persecute when you don’t. religion, politics, fashion, class – to maybe name a few.
    and you’re right – sounds like “a great history lesson” if only we’d all learn from our lessons.
    helplessly knowing that this behavior exists in reality i would need a good ending to read this book – something like “I’m not having this! Bleedin’ nutters the lot of ’em!”

    1. Yeah, it doesn’t have that. I kept hoping there would be a positive ending and realised it was not to be. I didn’t expect the twist at the end, though. That was painful. 🙁

  4. i’ve gotten into the habit of reading the end of a book before deciding to read it, and if someone will reveal the end of a movie ditto…my treshold for pain(-ful ends) is too tiny(:D)

    1. Honestly, I’m not sure reading the end would fully make you aware of how sad the ending is, but reading the first few pages as well should explain it, as that puts a character into perspective.

      Speaking of films, I’ve just seen “Love Comes Softly”. It ended exactly how I expected and wanted it to, and it was a good ending too. 🙂

  5. that’s true but knowing that there is a sad/hopeless end is enough to keep this crybaby away.
    loved “Love Comes Softly”. watched it a while back but i still get a warm fuzzy feeling from what i remember.

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