Lois the Witch by Elizabeth Gaskell. Foreword by Jenny Uglow. Highly recommended.
The well-educated wife of a Unitarian minister in Victorian Manchester, Elizabeth Gaskell must have understood the dangers of misused Christianity and religious intolerance in a closed community. In Lois the Witch, uncertainty surrounds Salem — deep forests, wild animals, and Indians who are thought to be savage pawns of Satan. In the midst of that untamed wilderness is a town full of people trying to be what they believe to be godly, each of whom lives in fear that he or she may not be among the chosen, the predestined of God.
Into this repressed, volatile setting arrives Lois Barclay, a young, attractive, pious English Anglican whose parents have died and who has come to live with her Puritan uncle and his family. Lois is different from her new family in every way. While she is warm, affectionate, empathetic, and genuinely and effortlessly godly, she soon discovers that her aunt is cold and proud (“Godly Mr Cotton Mather hath said that even he might learn of me; and I would advise thee rather to humble thyself”). Her older daughter, misnamed Faith, for she is agnostic, is both obsessive and unexpressive, and her younger daughter, misnamed Prudence, is sadistic and vicious. More disturbingly, her son, in his early twenties and unmarried, sees visions and hears voices, and not surprisingly, focuses his long-repressed sexuality on the gentle, attractive newcomer.
Haplessly, Lois becomes the focal point for this family’s frustrations, fears, desires, jealousies, and, finally, hatred. She, like many of the “witches,” is a victim of being different in a conformist society that is both filled with unfulfilled desires and afraid of the unknown.
In Gaskell’s Salem, selfishness is rife. Lois’s uncle “cried like a child, rather at his own loss of a sister whom he had not seen for more than twenty years, than at that of the orphan’s [sic] standing before him, trying hard not to cry . . .” The son, Manasseh, is interested only in his own visions and “his own sick soul,” while Prudence “only seemed excited to greater mischief” by the attention generated by her cruelties. This selfishness seems to be the natural result of a belief system in which the fate of one’s soul is painfully uncertain and in which one is surrounded by evil. Selfishness and a desperate sense of self-preservation help to explain the moral blindness and the inability to look objectively within as the accusations start to flow and are willingly, almost eagerly, accepted as fact.
Sexual repression leads to fascination with the very subject. When Lois goes to the common pasture (on the edge of the forest where evil dwells), her thought is of a story in which a double-headed snake, “in the service of the Indian wizards,” lures white maidens “to seek out some Indian man, and must beg to be taken into his wigwam, abjuring faith and race forever.” To the white maidens of Gaskell’s Salem, such tales hold terror and promise.
In the 86 pages of Lois the Witch, Gaskell succinctly sets the stage, defines the characters and the critical relationships, and shows how every innocent act and word are used against the bewildered Lois, whose fear is that she will have to share her cell with a real witch — because she too succumbs to the general paranoia. Selfish to the end, her aunt “summoned her to meet her at the judgement-seat, and answer for this deadly injury done to both souls and bodies of those who had taken her in, and received her when she came to them an orphan and a stranger.” Ironically, it is the selfless Lois, who left England so she would not be the cause of a quarrel between her lover and his wealthy father, who, like Christ, pays the price for the sins of others.
Gaskell has taken a complex sociological matter, the Salem witch trials, and humanized it. This is a tiny gem of a story that leaves a deep impression.
29 July 2007
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf