Elisabeth Gaskell, Lois the Witch and other stories (1861)

I was attracted to this small Penguin paperback during summer in a medieval town in Czech republic, and it was sold as a scary Gothic tale with a day-glo cover, in the classic horror and ghost stories collection, hinting at Satanism. I’m sure this sent Gaskell spinning in her grave: both the cover art and this categorization are misleading in my opinion, because Lois the witch is nothing else but the fictionalized account of the famous Salem trials in the 17th century, and a very reasonable and subtle one.

If you had to put it in a clear-cut category at all, I would rather select “psychological thriller” or even “courtroom drama” (even if the trials themselves were short – meaning botched). You could nearly see Gaskell as a defence counsel, trying to explain how a Puritan family (and community) turned to fanaticism and hysteria, for very good reasons, a mix of pride, selfishness and close-mindedness. The interesting point is that her heroin Lois is a pure, warm, affectionate English girl (not to mention Anglican and loyal to the King) who came upon her parents’ death to her uncle in a cold, repressed, fearful Puritan village in America. I was afraid this might turn into the righteous opposition between Victorian England as the superior, civilized centre of the world and the savage, backwards rest of the world. But I learnt through Stefanie at So many books that Gaskell loved America (although she never travelled there) and her opposition is not black-and-white: she intervenes in the plot to remind the reader that in England too superstition was rife.

I must add that I wasn’t totally enthralled by this collection. In Lois the Witch there was a kind of abrupt clash between a realist, detached (I’d even say modern) tone of analysis and a typically Victorian sentimental (shall I say overboard) picture of the pure heroin. The other stories didn’t work very well for me either: “The poor Clare” was rather on the Gothic side (using Catholic imagery, doppelganger and curses), but the supernatural elements were not very effective amidst a jumble of melodramatic events.

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4 thoughts on “Elisabeth Gaskell, Lois the Witch and other stories (1861)

  1. I think I might have this on my Kindle. I know I downloaded some of Gaskell’s work. I need to check it out. The Salem witch trials have always held a fascination for me. I need to run downstairs and grab my Kindle.

  2. I read this as a single novella on my Kindle and not attached to any other stories. I enjoyed it but didn’t like the intrusive narrator. I intended to read more Gaskell after that but it didn’t happen. I’ll get to another of her books eventually.

    • It’s not her best unfortunately. If you want to try another, I’d warmly recommend North and South, it’s quite different but a brilliant romantic page-turner (and no intrusive narrator as far as I can recall)

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