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As a lover of classic literature as well as European and early American history, I was recently drawn to Elizabeth Gaskell’s novella, Lois the Witch, as part of her wonderful collection of spooky stories, Gothic Tales.
It is the most haunting and powerful work of fiction I’ve ever read.
This novella begins in late 1691, just prior to the outbreak of the Salem witch hysteria.
It follows the tale of the teenage Lois Barclay, who travels from England to Salem, Massachusetts following the death of her parents. This is a taxing journey for Lois, who leaves behind a wealthy young man who wishes to marry her but whose family does not believes poverty-stricken Lois is a proper match for their son.
In Salem, where she comes to live with her uncle’s family, the Hicksons, she encounters a very strange world.
The paranoia which grips Salem, and later proves fertile ground for the madness which would trigger with the witch trials, leaps off the page quite early in the novella. The Puritans are intensely religious, but their faith is devoid of love and compassion. The inhabitants of the town are terrified by the Native Americans, who “lurk in the wilderness” surrounding them. The townspeople are convinced that the Native Americans dabble in the dark arts, or witchcraft.
The relatives with whom poor Lois comes to reside hold equally bizarre notions. Her first cousin Manasseh Hickson, the darling only son of the family, falls deeply in love with Lois. Almost immediately, he begins to harass her to marry him, claiming that it’s “God’s will” that they marry. Lois, clinging to her lost love back in England, spurns his advances repeatedly.
Though Lois strives to endear herself to her aunt and two adolescent female cousins, her attempts fall flat. They are consumed by jealousy of Lois’s sophistication and beauty – and baffled by her unfamiliar English ways. Instead, Lois bonds with the family’s Native American servant, Nattee.
In this setting, paranoia erupts in February 1692 as witch fever takes hold.
The novella demonstrates the many reasons why the townspeople accused their neighbors – including jealousy and unsettled grievances. Sadly, it also demonstrates that many accusations were made simply to draw attention to oneself.
***Warning (Spoilers ahead!)
In this manner, Lois is swept up into the madness. Prudence, her youngest female cousin, eager for the widespread attention which leveling an accusation often brought, charges her with witchcraft.
It is clear that Lois herself is not immune to these delusions. After her accusation, she worries constantly that she, unbeknownst to herself, is actually a witch. Only Manasseh, who is struggling with mental illness, defends her – all in vain. It is furthermore clear that those who defend the accused themselves ran the risk of being charged with witchcraft.
Lois is tried, found guilty, and sentenced to hanging. The Hicksons’ Native American servant, Nattee, is similarly accused and sentenced. They comfort one another in the jail, on the eve of their executions. This is one of the most touching – one of many! – parts of the work:
“When all was quiet through the prison, in the deep dead midnight, the gaoler outside the door heard Lois telling, as if to a young child, the marvelous and sorrowful story of one who died on the cross for us and for our sakes. As long as she spoke, the Indian woman’s terror seemed lulled; but the instant she paused, for weariness, Nattee cried out afresh, as if some wild beast were following her close through the dense forests in which she had dwelt in her youth. And then Lois went on, saying all the blessed words she could remember, and comforting the helpless Indian woman with the sense of the presence of a Heavenly Friend. And in comforting her, Lois was comforted; in strengthening her, Lois was strengthened.”
Lois and Nattee are executed.
In tragic irony, Lois’s lost love from England sails to Salem in the spring in order to claim her as his bride. There, he learns the devastating truth as follows:
“The people of Salem had awakened from their frightful delusion before the autumn, when Captain Holdernesse and Ralph Lucy came to find out Lois, and bring her home to peaceful Barford, in the pleasant country of England. Instead, they led them to the grassy grave where she lay at rest, done to death by mistaken men. Ralph Lucy shook the dust off his feet in quitting Salem, with a heavy, heavy heart; and lived a bachelor all his life long for her sake.”
The final pages of the novella detail how the people of Salem later publicly and bitterly repented of their violence toward the victims, including Lois, although it was too late.
Thoughts and Lessons
1) This powerful work is not about witchcraft or the supernatural; instead, it demonstrates that true evil lies in what humans do to one another.
2) There is a good reason for separation of church and state. It is said that the Salem Witch trials laid the foundation for this vital tenet of our American government and buried Puritan theocracy.
3) Beware mob rule and groupthink. No matter how noble the cause they champion, the proverbial “mob” has several common features – paranoia, propensity to violence, and eager to strip away rights from their fellow citizens. Lois falls victim to this “mob,” as have many other poor souls throughout history. Individuals with differing opinions should be respected; the alternative is frightening.
4) Any entity which begins restricting basic rights – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, right to a fair trial, etc. – must be regarded with utmost alarm. Lois the Witch reveals what happens when these basic safeguards to society are removed.
5) Religion without love is worthless and dangerous. As a Christian myself, I’m reminded of James 2: 14-17: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
6) Think before you speak or act. You find a frightening, reactionary world within the pages of Lois the Witch, where people swiftly accuse and respond with violence. Instead of reacting with rage to a given provocation, go to a quiet place. Read. Meditate. Pray. Do not act immediately, as you might regret your actions, like the accusers of the Salem “witches” eventually did.
7) Remember that every human being is someone’s child. A dear friend gave me this advice years ago, and it has remained with me. Lois’s memories of her idyllic childhood, which return quickly once she is accused, constitute perhaps the most poignant part of the novel. She yearns for an innocent time, when she was dearly loved and not viewed with suspicion and hatred. Like the Native Americans, she is an outsider, which is her greatest sin in the eyes of the Puritans.
If you would like to read Lois the Witch – which I highly, highly recommend! – you can purchase it on Amazon as part of Elizabeth Gaskell’s story collection, Gothic Tales (link below).
If you are interested in the later colonial period as well, you might check out my Revolutionary War novel, Cadence to Glory.