Today I welcome Elizabeth Gaskell on her Classics Circuit blog tour. The idea behind the Classics Circuit is to celebrate and encourage the reading of classic works. The Classics Circuit intends to do for dead authors what blog tours do for living authors. Anyone is welcome to join in, so if you feel inspired, don’t be shy, sign up! Sign up for the February Harlem Renaissance tour will start in a few weeks. Currently the Wilkie Collins tour is winding down and Gaskell will be out and about through the end of December. In January Edith Wharton will be making the rounds. You can find everything you need to know on the Classics Circuit blog.
I’ve always wanted to read Gaskell but the works of hers that I knew about were so huge I put them off and put them off. I never thought of looking up whether she had written anything short. It turns out, she has. Lois the Witch comes in at a slim 100 pages. Published in 1859 or 1861 depending on the source, it is the only one among Gaskell’s writings set entirely in America.
Gaskell was fascinated by Americans and America. She had several American friends and correspondents. She thought of America as being a wild and mysterious place even though many of her friends lived in very civilized Boston. In spite of her interest in America she never did set foot there. This fact did not mattr when it came to writing Lois the Witch, however. Gaskell did her research.
The novella is the story of Lois Barclay, eighteen and recently orphaned. She has no family left in England. On her deathbed, Lois’s mother entreats her to go to her uncle in America. A letter is written and after her mother’s death, Lois sets sail to strange shores. But, it is Lois’s misfortune to arrive in Salem, Massachusetts a few months before the Salem witch craze strikes.
She presents herself at her uncle’s house only to find that he is on his deathbed. He leaves behind a wife, Grace Hickson, and three children. The eldest, a son named Manasseh, a girl, Faith, the same age as Lois, and a another girl, Prudence age twelve. They are a righteously Puritan family who don’t look kindly on Lois’s “Popish ways.” Lois is taken in by the Hicksons but never exactly welcome.
In spite of the lack of hospitality and family feeling, Lois does her best to fit in. She is a good, kind girl who does what she is told and contributes to the running of the household. No one can say a bad word against her until accusations of witchcraft break out.
I don’t know what Gaskell’s sources on the Salem witch trials were, but her accounting of the 1692 trials is accurate. Except for Cotton Mather she changes the names of those involved and takes some liberty with the story but adheres closely to the events.
The only thing I didn’t like about the story is the narrator breaking into it from time to time. She does so as a way to move the story forward through narrative summary instead of through writing out the events. The narrator also breaks in to remind and explain to the reader that these events happened long ago and that even England accused and killed people for being witches at one time. It seemed when she did this that she was also defending America from being labeled superstitious and backwards. Aside from these narrative interruptions, the story is enjoyable and, I think, a good, and short, introduction to Gaskell.
Information on Gaskell and America comes from an article entitled “Alligators infesting the stream: Elizabeth Gaskell and the USA” by Alan Shelston