Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Lois the Witch” was first published in three serialized parts in October 1859 in the weekly All the Year Round, edited by Charles Dickens. It was eventually published in Gaskell’s collection of five stories, titled Lois the Witch and Other Tales, in 1861.

Gaskell became a regular contributor to Dickens’s projects starting in 1848, after her rise to popularity due to the publication of her novel Mary Barton. 

Plot Summary

Lois Barclay is raised in a parsonage in Barford, Warwickshire until both her parents die. At this point she is a young woman who holds a marriage proposal secret due to the fact that her lover’s (Hugh Lucy) parents feel she is too low class for their son to marry. As her parents wished, Lois embarks on a journey across the Atlantic Ocean to live with her uncle, Ralph Hickson in Salem, Massachusetts. Unfortunately for Lois, by the time she arrives, her uncle is on his death bed. Once he dies, she is taken in by her Aunt Grace Hickson (who immediately dislikes Lois and her added burden on the family) and joins Grace’s children: the only son Manasseh, and two daughters, Faith (the elder) and Prudence. One night, Prudence claims that Lois was practicing witchcraft, however, Lois was simply describing “innocent divination” practiced by all young women in England. She told this story as a way to improve Faith’s spirits regarding her unreturned love of Mr. Nolan, a local pastor. The backdrop of Lois’s story includes the start of the Salem Witch Trials, which, in the case of this story, begins with the sentencing and execution of Hota, the Indian woman and servant convicted of being a witch. Lois is eventually accused by Prudence, who seems to enjoy the attention and power of being a victim of witchcraft. Additionally, Faith, who believes that Lois stole Mr. Nolan’s affections away from herself, jealously affirms Prudence’s accusations. Grace doesn’t believe that Lois is a witch until she considers Manasseh’s position in the Salem community: he is known to have moments of madness and he claims to hear godly voices urging him to marry Lois. If the town believes that Lois bewitched Manasseh into loving her and cursed him with moments of madness, then he could still rise to greatness. Lois is placed in a cell and given time to confess, which she refuses to do, since that would be a lie. Lois is executed mere months before Hugh Lucy arrives from England to bring her back home.

Notes & Quotes

  • There are multiple moments where Gaskell’s narrator stops the narrative of the story to directly speak to her 19th century British audience. She insists that the fear and superstition that fueled the Salem Witch Trials is not some distant American issue, but instead something that is also deeply connected to England’s past. She simultaneously works to make sure her reader completely sympathizes with and understands Lois’s plight, despite the distance of time and culture.

We can afford to smile at them now; but our English ancestors entertained superstitions of much the same character at the same period, and with less excuse, as the circumstances surrounding them were better known, and consequently more explicable by commons sense, than the real mysteries of the deep, untrodden forests of New England.

The Sin ofWitchcraft. We read about it, we look on it from the outside; but we can hardly realize the terror it induced

And you must remember, you who in the nineteenth century read this account, that witchcraft was a real terrible sin to her, Lois Barclay, two hundred years ago. The look on their faces, stamped on heart and brain, excited in her a sort of strange sympathy.

  • I was really surprised to find expression of the American ecogothic in this text. Of course, her story is set in Salem, Massachusetts, so perhaps I should’ve expected its presence, but because of her status as a British writer, I didn’t think she would enter the subject in this particular mode. I was incredibly wrong, however, because it seems that the wild and (supposedly) uncharted terrain of the New England forests was a major focus of Gaskell’s as well as a major source of the dread in this story. In The American Slave Narrative and the Victorian Novel, Julia Sun-Joo Lee describes Gaskell’s belief that the American landscape would be wildly stranger and more different from the British landscape, and her ultimate disappointment in finding its similarities. She must have read some early American (gothic) writers, maybe even some early American puritan sermons, based on her understanding of American nature. I would love to research this some day… Below are some instances of her use of the American ecogothic mode:

It seemed as strange now to be on solid earth as it had been, not long ago, to be rocked by the sea both by day and by night; and the aspect of the land was equally strange. The forests which showed in the distance all around, and which, in truth, were not very far from the wooden houses forming the town of Boston, were of different shades of green, and different, too, in shape of outline to those which Lois Barclay knew well…

…But it is true that it is not safe to go far into the woods, for fear of the lurking painted savages; nor has it been safe to build a dwelling far from a settlement; and it takes a brave heart to make a journey from one town to another; and folk do say the Indian creatures rise up out of the very ground to waylay the English! and then others affirm they are all in league with Satan to affright the Christians out of the heathen country, over which he has reigned so long…

…but once or twice she had caught glimpses of the dreary, dark wood, hemming in the cleared land on all sides–the great wood with its perpetual movement of branch and bough, and its solemn wail, that came into the very streets of Salem when certain winds blew, bearing the sound of the pine-trees clear upon the ears that had leisure to listen. And, from all accounts, this old forest, girdling round the settlement, was full of dreaded and mysterious beasts, and still more to be dreaded Indians, stealing in and out among the shadows, intent on bloody schemes against the Christian people: panther-streaked, shaven Indians, in league by their own confession, as well as by the popular belief, with evil powers.

  • As may be obvious already to anyone who has read the above passages, one aspect of the American gothic which Gaskell uses is the alignment between the American Indian and American nature. At one point in the story, Lois hears a dreadful tale of a New England household almost put under attack by Indians. What’s most interesting to me about this anecdote is the fact that the Indians become almost inseparable from the New England wood:

‘…and, mother, don’t you remember how Hannah Benson told us how her husband had cut down every tree near his house at Deerbrook, in order that no one might come near him, under cover; and how one evening she was a-sitting in the twilight, when all her family were gone to bed, and her husband gone off to Plymouth on business, and she saw a log of wood, just like a trunk of a felled tree, lying in the shadow, and thought nothing of it, till, on looking again a while after, she fancied it was come a bit nearer to her house…went to a window that gave a view upon the side where the log lay, and fired; and no one dared to look what came of it; but all the household read the Scriptures, and prayed the whole night long; oil morning came and showed a long stream of blood lying on the grass close by the log— which the full sunlight showed to be no log at all, but just a Red Indian covered with bark, and painted most skillfully, with his war-knife by his side.’

Lois the Witch (1859) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.