Wednesday 29 October 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: W is for Witchcraft

With Halloween just around the corner, I thought I’d use ‘W’ in my Victorian Alphabet to look at a subject not often associated with the nineteenth-century – witchcraft.

Those interested in witchcraft and the supernatural most often turn to Early Modern literature (Marlowe, Middleton, Greene, Rowley, Decker and Ford), especially as the mid-1600s saw the last execution of a witch in England, or to writings centred on the Salem Witch Trials in America, later in that century. Yet superstitions surrounding magic – and particularly women as workers of evil magic – were prevalent in the England, especially in rural communities, in the Victorian period.

Any visitor to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford (yet another city attraction which any budding victorianist should check out) can see English objects from the period with magical uses (e.g. a witch in a bottle, a pig’s heart struck through with pins and nails for warding away evil spirits) and the topic makes its mark on literature too.

Elizabeth Gaskell turned to the past and to Salem for her novella Lois the Witch (1861), which I wrote about previously, but Thomas Hardy is the writer whose interest in rural traditions gives us a picture of contemporary (or near contemporary) superstitions about witchcraft.

Le Chapeau de BrigandThomas Uwins (1833)

In The Return of the Native (1878) the heath dwellers are deeply suspicious of Eustacia Vye and the combination of her position as an outsider, dark beauty and lonely habits leaves her open to the charge of being a witch. In fact, this is how we are first introduced to her:

"He means, sir, that the lonesome dark-eyed creature up there that some say is a witch—ever I should call a fine young woman such a name—is always up to some odd conceit or other; and so perhaps 'tis she."

"I'd be very glad to ask her in wedlock, if she'd hae me and take the risk of her wild dark eyes ill-wishing me," said Grandfer Cantle staunchly.

"Don't ye say it, Father!" implored Christian.

Eustacia’s youth and beauty means that Timothy (the first speaker) is loath to call her a witch, while at the same time it is her attractive ‘wild dark eyes’ which make such an identification probable. As the novel progresses what we might dismiss as superstitious prattle from the locals becomes an important plot point. Eustacia is suspected to such a degree that she is physically assaulted in church, having been blamed for the illness of Susan Nunsuch’s children:

“We hadn't been hard at it for more than a minute when a most terrible screech sounded through church, as if somebody had just gied up their heart's blood. All the folk jumped up and then we found that Susan Nunsuch had pricked Miss Vye with a long stocking-needle, as she had threatened to do as soon as ever she could get the young lady to church, where she don't come very often. She've waited for this chance for weeks, so as to draw her blood and put an end to the bewitching of Susan's children that has been carried on so long. Sue followed her into church, sat next to her, and as soon as she could find a chance in went the stocking-needle into my lady's arm."

Susan Nunsuch’s victimisation of Eustacia sets in motion the closing events in the novel. She counters the girl’s suspected magic with her own, creating, attacking and eventually burning something resembling a voodoo doll she fashions to resemble Eustacia:

From her workbasket in the window-seat the woman took a paper of pins, of the old long and yellow sort, whose heads were disposed to come off at their first usage. These she began to thrust into the image in all directions, with apparently excruciating energy. Probably as many as fifty were thus inserted, some into the head of the wax model, some into the shoulders, some into the trunk, some upwards through the soles of the feet, till the figure was completely permeated with pins.

Eustacia’s death, which could be attributed to accident or suicide, could equally have a supernatural explanation because of Susan’s actions here. Witches might not be being burned at the stake in Victorian England but being suspected of witchcraft could, it seems, be equally life destroying.

This, of course, is not Hardy’s only treatment of superstitious traditions – consider Midsummer Eve in The Woodlanders (1886-7) or the role of Stonehenge in Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891). All too often the Victorian period can seem all too familiar and knowable, but there is plenty, even in realist fiction, for lovers of the uncanny this Halloween season.

What should be ‘X’ in my Victorian Alphabet? Please help me out! Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!