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I studied Elizabeth Gaskell’s North And South for my English Literature A Level, without much enthusiasm. Nearly 20 years later, I’ve taken a look at Mrs Gaskell’s other work. She also wrote a number of short stories in the gothic genre, seemingly a world away from her more familiar social realism.

Lois The Witch is a novella based on the Salem Witch Trials of the late 17th century. Its heroine is an English girl, orphaned and sent to live with relatives in America. Gaskell depicts the climate of the new country powerfully. From the outset there is a sense of barely-suppressed fear and suspicion.

Puritanism had its grip on the pioneers, and tales of Indians in the woods are fed to the unsuspecting Lois. Nattee, the Indian maid, tells other stories – of memory and magic, her only link to a land and culture that has slipped from her hands.

It is perhaps inevitable that Lois, stranger in a strange town, will be accused when rumours of witchcraft start to fly. The strength of this novella lies in its characters – Gaskell could easily have written them off as grotesques, given her themes of religious mania, ignorance and bigotry. But she resists the temptation, and shows through each individual how the hysteria spread and turned the people of Salem against each other.

As is not uncommon in Victorian fiction, Mrs Gaskell interjects the narrative with her own opinions, and the benefit of hindsight. The story is less effective when she inserts statistics and speeches from the real Salem trials. It reads too much like journalism and seems out of place when she has already evoked the phenomenon so well through her own imagination.

All in all, Lois The Witch is well worth reading for anyone who has an interest in the Salem case. It has been published as a novella, and is also included in a collection of Mrs Gaskell’s gothic works.

Read Lois The Witch online – here