Casting a Spell: Women Writers and Witchcraft

31st Oct 2013

Casting a Spell: Women Writers and Witchcraft
The nights are drawing in, there's an odd scratching at the front door, the cat keeps staring fixedly into random corners of the room and that pumpkin you just carved is looking a little too lifelike.

Yes, it's Halloween - and to celebrate, we're looking at the history of witches in literature and the way they've inspired some of our favourite writers.

From the biblical Witch of Endor to King Arthur’s nemesis, Morgan le Fay, the first literary witches were seductive sorceresses. But as witch-hunting spread during the 16th century, the archetype lost some of its dark glamour.

Ordinary peasant women who practised herbalism and preached magic (for good or ill) in villages across Europe were demonised as ‘Weird Sisters’ in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Eventually superstition gave way to science, and by the early 20th century, the Wicked Witch of the West was a pointy-hatted caricature riding a broomstick, as in Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz.

In 1859, Elizabeth Gaskell published a gothic novella, Lois the Witch, based on the notorious Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Its heroine is an English girl, orphaned and sent to live with relatives in America. From the outset there is a sense of barely-suppressed fear and suspicion.

Witch Child (2000), a novel for teenagers by Celia Rees, is built upon a similar premise. After seeing her grandmother hanged as a witch in England, Mary flees to America and joins a narrow-minded Puritan community. Listed among Booktrust’s Best Children’s Books published in the last 100 years, Witch Child was followed by a sequel, Sorceress, in 2002.

I, Tituba, the 1986 novel by Maryse Condé, a French-language author from Guadeloupe, explores the Salem case from the perspective of a Caribbean slave.

Highlighting the colonial aspects of witch-hunting, Condé’s novel has been praised by the American activist, Angela Davis, who says of Tituba, “It is because of her dedication to the ways of her ancestors—and the use of her healing powers to help the women of the family that owns her—that she becomes a target of the Salem witch hunt.”

Alice Hoffman’s 1995 novel, Practical Magic, is set in modern-day Massachusetts, where she lives. Kathleen Kent revisited Salem in The Heretic’s Daughter (2009), while another American writer, Erika Mailman, envisioned a German widow’s ordeal in The Witch’s Trinity. (Both Kent and Mailman are descended from women accused of witchcraft.)  

Sylvia Townsend Warner’s first novel, Lolly Willowes (1926), tells the story of a middle-aged spinster who moves to the country to escape interfering relatives.

When her idyllic existence is threatened, she invokes the Devil’s assistance. A ‘satire of manners’ with elements of fantasy, Lolly Willowes has been described as an allegory for feminism.

“Lolly Willowes calls for ‘a life of one’s own’ three years before Virginia Woolf’s impassioned cry for a room,” Lucy Scholes wrote in The Guardian. “’We have more need of you,’ she explains to the devil. ‘Women have such vivid imaginations, and lead such dull lives.’”

Perhaps the abiding threats to our existence – including poverty and war – are still leading us to seek magical solutions. Maybe we’re not so rational nowadays, after all.In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, Hermoine Granger proves a fine counterpart to the young wizard. This melding of the magical and schooldays motifs, so prevalent in children’s literature, was preceded by Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch (1974). But Mildred Hubble is a more fallible, comedic witch.

Elizabeth Goudge’s The White Witch (1952) is set during the English Civil War, and draws on folklore, plant lore and gypsy lore. And in The Witch and the Priest (1956), Hilda Lewis reimagines the Lincolnshire Witch Trials of 1613. Alison Weir cites Lewis as ‘an inspiration to me when I first discovered a love of history’, and the case has lately been re-examined by historian Tracy Borman, marking its fourth centennial.

The Lancashire Witch Trials of 1612 have also been commemorated recently. Jeannette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate – commissioned by Hammer Films – offered a vivid, if sensationalised version of events, while Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy has paid tribute to the twenty people accused of witchcraft (including sixteen women.)

A new generation of Lancastrian novelists have helped to redress historic injustice. American-born Mary Sharratt depicted the two warring families at the heart of the case in Daughters of the Witching Hill; Christine Middleton addresses the trial of Jane Southworth in The Witch and Her Soul; and for younger readers, Livi Michael’s Malkin Child is focused on Jennet Device, whose evidence condemned her entire family.

Enemies of God (1981), an academic study by Christina Larner, places Scotland at the heart of witch-hunting in the Early Modern period. Susan Fletcher’s 2010 novel, Corrag (renamed Witch Light or The Highland Witch) portrays a young ‘wise woman’ caught up in the Glencoe Massacre, while historian Emma Wilby’s The Visions of Isobel Gowdie re-evaluates Scotland’s most infamous witch.

In The Last Witch, playwright Rona Munro captures the spirit of Janet Horne, the final person condemned to death for witchcraft in Dornoch, 1727.

Dr Wilby has also penned one of the most intriguing recent studies of the witch-hunts, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits (2005.) Diane PurkissThe Witch in History (1996) analyses first-person accounts, and representations in art, film and literature.

On a similar theme, Deanna Petherbridge’s Witches & Wicked Bodies accompanies an exhibition at Edinburgh’s National Gallery.

Recently the supernatural has re-emerged as a key element in popular fiction, from Anne Rice’s The Mayfair Witches to Deborah HarknessA Discovery of Witches.

Perhaps the abiding threats to our existence – including poverty and war – are still leading us to seek magical solutions. Maybe we’re not so rational nowadays, after all.

Which other books about witches would you recommend?


  • Heather says:

    I’d have to recommend Terry Pratchett’s witch books in the Discworld series. “Equal Rites”, “Wyrd Sisters”, “Witches Abroad”, “Lords and Ladies”, “Masquerade”, “Carpe Juglulum” and the Tiffany Aching series “Wee Free Men”, “A Hat Full of Sky”, “Wintersmith” and “I Shall Wear Midnight”

    So much awesome in those books. Granny Weatherwax is one of my all time favorite characters.