Bookish Discussions

Victorian Witches | A Dissertation:


I’ve been moaning about my dissertation on these parts since the start of the year. I don’t want all my research, time and effort to go to waste, so I thought I’d share what I found during the process of writing my dissertation on Victorian witches with you.

So, I recently finished my Master of Arts degree in Victorian Literature at the University of Liverpool. You can find out all about my modules, essays and reading lists here: sem I & sem II. I will eventually have a separate post on my experience as a master student, so let’s not dwell on that here.

Anyway, four months, 53 pages and 16,138 words later, I handed my dissertation (and my final essay ever) in on the 13th September – of all days, smh.

I chose to write on Victorian witches as it combines two of my favourite things (and I had already written on the Brontës for my undergrad diss). I focused on how Victorian authors re-told history, titling my work ‘William Harrison Ainsworth’s and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Historical Storytelling of the Witch Through Famous Witch Hunts/Trials’.

Witches receive very little attention by critics, despite being prevalent in Victorian literature. Due to the fluidity of their definition, as I discovered, witches metamorphised in various forms. Writers were forced to play with the image of the witch because belief in the occult, the supernatural, and in womanhood, was constantly in flux during this century.

I could add to the debate on Victorian Gothic by looking at portrayals of witches from a historical perspective. I focused on Ainsworth’s The Lancashire Witches, which re-told the Pendle Witches, and Gaskell’s ‘Lois the Witch’, which re-told the Salem Witch Trials. Although set on opposite ends of the Atlantic, they explore how women were vilified by small communities. I analysed through obvious themes, such as gender, race and class.

So, I split my introduction into four subsections:

Up first was Defining the ‘Witch’, where I tried to make sense of how the witch has been defined throughout history, specifically in British culture. I explored the many varying definitions of the witch, including black and white magic, cunning-folk, and familiars. I then wrote on The Victorian Literary Witch, giving examples of other Victorian witches (written by Thomas Hardy, William Wordsworth, Robert Louis Stevenson, etc.). I also compared two critical pieces on Victorian witches in Recent Critical Discussions on the Witch, before ending with Historical Context on both the Pendle and Salem Witches.

Chapter One was dedicated to William Harrison Ainsworth’s Fictionalisation of the Pendle Witch Trials in The Lancashire Witches (1848). Ainsworth is interested in the supernatural and evil witch. He sensationalises the Pendle Witches to sell weekly copies of the Sunday Times, which this was first published in. The Pendle Witches rely on spells, voodoo, chanting around cauldrons, cursing people, and having familiars. He takes on a predominantly misogynistic idea of the witch in order to rouse curiosity in his readers.

To Ainsworth, the witch is both a Gothic and historical figure who can play on readers’ fears and who can undermine our understanding of gender roles/concepts. He ends the novel warning us to BEWARE OF THE LANCASHIRE WITCHES, for they are still a threat to society, but in a new and seductive way, because women have the ability to transform in order to escape justice.

Gaskell, however, takes on a completely different approach to the witch.

Chapter Two explored Elizabeth Gaskell’s Fictionalisation of the Salem Witch Trials in ‘Lois the Wich’ (1861). Gaskell has a different reason for telling the story of a witch. As a Victorian woman, Gaskell is aware of how labels can ruin a woman’s life. These labels, according to Gaskell, are a way to control women through their body and mind. It takes away their autonomy. Her witch represents two ideas: E6CBD098-9B48-42FD-AF58-4425B3887EF6

1) Witches are women who are different; and who do not align with the current ideas of womanhood. This can be women who are foreign, working-class, deformed, mentally ill, and so on. Although saying this, Lois, except for being British in an American town, is a middle-class, white woman, who is also accused of witchcraft. Gaskell reinforces but also disrupts traditional depictions of witchcraft, showing that any and all women can be targeted.

2) The witch is a tool through which men can gain, maintain and assert power over women. The label limits how women move within society, as the witch is always controlled by men (either the devil, the pastor, the government, and so on). ‘Witches’ are also usually scapegoats for men’s desires – if a man is weak enough to have sex with a woman in a society that tells him to wait, it is, naturally, her fault (LOL).

It is these realities that make this Gothic story so unnerving, as the vilification of women has not changed much since the seventeenth century. Gaskell combines the Gothic and realism to illuminate the cruel injustice of women, people of colour and the working-class, which is still an issue in Victorian England.

Of course, to end my paper I included a Conclusion and Bibliography. Despite the difference in their depictions, both authors reflect the changing attitudes towards the witch in the Victorian imagination. By reimagining historical events through the mode of storytelling, they are able to explore how versatile the definition of the witch is. The witch is not One Thing, but Multiple. There is no fixed definition. This is why the literary witch is so unique; she is not limited to one storyline, but can flourish in any narrative. The witch can also be used to explore both historical and modern issues.

Although rarely discussed in critical material, the witch plays a key role in both the Victorian Gothic and Victorian realism, because she can shift between the two forms of being human and being supernatural. Victorian attitudes of witchcraft are being reproduced in the resurrected interest of witches in twenty-first century fiction, showing that their portrayal is timeless and, more importantly, crucial to our understanding of women throughout time.

A very long-winded post, I know, I’m sorry, but that’s how my masters dissertation goes. I enjoyed researching and writing it, despite how much I struggled with balancing this with life and illness at the time. I’m glad I got to write my last ever essay on two things that make me happy: Victorian literature and witches.

Thanks for reading, Lauren X



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