Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Mirror for Witches

Everyone who reads novels as if they were his morning prayers has longtime favorites that he wants to press on his friends. I myself have too many to list here, but of all my favorites perhaps the one who most deserves to be rediscovered is Esther Forbes. Although she is remembered (if at all) for her 1943 Newbery Medal-winning Johnny Tremain, or maybe for winning the Pulitzer Prize in history the year before with Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, Forbes is at her best in her second novel, A Mirror for Witches (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1928), which is celebrating the eightieth anniversary of its publication this year. It is the best book ever written on the witchcraft trials of the seventeenth century. That American schoolchildren learn about the period instead from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, that dreary piece of agit-prop, is a scandal.

Forbes was born on June 28, 1891, in Westborough, Massachusetts. The youngest of five children, she was a direct descendant of Samuel Adams. She was named, though, after a more obscure ancestor—a distant aunt who died, an accused witch, in the Cambridge jail. She seems to have inherited her historical and literary talents from her mother Harriette Merrifield Forbes, a local historian who wrote Gravestones of Early New England and the Men Who Made Them (1927).

She was a late-starter. Graduating from junior college at twenty-one, she finally went on to the University of Wisconsin after taking four years off, but the First World War intervened, and she left Madison in 1918 without graduating. Two years later she took a job as an editor for Houghton Mifflin in Boston. Her most significant editorial accomplishment was her discovery of Rafael Sabatini, an Italian-born English historical novelist who wrote The Sea Hawk, Scaramouche, and Captain Blood.

Her association with Sabatini sparked Forbes’s interest in the historical novel. In 1926, she finished O Genteel Lady!, a novel set in the literary and publishing milieu of Whittier, Emerson, and Longfellow. Two years later came A Mirror for Witches.

The relatively short 210-page novel is what E. L. Doctorow later called a “false document.” It pretends to be an authentic seventeenth-century chronicle of a witch’s life, composed by a Puritan divine only a few years after events, derived from contemporary accounts (“old wives’ tales, court records, and the diaries of certain men, from the sworn affidavits and depositions of others, from the demonologies of Mr. Cotton Mather”), exhibiting the assumptions and convictions, the characteristic turn of phrase and mind, of seventeenth-century Puritans.

The existence of witches, for example, is taken for granted. They are discussed in the idiom of theology, not science: “[W]ithout these awful presences,” the chronicler asks, “who may be sure of God?” And the remarkable thing about the novel is that Forbes never lets the mask drop; she never satisfies the modern curiosity whether the girl in question is a witch. She never even lets on that there is any other system of assumptions and convictions within which the question might be decided—the Puritans’ world is the only world to which she will admit her reader.

Many years later Forbes confided that an interest in “morbid psychology” had pushed her to write the novel. If true, though, the interest does not intrude itself. Perhaps she wanted to offer a rational explanation for one of the most surprising facts in the novel—the fact that Doll Bilby, the girl who is accused, believes herself to be a witch. She confesses to her minister that she is, and when called upon in court to recite the Lord’s Prayer she performswithout chance or mishap till she came to the last sentence, which begins, “Lead us not into temptation.” She got no further. . . . Then quickly she began and said, to the horror and consternation of all, “Ever for, glory the and, power the, kingdom the, is thine for, evil from us deliver, but temptation into not us lead—Amen.” She did not know what she had done. She looked about with assurance. . . . So was she utterly undone,because witches (it was held) recited the Lord’s Prayer backwards as an incantation.

When she is writing as a novelist, and not as a latter-day critic of her own work, Forbes isn’t worried about coming up with rational explanations. The Puritan chronicler explains that he is writing so that “we may know with a nicety what this woman was and how she lived, from whence she came, how she grew to witchcraft, how she felt, thought, and at the last how she died.”

Forbes’s purposes go deeper than her narrator’s. She also wants to know how different people respond to an accusation of witchcraft against one of their own; she wants to know how an entire community is afflicted. Men and women sort themselves, in her pages, into the differing attitudes of gleefulness, terror, erotic gain, conformism, self-righteousness, and loss of faith. The novel is exactly what Forbes calls it: a mirror in which various kinds of human beings are arrested in a true image of themselves.

A Mirror for Witches is still in print in an Academy Chicago paperback edition.

Update: After posting this, I found that Ben Kipela had put up, just seven weeks ago (while I was still living without power in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike), a wonderful little essay on Forbes's novel. His interest in it was aroused by Janet Lewis’s. Kipela points out that Lewis wrote on the book in David Madden’s Rediscoveries (1971), a collection of essays on neglected masterpieces.

He says in much better words what I was trying to say: “By recreating the form, atmosphere, and tone of a seventeenth-century chapbook, in which sinister events are presented as though they are literally true, the 20th-century reader is brought up short, startled with the trueness of other conceptions of life and the world.” Read the whole thing, as they say.


Frank Wilson said...

Amen about The Crucible. In addition to being humorless, Miller was one of the most ham-handed writers ever. Is there a clunkier famous line than "Attention must be paid"?