Well, I am still in the world of the historical novel, but Elizabeth Goudge’s The White Witch has a very different tone from Georgette Heyer’s works. Where Heyer is lightly ironic at times, Goudge is serious.
Since my teens, The White Witch has always been one of my favourite books, one that I read perhaps once a year. A well-written and well-researched historical novel set primarily during the early years of the English Civil Wars, The White Witch also has elements of the adventure story and of the fairy tale in the family legend of the unicorn and in Goudge’s references to “Beauty and the Beast.”
It is a story that ends with the suggestion of a marriage, but Goudge is not sentimental. The White Witch focuses on the Haslewood family who inhabit the manor of a small Oxfordshire village. Squire Robert Haslewood, because of his childhood reverence for John Hampden, has joined the opposition to King Charles I and made his family puritan. Robert’s politics have implications not only for Parson Hawthyn the Laudian incumbent of the village church who ignores Robert’s directive to abstain from Christmas decorations and to remove the altar candles and crucifix from the church but also for his wife, Margaret, and his twin children, Will and Jenny.
The eponymous witch is Froniga (the Romany form for Veronica) Haslewood, Robert’s unmarried cousin. Out of family loyalty to Robert, Froniga, whose mother was a Rom, has put away her green gown and donned puritan grey, except when visited by the tinker Yoben who travels with the Rom but is not a gypsy. Neither does she put away her Herbal nor her Tarot Cards.
It is difficult perhaps to decide whether the novel is really Froniga’s story or Jenny’s. Certainly, the jacket “blurb” of the Coronet edition seems to suggest it’s Jenny’s story. But, in her autobiography The Joy of Snow ( Hodder-Coronet 1977), Goudge talks of how not long after she had moved to Rose Cottage in Oxfordshire, “a woman came down the narrow path in front of the window . . . . I was told later that there used to be a gate there leading to the lane. Her name was Froniga. Some time later, after I had had time to absorb the beauties of my new home, I wrote something of her history and that of the cottage in a book called The White Witch” (17-18). So I tend to lean to the view that while the novel is framed by Jenny’s story and while Froniga is a major character in the work, the focus of the work is more than just its plot and more even than its characterization.
The novel begins with Jenny and Will waiting for their father to return home from the wars to superintend Will’s breaching, a rite of passage marking a boy’s first wearing of male clothing. Fleeing their mother’s “anxious love” (15), the children run into the forest where they encounter the itinerant painter John Loggin. The rest of the novel, other than its last chapter, then traces how the lives of the Haslewoods, of Froniga’s gypsy relatives the Herons, of Parson Hawthyn, of Mother Skipton, the “black” witch, of Yoben, and of Francis Leyland/John Loggin, intersect over the years 1642 and 1643. The last chapter is set after the Restoration in 1660 when Jenny is now a young woman of twenty-six face to face with her future, a young woman who has discovered “the essential loneliness of human beings. . . [and who feels] within herself the faint stirrings of a great love” (407).
So on a very superficial level, the novel ends with a traditional romantic ending. But Goudge’s understanding and definition of “love” are anything but superficial. The love she examines is not some sentimental, romanticised infatuation. Neither is it only the power of Eros, though the novel acknowledges that power in both its positive and negative aspects. Characters in this work face misery. They are poor in spirit, abandoned, worn down by their anxiety, their pride or their pursuit of evil. Some believe themselves weak and unlovable. Yet those who ultimately let go of their pride, sometimes through great sacrifice, achieve fortitude and peace of mind. The White Witch is a novel about loyalty and vocation, a novel about guilt and the penance that purifies the soul and redeems sin. It is a novel that suggests that we cannot achieve happiness until we have confronted our own capacity for evil and replaced self-love with self-respect. Until we recognise that weakness in ourselves, we cannot overcome it. In the last chapter of her autobiography, Goudge talks of love “work[ing] out from the central point of the soul in ever-widening circles of redemption” (The Joy of the Snow 267). It is this thought that lies at the heart of The White Witch and is, I suppose, the reason why I return to it so often even if the challenge to goodness appears at times overwhelming.