My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“The White Witch” is set during England’s civil war period. It is a book of
contrasts; gentry and servants, well-born and gypsies, a white witch and a
parson, a black witch and an itinerant painter. Within each character’s
story are struggles, human suffering, and choices to be made that all
contribute to a satisfying (and in some cases, unexpected), ending.
Froniga (the gypsy name for “Veronica”) is the white witch in the story. Her love interest, Yoben, is fighting for the Royalist cause, while Froniga’s cousin Robert Haslewood (who though married has never stopped loving his cousin) is on the side of Parliament and Oliver Cromwell.
“If you do not fight this war for the religious reason then for what reason do you fight it?”
“…if ever I have the luck to find myself in a charge of Rupert’s it will be because loyalty to the crown is in the family tradition and we are a family who do not break with tradition. But I have a further reason. When as a very young man I first went to court the king was not yet thirty. He showed me great kindness and I loved him. I love him still. He never loses men’s love though he does at times break their hearts….the king lived and dreamed his dreams. He shared them with me…
His people were, to the king, a sacred trust from God, and his people were to look upon him as God’s own representative, ruling them by divine right….
Human nature is intractable stuff, hard jagged stuff, the sort of stuff that dreams are wrecked on. Yet still for me, as, I believe, for the king, there is the dream. The perfect England. It is a lovely land. It is better to die for a broken dream than for no dream at all.”
The story is a multi-layered one. How the characters’ lives intersect and their actions affect one another make for an interesting read. Mother Skipton, the ‘black witch’ in the story, believes herself too far gone into evil to have any hope for a better life.
“There was a long silence and then Mother Skipton said in cold misery, “It is too late.”
“Why did you come to church on Christmas Day?” asked Froniga.
“How do you know I did that?” demanded Mother Skipton.
“I saw you going away,” said Froniga. “And I will tell you why you were there. You came because Parson Hawthyn had woken in you a longing for the days when you had not yet chosen evil for your good. If it had been too late you would not have been capable of longing.”
Can an old woman steeped in black magic forsake the pull of the her old ways and live once again free from the desire for power over others? Will the actions of her neighbors and superstitious villagers give rise to bitterness, or the kind actions of the village parson bring her to trust once again in man’s capacity for human kindness?
“I am far too tired now to change my way of life.”
The dull hopelessness of her despair made Froniga feel cold and sick. The night pressed upon her and the squalor of the room where they sat…Then, as though she were dragging herself up out of some morass of mud, she roused herself and said, “I believe I can guess what you heard when you knelt in the porch, listening by the crack of the door. ‘Though thou has been benighted till now, wintered and frozen, clouded and eclipsed, damp and benumbed, smothered and stupified till now, now God comes to thee.’ You heard that. Can’t you believe it?”
“You talk nonsense,” said Mother Skipton. “The old man talks nonsense. God does not come to lost souls.”
“He has come,” said Froniga. “In His servant, the old man, He has come.”
Will Robert come to terms with his own failures to love his family as they deserve to be loved, and will he ever learn to stop being afraid to ride into battle?
What about the Royalists and the Puritans as portrayed in the novel and their separate beliefs? How do they mesh within a small English country village?
“He leaned at the window, drinking in the beauty of what he saw. At the beginning he, like Charles, had his dream…the perfect England…they had differed in the way to find perfection, through freedom or autocracy, but it had been much the same dream. And now England was rent by their conflicting dreams, and the dreams themselves were foundering. Yet it occurred to Hampden, as he breathed in the cool air, honey-scented with roses and hay, that he would rather die for a broken dream than for no dream at all….
He did not usually indulge such fancies, the times were brutal and he had no leisure for sentiment, but personal sorrow had ploughed deep furrows in him and below the surface failure and stress he was oddly aware at this moment of deep-down freshness, as though dreams that had failed had sunk down and sprung up in the soul, as awareness of God’s mercy.”
There are episodes of tragic betrayal, of English stoicism and fear of death in battle, of English country tradition, of faith and failure to believe.
There are scenes of superstitious belief leading to impulsive harsh actions, scenes of courage and rescuing those being persecuted for their beliefs, and scenes of friendship and loyalty.
“You will soon be well again and next time the king takes the field you will go with him. You have worked through it now.”
“Through what, Froniga?”
“Through this present spell of evil fortune. These black times go as they come and we do not know how they come or why they go. But we know that God controls them, as He controls the whole vast cobweb of the mystery of things.”
“He went back into the kitchen and lay down before the glowing ashes of the fire, but he did not sleep. The present spell of private misfortune might be over but not the misfortunes of his king and country that he must share until the end. He lay thinking of them, but not without hope… He did not understand tonight what Froniga was talking about but through the years ahead he never forgot what she had said. In the blackest times it would flash through his mind like light.”
Elizabeth Goudge has written a story that will keep the reader’s interest and, although written about a period in seventeenth century English history, still asks questions that pertain to life today.
“One life knows many judgments,” she said. “They are like the chapters in a book. What if every chapter but the last is one of defeat? The last can redeem it all. And God knows the heart that in its weakness longs for Him. Patient still, He adds another chapter, and then another, and then in the hour of victory closes the book.”
“You always know where the salve is needed,” he said. “If we could all see the hidden wounds of others as clearly as you do, ‘Love your enemies’ would not be so hard a command to keep.”
She did not go with him through the garden, as was her custom, but stayed where she was, listening to his footfall on the flagged path by the well. He might come again tomorrow, or the day after, but things would not again be as they had been. So this was civil war. She had not known it was so bitter.”