Thursday, August 29, 2013

Linwood Sleigh’s witches: Miss Heckatty, Mother Withershins and Winnie Jago

The Boy in the Ivy by Linwood Sleigh is yet another very good book I remembered as containing modern-day witches and wanted to re-read. It is out of print; when I saw how much was being charged for the few copies available, I decided to forget it. After a long time, I felt a sudden impulse to search once again just in case, and found a copy on Amazon at a very reasonable price. When it arrived, I found that it had been signed by the author!

Three of the witches it contains are of especial interest to me.

Miss Heckatty
When she first appears, Miss Heckatty is presented as a selfish, inconsiderate, annoying character, a ‘horrid old lady’. She moves some items a boy left on a window seat on the train to reserve it, and takes the seat herself. She knits during the journey and keeps jabbing the boy beside her with her elbow.

Miss Heckatty is a learned lady: she is the scholarly type of witch, like Dr. Melanie Powers in L. M. Boston's An Enemy at Green Knowe. She too is hunting something – an extremely rare flower with magic properties as opposed to occult papers - and just like Melanie Powers, goes to tea with a family because it provides a pretext to get into a place where she hopes to find what she is looking for. The visit provides opportunities to look around and do some investigating. Witches often have ulterior motives for what they do.

She is greedy: she takes the biggest cakes, but unlike Dr. Powers she does this openly. She is unkind to her worn, miserable, downtrodden students.

Miss Heckatty is two-faced and has a false front: she pretends to be absent-minded so as to get away with bad behaviour; her politeness is unconvincing; her sympathy is a sham; a genteel manner conceals a fanatical determination to acquire the plant she is obsessed with. She feels that she must have it. She needs it; she is entitled to it; she feels that she deserves it because she has worked so hard to get it.

The obsession, the continual plotting, planning and scheming, the unswerving determination to get the desired object no matter what the cost to themselves or others is characteristic of a certain type of witch.

Mother Withershins
Mother Withershins looks and behaves like a classic fairy tale witch. She is a bent old crone; she wears an assortment of old clothes. She lives in the gloomy Black Cottage which is surrounded by twisted trees, and her garden is full of weeds.

She has some powers traditionally attributed to witches: she has the ability to cause harm to people who offend her; she can control the weather; she suddenly materialises from nowhere in the middle of the road, causing the family’s car to swerve violently to avoid her.
Local people are afraid of her; they leave presents of food on her doorstep to keep her quiet. No one dares to ‘cross’ her: ever since refusing to repair her roof when she asked him to, a man gets giddy spells every time he climbs a ladder. If she can’t have his services, then no one else can.

Mother Withershins can barely read, so newspapers are no good to her. I find it touching that when she tries to bargain with the Supreme President, what she wants in return for revealing the place where the magic plant is hidden is a ‘television machine’ so she can keep up with the news and a grant to provide for an education at a good school for her clever niece.

Mother Withershins’s young niece is called Winnie Jago. She is trying to recruit her for her coven, whose power is waning and whose membership is decreasing.

Winnie Jago
The only family Winnie has is Mother Withershins and a bed-ridden grandmother whom she lives with. Winnie is not used to the company of other children and does not always behave appropriately towards them, resulting in unpopularity. Because of all this, she is at risk of falling into the hands of victimisers.

Typically, Mother Withershins tries to isolate and manipulate Winnie, who is not very interested in witchcraft as such but desperately wants to be accepted into and belong to something. The auntie wants to close all avenues so that the coven and witchcraft become Winnie’s only options. She tells her niece that boys are beasts and girls are giggling idiots; she belittles the Girl Guides that Winnie has joined, telling her that they are silly. As always, there may be grains of truth in what she says but what she provides for Winnie is no better.

I have some experience of being manipulated in this way myself. I was encouraged to behave in a way that ensured that I would not be accepted by my classmates and teachers. I was told all kinds of lies about ordinary people and their beliefs. My avenues were closed off too.

Winnie’s vulnerability and the fact that she is a good student make her an ideal target. She is tempted by Mother Withershin’s promises of secret knowledge, fine company and a chance to get revenge on the children who would not accept her. She starts to do what her aunt wants: she resigns from the guides in favour of ‘more important things’. Winnie tells a little girl about the nasty things that happen to people who don’t like her (Winnie).

She soon has second thoughts: she notices that the ‘fine company’ are sly and vain, not at all the sort of people she has always wanted to be friends with. There is no genuine laughter, just sneering and sniggering. She would prefer to stay at home with her grandmother, away from her horrible aunt, but she has learned the hard way that the latter will punish her if she does not obey orders.

How it ends for the three witches
There is a happy ending for Miss Heckatty. What is unusual in a story about witches is that she comes to her senses, reforms, and turns into a normal person, a decent human being. The process is started when she tries to give hypnotic commands to and is laughed at by a boy who is protected by the plant that she had been seeking. It undoes harmful spells.

She becomes an authentic person in touch with reality; she can look at herself objectively and face the truth. She realises that she has appeared ridiculous to many people. She understands that botany is her life’s work: she got involved with witchcraft just because it was only the witches who had preserved some herbal lore that she was desperate to attain. She realises that the witches welcomed her not for her talents, but because they needed new blood so would take anyone. She also realises that she became their head because she bullied and imposed on them, not through her merits.

She speaks from her heart in her own voice when she says “I am afraid I’m not used to talking things over. I have always preferred exactly knowing what I want, and giving orders.”

The vampire sees itself in the mirror – so is no longer a vampire.

Miss Heckatty does eventually get the plant she desires, but only after she has accepted some home truths about her motives and actions. She is forced to give up all of her knowledge and powers of witchcraft and resign her authority as Supreme President of the covens. She also gives her beloved cat to Winnie. Only then does she deserve to have the plant she has been so desperate to acquire.

Unlike many practitioners of witchcraft, Miss Heckatty has something to fall back when she gives it up. She has built a life for herself in the academic world: she is a Master of Arts and the Head of an Oxford College. She is famous in her own right: she has earned the acclaim by the quality of her work.

Mother Withershins turns into a bundle of despair when the pipes that she stole are taken from her. The other witches have all resigned and she has nothing left. The horrible contents of her store cupboards have been destroyed by the influence of the plant. Her life of doing harm to others is probably over. Her husband returns because he has come into some money, and takes charge in the Black Cottage. He is a bully, but I would like to think that he buys her the television set that she wanted.

There is a happy ending for Winnie too. She also resigns from the coven, and she returns to the Guides. She is free of her aunt, and has gained some of the popularity and friends that she wanted. She gets an invitation to join her new friends for Christmas in London, which makes her ecstatic.

Possible inspirations
The Boy in the Ivy was published in 1955.

The Sabbat gathering scene reminds me of witch gatherings in John Masefield’s Midnight Folk: perhaps Linwood Sleigh was inspired by this book.

I first read The Boy in the Ivy long before the Harry Potter books were published. This time around I immediately noticed a few elements that reminded me of things I had seen in Harry Potter: Miss Heckatty’s habit of saying ‘hem, hem’; her cat; Winnie’s toad, and the broomstick restoration scene where everyone stands in a line. Perhaps J. K. Rowling was also inspired by this book.

I wonder whether Miss Heckatty’s cat Major was the inspiration for Terry Pratchett’s disreputable witch’s cat Greebo.