A Mirror for Witches

by Esther Forbes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1928. 12mo. 214 pp. Illus. $2.50.
THIS story of old and unhappy things is written simply, in those ‘plaintive numbers’ which are chosen by wise folk intent on conveying dignity and tragedy to their readers. David Garnett used them well in Lady into Fox and Sylvia Townsend Warner in Lolly Willowes. And Miss Forbes in her new book has used them with great and lovely skill. ‘Everything reminded him of Doll — the birds that sang, the flowers in the grasses, even the mystery and the silence of the dawn. Yet these things should not have reminded him of a woman, but of her Maker.’ The fifty thousand words (or less) which tell the tale of Doll Bilby, the witch child, her fantastic, cruel life and her bitter death, are sketched with no waste of imagery, no reveling in detail, but with conscious care for the necessary touch, for the perfect figure, and, above all, for the necessary tone. That is why Miss Forbes’s plaintive numbers, like the ‘melancholy strain’ of the solitary reaper, linger in the inward ear long after they are heard no more.
One of the chief charms of A Mirror for Witches is the extreme deftness of the characterization. Economical as is Miss Forbes’s method, her people are unforgettable: Jared Bilby, a thwarted poet; Hannah, his wife, beset by jealousy and suspicion of Doll; Titus Thumb, most normal of youths set over against Doll’s ‘demon lover,’ whose villainies we might in a thoughtless moment forget in the consummate and bewitching art of his love-making by moonlight in the white birch thicket. Most delicate and poignant of all is Mr. Zelley, the Puritan minister, who did not really pray at all, — that is, as Mr. Increase Mather prayed, — but who in Doll Bilby’s celt by her straw bed talked to God as you might talk to a friend, and sweated in agony of soul. We are never told that he loved Doll Bilby, — we do not need to be, — but surely it is he as well as Doll who discovers that Hell is only ‘around a corner’ from Paradise.
A subtle yet terrible irony is the unifying thread which holds the book together. There is hardly a page without its brilliant, Cruel gleam: Jared Bilby’s ship is named ‘God’s Mercy’; Goody Greene, the witch woman, searches the woods for an herb called ‘Love-lies-bleeding ; Mr. Zelley’s prayers to God contribute to the evidence which hangs him, for it is remembered that one approaches demons in friendship, but never God,
One wishes for space in which to comment, on the seventeenth-century atmosphere of the book in its quaint chapter headings, in which to praise its woodcuts. One wishes for more — a paragraph, a column — to use in quoting that loveliest of passages, the climax of the story, which chronicles the swift burst of ecstasy, the breaking open of the quiet earth, that comes to Doll in the arms of her ‘demon lover.’ On pages 126-127 you will find it, and upon reading it you, too, will perhaps call to mind Hecuba’s plaintive words, weeping over Troy: —
. . . the sound of a song
Left by the way, but long
Remembered, a tune of tears.