This time last year I wrote a blog post and page about Mary Stewart’s first published children’s novel The Little Broomstick because Hallowe’en seemed the perfect time to discuss this magical story of a pre-Hogwarts school of witchcraft. This year I thought we might take a look at Thornyhold – especially as I have started accessing the manuscripts of this book held at the National Library of Scotland. You can read my brief and partial synopsis of Thornyhold here. And here is a spook-tastic quote from the book, when from her bedroom window one night Geillis hears a ‘dirge-like chant’ in the woods:

The witch’s cat. And what I could hear, what the light betrayed, beckoning into the deep wood, was a meeting of witches. The sabbath of the local coven. I knew it… Here Hodge, the cat, leaped out from the windowsill into the darkness. And I, reaching to catch him, for the leap was too high even for a cat, overbalanced and fell.

I never reached the ground. Nor was it truly a fall. The wind, the sweep of the night air, sucked me out of the window and carried me up, up above the trees, as easily as if I had been a bird or a dead leaf. Round me the air felt as buoyant and resistant as water. I could control my passage, almost as if swimming. I shook my head and my hair flew out in the race of air. I opened my lips and felt the flood of my own passing. Ecstasy was in every pore, every hair. This was power and glory. Whatever was required, it was worth it for this.

I think Thornyhold is a fantastic read, with tantalising glimpses into a childhood that seems at least in part to echo Mary Stewart’s own early years. As well as this, Thornyhold is a love story, and it is a tale of witches and magic too. In short, I think it is a perfect tale as the nights draw in – and, for Hallowe’en, I am concentrating on the magical, witchy aspects of Thornyhold in this post.

From childhood, Gilly (Jilly, Geillis) Ramsey has known that there is something different about her Cousin Geillis. Cousin Geillis can make things happen, she can see into the future, she has a crystal ball. And we are shown that it is no co-incidence that she leaves her house, Thornyhold, to Gilly with perfect timing.

Thornyhold, Reader’s Digest Association, 1989. Illustrator Sergio Martinez

The house too has witchy connections.

‘Didn’t you know your house has a history as a witch’s house?’

Lady Sibyl Gostelow, known in her later years as Goody Gostelow, had been a herbalist and white witch who lived in Thornyhold for some seventy years. She had planned and planted the garden at Thornyhold very carefully, to keep out evil.

‘It’s defended against witchcraft and black magic. You’ve got yew and juniper at the south-west corner of the house, and there’s ash and rowan, and a bay tree, and then the quickthorn hedge with some of the holy thorn of Glastonbury planted amongst it. And of course elder trees. Your cousin once showed me the lot. She was highly intrigued by the story, and took care to keep it as it had been.’

‘Trefoil, John’s-wort, Vervain, Dill,

Hinder witches of their will,’ I quoted.

‘What’s that?’

‘Cousin Geillis’s pot-pourri. She guarded her still-room, too.’

In other words, Cousin Geillis had taken up Lady Sybil’s cause. Cousin Geillis had maintained a still-room with lotions and potions, becoming known as a white witch who, for example, administered tonics to William’s ferrets if they were ill. Now it seems that Gilly might have inherited alongside the house the mantle of white witch too: Gilly somehow ‘knows’ about a bird that drowned in a well, how to administer medicine to a ferret and so on, as if Geillis is showing her; this is described as a fulfilment of Geillis’s promise that the two of them ‘will live there together one day’.

Thornyhold, Reader’s Digest Association, 1989. Illustrator Sergio Martinez

Mild suspense comes from not being sure whether Gilly has flown to a coven or dreamed the whole thing, whether she will opt to become a fully-fledged witch and what that might cost; and from wondering whether Agnes Trapp is a witch, what recipe does she really seek, and is she responsible for the condition of her mother… And there is genuine horror in a spell calling for a dead or dying dog. Yet ultimately, as Gilly says to young William:

So stop worrying yourself about magic and spells. I don’t know whether such things exist or not, but if they do, then trust in God and they can’t hurt you. Okay?

Of course, this being Mary Stewart, we have references to other witchcraft texts within Thornyhold. On the day that Gilly and Christopher John visit Stonehenge, he mentions that she has a witch’s name:

He was saying something about Edinburgh, and the witch trials there. ‘There was a Geillis Duncane. She’s mentioned in the Demonology.’

And there is mention of a witch’s verse that appears in MacBeth that is also associated with Thomas Middleton’s ‘The Witch’:

Black spirits and white, red spirits and grey,

Mingle, mingle, mingle, you that mingle may!

Yet we are told in chapter 22 that

this is not a tale of midnight witchcraft, but a simple, a reasonably simple, love story

and

So the witch-story turned into comedy, and the midnight enchantments faded, as they usually do, into the light of common day.

So, if you are looking for a witchy Hallowe’en story that also features a hint of a love story, and a theme of a woman making peace with her childhood, then look no further! This is a beautifully-written novel and I recommend it. Have you read this book? – I’d love to learn what others think of Thornyhold.