Monday, October 8, 2012

Countdown to Halloween: Walter Scott's Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830)

George Cruikshank, "Witches Frolic"
Last time, we saw an example of Walter Scott in Gothic mode early in his writing career. Today, it's one of his lesser known publications from the end of his life and career - though an equally fitting choice for Halloween.

The story of Scott's Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830, illustrated by George Cruikshank), undertaken when he had suffered his first stroke and published just two years before his death, is usefully told on the Walter Scott Digital Archive. As the title suggests, this volume certainly contains much suitable reading for an antiquarian Halloween (see here, for example, for a direct reference to the day, and a clear association of "All-Hallow-Even night" with some spooky goings-on). But at the same time, alongside his typical erudition, Scott displays a profound scepticism towards his subject matter throughout the text, and an equally powerful sympathy with the victims of witch-hunts and persecutions.

Usefully, for those with Transatlantic interests, this is on full display in Scott's narration of the Salem witch trials:

Since this is the 400th anniversary of the Lancashire witch trials, it's worth noting that Scott tells that story too, with an equal measure of exasperation.  

Across the Atlantic, Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft might not have been one of Scott's better-sellers. But it did have one notable reader: Nathaniel Hawthorne borrowed a copy from the Salem Athenaeum on October 4, 1837 - for some Halloween reading, perhaps? There's something to conjure with.

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