The Edward T. LeBlanc Memorial Dime Novel Bibliography

Item - The Maiden Martyr. A Tale of New England Witchcraft

Please log in to manage your collection or post a review.

(source: NIU Libraries)
Online Full Text: Northern Illinois University
Series: Beadle's Dime Library of Choice Fiction — no. 3
Author: Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn, 1810-1865 (uncredited)
Date: March 22, 1864
Publisher: Beadle and Company (New York (N.Y.): 118 William St.) -- United States
Notes: "This is Mrs. Mary Stevenson Gaskell's story, "Lois, the Witch," masquerading under a new title. It was originally published in London in 1859."--Johannsen, A. House of Beadle and Adams and its dime and nickel novels
user_reviews's Thoughts:

A Maiden Martyr: A Tale of New England Witchcraft (1864) follows the main character Lois Barclay, an 18-year-old English woman, as she acquaints herself with New England life at the end of the seventeenth century. Having no remaining family in Great Britain, she moves to Salem, Massachusetts, in 1691 to stay with her uncle and his family. This was a time of tumult when mass hysteria surrounding witches erupted in the town, and the novel uses this historical moment to critique the puritanical craze that enveloped its citizens and subsequently the United States as a whole. These critiques focus on both the differences between British and American society and the sexism that undergirded the moment of intense cultural anxiety.

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (1810 - 1865) originally published The Maiden Martyr: A Tale of New England Witchcraft under the name “Lois the Witch” in a collection of short stories called Lois the Witch and Other Tales in 1861. At the time, American publishers were known for pirating works of fiction from Europe due to a lack of international copyright laws (Short). This was the case for The Maiden Martyr as well. The work originated in England, Gaskell’s home country, and was republished by the American publisher Beadle and Adams, hence the different titles.

The plot is fairly straightforward, but interesting nonetheless. Lois moves to Salem and ends up staying with her uncle’s family, who are all heavily entrenched in the Puritan culture and beliefs that permeate the town. Each of the family members have their own quirks about them, but ultimately none of them are kind to Lois except for her uncle who dies early on. A local Native American servant gets accused of being a witch and shortly thereafter Lois herself is accused by her younger cousin, who is supported by the other members of the family. She then goes to prison because of this charge, where her family's Native American servant, Nattie, eventually joins her after also being accused of witchcraft, and they both remain there until they are executed in the last chapter. The story closes with Lois’ British love interest coming to bring her back to England only to find that she has been killed and her uncle’s family all feeling guilty for what they did.

The portrayal of the Native American characters is not particularly unique in the context of the time, but it still offers a valuable insight into the mind of the white, British upper class. Before Lois and Nattie were sent to prison, the two characters did not interact that much aside from being in some of the same scenes. Nattie is described as the stereotypical Native American servant who is almost childlike in nature, with broken English and very puerile emotional responses (Gaskell 46-7). While this text is not as explicitly racist towards the Native American characters as other works of the time, it does still imply white superiority with portrayals of the native characters like these. However, the “villains” of the story turn out to be the religious people who would have seen themselves as “white saviors” to the native people, who are actually killing them and some of their own. And yet, the text does not escape this trope altogether because Lois becomes a savior of sorts to Nattie when they are in prison, calming her down as a mother would a frightened child (105). Because all the American characters are the villains and the one British character is a savior, this implies that the British might still have seen themselves as superior to the Americans, especially given that the text originated from an English author.

It is clear that the intention of this story was not to create and emphasize an American identity like in most dime novels, but to critique it. Many times, Lois can be seen comparing her new home to England and longing to go back there. Notably, when she’s in prison facing death after being accused of being a witch herself, she paints England as being a sort of heaven where she could be “singing and rejoicing all day” surrounded by people who love her (94). Because it was written and published in England, the intended audience is not primarily the broad American public that this version would have reached. Instead, Gaskell makes some interesting observations about American culture during the 1690s regarding religious fanaticism and, more broadly, the treatment of women, subsequently allowing her reader to make connections to their own historical moment. While women also faced sexism in Great Britain, she hones in on the expectations and limitations posed by the society and exacerbated by the religious culture of 1690s New England. This focus contains both similarities and differences to the way other popular dime novels of the time, which were written for a wide American audience, critiqued the expectations placed on women.

One of the prevalent ways that dime novels addressed the troubles women faced was through cross-dressing. Two examples of stories that rely on the sensational gimmick of cross-dressing to make their criticism of the daily struggles that women faced are: The Hidden Hand; or, Capitola the Madcap by E.D.E.N Southworth and Deadwood Dick on Deck; or, Calamity Jane, Heroine of Whoop-up: a Story of Dakota by E. L. Wheeler. In The Hidden Hand, the main character Capitola cross-dresses as a means of supporting herself since she has no remaining family. Luckily, it turns out that she was from a rich family, so she no longer has a reason to cross-dress. Similarly, Dusty Dick from Deadwood Dick on Deck cross-dresses to escape an abusive relationship and to more easily support herself in society. Cross-dressing is a way for dime novels to more lightheartedly talk about some of the struggles women faced while not taking too firm of a stance so as not to alienate their readers with potentially divisive politics.

Because The Maiden Martyr was not originally published as a dime novel and falls into the category of sentimental fiction, it discusses the issues more explicitly. Being set in Salem during the witch trials, a time that was characterized by sexism, Gaskell touches on the topic of the expectation of marriage for women. Similar to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) where Elizabeth’s cousin insists that Elizabeth should marry him and that she will change her mind after her first rejection of him, Lois also gets proposed to by her cousin. She refuses him, though he maintains that it has been revealed to him by God that they marry, and he’s just waiting for her to receive the inevitable message (38). She not only refuses him because she has no interest in him, but also because she has very little interest in marriage unless it’s on her terms, which was why she was content with marrying the man back in Great Britain—because she actually loved him, and he wasn’t pressuring her for marriage. This is a more serious and direct depiction of some of the expectations placed on women. Where the dime novels depict caricatures of women to make the situation more comical and less political, stories like Gaskell’s paint realistic pictures of women facing real struggles, being very explicit about the statement they are trying to make.

Furthermore, Lois’ death at the hands of the New Englanders makes an interesting statement about the life that awaits women like Lois who didn’t want marriage, or at least wanted it on their terms. Even though she does not die specifically for refusing to marry a man, but rather, for her refusal to give in to the expectations of the puritans, it shows that American society would rather have non-conforming women die than get that minute bit of freedom. Given that this was written by an upper-class English woman, it emphasizes that this was how outsiders might have viewed the United States.

Since The Maiden Martyr is one of the many texts that were republications of works considered not originally intended to be dime novels, so comparing it to the dime novels many American readers were used to offers a unique insight into the differences in approaches that sentimental authors as opposed to sensational authors took to convey their messages. Moreover, because it was written by a foreign author, interpreting how American readers, who were not the intended audience, understood the story might provide an interesting perspective on American identity at the time. Similarly, the portrayal of gender and sexism from the lens of an upper-class British woman offers a unique look at how European women might have viewed the United States and at how some women viewed the choices available to them in life.

--Mary Zimlich

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Penguin Books, 2014.

Cleghorn Gaskell, Elizabeth. “The Maiden Martyr: A Tale of New England Witchcraft.” Nickels and Dimes,

Short, Matthew. “Dime Novel Authorship.” Nickels and Dimes,

Southworth, E.D.E.N. The Hidden Hand; or, Capitola the Madcap. New York Ledger, 1859.

Wheeler, Edward L. Deadwood Dick on Deck; or, Calamity Jane, the Heroine of Whoop-up: a Story of Dakota. Beadle and Adams, 1885.

More reviews by user_reviews

Please log in to manage your collection or post a review.