Title: Of Sorrow And Such
Author: Angela Slatter
Published: 13 October 2015
Mistress Gideon is a witch. The locals of Edda’s Meadow, if they suspect it of her, say nary a word – Gideon has been good to them, and it’s always better to keep on her good side. Just in case.
When a foolish young shape-shifter goes against the wishes of her pack and gets herself very publicly caught, the authorities find it impossible to deny the existence of the supernatural in their midst any longer; Gideon and her like are captured, bound for torture and a fiery end.
The title is taken from a sentence spoken by our protagonist Patience, which reads: “a witch’s life is made of sorrow and such”. Patience Gideon is a woman with a past. It’s a past readers of Slattery’s Sourdough And Other Stories collection may be familiar with; but if you aren’t, then what you need to know is that the word “witch” here is interchangeable with “woman.”
The picturesque village of Edda’s Meadow, with its mills, murky woods and fragrant herb gardens, provides the very charming, very English veneer behind which dark secrets of uxoricide, infanticide and incest fester. Since this is a traditional patriarchal society ruled by men and the Church, the women of Edda’s Meadow are often both the victims and secret-keepers. Patience herself keeps her own secrets and those of others in her capacity as the village wise woman – she provides a home for other witches like her who need a temporary refuge, she takes care of the girls who have been harmed by the mayor’s son’s tomcatting, and when shapeshifter Flora is wounded and begs for help, Patience ensures she is healed. This sets off a catastrophic chain of events, resulting in Patience being captured and sentenced to death by fire.
At its heart, Of Sorrow And Such is about women quietly defying the system by living their lives and supporting each other while staying under the male radar. There is the distinct impression that the men are allowed to feel as though they control everything simply because it would be far more dangerous if they lacked that complacency. That being said, while it would have been all too easy for Slattery to have fallen into the trap of writing a very simplistic story in which all the women are good victims and all the men are evil misogynists, Of Sorrow And Such is an intelligent and thought-provoking take on feminism in a society in which women were executed for deviating from cultural norms.
One of the most engaging things about Of Sorrow And Such is its examination of female relationships, in all its competitive and compassionate complexity. Patience and the other women of Edda’s Meadow do provide an invaluable support group for each other, but Patience is also keenly aware that they are only as strong as their weakest member. The nature of love, loyalty, metaphorical and literal sisterhood and the myriad of ways in which they can support or betray each other are all explored through a variety of very different, well rounded characters. While Patience herself is unafraid to get her hands extremely dirty by anyone’s moral standards, she isn’t the only one – we see that all the women are capable of truly shocking acts, although of course it’s interesting to note how much of this is driven by the positions they are forced into by the men in their lives, with no real choice of their own.
Patience herself is a wonderful character. She has done, and does do terrible things, up to and including cold blooded murder – but she does them to survive, for the protection of others, or for vengeance where justice would otherwise not have prevailed. Her practicality and survival instinct are both terrifying and inspiring. While she may have terrible deeds on her conscience, the key is she does have a conscience. Incredibly tenacious, she refuses to give up hope even after she is captured by the “god-hounds” (men who hunt witches), beaten and sentenced to an agonising death and eternal damnation.
However, while individuals anywhere are capable of harbouring terrible darkness, the most terrifying thing about Of Sorrow And Such is the unflinching look at mob mentality. There is nothing more frightening than otherwise perfectly pleasant people committing murder in broad daylight, because the Church has told them it is the right thing to do. The hypocrisy of the old Church is also explored, along with its fear of women and above all women who have their own agency – women whom they cannot control.
Of Sorrow And Such is a haunting story of women and witches in a world of men, and the sacrifices and compromises they are forced to make.
GS Blogger: Michaela Gray (@bookiesnacksize)