“My girl, my darling girl, don’t wish for what I’ve got—a witch’s life is made of sorrow and such. Be happy you’ve a chance at something else.”Of Sorrow and Such is about witches, which is to say: it’s about the lives of women at the edges of society. Mistress Gideon has been the resident witch at Edda’s Meadow for a long time. Her status is more or less an open secret — people, mostly other women, come to her for counsel, remedies, or both, and the male powers–that–be remain oblivious or turn a blind eye. Mistress Gideon lives comfortably, but she knows her position is precarious: when the authorities catch a group of young shapeshifters at a gathering, it becomes impossible for them to continue to deny the existence of witches amongst them, which means that the women of Edda’s Meadow are all at risk. Will Patience Gideon be able to save herself and those she loves? And if so, at what cost?
I decided to read Of Sorrow and Such for two reasons: the first was the gorgeous Anna and Elena Balbusso cover; the second was the fact that it was blurbed by Margo Lanagan. It’s not a huge surprise, then, that Angela Slatter’s sensibility reminded me of Lanagan’s own. Of Sorrow and Such is smart, thoughtful, unabashedly feminist, and deeply concerned with women’s lives — particularly women at the edges of a social system that barely recognises their existence, unless it’s to use them as scapegoats.
Patience Gideon is not only a witch, but also middle-aged, unmarried, economically and emotionally independent, living on her own terms in a house “good enough to blend in yet not so fine as to excite envy”. She’s a woman whose very existence threatens the ideology of inevitability behind the oppression of those who share her gender — no wonder her existence goes unacknowledged. Needless to say, I loved Patience: she’s sensible and brave; ruthless when she needs to be; compassionate despite this; and committed to the idea of carving out a safe space for herself and for other women inside an unfair social system.
Patience’s relationship with her daughter Gilly is at the heart of Of Sorrow and Such: the story is particularly concerned with Patience’s complicated feelings about having Gilly follow her footsteps and live and unconventional life, and with Gilly’s own doubts about where such a path would lead her. Gilly, it turns out, is not a witch, which makes it easier for her to blend in should she choose to:
There’s no terrible power flowing in her veins, so if she must flee, she’ll be able to settle down somewhere, perhaps become wife to an ordinary man. Have an existence that draws neither eyes nor attention to her for the wrong reasons. I do not mention the great book in the cellar, which is of no use to her for she does not know the language of witches. If she knew of it, her longing to be different might bring peril. Though I know she feels its lack, yearns for its power, without magic her life will be less complicated.Patience’s thoughts are of course motivated by fear: as much as she lives comfortably, everything could come crashing down at a moment’s notice, as indeed it does over the course of Of Sorrow and Such. It’s understandable that she doesn’t want this for the daughter she raised and loves, but hopes for a life of quiet and safety for her instead. And yet Patience has mixed feelings about nudging Gilly towards the kind of life she herself and women like her friend Selke resisted:
I wonder sometimes why I push her to this, to being a wife, and the sole answer I can find is because it’s the only chance I can see for her to have a safe life when I am gone. And at some point I will be gone, whether it be through death natural or otherwise, or a need to run. I will be gone and she will be alone.It is, of course, Gilly’s own choice that matters in the end, though the novella highlights the constraining circumstances in which such a choice is made. I appreciated the fact that Of Sorrow and Such is truthful about what opting out of heteronormative couplehood meant for the women of Edda’s Meadow, and truthful as well about what it meant to opt in. Marriage, Patience realises, is by no means a guarantee of safety. And while a witch’s life might be made “of sorrow and such”, that “and such” contains more nuance and variation than what we might initially assume.
The same is of course true of the lives of the married women of Edda’s Meadow: Patience is surprised at the alliance between Charity and Mother Alhgren; she sees the passion between Flora and Ina Brautigan; and in the end she waves goodbye to her daughter with hope in her heart. Although it takes more than individual goodwill to dismantle a deeply ingrained system of inequality, there’s hope and possibility in men like Sandor, who reject hegemonic masculinity and who recognise that women “are more than just the sum of their parts” — that they are human beings with whom they can strive to form partnerships of equals.
Angela Slatter explains in the afterword that Of Sorrow and Such is set in the same world as her short story collections Sourdough and Other Stories and The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings, which also feature Patience Gideon and Selke (another fascinating woman we get to know in this novella). I can’t wait to read them.
Bits I liked:
I wonder sometimes if that long ago Edda would recognise the place that bears her name. I wonder more often who she was, for she’s yet another woman lost to history. No one thought to make note of her, whether she committed some great deed or merely owned the field before it sprouted a village that grew prosperous and then grew some more. Females are seldom remembered once they’ve gone beneath the earth; indeed, many go unremarked while they’re still upon it.They read it too: The Book Smugglers, you?
“Trust, my dears, is a knife: it may as easily injure as protect if given to the wrong person. I wish I could say every one of us was strong and brave, that there was not a coward to be found in our ranks, but I cannot. I have known women to break from the weight of water, the lick of flames, beneath slabs of stone and rock piled on their chests so even the smallest puff of air can find no place to hide. I have known women to break from nothing more than the threat of these things.” I gestured around the room. “We have all benefited in our lives from safe places; I beg you not to put this one at risk.”