The Little Wax Doll by Norah Lofts ~ originally published in 1960, and re-released under this title and author’s name in 1970. Previously published as The Devil’s Own (1960) and The Witches (1966), under the pseudonym Peter Curtis. This edition: Corgi, 1971. Paperback. ISBN: 0-552-08782-3. 255 pages.
My rating: 9/10
This is definitely not a Christmas-time read. Hallowe’en, oh yes, indeed. But I am so tickled by my discovery of it that I’ve bumped down my review of D.E. Stevenson’s Charlotte Fairlie (which is an appropriate Christmas book for reasons I’ll enlarge on when I return to it) to talk about Norah Lofts’ village-with-dark-secrets instead.
I love these sorts of unexpected developments. Norah Lofts, mistress of the art of historical romance, occasionally let herself go in a very different direction and wrote a number of thrillers under the name Peter Curtis, adopting the pseudonym in order to avoid disappointing fans of the romances who would associate her name with a certain type of story.
I must say I would never have picked up this old paperback if it weren’t for Norah Lofts’ name on it; the cover illustration not being at all indicative of what a great read was hidden inside. I had recently read 1964’s How Far to Bethlehem? (with mixed reactions – good writing, but I had issues with the awkwardness of the Bible tie-in plot) so was tuned in to Lofts’ name, as it were, and a casual flip-through was intriguing enough that I squelched my qualms and brought it home.
Forty-something Miss Mayfield, a teacher by profession, is back in England after twenty years working at a friend’s private mission school in a remote part of Africa. She has had some health issues and a vaguely referenced “breakdown” so was sent back to England in the hopes that this would prove beneficial. Her health is better, but she harbours deep misgivings over her ability to cope with the stresses of her new teaching position at an inner city London school. When Miss Mayfield happens upon an advertisement for a teaching headmistress position at a rural private school she decides to try for it, never dreaming that she would be accepted.
An interview with the school’s benevolent sponsor, Canon Thornby of the village of Walyk, sees Miss Mayfield hired on the spot. Off she goes to the rural wilds, to a place very much out of the bustle of the modern world.
“Too good to be true,” is Miss Mayfield’s first impression of her new home. Not only is she being paid a generous salary, her position includes a wonderful cottage, an instant position of respect in the village hierarchy, and the society of wealthy Canon Thornby and his aristocratic sister. Miss Mayfield’s fellow teacher is competent and friendly, and the school children are polite, willing, and generally intelligent. The cottage even appears to come with an adorable resident cat, who purrs about with a welcoming attitude, and sleeps at the foot of the bed. Miss Mayfield settles in with a feeling of deep appreciation and relief, and counts her blessings every day.
The first inkling that something may not be all as lovely as it appears is when an anonymous note appears among the books on Miss Mayfield’s desk. “Ethel Rigby’s granny treat her something crool.” This shakes Miss Mayfield enough that she decides to investigate the allegation. Said Ethel Rigby is a well-cared for, meek and mild fourteen-year-old whose primary passion seems to be the care of her pet rabbits, and her granny openly dotes on her, having raised Ethel from babyhood, Ethel’s mother having run off and “gone wrong” in her own teenage years.
Though Ethel stoutly defends her grandmother’s innocence of any abuse, Miss Mayfield thinks that the maiden doth protest too much, and she comes away with the idea that Ethel is lying to protect the informer, who proves to be a school friend who claims to have witnessed Ethel’s grandmother push the girl’s hand deliberately into the rollers of a mangle. And Ethel’s hand is all bandaged up, though she insists her own clumsiness was at fault. And when the informing child falls mysteriously ill, only to recover just as mysteriously, and when Miss Mayfield discovers a little wax effigy of the child wrapped up and bandaged together – “healed” – hidden in Ethel’s school desk, the wheels really begin to turn.
Miss Mayfield decides to play detective and to find out what is going on behind all those brightly painted cottage doors. And what she discovers is most disquieting indeed.
What a marvelous heroine Miss Mayfield proved to be. Middle-aged and resigned to her life of perennial spinsterhood (though not unaware of the other sex, and recipient of at least one man’s interested advances) Miss Mayfield is unashamedly dowdy, choosing to focus her energies on doing her job well to the utmost of her ability. She fearlessly delves into the dark secrets of Walyk, is clever and creative in her investigative forays, and even after being brutally sidelined by an “accident” which results in a serious head injury and loss of memory, returns tenaciously to her original goal, which is to protect virginal Ethel from an unpleasant fate at the hands of Walyk’s wicked coven of witches.
I was most pleased at the quiet humour throughout; the author appears to be enjoying herself thoroughly as she dashes this melodrama off.
Miss Mayfield, though primly proper even in her innermost thoughts, is not what one could call “prudish” – she is well aware of all elements of human nature, though she chooses to remain aloof from some of those aspects herself. Even upon witnessing the penultimate scene of a full-blown witch’s Sabbath she mildly wishes that she could just close her eyes and avoid seeing the depravities of her neighbours, but she is not so much shocked as disgusted at their lack of proper dignity, and we never fear that this experience will shake her somewhat frail psyche. If anything, it strengthens her resolve to sort things out and bring everyone back into some semblance of decency, to protect the innocents, and to nobble future abuses and murders. Miss Mayfield’s inner dialogue proves that she is capable of appreciating the ridiculous aspects of the situation she has allowed herself to become embroiled in; we never fear for her sanity, but instead come away feeling that her future will be ever more assured. And as for Ethel, well, let’s just say that she appears well able to look after herself from this point forward!
There is also a perfect little twist at the very end.
This is an enjoyable “entertainment” read, rather nasty plot developments and all. If “Peter Curtis” did as well with “his” other three thrillers, I’m definitely keen to acquire them. Despite the absolutely stereotypical “black magic” theme, the author kept me engaged throughout, guessing a goodish bit of the time, and rather surprised here and there; very nicely done indeed.
In 1966 the book was turned into a horror-suspense thriller, starring none other than Joan Fontaine as a rather elegant Miss Mayfield. From the plot description and movie stills it appears that the African connection is played up to a greater degree than in the book, and that one of the background characters who leaps into prominence in the last chapter is given a larger early role, and that there is general tweaking of the storyline to make it more dramatic. For those of you with an interest in this vintage film genre, it might well be an enjoyable diversion. (But be sure the read the book as well; it has charms of its own, though the original Miss Mayfield is no Joan Fontaine!)
And here is a rather detailed synopsis and analysis of both book and movie, containing abundant spoilers. I would suggest you read the book first, because it gives away all of the key twists, but it is most interesting after one is finished.