F. Marion Crawford’s current literary fame rests primarily on Wandering Ghosts, a 1911 posthumous collection of short stories of the supernatural. Crawford (1854-1909) attempted a long supernatural story once, The Witch of Prague. I just finished reading it. My advice? If it’s supernatural thrills you want, stick to Wandering Ghosts. The Witch of Prague is a Victorian cat fight, which is a lot less exciting than it sounds.
Your brain will reel, too, as I explain what’s going on here. No, this is not a picture of a woman with a migraine standing besides an opium addict. The woman on the left is Unorna, the Witch of Prague. Her name means “woman of February,” which in Prague is the cruelest month. She is called that because she comes from nowhere and has no kin, as is proper for a witch. She is in love with a man called “the Wanderer.” The woman on the right is Beatrice, because we’re into significant names here (think Dante), and she loves the Wanderer, and he loves her. Unorna knows where the Wanderer is. Beatrice does not. You know this isn’t going anywhere good, now, don’t you?
Beatrice looks drugged out because Unorna has put her into a deep hypnotic trance. That’s Unorna’s power, by the way. She can do it to anyone, even to wild animals. That’s why she’s a witch. Unorna’s brain is reeling because, in her infinite evil, she has decided to make Beatrice commit an unforgivable crime, and then die with that sin on her soul, doomed to Eternal Damnation. What is this unpardonable sin, before which even the hardened heart of Unorna quails? Why, to take the consecrated wafer from where it is kept in the nunnery’s chapel, and defile it by casting it on the floor. Crawford, in a footnote, assures us that someone has actually done this, so we should not think him mad for suggesting such a horrible deed in the novel.
That situation sums up everything that is good about The Witch of Prague, and everything that is bad, and sadly the latter outweighs the former. Crawford pushes hypnotism to the limit by openly raising the question of whether it is a natural or supernatural power. He has a masterful woman (always a threatening figure to Victorians), a mad scientist, a mysterious wanderer, and a love story. These are great ingredients. Above all, the novel offers a complex depiction of what love can be, and what it can make people do. Unfortunately, he had not yet learned the conciseness of his short stories, and rambles on at great length. He uses coincidence too freely. His entirely conventional morality forces him to make Beatrice a stick figure and her love appears colorless against the fiery passion of Unorna’s. This undercuts his analysis of love, robbing it of much of its interest. And with that lost, this novel becomes little more than a prolix morality play.
Sad to say, there is one other problem with The Witch of Prague I have to mention. Crawford traveled widely, but he absorbed the racial and ethnic prejudices of his time. The Czechs, or Bohemians as he calls them, are lightly stereotyped, but the Jews get battered. Indeed, Crawford puts a Jew into a major role in the story apparently for no better purpose than to tell an antisemitic story, which he assures us in another footnote is also based on history.
The edition I read was published in 1892 and featured many illustrations by W[illiam] J[ohn] Hennessy (1839-1917). I had never heard of Hennessy before. He was an Irish painter whose wood engravings illustrated many important literary works of his day. I’ve done web searches for his works, and am impressed by his paintings, and even some of his engravings. His work for The Witch of Prague is not up to his best, in my judgment. In particular, he never makes the two women look as beautiful as they are said to be. Maybe that’s just the difference between the aesthetics of the 1890s and today, but I don’t think so.
To conclude, The Witch of Prague is an unsatisfactory story, told at great length. One of Hennessy’s other engravings is entitled “You shall suffer, indeed.” Truer words were never spoken.