The Little Wax Doll
Norah Lofts | Fawcett Crest Books | 1960 | 224 pages
Returning to England after twenty years of missionary work in Africa, Deborah Mayfield accepts a position as headmistress at a private school in the small village of Walwyk. A forty-four year old spinster, Deborah relishes the prospect of the simple life in the English countryside, teaching the village children and enjoying the amenities of her private cottage. However, a dark local history hangs over Walwyk, with seventeenth century stories telling of Oliver Cromwell’s forces entering the village, but all succumbing to a mysterious fatal illness.
After visiting the cemetery plots of Cromwell’s men, Deborah suspects that happiness may elude her in her bucolic new life. Later, her intangible fears manifest themselves in a troubling note left on her desk at school, written in an exaggeratedly childish script.
“Ethel Rigby’s granny treat her something crool.”
Deborah identifies her student Sydney Baines, son of the village handyman, as the author of the note, and ultimately questions Granny Rigby about Ethel. However, Sydney’s mother seems determined to make Deborah ignore his warning about his young school friend. Previous allegations of abuse in the Rigby house—also lodged by Sydney—precipitated a mysterious illness, an affliction Sydney’s mother attributed to black magic directed against her son.
As before, Sydney again falls stricken with a sudden malady, lapsing into a coma and needing immediate hospitalization. The discovery of a small wax figure in Ethel’s desk, along with the constant presence of Granny Rigby’s black cat in her cottage, leads Deborah to a startling realization.
“Granny R. is a witch and the cat is her familiar.”
That conclusion comes as no great surprise in this tale of suspicion and murder in a small English village, but the ramifications are delayed as the story takes a step back. Threatening the school’s founder and patron, Canon Thorby, with reporting her allegations of witchcraft to the local authorities, Deborah receives a near-fatal blow to the head. She awakens with a complete loss of memory from since the time of her return from Africa. Although the wait for Deborah to trigger her memories–and return to the reader’s level of knowledge–is relatively brief, the delay slows down the storytelling momentum.
“They’re all in it and there’s nobody you can trust, so be warned by me and mind your own business, or better still get out of the place.”
Once recovered with her memories intact, Deborah’s determination to save Ethel from the occult designs placed upon her by her grandmother remains unwavering. A sympathetic merchant in a neighboring village, who possesses childhood memories of being witness to a Walwyk coven, is introduced as a possible source of assistance in Deborah’s mission, but she remains a refreshingly self-reliant heroine. Partly due to a justifiably paranoid outlook towards her fellow villagers, she proceeds on her own with a plan to rescue Ethel–not necessarily a good plan, but her own, without the help of outside aid.
Deborah even resists the common trap among Gothic romance heroines of falling in love with her employer. This romantic resistance could be attributed to the long years accrued past her impressionable ingénue prime, or perhaps, to Canon Thorby’s pathological sister fixation.