The Wise Woman

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Before entering an abbey at the age of eight, Alys learns witchcraft from Morach, the wise woman who cures through herbs and magical remedies. Having escaped the burning abbey during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, the seventeen-year-old Alys gains entry to Sir Hugh’s castle through her reputation as a healer, rising quickly through her knowledge of cures and Latin. She is willingly seduced by Hugh’s son, Lord Hugo, and becomes the enemy of Hugo’s wife, Catherine, who longs to give Hugo an heir. In her ambition for status and power, Alys plots to destroy Catherine and gain Hugo’s love for herself by modeling wax dolls and invoking her latent powers as a witch.

Through their passionate and erotic love, Alys seeks to subdue Hugo to her will. Unfortunately, Catherine becomes pregnant, but in a hideous twist of fate her child is born made of candle wax, like Alys’ dolls. Catherine dies, but Alys is stunned to learn that although she is pregnant with his child, Hugo will marry again in a political match. Alys will be kept in her place, a lowly position suited to her status at birth. She realizes that no power of witchcraft or cunning can challenge the authority of men.

In a searing drama of court intrigue and erotic ecstasy told in a sensuous style rich in historical allusions, Gregory’s characters reflect the religious and political upheavals of the period. When Sister Hildegard, Alys’ beloved mother superior at the convent, arrives in town and rails about her true religion, Alys fears that her hidden ties to Catholicism will be revealed to Hugo and the new Protestant landowners. Sister Hildegard, however, remains faithful to Alys. In a rare glimpse of compassion at the novel’s stunning end, Alys realizes that Lord Hugo will pay dearly for his erotic attachments to her and that her own powers as a wise woman are flawed. Nevertheless, in her startling, final self-revelation, she feels at peace because at last she finds “a love I would not betray.”