In this brilliantly imagined tale of adventure and timeless romance, novelist Camille DeAngelis blends WWII heroics with witchcraft and wit, conjuring a fabulously rich world where beldames and mortal men dare to fall in love. Read It Forward asked Camille to (first of all) tell us what a “beldame” is and to share a little bit about her novel and about the research that helped her create her most unique heroine.
Evelyn Harbinger, the heroine of Petty Magic, is 149 years old, and her favorite pastime is making herself a girl again for nights out on the town seducing young men. When people ask me what the novel is about, I usually use the word ‘witch’ even though Eve hates that word with a red-hot fiery passion, just because ‘witch’ is quicker to understand. (There’s an old-school witch on the cover, too, spiriting a little girl away on her broomstick—but this is ironically appropriate.)
Think of us as sibyls or seraphs—fearsome, oh yes, but more or less benevolent.
I had no interest in telling a story featuring any variation on the witches of popular folklore, or even the sort of wise-cracking hags in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld—it’s a tired archetype. Eve and the other beldames in Petty Magic are more superwomen than anything else: they live at least twice as long as ordinary women but age half as quickly; they can turn themselves into animals or travel thousands of miles in a twinkling. They can even render themselves invisible, but they get worn out and need to sleep and recharge just like anybody else. They spend their younger years in service—Eve is a nurse during the First World War and a spy in France and Germany in the Second—and when they retire they engage in whatever sort of ‘petty magic’ suits them best. Beldames can be sweet and solicitous like fairy godmothers, or…not. And they tell lies, so they say, only to keep the men in black from locking them up. They aren’t perfect beings by any means.
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Because Eve is a more benign enchantress than vindictive old hag, I needed a different word for her. In Coraline, Neil Gaiman refers to the ‘other mother’ as a beldam, as in ‘crone’ or ‘witch’ (the word comes from Middle English—bel, grand, and dam, mother, grandmother being the original meaning). In the dictionary ‘beldame’ is only listed as an alternate spelling, but in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (written in 1819, revised in 1820) Keats’s beldame is from the French, a ‘beautiful lady’—that is to say, a sorceress.
She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she gaz’d and sighed deep,
And there I shut her wild sad eyes–
So kiss’d to sleep.
And there we slumber’d on the moss,
And there I dream’d, ah woe betide,
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill side.
I saw pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cry’d—”La belle Dame sans merci
Hath thee in thrall!”
The belle dame is a dangerous woman—a fairy, or a sort of banshee—who, in medieval legend, would lure men into an enchanted forest and make them lose all desire for anything else, even to go on living. The poem harks back to the chivalric tradition, in which ‘women were to be loved from afar and to be considered unattainable.’
Like I said, I didn’t want to resurrect any tired old types, be it crone or succubus. Archetypes aren’t terribly interesting unless you can somehow subvert them—or better yet, subvert and reinforce. Can a ‘dangerous woman’ have (mostly) good intentions—and be wickedly good company? Maybe not Keats’ beldame, but definitely mine.
Visit the author at www.camilledeangelis.com