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August 2004
 
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Great Mischief by Josephine Pinckney (1948)

THIS enchanting novel transports you to the Charleston, South Carolina, of a more gracious era. Our protagonist, Timothy Partridge, is an apothecary. His shabby-genteel pharmacy is failing. The pharmaceutical innovations of his era (1886) are beyond his means. As he frets, a customer disconcerts him by demanding solanum—nightshade—supposedly for her ailing father. Timothy, an amateur occultist, guesses that the alkaloid will not be used medicinally. She quashes his objections. Her name is Lucy Farr, the emancipated daughter of an unruly family. Sinkinda is her witch name; she ensorcells Timothy.

Timothy's spinster sister, Penelope, lives upstairs. Her philanthropies (e.g., the wraithlike Mr. Dombie, a charity case living under their roof) have bankrupted the household. As Timothy's allegiances erode, he inadvertently starts a fire. Everything that oppresses him—including Penelope—burns.

With insurance money he relocates to an unseemly garçonnière where he is "visited" by Lucy/Sinkinda. Their jubilantly sweet romance will melt into your heart. But the novel darkens. Lucy/Sinkinda is committed to the supernatural world and Satan. Timothy, a druggist, cannot transcend his vision of Life as an unmysticised hierarchy of formulations and prescriptions.

Josephine Lyons Scott Pinckney (1895-1957) is the real enchantress of this ironic fantasy. Her characters are imbued with a troubling emotional and moral verisimilitude. The exaltation and the eventual collapse of their liaison resonates uneasily. Pinckney gently and beadily makes us realize that Satan is the emblem of the nullification of self-blame. Great Mischief, ultimately, is a lustrous meditation about disenchantment.

&mdashJason Van Hollander;

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