Book Review: Doreen Valiente Witch

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[Today we welcome guest writer Link with his review of the upcoming Philip Heselton book. A Gardnerian initiate, Link is a member of the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) and is the US National Coordinator for the Pagan Federation International. The name “Link” is a simple, one-syllable reminder of how all things interconnect. Link’s writing focuses on seeing the sacred and magickal side of everyday life, and has been published in many parts of the world since the 1990s. Jobwise, he has worked for several international telecommunications companies in the US, Europe and Latin America, again a lesson in how things connect. He currently lives in Miami Beach.]

dvwReview: Doreen Valiente – Witch. Written by Philip Heselton. Published by the Center for Pagan Studies in cooperation with the Doreen Valiente Foundation, (pp. 357)

Philip Heselton, has done it again!  

His latest book, an in-depth biography of Doreen Valiente, tells Doreen’s story like never told before. While many of us may be familiar with parts of Doreen’s life, this biography enables us to know her not just as a witch or as an author, but as a person. As we learn about Doreen through reading the book, we also learn about the Craft which she helped shape, and we connect more deeply with its roots.  

There are countless nuggets of precious information about Doreen and the early days of the Craft scattered all about our communities, buried deep over the decades. Heselton’s research gathers them all together, creating a beautiful mosaic of Doreen’s life, presented in over 340 pages. Heselton probed public records and published works, but more importantly he talked with everyone and anyone who may have had any information. For those that who knew Doreen well, he documented their fond memories of her. 

For example, Heselton shares bits of a conversation that he had with one of Doreen’s family members:

There’s a lot of things about Doreen that were secret… She used to disappear and they didn’t know where she was, not even her mother. (p. 39)

Other personal conversations cited include Heselton’s talks with Fred Lamond and Dayonis, both former members of Gerald Gardner’s Bricket Wood coven in England during the 1950s. There are also quotes from Patricia Crowther, Lois Bourne, Janet Farrar and many others. He includes a remembrance by Jean Williams recalling how Doreen cast the circle with her broomstick, “taking command of the space.” She summed up Doreen quite well, saying:

I have never before, or since, witnessed such natural authority. (p. 284)

Some of these people are elders in their own right who will not be here to tell their stories and answer our questions forever. Perhaps the best way to describe this book is that it is not just a biography, but it is a public service and a true gift to the Craft community.  

There is an entire chapter devoted to the times that Doreen and Patricia Crowther had spent together. Entitled “Record of a Friendship” the chapter uncovers a treasure of memories about these two amazing ladies, putting many rare cherished recollections within easy reach, recorded for generations to come. Heselton includes a story told by Patricia Crowther of a ritual she did with Doreen and others; shortly afterwards an amazing piece of poetry was channeled. Heselton introduces Crowther’s story:

On one such visit, on 25th September 1968 a dramatic event occurred. At the request of a London witch, Andrew Demain, it was decided to conduct a night-time ritual in the hollow above the Long Man of Wilmington, an ancient chalk carving on the South Downs between Eastbourne and Lewes… (p. 225)

The morning after the ritual, Crowther awoke with the poem “The Awakening,” in her head.

The book is generously laced with photos of Doreen as well as the people, places and things that were part of her life. This includes some photos which have never been published before.  

doreen valiente

[Courtesy of the Doreen Valiente Foundation]

From the very start, Doreen’s life was magickal indeed. In the chapter entitled “Child of the Goat-God” we learn about Doreen’s birth, including the reason why the doctor who delivered Doreen did so while wearing full evening dress and Masonic Regalia. By age 7, she was very aware of her natural psychic ability and at age 13 she performed something quite amazing to successfully protect her home and family.

Heselton has uncovered details about Doreen’s life which only a super-sleuth could have found. For example, as a young woman during World War II Doreen was talented in translations, transcription and linguistics – skills which the British Government looked favorably upon as part of their wartime intelligence work. The chapter entitled “Glimpses through the Shadows” begins with Heselton explaining: 

Whatever Doreen did during the war, it was shrouded in secrecy. She never said anything about it herself. The most we get are odd hints that set us on what becomes a fascinating trail. (p. 39)

This book is an important piece of research that unveils new layers in not just Doreen’s life, but in the history of the Craft as well. For example, many people have heard that Gerald Gardner initiated Doreen. However, Heselton also reveals that another person was initiated that same night. Who were they and why were they initiated with Doreen? No spoilers.

If I had to choose one area of her life I would have liked to read more about in this biography, it would be more details on times spent with Gerald and the early days of the Craft. Regardless, the book brings to life many facets of Doreen that I ever knew before. What were her favorite sports to bet on? What was her system to pick winners at horse racing? What “old spell” did her mother perform when Doreen was a child?

Many might not know that Doreen helped form the first known “Pagan rights” organization named the Witch’s Defense League and yet another more assertive group called the Pagan Front. Today’s well-respected organizations such as the Pagan Federation, Covenant of the Goddess, Lady Liberty League and others were born many years later.

[Courtesy Doreen Valiente Foundation]

[Courtesy Doreen Valiente Foundation]

To those who have read Doreen’s work, or who feel a Craft connection to her, this book is a must-read and a very effective means to know her on a deeper level. For those who are not familiar with her or her work, the book presents an amazing story of a strong and powerful-minded woman who truly took her own spirituality by the reigns. Author, wife, high priestess, poet. And witch. Doreen’s story charts the many steps she took on her own path — just as we too may have taken as seekers, hungering to learn, learning by doing, and then passing on a lifetime of experiences as a guide for others. Even mainstream readers not familiar with Wicca would find useful insights in this book as a tale of one woman’s journey and an example of how a spiritual quest can shape (and reshape) one’s entire life.  

Heselton’s writing style is warm and personal; on each page you can truly feel the affection in the author’s voice and the high regard in which he held Doreen. Unlike many of today’s Pagan authors, his writing is highly structured with an academic professionalism. Heselton not only paints a beautiful seascape of her life, but also footnotes each grain of sand with surgical precision wherever possible, citing its source. If you are the type of reader who uses footnotes like kindling and a catalyst to dig deeper into a subject, you will appreciate his work.

The book also includes an appendix detailing a chronology of Doreen’s life, and another appendix with a special message from John Belham-Payne, her last High Priest. In “Doreen as I Knew Her,” he describes her as a bit of a hippy chick: 

With revolution in the air I think she felt the promise of freedom of expression and thought.  For Doreen, that never went away. (p. 315)

Toward the closing of the book there is a visionary piece written by Trustee Ashley Mortimer describing the formation of the Doreen Valiente Foundation. He writes: 

Doreen’s presence pervades every aspect of the entire modern Pagan community, from the words spoken in ritual to the very way we think about our Paganism and look outwards towards the rest of society,” Ashley explains.  “We need the world to understand that Doreen Valiente’s legacy belongs to everyone… (p. 327)

And with “everyone” in mind, the Foundation was formed as a non-profit public trust that will carry Doreen’s contributions well into the future. So perhaps the book’s ending is really just the beginning

Published by the Centre for Pagan Studies in association with the Doreen Valiente FoundationDoreen Valiente – Witch will be officially released in February 2016. The book launch will be held at the prestigious Treadwell’s Bookshop in LondonPre-orders are now being taken on a first-come first served basis. Buying directly from the foundation supports the two organizations which have been preserving Doreen’s work, and offers the opportunity for a personalized autographed copy signed by Philip Heselton.

Just as Jack Bracelin’s biography “Gerald Gardner – Witch” has become a cornerstone of Craft bookshelves around the world, this book will too.