I should have known from the cover model’s unnecessarily bared shoulder this would raise my feminist hackles
Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife is a strange little book.It is expertly written, and it is also utterly misogynist. Conjure Wife, written in 1943, is generally well-regarded and pointed to as an early and promising example of horror and urban fantasy. Some go so far as to call it a classic. Three films have been made using it as a starting point.
But, were anyone to ask me (and obviously no one did as this book review, like all of my book reviews, is unsolicited and will likely disappear, unread, into the great, all-consuming maw of the internet), it’s got more than a few problems. It has strengths, for sure…but for me personally the flaws outweigh the strengths in the grand scheme of things. We’ll get to my analysis of it in a second. Before we can analyze anything, however, we have to know what we’re working with, yes? So, let’s plunge ahead into HUGELY SPOILER LADEN plot territory.
Conjure Wife goes a little something like this:
There’s a youngish professor of sociology named Norman Saylor currently working at a small liberal arts college somewhere. He doesn’t fit well at this college — he’s the sort of irrepressible and brilliant young scholar that is always causing trouble (like threatening to give lectures about the glories of premarital sex to the Off-Campus Mothers League or having wild parties with his actor friends from New York City) that his students love but his colleagues are less thrilled with. Somehow, in psite of this lack of fit, he is ding well for himself in the academic world. He’s got a nice comfortable life with his wife Tansy, and their little cat, Totem. He’s even up for the chairmanship of his department.
But then, for literally no reason (in fact, Leiber goes out of his way to mention that this specific act is largely out of character for Norman Saylor), good Professor Saylor goes snooping through his wife’s dressing room. In it, he finds strange little things — vials of graveyard dirt, fingernail clippings, mysterious flannel packets* — that he recognizes from his research as the odds and ends used in conjure magic. Perplexed, he confronts her about it and she tearfully confesses that yes, she has been practicing magic right under his nose all these years. He tells her to stop, she agrees, and they set about ridding their house of her protective charms. And then, the shit hits the fan. One thing after another after another goes wrong for Saylor. A deranged student tries to shoot him. An equally deranged student accuses him of coming on to her. Their beloved cat Totem is killed by a mysterious force that may or may not be a stone dragon that is sometimes perched watchfully outside his office window. He not only fails to get the chairmanship of the sociology department, but his career is jeopardized when his colleagues start taking a closer look at his behaviors.
He starts to wonder, in spite of his highly prized rationality, if maybe there was something to Tansy’s charms after all. Of course, he still thinks deep down that there isn’t, and as if she’s some sort of recovering addict, he refuses to tell her everything that’s going down for fear she’ll fall off the wagon. But it becomes clear soon enough that things are going badly, and after a raucous night of drinking and cavorting (of a chaste 1943 variety), Tansy pulls off one last piece of magic — she has him unwittingly transfer all the harmful spells targeted on him to her.
That’s when the going really gets rough. It turns out that the people behind all this are the other faculty wives, women who are jockeying for position amongst each other and using their husbands’ careers as pawn pieces. It’s not entirely clear at this point why Norman Saylor is being targeted so malevolently, but it’s clear that the other wives are behind it. They work together to make the finishing blow against the Saylors, which leads Tansy to run off in the dead of night leaving only an unfinished set of scribbled instructions for her husband. He follows a trail of broken notes and tries to perform a spell to pull her out of danger (though what the danger is, precisely, he doesn’t know), only to complete the spell one single minute too late. The husk of his wife — his wife in body only — is returned to him and tells him the faculty wives have stolen her soul.
From there, the book follows Norman Saylor as he desperately tries to learn as much about magic from the soulless (but still quite communicative) husk of his wife so he can rescue her soul and return it to her body. He finds out that the vast majority of women practice magic in secret, and that because of the secrecy most spells are worked out laboriously, in isolation, through trial-and-error. Saylor tricks an old math professor friend of his (whose wife happens to be one of the three faculty wives terrorizing him for not yet clear reasons) into working out the underlying essential elements of various magic spells that will help him get Tansy’s soul back, and does so by using magic himself to steal the soul of one of the faculty wives. He forces a trade: the faculty wife’s soul can go back to her body if she returns his wife’s soul to his wife’s body. The faculty wife concedes and all looks like it’ll turn out well after all.
But the plot thickens! Just then, the wife of the old math professor comes by the house as Tansy is explaining that the wife of the old math professor, in fact, masterminded this whole soul-switching thing. And that Norman really should shoot the wife of the old math professor because she’s definitely up to no good. But he doesn’t. Instead, he winds up playing bridge with the three evil faculty wives while the terrible spouse of the old math professor goes on about how much fun she’s about to have in Tansy Saylor’s body (specifically how much fun she’ll have with Norman Saylor in Tansy Saylor’s body) and explains that she’s brought them all there for her coup de grace: switching bodies with Tansy Saylor permanently. And then, with Norman’s help, she does it.
But wait! Remember how our Norman Saylor is clever and brilliant? Yes, he outsmarts them all. Turns out the old hag had already switched bodies with Tansy Saylor (seriously, trying to keep up with who was in who’s body and who had who’s soul was a little like watching the shell game) and that he’d realized this when what looked like his wife was trying to get him to shoot the old lady. He saw right through that and engineered the fateful bridge game himself to get his wife’s body and his wife’s soul reunited for real this time. And he did. And he and Tansy (presumably) lived happily ever after.
As you can see from the detailed plot synopsis above, tons of stuff happens. Really, it’s a very quick and satisfying read. But towards the end of it, I found myself plagued by questions. The biggest issue for me was how gender was treated throughout the book. Now, again, I recognize that this was written in 1943, but I don’t think its age excuses the outright sexism strewn throughout the book. It seemed like Leiber was, through much of the book, trying to say something about the restrictiveness of gender roles during that time period. The way he writes women as these shadowed puppeteers of men’s lives, the way they enact power by subtly manipulating men who have societally recognized power, is a clever if often-used example of the trope about how behind every powerful man, there’s a powerful woman. It didn’t even really bother me that most of these powerful women lurking in the shadows were of the Lady MacBeth type. It is, after all, a horror story. What bothered me was that the meager amounts of agency this construction of men and women’s roles give women is demolished when Norman Saylor runs in and saves the day.
Think about it: he’s hyper-masculine in his rationality. It takes him basically the entire book before he’s willing to admit that maybe magic actually works. He routinely derides women for their inherent irrationality — hell, his first big academic break was some tome about how the fairer sex is suspicious and riddled with neuroses — and ties the practice of magic to their intuitiveness and said irrationality. The underlying essentialism of this, not to mention this whole idea of men are rational/women are magical is inherently binarist, really rubbed me (a genderqueer person who’s had a shit ton of misogyny heaped on them throughout their life) the wrong way. That would be enough for me to want to throw the book out the window. Then, though, everything got upended. Turns out Norman Saylor is so damned rational that he rationally finds a way (via that aforementioned old math professor, who incidentally also a totally manfully rational man) to practice magic, and of course this masculinized, rational form of magic is much more powerful than the magic of witches who have been practicing their arts for decades. He’s more or less a prodigy. So, not only do we have a book in which a man swoops in to save the damsel in distress, but we have one in which a man co-opts the only sort of power the women around him have, perfects it, and then uses it to save the damsel. A damsel, it should be noted, he himself earlier dismissed as neurotic for protecting him with said feminine power earlier in the book. So, while this starts as an interesting look at male paranoia and male privilege, it certainly doesn’t end that way.
I also had problems with the villain. Mrs. Carr, the wife of the old math professor, is apparently a revolutionary and brilliant witch. Tansy Saylor says as much when she tells Norman that before Mrs. Carr, women had never used their magic in tandem (really? never, really?). Mrs. Carr orchestrated the first group plot, worked out magic with other women willingly and openly, and basically found a whole new way to get shit done. Now, that’s kind of cool, isn’t it? I think so. Imagine if the book had been about the women and how revolutionary it could have been if they learned how much more complex and far-reaching their spells could be in groups. Imagine, if you will, if the women’s lib movement was actually a mass movement of magic-based table turning helmed by a seemingly benign old lady. That could’ve been a hell of a book done right.
But in this book, Mrs. Carr is not exploring and amplifying the strength of her magic because she finds her lifelong role as a supportive companion to a bumbling math professor confining, or even to just better understand the nature of the magic she uses itself. No, she uses it because she’s obsessed with youth and has the hots for Norman Saylor. It seemed strange to me, when her ultimate motivations were revealed, that that’s all she wanted. A woman with that much potential, that much ambition, and all she wanted was a man who clearly couldn’t stand her and body upgrade? It just read as so reductionistic, and patronizing, that nothing else could motivate her. And that’s when the book really lost me. In the last chapter, during the climactic bridge game, I found myself wondering more about Mrs. Carr and what kind of live she must have lived that she would use such awe-inspiring power (because honestly, soul stealing is heavy duty stuff) just to get a chance to live out the rest of her years pretending to be another woman, to live with a man she know actually despises who she really is. I didn’t care much about whether things worked out for the Saylors, frankly.
In sum, this was a well-constructed book but also an incredibly anti-feminist one. I wanted to cut it some slack because of when it was written, but I can’t — I mean, Virginia Woolf had already strutted her stuff by then; it wasn’t like no one was working in critiques of gender socialization into literary works. Conjure Wife, ultimately, feels like a long-winded bit of benevolent sexism: well-meaning and unintentionally condescending, but condescending nonetheless.
*The magic used throughout clearly owes a whole lot to voodoo, but all the practitioners in the book were middle class white women. So really this book needs a much more intersectional critique highlighting the racial elements of the text as well, but I am not qualified to provide said race critique on account that (a) I am white and I’d rather center a woman of color’s voice on this, and (b) I don’t know enough about the racialized contexts of voodoo to make that critique myself.