Reviewed: Doreen Valiente – Witch by Philip Heselton

By Kate Large

Doreen Valiente - Witch book cover

Doreen Valiente – Witch | Philip Heselton | Centre For Pagan Studies Ltd

“This is the book I should have written.” So begins John Belham-Payne’s haunting opening to Philip Heselton’s new book: a sentence that took on a whole new resonance when John passed recently.

He had begun to write Doreen Valiente’s life story, but on realising the scale of the project, and knowing Heselton’s Witchfather works on Gerald Gardner, John decided that Philip was better placed to produce a biography of “the greatest single female source in the modern British history of witchcraft” (Ronald Hutton). That said, John Belham-Payne was insistent from the outset that as Doreen’s life and work should not be viewed through a haze of sentiment. Ever clear-minded and devoted to uncovering truths through research, I think that Doreen would have approved wholeheartedly of this approach.

Heselton is definitely being overly modest when he says the book does “little more than lay some foundation stones for others to build on”, but it’s true that Doreen’s huge archive of material may yet yield up further secrets. But he’s absolutely right in describing this book as a springboard for further enquiry: it’s impossible to read it without coming away with a desire to know more about Doreen Valiente – the person, the witch.

The author charts Doreen’s early years and her aptitude for all things magical: from her earliest years, she showed a strong connection to the land, a connection which later led her to research local traditions and witchcraft lore. That drive to seek out and collate information is a crucial aspect of Doreen’s character. She was a researcher ‘par excellence’ and, it should be remembered, every piece of information that she discovered and archived was done by spending painstaking hours in libraries, as well as extensive reading and interviewing. Next time you grab your mobile device and tap in a search term, just remember that.

This gift for research leads us to what was for me one of the book’s central revelations: that Doreen was employed during WW2 at Bletchley Park. Bletchley has long been a pet interest of mine and I’ve spent hours absorbed in books and first-hand accounts of life at the famous code-breaking centre. Known for employing a mix of wealthy, well-connected debutantes, code breakers computing visionaries, Doreen must have been talent-spotted and approached because of her aptitude for languages and conducting exacting research. However, as secrecy was paramount at Bletchley, and Doreen moved around a great deal at this point, there’s definitely more to find out. That said, Heselton has done a fantastic job in discovering as much as he has done. I’d love to see “Doreen’s war’ explored further, as I am sure more revelations await.

As to her magical work, we can’t talk of Doreen without bringing in Gerald Gardner. Even on the written page, Gardner can cast a long shadow, dominating every discussion, yet Heselton patiently unpicks the complex ebb and flow of local coven politics with scrupulous fairness. What is certain, though, is how much credit Doreen deserves for her contribution to his Book of Shadows. Her insistence on provenance saw her reject the notion of the existing text as an ancient artefact, and her re-working and removal of material from Crowley (as much as she admired his poetry), with the addition of her own work, set a whole new framework.

As Heselton quotes Prof.Ronald Hutton:

nothing like Doreen’s words for the White Moon Charge have been found in any older text, and they gave Wicca a theology as well as its finest piece of liturgy.” 

As John Belham-Payne points out, Doreen was not a lover of the limelight, making connections with people of all paths, but sitting back to draw her own conclusions. Open-minded by nature, she enjoyed learning about other magical traditions and practices, even if privately, she always marched to the beat of her own drum.

Doreen’s legacy is both physical and intangible, and while you can now visit an exhibition dedicated to Doreen, this book adds another crucial dimension. I don’t think it’s whimsy to say that reading his book is very much like connecting with Doreen herself; you can sense her unique combination of no-nonsense focus and deep, transcendent connection with the land.

The Doreen Valiente Foundation and The Centre for Pagan Studies have supported Philip Heselton in creating in this book, while allowing him the creative freedom to speak with his own voice. The entire Pagan community rallied round too providing everything from handwritten notes to anecdotes: the author’s acknowledgements bear testament to the many people who took the time to contribute their own voice to Doreen’s story.

When I received my review copy of this book, I handled it with kid gloves, conscious of its status as one of this year’s most important books (yes, already!) Now, it’s looking distinctly less pristine, as I’ve re-read it several times and often use its excellent index to help me with research. But I like to think Doreen would approve of my much-used, lived-in volume.

I think she sums it all up in the flysheet for her book An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present, in which she says:

“Witchcraft is as old as the human race, and it is actively practised today by people of all classes. To its devotees, witchcraft is more than spells and charms, or even secret meetings and rituals; it is a philosophy and a way of life.”