Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Freedom of Becoming a Witch

Lolly WillowesLolly Willowes 
by Sylvia Townsend Warner

“That’s why we become witches: to show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure. It’s not malice, or wickedness - well, perhaps it is wickedness, for most women love that - but certainly not malice, not wanting to plague cattle and make horrid children spout up pins and - what is it? - “blight the genial bed.”   ― Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes

Sylvia Townsend Warner was a feminist author in England who began publishing with her first novel at about the time that Virginia Woolf published her seminal essay, "A Room of One's Own"*.  Warner ran in different circles and was friendly with a number of the "Bright young things" of the 1920s that were famously satirized by Evelyn Waugh in his short novel Vile Bodies. Warner's first major success was this novel, Lolly Willowes, published in 1926.

Lolly Willowes is the story of a middle-aged spinster who moves to a country village to escape her controlling relatives and takes up the practice of witchcraft. The novel opens at the turn of the twentieth century, with Laura (Lolly) Willowes moving from Somerset to London to live with her brother, Henry, and his family. Her move comes in the wake of the death of Laura's father, Everard, with whom she lived with at the family home, Lady Place. Laura's other brother, James, moves into Lady Place with his wife and his young son, Titus, with the intention to continue the family's brewing business. However, James dies suddenly of a heart attack and Lady Place is rented out, with the view that Titus, once grown up, will return to the home and run the business.

Laura finds herself feeling increasingly stifled both by the obligations of being a live-in aunt and living in London. When shopping for flowers on the Moscow Road, Laura has an epiphany and realizes she must move to the country. Buying a guide book and map to the area, she decides upon the (fictional) village of Great Mop as her new home. Against the wishes of her extended family, Laura moves to Great Mop and finds herself entranced and overwhelmed by the chalk hills and beech woods. When out walking, she makes a pact with a supernatural force that she takes to be Satan, allowing her to remain in the Chilterns rather than return to her duties as an aunt.

In the meantime, Titus, having visited Laura, has decided he wants to move from his lodgings in Bloomsbury to Great Mop and be a writer, rather than inheriting the family business. Laura is frustrated by this but is able to call upon black magic to discourage Titus to the extent that he decides to get married and retreat to London. The denouement of the story leaves Laura acknowledging that the new freedom she has achieved comes at the expense of knowing that she belongs to the 'satisfied but profound indifferent ownership' of Satan.

Warner's writing style is sublime. She demonstrates a subtle humor leavened with unexpected turns of phrase that delighted this reader. Her take on this satirical comedy of manners incorporates elements of fantasy that represent, metaphorically, the plight of women in the era before they "have a room" of their own.  Having enjoyed this short novel I will definitely consider her other work including The Corner that Held Them, Mr Fortune’s Maggot and Summer will Show.

A Room of One's Own is an extended essay by Virginia Woolf. First published on 24 October 1929,  the essay was based on a series of lectures she delivered at Newnham College and Girton College, two women's colleges at Cambridge University in October 1928.  While the  essay in fact employs a fictional narrator and narrative to explore women both as writers of and characters in fiction, the manuscript for the delivery of the series of lectures, titled "Women and Fiction",  which was published in Forum March 1929, and hence the essay, are considered non-fiction.  The essay has become a seminal feminist text, and is noted in its argument for both a literal and figurative space for women writers within a literary tradition dominated by men.

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Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary on this book James.

I had never heard of this. The plot sounds really appealing. The characters sound good and I like that writing in the quote that you posted.

I am putting this on my list of books that I will try to read in the next year.

James said...

I was not familiar with this author either, but a friend of mine told me she had many short stories published in The New Yorker magazine. The most impressive aspect of this novel was her prose style.

wwhidden said...

Lolly Willowes is one of my favorite books, I had a very used copy, but enjoyed it so much I bought the nyrb edition. I love how controlled the prose is and how Townsend makes the supernatural elements seem like nothing out of the ordinary. I particularly enjoyed the feminist message deflfy delivered.

James said...


Thanks for sharing your interest in Townsend. She is successful in portraying the supernatural in a very "natural" way.