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Lolly Willowes: Feminism, Witchcraft, Scones

2012 July 18

The latest in a stream of wonderful and undeservedly obscure feminist literature that my mother sends my way (see also The Hearing Trumpet) is a novel from 1926 called Lolly Willowes.


When her father dies, thoughtful, solitary Laura moves from their home in the country to the house of her brother and his family where she spends decades in a pleasant but stultifying routine of needlework, small talk and dull family holidays. Laura settles into being “useful and obliging” Aunt Lolly, but can never escape the feeling that there is something missing from her existence.

While her body sat before the first fires and was cosy with Henry and Caroline, her mind walked by lonely seaboards, in marshes and fens, or came at nightfall to the edge of a wood. She never imagined herself in these places by daylight. She never thought of them as being in any way beautiful. It was not beauty at all that she wanted… Her mind was groping after something that eluded her experience, a something that was shadowy and menacing, and yet in some way congenial.

St Nicholas Church, Idbury. Photo by Jonathon Billinger

St Nicholas Church in Idbury, where Sylvia Townsend Warner lived in the 1920s. Photo by Jonathon Billinger

One day, aged 47, the insistent voice within overwhelms her. She claims her rightful income from her brother and moves to a village in the Chilterns where she revels in her newfound independence, solitude and connection with nature. When her freedom is threatened by the arrival in the village of her dear but demanding nephew Titus she does what any of us would do: makes a pact with Satan to send him on his way.

A problem as common as blackberries

There is a feminist thread that runs brightly through this gentle, surprising and occasionally sinister story. Just have a look at the Austen-worthy comment early on, describing Laura as a young woman:

Being without coquetry she did not feel herself bound to feign a degree of entertainment which she had not experienced, and the same deficiency made her insensible to the duty of every marriageable young woman to be charming, whether her charm be directed towards one special object or, in default of that, universally distributed through a disinterested love of humanity.

But I suspect Laura’s plight will strike a chord with anyone who prefers their own company. All she wants is to be left alone. She is forced to take radical steps (going against her family’s wishes, negotiating with her brother for the return of the money she is owed, moving to a place she has never been, living alone and, um, becoming a witch) simply so that she can be left to her own devices. And she sees that countless other women are locked into the same comfortable cage:

I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded. If they could be passive and unnoticed, it wouldn’t matter. But they must be active, and still not noticed. Doing,  doing, doing, till mere habit scolds at them like a housewife, and rouses them up – when they might sit in their doorways and think – to be doing still!

Although the description of Laura’s first witches’ sabbath and her conversations with Satan are delightful and strikingly original even now, the novel isn’t about witchcraft. A far greater proportion of the book is devoted to Laura’s childhood and time with her brother’s family in London than to her time in the village of Great Mop.

Where else to turn?

Her entry into the service of the dark lord is presented as the only escape for a soul which has for so long been cornered and boxed in by convention. It is the inevitable conclusion of the binding restrictions placed on women’s self-determination by the demands of propriety and duty, most of all to be meek and helpful and always anchored to a man, whether a father, brother or husband. Laura recognises the structures which have created and perpetuated her captivity:

As for her own share in the matter, she felt no shame at all. It had pleased Satan to come to her aid. Considering carefully she could not see who else would have done so. Custom, public opinion, law, church and state – all would have shaken their massive heads against her plea and sent her back to bondage.

The simultaneous sharp departure from the usual of Laura and her narrative gives the end of the novel a quietly bold and subversive mood. And while there’s not a lot of actual witchiness there is plenty of subtly uncanny imagery. For example, on a whim Laura bakes some scones in the shapes of her neighbours, and watches as her guest eats “the strange shapes without comment, quietly splitting open the villagers and buttering them”.

Sylvia Townsend Warner

There is some clever stuff going on here, which is unsurprising given that the author is one of English literature’s great unsung heroes, Sylvia Townsend Warner.

Sylvia Townsend Warner reading

Sylvia Townsend Warner

Although she was celebrated in her lifetime as a musicologist as well as an author she is largely unknown today, despite the notoriety one might expect her to have for living more or less openly as a lesbian (with the dashing poet Valentine Ackland) and campaigning on behalf of the Communist Party.

You can find out more about her from the splendid Sylvia Townsend Warner Society, and I recommend you do, and read Lolly Willowes even if you don’t get around to all her fascinating novels.




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