Sylvia Townsend Warner was a true polymath – New Yorker short-story writer, scholar of Tudor Church Music, biographer, poet translator of Proust and writer of guide books. She was an ardent Communist and openly lived with the poet Valentine Ackland for nearly 40 years. She is a great English writer and one that should be remembered far more than she is. Her writing is clear and sharp, and her novels are immensely distinctive. Lolly Willowes is her first book, a subversive fantasia in which women are urged to take power and resist ‘an existence doled out to you by others’. It is magical in a kind of faerie way, celebrating the sometimes mundane reality of the supernatural and its ability to transform the everyday.
Laura Willowes, from a good if unexciting county family, comes to live in London after the death of her father. Lolly is the name given to her by her various nieces and nephews, the children she spends her time looking after on behalf of her brothers. The real Laura Willowes, with all her thoughts and ideas, is lost in family duty. She spends some twenty years in London being virtuous and slowly having her natural verve dulled and diminished. Finally Lolly has a revelation and sees her family household in London for what it really is: ‘half hidden under their accumulations – accumulations of prosperity, authority, daily experience. They were carpeted with experience. No new event could set jarring feet on them but they would absorb and muffle the impact’. Her new resolve and distress at the way that London has sapped her leads her to take lodgings in the Buckinghamshire village of Great Mop. Lolly reverts to her real name of Laura in the countryside (Lolly is what she is when an aunt and therefore defined by others). She finds a quiet independence and mounting self-definition in the sleepy village. She throws away her map of the countryside, rejecting masculine defining knowledge for a countrified understanding of the local area, an empathy with the place she lives in. She is alone on the hillside in the dark when she comes closest to understanding the great sadness and horror in her soul; the experience leaves her ‘changed, and knew it. She was humbler, and more simple’.
Yet she is not left to herself, and her nephew Titus soon comes to live in Great Mop in order to write a book on Vasari. He is nice but boorish, a man who loves ‘the country as if it were a body’. His unacknowledged assumption of such ownership contrasts clearly with Laura’s unconditional love: ‘Most of all she hated him for imposing his kind of love on her. Since he had come to Great Mop she had not been allowed to love in her own way’. Yet she is not meek any longer; soon after this she rather innocently makes what she thinks is a compact with the devil to maintain the quiet solitude she loves (the devil’s form is initially a kitten who bites her). Satan agrees to rid her of Titus (he sends bees and a fiancé from London) in exchange for her soul. Her choice to become unsocial, to reject London and the masculine city is evoked in her turn to the devil (‘But in the moment of election, under the stress and turmoil of the hunted Lolly as under a covering of darkness, the true Laura had settled in all unerringly. She had known where to turn’).
The devil is a rather pleasant character, more protective than anything else – he is the ‘loving huntsman’ of the title. Indeed, for all that he is referred to as Satan he is much more like a pagan figure such as Pan, a shepherd of lost souls. Laura considers herself to have become a witch, and attends a midnight pagan Sabbath with the other villagers. The social freedom at this ceremony leads to a number of new relationships (not least the wonder of dancing with Emily, the ‘pasty-faced and anaemic young slattern’ who dances ‘with a fervour that annihilated every misgiving’; she and Laura become ‘fused together […] the contact made her tingle from head to foot’). This energises and liberates Laura, and she escapes the strictures of duty, family, order and civilisation. She tells Satan how much need women have of him: ‘Women have such vivid imaginations, and lead such dull lives. Their pleasure in life is so soon over; they are so dependent upon others, and their dependence soon becomes a nuisance’. Warner uses the figure of Laura to suggest that women are controlled through their relationships with men, that they have no liberty to express themselves. Making her central character a witch, and a witch who is quite happy to be one, undermines centuries of male caricaturing of the unfettered desires of women as devilish. Laura cries ‘Nothing for them except subjection and plaiting their hair’. The dullness of everyday life for women ‘settles down on one like a fine dust, and by and by the dust is age, settling down […] there is a dreadful kind of dreary immortality about being settled down on by one day after another’.
Laura creates a life for herself by forsaking the things that male society would have her love: children; family; home; ancestry. She finds happiness in the countryside, in becoming a witch: ‘to show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure’. The whole experience is ‘to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others’. This liberation is all the more shattering in the novel due to Warner’s careful setting of the scene. Over half the book outlines the cloying dullness of Lolly’s life before she becomes Laura again; the ‘settling down’ experienced by other women is clearly shown to us before being joyously shed. Warner celebrates the ability of the English countryside to effect a revelation in one’s self-definition. She writes in a tradition, stretching back to Rabelais, of the revolutionary spirit of carnival, but also adds to a very English way of thinking about the pagan spirit of the land. Lolly Willowes is a piece of English whimsy much like Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill or the Piper at the Gates of Dawn section of The Wind in the Willows; celebrating the raw, slightly frightening power of the country spirit. It is a deeply satisfying, sweet book, which has extremely important things to say; it is also a stylistic gem, a gentle, great novel.