Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman (1926)
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
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
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.