At the age of twenty-eight, Laura Willowes is quite content with her life. She feels no interest in marriage and lives with her father on the country estate, spending her time reading, brewing and indulging her fondness for botany. But then her father dies and she finds herself prevailed upon to move in with her brother and his wife in London.
There she lives passively, tucked away in the “small spare room”, helping to look after the children and being “indispensable for Christmas Eve and birthday preparations”. As Laura herself will observe of another woman later in the book, she has become the “typical genteel spinster” who spends “her life being useful to people who don’t want her”.
Everyone simply assumes that poor dear Lolly will be happy to live out the rest of her days in the role of model spinster aunt. But as she enters middle-age, something changes. She is dissatisfied. A potential, only glimpsed during earlier moments of her life, demands to be released:
“Her disquiet had no relevance to her life. It arose out of the ground with the smell of the dead leaves: it followed her through the darkening streets; it confronted her in the look of the risen moon. ‘Now! Now!’ it said to her”
Unable to ignore this call, she shocks her family by walking out on them and taking up lodgings in the isolated village of Great Mop. Once there, she realises that her destiny is even stranger than she first thought. The people of Great Mop, it seems, are in service to the Devil and, much to her surprise, Laura Willowes is about to enter into a new life as a witch.
Woven into the wit and charm of Lolly Willowes is a far more serious story about women’s freedom and self-determination. Sylvia Townsend Warner takes as her starting point a woman who has almost no value in the eyes of her society (plain, middle-aged, unmarried and childless), and then insists on this woman’s right to independence and her own rich internal world. She also insists on Laura’s right to be solitary and to live unburdened by the demands of others.
In one of my favourite parts of the novel, Laura receives a visit from her nephew Titus. She’s fond of Titus, but since taking up her new role as a witch, she finds that her perspective on their relationship has changed. His intrusion into her life and his demands on her time and energy are quite unbearable, so she calls upon Satan’s aid in removing Titus by making his life as uncomfortable as possible.
What Warner seems to be saying is that women cannot be free or fully themselves within the context of a God-ordained patriarchy. It is only in a village full of witches that Laura can become a person in her own right:
“It had pleased Satan to come to her aid. Considering carefully, she did 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”.
In this sense Lolly Willowes seems to be, like many earlier books written by women in the nineteenth century, a response to Milton’s Paradise Lost. As in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Warner locates her paradise outside of civilization. But Laura’s Satan is an easy-going Master. He has the “dignity of natural behaviour and untrammelled self-fulfillment”, “a character truly integral, a perpetual flowering of power and cunning from an undivided will”. It is this self-fulfillment that he offers to his followers: “I encourage you to talk”, he says to Laura, “not that I may know your thoughts, but that you may go on”.
When Laura does release her thoughts, it is in a powerful speech castigating the grimness of women’s lives. “There they were, there they are”, she says, “child-rearing, house-keeping, hanging washed dishcloths on current bushes” and “listening to men talking together in the way that men talk and women listen”. They are thrust further and further down into dullness “when the one thing women hate is to be thought dull”. “There is” says Laura, “a dreadful kind of dreary immortality about being settled down on by one day after another”. And perhaps the worst thing is the demand that women “must be active and still not noticed”, always “Doing, doing, doing, till mere habit scolds at them”.
If it is anything, Lolly Willows is a celebration of not doing, of a woman’s refusal to have her life stolen from her by a society that says to women, “you can be useful or you can be a witch”.
When Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote this, her first novel, she was involved in a long term love affair with a married man, but a few years later, in 1930, she would meet and fall in love with Valentine Ackland, her partner of almost forty years. As Sarah Waters notes in her introduction, “I always find it hard not to make a retrospective lesbian reading of Lolly Willowes” (xvi). Well, there is a reason why the figure of the witch and the figure of the lesbian have long been representationally linked in the cultural imagination.
Whatever the part that Warner’s sexuality may have played in the writing of Lolly Willowes, she went on to live a life of “rural outlawry” (Waters, xvi) not so unlike her heroine’s. She and Valentine set up home in the countryside with their cats. They had a small circle of friends and just about managed to earn a living through Sylvia’s writing and Valentine’s various projects. It wasn’t always easy, but it was chosen and, like Laura Willowes, they were responsible for their own lives and beholden to no one else.
“That was one of the advantages of dealing with witches; they do not mind if you are a little odd in your ways, frown if you are late for meals, fret if you are out all night, pry and commiserate when at length you return. Lovely to be with people who prefer their thoughts to yours, lovely to live at your own sweet will, lovely to sleep out all night!”