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In ‘Lolly Willowes,’ the Most Extra Thing You Can Be Is a Witch
Sylvia Townsend Warner’s fable of an “extra” woman’s bid for quiet independence.
WE ARE AT THE HEIGHT OF OCTOBER, or, in popular parlance, “the spooky season.” But perhaps we’ve tried to contain the calendrical danger too neatly. For instance, February is a dangerous month—so thinks Laura (Lolly) Willowes. “If you are a were-wolf, and very likely you may be, for lots of people are without knowing, February, of all months, is the month when you are most likely to go out on a dark windy night and worry sheep.”
This pronouncement—considered, capricious, with its dark windy night and fey off-kilter strangeness—is typical of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1926 novel, Lolly Willowes.
Lolly Willowes is many things—an ode to English pastoral life; a lament for a vanished era; a surreal, gently menacing fairy tale; a slyly deflationary and stubbornly incoherent feminist fable—but most fundamentally, it is the chronicle of an eponymous Extra Woman. To any reader of Victorian and Edwardian fiction, the figure of the Extra Woman is a familiar one. She is usually, but not always, a gentlewoman of reduced or nonexistent means. She is always unmarried. Dependent on the family or institution that succors her, either as relation or as governess, she exists in a state of perpetual apology, feeding off emotional crumbs. Attached to the nuclear family but with no assured place in it, she exists in a kind of limbo, never wholly one thing nor another.
Lolly Willowes fits this conventional picture almost to the letter, subverting it in only two key points. First, and most importantly, she has an income of her own. Second, she is a witch.
The watershed catastrophe in her life occurs in the novel’s opening sentence: “When her father died, Laura Willowes went to live in London with her elder brother and his family.” Up until this point, Laura has lived a life of leisured and well-bred eccentricity, sheltered from the world by the love and corresponding eccentricity of her father. At the aptly named family home, Lady Place, Laura reads John Locke and shows a polite disinterest in suitors, hunts for cowslips and writes a short treatise on local botany, brews decoctions of purslane and dreams of mugwort broth. Most of all, she simply is mistress of Lady Place. Warner conjures up the delicious dream of a leisured life peculiar to the rural gentry of the pre-war era. It is an existence that need not be striving toward anything, wherein each part of the house and each hour of the day simply is, secure as the foundation of the universe; an existence whose time and quiet concentrates experience, turning the particularities—a household, a wood, a meadow—into a world of marvels.
Of course, Laura’s reign is illusory. Death’s visitations secure the borders of the bourgeois family, involving as they do the listing of possessions, the observing of traditions, the unbroken chain of inheritance. Her father’s death establishes Laura’s brother as head of the Willowes family and thrusts Laura into its outskirts. Lady Place passes to him, and Laura discovers her real position in the family: “Laura, feeling rather as if she were a piece of family property forgotten in the will, was ready to be disposed of as they should think best.”
“Best,” according to her relatives, means absorption into the stolid, comfortable, genteel London life of her brother Henry and his wife Caroline at Apsley Terrace. Laura takes up her place as a benevolent aunt and becomes Lolly: her name is shortened, infantilized, cut to the convenience of the children of the house.
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Warner’s scathing, gently delivered domestic satires are among the book’s delights. Henry is a genial tyrant, Caroline a dutiful enabler. Warner writes,
Henry had a high opinion of her merits, but thinking her to be so admirable and finding her to be so acquiescent had encouraged him to have an even higher opinion of his own. However good a wife Caroline might choose to be, she could not quite make Henry a bad husband or a bad man . . . but she fed his vanity, and ministered to his imperiousness.
Lady Place was a world; Apsley Terrace is a machine, a machine that exists to ease and aid Henry in his passage through various masculine spheres of dominion: at legal work in his study, hobnobbing with fellows at his club, presiding at dinner. Like any well-oiled contraption, the house moves smoothly and regularly, and Laura is one of the gears. Any given day is a busy one: There are the flowers to be arranged, the canary’s cage to be cleaned, calls to be paid and received. On Tuesday the books are changed at the library. It is a perverse parody of the nothingness of Lady Place: the one an expansive nothingness whose very emptiness testifies to freedom; the other a strictly regimented tedium that never amounts to much and yet can never be left off.
ALL THIS WOULD MAKE FOR a successful turn-of-the-century domestic novel if it stopped here, but Warner has something much stranger and more wonderful up her sleeve. At the age of 47—after twenty years of arranging the flowers, paying calls, and chaperoning nieces—Lolly Willowes has grown restless. Her restlessness takes the form of a “recurrent autumnal fever.” She yearns for a vision of herself picking fruit in a darkening orchard, and for something she sees in the face of the moon—“a something that lurked in waste places, that was hinted at by the sound of water gurgling through deep channels.”
The passages that deal with Laura’s restlessness and yearning are the wild heart of the book, the stormy waters that nourish all the outgrowth of quaint whimsy and pastoral charm. They capture a specific mood better than anything I have ever read, with an intense, suggestive, fragmentary imagery that renders them independent of their period context. They will speak to those who have found themselves taking long walks alone at night, impelled by an appetite that cannot be satisfied by any amount of security or success.
When Laura proposes to chase these yearnings by setting up solitary housekeeping in the rural village of Great Mop, a curious reversal takes place. The Extra Woman is perpetually obliged and subject to her relations because she is dependent on them: Having no independent life of her own, she is expected to find it a privilege to contribute to theirs. But when Laura proposes to remove this burden of herself from the shoulders of her worthy relatives, she meets with considerable resistance. It becomes apparent that all the bromides about the indispensability of dear Aunt Lolly were not merely consolatory nothings. Lolly is necessary and useful, precisely because she can be depended on to have no claims of her own. She really is a piece of family furniture, enriching them by her passivity and possessed-ness. When she embarks on a new life, they feel themselves to be suffering something akin to disinheritance. Literally so: As it turns out, Henry, eager to protect his sister’s frailty from the rigors of business, has been speculating with her money.
The ostensible lever of the book’s plot—Laura’s move from hedgerow wise-woman lore-gathering into literal witchcraft—does not occur until late in the book’s third act, and without fanfare. When events yield the realization that “She, Laura Willowes, in England, in the year 1922, had entered into compact with the devil,” she takes it gently, as does the reader. It seems in some ways a mere formalization of Laura’s status: free woman, henwife, distiller of herbs, solitary wanderer of the wood, mistress once again of a secret world, complete unto itself. Lolly might use a mild hex to get rid of a well-meaning and presumptuous nephew (“You must come,” he says, inviting her to ride to the station with him, “There will be all sorts of things I shall remember to ask you to do for me”), but the real change in her status occurs the minute she marks him as an intruder in her own demesne.
But despite the practical cashout of witchcraft being little more than a defense of rustic solitude and eccentricity, a kind of minor fraternal institution protecting those who do not fit into the major human institutions (family, career, cities), a compact with the devil is a necessarily transgressive metaphor. And its very diabolical transgressiveness yields a not uncomplicated final symbolism. In the Miltonian tradition, Satan offers the possibility of an alternate society—but it is still a society, and it is still a male-headed one. Laura is as bored and burdened by the one witches’ sabbath she attends as she was by her debutante balls. The novel’s Satan is another indulgent, possessive father, albeit one who does not disinherit daughters. A futile attempt to wrap up these threads tidily in a final monologue-cum-manifesto delivered by Laura is the novel’s greatest misstep. But Warner’s inability to match the desires so vividly delineated to any utopian vision or coherent political program is a key to her book’s distinctly reactionary charms.
IF THERE IS A POLITICS animating Lolly Willowes, it lies in the fact that witchcraft is, for Warner, women’s domesticity on its own terms. Lolly’s breakaway from her oppressive social role does not involve a foray into the public realm or career achievement—into, as she puts it, “men’s things, like politics, or mathematics.” (Christianity, especially the buttressed and venerable institution of Anglicanism, also falls into the category of “men’s things.”) Warner gestures to that way out in Fancy, Lolly’s niece, who, during the war and, much to the annoyance of her mother, straps on a pair of heavy-gauntlet gloves and goes to drive motor lorries in France. To those who have found, for reasons of historical accident or personal temperament, the conquest of traditionally masculine spheres to be impossible or undesirable, Warner offers a reinvention of the private sphere of women. It is secretive rather than claustrophobic: not sequestered from the world, but marked by a fiercely guarded inwardness, which facilitates a particularly intense encounter with it.
Lolly retires to drink tea and watch honeysuckles grow over a little cottage. She brews, raises chickens, and bakes currant scones. But she also wanders the beech woods and chalk hills with no one to expect her home; she sleeps outside for the thrill of darkness and the feel of the earth beneath her.
Before she becomes aware of the local coven or her own membership in it, Laura considers the henwife:
“She felt wise and potent. She remembered the henwife in the fairy-tales, she understood now why kings and queens resorted to the henwife in their difficulties. The henwife held their destinies in the crook of her arm, and hatched the future in her apron.” She rejects neither domesticity nor traditionally feminine roles—only the Victorian notion that they are both justified and mandated by a properly subordinate usefulness.
The book’s poignancy lies in its heroine’s struggle, not to take up her place in the rapidly changing post-war era, but to stake out her own place in the world of her past. Witchcraft, in Warner’s dark and cozy world, stands for a type of aspiration that ranges in possibility from demonic selfishness to the untroubled wildness of mere life. It is “the dangerous black night to stretch your wings in, and poisonous berries to feed on, and a nest of bones and thorns, perched high up in danger where no one can climb to it.” It is the freedom and leisure to explore, to adventure; to be useful to one, and contentedly alone.