‘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 so soon becomes a nuisance. Do you understand?’
These are the feelings which Laura ‘Lolly’ Willowes shares with the devil when he appears to her in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s wonderful novel, Lolly Willowes. Their meeting takes place towards the end of the novel, after Laura has moved to the village of ‘Great Mop’ at the age of 47. Her decision to move to the village is made on impulse after 15 years living a dull domestic life as a spinster aunt in her brother’s London household. The move to the countryside also leads to another change for Laura. She becomes a witch! She has a familiar in the form of a cat and attends the local village sabbath.
It is during this conversation with the devil that we discover why Laura rejected her life in London in favour of the countryside and witchcraft. After reflecting on the dullness of women’s lives, she continues:
‘When I think of witches, I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded…wives and sisters of respectable men…there they are, child-rearing, house-keeping, hanging washed dishcloths on currant bushes…and listening to men talking together in the way that men talk and women listen…And all the time being thrust further down into dullness…’
When our Mycenae House book group met on Friday 23 February we found it was this conversation with the devil that really caught all of our attention. Some of our online readers also identified this section as important, with one person describing it as ‘open[ing] the window to the book’s purpose.’ Most group members felt that this long exposition contained the heart of the novel and shed light on why Lolly Willowes had become a witch. Moving to the countryside and becoming a witch had given her a purpose in life and a way out of the stifling domesticity, and her role as a spinster aunt, in her brother’s household.
While our group all agreed that her turn to witchcraft represented an escape from her previously dull life, they disagreed on how best to understand it. Some felt, for example, that becoming a witch allowed Laura to express difficult or uncomfortable feelings and thoughts. Some reflected on their own memories of being told as young girls, for example, that they must be nice or kind and not to be bad or unpleasant. For some this meant, therefore, that Laura hadn’t really become a witch, rather it was simply a fantasy or longing, which helped her to reject what had gone before. An online reader wondered if the turn to witchcraft was a sign of Laura’s ‘overactive imagination.’ Another described it as ‘symbolic’ and a way to reveal her ‘inner life’ and ‘erotic desires’ and saw this as a ‘feminist sentiment.’ Others were more adamant that Laura really had become a witch. And that in fact Great Mop was a village specifically for those who felt themselves to be different and who wanted to escape from conventional life. There was a feeling that a witch represents freedom, the choice to live a life not prescribed by others, and allows one to live beyond the expectations that others may have of you.
We were struck too by Warner’s impression of the devil, who was cast quite differently to how we might expect. Rather than a terrifying supernatural being he turns out to be quite benign and rather a good listener. This made him, Warner suggests, quite different to the average man who speaks rather than listens. In playing this role he allows Laura to speak, open up and be heard.
Both our Mycenae House readers and online readers felt that the story of Lolly Willowes has two distinct phases: firstly her childhood and subsequent life with her brother, and secondly her move to the countryside and taking up witchcraft. There were clear divisions on which part of the book our readers preferred. Some were adamant that the pace picked up, and the book became more enjoyable and ‘engrossing’ once Laura was in the countryside. One reader described the first part of the book as ‘a bit of a slog.’ Others preferred the pace and tone of the earlier sections which focused on her childhood and domestic life in London, finding the witch storyline ‘bizarre’, ‘peculiar’, ‘bothersome’ and difficult to relate to. One reader found Laura easier to empathise with in the first part of the book. Another found the witch narrative something of a ‘bolt on idea.’
Another part of the group’s discussions concerned why Laura had been so unhappy when her nephew Titus appeared in Great Mop, considering he had been the one member of her family that she had previously been close to. Many members felt that Titus’s appearance challenged Laura’s ability to reinvent herself and to break away from her family. Titus represented the whole family and their expectations of her.
The book also encouraged some members to reflect back on their own lives, particularly those who had grown up in rural communities. Some remembered that single older women in their village were pitied for being unmarried, and were expected to care for younger cousins, nieces and nephews. Others remembered seasonal rituals such as haymaking festivities, and superstitious and magical practices such as throwing objects into a wishing well for good luck.
Some of our readers were surprised by the degree to which women still faced restrictions, even in 1926, when the book was published. However, as we went on to discuss, Laura was born in the 1870s, at a time when gender ideals were hugely polarised. Women were, at this time, closely associated with domestic life and seen as providing the moral heart of the nation, whereas men were associated with the public sphere and with immorality, danger and excitement. Laura’s character was born at an interesting time when those Victorian values were coming under threat. Laura’s own rebellion can be seen as following on from the first wave feminist movement, which sought to redefine marriage, and open up opportunities for women beyond marriage and home, in spheres such as politics and medicine.
On the whole, most of our readers enjoyed the book. A huge thank you to everyone who took part in this month’s reading, whether online or as part of our Mycenae House group. We have loved seeing and hearing your comments on the book. Our next blog post introducing Françoise de Graffigny’s Letters of a Peruvian Woman will be posted on 1st March.
If you are interested in finding out more about the history of witchcraft do consider visiting the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall:
See here for our earlier blog post about Lolly Willowes with recommendations on further works by, and about, Sylvia Townsend Warner.
Timeline of women’s rights in the UK:
Some suggested readings:
Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1750 – 1850, second ed. London: Routledge, 2002.
Wendy Gan, Women, Privacy and Modernity in early Twentieth Century British Writing. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2009.
Ann Heilmann, New Woman Fiction: Women Writing First Wave Feminism. Basingtoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.
Ronald Hutton, The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017.
Sheila Jeffreys, The Spinster and Her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality, 1880-1950. London: Pandora Press, 1985.
Sheila Rowbotham, Dreamers of a New Day. London: Verso, 2010.
Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska, ed., Women in Twentieth-Century Britain. Harlow: Pearson Education, 2001.
: Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1750–1850, second ed. (London: Routledge, 2002).