Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s first novel, is a quite extraordinary story of a woman who sells her soul to the Devil and finds her true self by becoming a witch. Let me start by saying that Laura Willowes – the Lolly of the title – may confound your expectations of witchery. She wouldn’t dream of riding a broomstick, and she has no intention of casting spells, for good or for bad. Laura doesn’t want to help, or to be helped. She just wants to be herself, to think her own thoughts, make her own decisions, and live her own life.
When her father dies Laura moves in with passionless, duty-bound Henry (the younger of her two brothers), his wife Caroline and their two daughters. Laura has some reservations about her future: “But in London there would be no greenhouse with a glossy tank, and no apple room, and no potting-shed, earthy and warm, with bunches of poppy heads hanging from the ceiling, and sunflower seeds in a wooden box, and bulbs in their paper bags, and hanks of tarred string, and lavender drying on a tea-tray.”
However, she remains passive about the move, with no will of her own. “And 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,” Townsend Warner tells us. Over the next 20 years Laura loses her name and her identity. She becomes Aunt Lolly, a dull, sensible, conventional woman, always ready to help when needed. But there are inklings that all is not quite as it seems, for each autumn she feels oddly uneasy and sometimes, while visiting old, forgotten corners of London she feels she is missing something important, and a secret is about to be revealed.
Then she walks into a small greengrocery shop and everything changes. “As Laura stood waiting she felt a great longing. It weighed upon her like a load of ripened fruit upon a tree. She forgot the shop, the other customers, her own errand. She forgot the winter air outside, the people going by on the wet pavements. She forgot that she was in London, she forgot the whole of her London life. She seemed to be standing alone in a darkening orchard, her feet in the grass, her arms stretched up to the pattern of leaves and fruit, her gingers seeking the rounded ovals of fruit among the rounded ovals of leaves.”
The chrysanthemums she buys smell of the dark, rustling woods, like the wood which haunts her imagination each autumn, and on discovering they come from the Chilterns she buys a map and guide book and informs her horrified family that she is moving to the village of Great Mop.
Once there she feels at one with the landscape, with nature and the passing seasons. But she senses a hidden secret just beyond her grasp. However, her new-found freedom and her joy in life are threatened by the arrival of Titus (the son of her other brother). She wants rid of him at any cost, and her anguished plea for help is answered – by Satan.
The novel starts as something of a social satire, a comedy of manners. “The Willoweses were a conservative family and kept to old-fashioned ways,” writes Townsend Warner, adding: “Finding that well-chosen wood and well-chosen wine improved with keeping, they believed the same law applied to well-chosen ways.”
But beneath that humorous veneer lies something much sharper and darker. I found it utterly un-put-downable, but I wouldn’t describe it as charming, delightful, or whimsical. There’s a kind of wildness here, something untamed and uncontrollable, and it must have seemed very subversive when it was published in 1926, demanding a life of their own for women, and portraying the Devil almost as a force for good.
When he appears, Townsend Warner’s Satan may look like a dishevelled gamekeeper, but he seems to have more in common with ancient pagan gods than he does with the conventional Christian view of the Devil. He is a hunter who collects souls not because he’s evil, malicious, or even mischievous, , but because he can. He doesn’t want to control people, or lead them into bad ways. Once he knows he has their soul he is happy to leave them alone, to let them do, say and think what they want. He confers a glorious kind of freedom on people, which enables Laura to finally be completely true to herself, and do exactly as she pleases.
|Sylvia Townsend Warner
And when she meets Satan she is confident enough to launch into the most amazing, impassioned speech, in which she rails against the way women are treated. There is nothing for women, she says, except ‘subjugation and plaiting their hair’. Men talk, while women listen and become dull. Women do. “If they could be passive and unnoticed it wouldn’t matter. But they must be active, and still not noticed,” she explains. “And think, Satan, what a compliment you pay her, pursuing her soul, lying in wait for it, following it through all its windings, crafty and patient and secret like a gentleman out killing tigers. Her soul – when no one else would give a look at her body even.”
And, she says, a woman will take that chance to stretch her wings and be herself in a dangerous black night because ‘it’s to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others’. There are no theological arguments here, no thoughts about the nature of good and evil, or life and death, or considerations about the future. What matters is the here and now, and a woman’s right to be independent.