Sometimes, all of life’s problems are solved by selling one’s soul to the devil and becoming a witch. So suggests Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1926 novel about an unmarried woman aging into disregard and anonymity. The strange, slow-moving story chronicles the life of its eponymous main character, Laura Willowes, out of order, beginning at her father’s death and jumping back and forth in time to chart her personal journey to self fulfillment. The action in Lolly Willowes is always small, personal, but the implications are large.
The problem of the spinster was of great topical interest to the England of the mid-twenties, when Lolly Willowes became a bestseller at home and abroad. The scale of mechanized death in World War I was enormous and left a dearth of young men throughout Europe.The generation to which Townsend Warner was born was one in which grown up young women greatly outnumbered grown up young men, and in a society in which women had always been subject to men, this enormous flock of shepherdless sheep was a problem that needed solving.
Laura Willowes belongs to the generation prior to that of her author. She is 28 at the start the novel, which begins in 1902, and her father has recently died. No one asks her what she wants to do with herself; it is assumed that, with the estate reverting to a son, she will of course move from the country to the town with another brother and make herself useful to his family. To be shuffled from the protection of one male guardian to another is simply a spinster’s due, and Laura has been socialized to understand this without question.
The problem of the spinster was of great topical interest to the England of the mid-twenties, when Lolly Willowes became a bestseller at home and abroad.
She chafes in her role, however, from the start. Lolly Willowes is an eponymous novel, but the nickname of the title is neither selected by nor much liked by the protagonist. In her own mind, and in the close third person narration, Laura Willowes is always Laura. Lolly is the persona created for her by others: Aunt Lolly, the dependent spinster who lodges with her brother’s family in exchange for her small, unpaid labor. The unseen narrator tells us that, “when Laura went to London she left Laura behind, and entered into a state of Aunt Lolly. She had quitted so much of herself in quitting Somerset that it seemed natural to relinquish her name also.” Lolly is not just a name, but a way of being, and one that forces a woman down into dullness and insignificance.
That this is not the real Laura is obvious in our views of her childhood. She is a solitary child, loving of nature, and drawn to obscure texts on herbs and witchcraft. She takes after her brewer father and delights in concocting distillations and potions. From her birth, however, the people who love her most are the most determined to force her into the mold of generic British womanhood. Her father, a “lover of womankind,” is delighted to have a daughter, but delighted in the generic rather than the specific, with an all-encompassing, oppressive love. And so he punishes Laura’s elder brothers for forgetting Laura out of doors, even though Laura is content outside. The sweets he feeds his precious daughter make her sick. Coddling is not wholesome to Laura, but a girl of the middle classes should be coddled.
Laura’s class exists largely in isolation in the book, and the expanse of empire appears only in fragmentary glimpses. We are told of an aunt who lives in India and invites Laura to join her, and Laura is tempted by exotified descriptions, but only very slightly. India serves here largely as an un-English Other, and Laura’s rejection of it affirms her connection to the English countryside and its own hidden otherness. The erasure of the problems of women of other classes and ethnic identities is a flaw in an otherwise sterling book.
Becoming a witch is shorthand for rejection of all the ways that standards of decency and polite society force a woman down into a predetermined role.
Living with her brother and his family, Laura’s ability to act the part of Aunt Lolly becomes less and less viable over time, until, in her forties, she begins to act out in small ways that lead her brother and sister-in-law to question her steadiness. From these small acts of rebellion, we are told that Laura is constructing “a sort of mental fur coat,” but even a mental fur coat cannot protect her from the increasingly howling dissatisfaction that swirls around her. And so, at 47, Laura announces her intention to move to Great Mop, a village in the Chilterns that she has never so much as seen. Her small fortune has been in the care of her brother all this time, and when she demands access to it, she finds that he has squandered most of it in a failed investment scheme. Not deterred, she sets out to recover the connection to nature that has been deliberately smothered for most of her life.
Life in Great Mop is not perfect, however. Her nephew Titus follows her there and starts to settle himself into the village. Laura finds that he is lovingly, unthinkingly pushing her back into her Aunt Lolly persona. And so Laura sells her soul to the devil, becomes a witch, and drives him out with nettling and needling spells.
Peace comes with the devil, and the book’s end comes with a nice sit down conversation with Satan in which Laura describes the plight of women across Europe, “living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded.” She insists that “[o]ne doesn’t become a witch to run round being harmful, or to run round being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It’s to escape all that—to have a life of one’s own…”
In the end, it’s this “life of one’s own” that matters more than the specific remedy. Becoming a witch is shorthand for rejection of all the ways that standards of decency and polite society force a woman down into a predetermined role. Rejecting this role is so revolutionary that any woman who does so necessarily becomes the Good Woman’s demonic opposite, the thing society fears every Good Woman is secretly already. A witch.