Why witches? Part Four

OK, I believe I said aaaaaages ago (Why witches? Part Three) that I would take a look at more positive representations of witches, and so – at last – here is a brief review of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novel, Lolly Willowes. I also want to look at one of the great characters of Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga – but I’ll save that for a later post.

Lolly Willowes is set in the early Twentieth Century – it was originally published in 1926 – and tells the story of Laura Willowes – the Lolly of the title – who, after growing up in an upper middle class family in rural Somerset, moves to London after her father dies to help look after her brother, Henry, and his wife and children.

She seems destined for an unremarkable life of dutiful spinsterhood – but when her brother’s children have grown up, she shocks her family by deciding to go and live in the countryside, where – in the wonderfully named village of Great Mop – she encounters a world more liberating and more enticing than any she has known before. In fact, she becomes a witch.

Warner describes the conservative instincts of Laura’s family – “They slept in beds and sat upon chairs whose comfort insensibly persuaded them into respect for the good sense of their forbears.” And it is clear that Laura does not fit in with their expectations – she has no wish to marry, and is “not in any way religious… not even enough to speculate towards irreligion”. And she starts to brew “washes and decoctions” from herbs: “Laura felt positive that mugwort tea would not have made her sick” (mugwort is a herb that traditionally has magical properties).

When she arrives in Great Mop, she stays with a Mrs Leak, who like Laura does not seem especially interested in conventional religion (“when Laura asked for the loan of a Bible Mrs Leak took a little time to produce it, and blew on the cover before she handed it over”). She soon encounters other characters, like Mrs Trumpet, who keeps the village shop, and Mr Gurdon, the parish clerk (“red and burly and to be feared”), and she acquires a familiar – a kitten whom she names Vinegar. Sex, too, appears in her life. When she meets Mr Saunter, the young poultry farmer, she finds herself “petitioned by an unladylike curiosity”, and, later, she attends a Witches’ Sabbath, and joins in the dancing with her fellow villagers, meeting Satan himself on the way home. She says to him: “I seem to see all over England… women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded… That’s why we become witches: to show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure.”

It is a strange, beautiful, and funny novel, which has inspired writers like John Updike (it influenced his own The Witches of Eastwick) and Sarah Waters (she writes a wonderful introduction to the Virago Modern Classics edition). Warner once wrote, echoing the sentiments of her protagonist: “It is so natural to be hunted, and intuitive. Feeling safe and respectable is much more of a strain.”

Sylvia Townsend Warner


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