Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner
Spoiler-filled post in which I discuss ideas that didn't make it on my podcast
Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1926 novel Lolly Willowes is on my mind right now because just a little while ago, Dorian, Frances, and I recorded a One Bright Book episode about it. My experience of discussing books for the podcast is that I always ending up thinking about the book in a new way, which is fun, but I also end up with thoughts running through my mind for hours or days afterward that I wish I could have expressed during the recording. That’s less fun, but inevitable. We don’t want our episodes to go on too long, after all, and I can’t (or won’t) add to them afterward.
So I thought I’d write out some of the thoughts I’ve had here in this newsletter. In this space, I can think about the book at my own pace and say as much as I want to, right? I will be discussing the book as a whole, so expect spoilers below. In fact, this is really aimed at people who have read the book already, although those who haven’t might find something to interest them anyway.
I loved Lolly Willowes even though I went into it concerned because I hadn’t liked Warner’s novel Summer Will Show when I read it a decade or so ago. But Lolly Willowes — the story of a woman who leaves her life as a conventional spinster aunt to live on her own and become a witch — is something else entirely, and I fell under its spell (pun intended!). Lolly — or Laura, which is surely the better name to use — is a wonderful character, and I loved her. One of her best traits is how she stays true to herself — once she knows what that self is at least — even when she’s disappointed by the outcome. She’s so excited and happy to become a witch (or is it that she’s been a witch all along and only now realizes it?), but then she dislikes the Witch’s Sabbath, which is too social, too free and silly for her, and she’s disappointed that she will likely get kicked out of town for not fitting in, but she’s not going to pretend she likes it just to stay.
She meets someone she thinks is the devil at the Sabbath and doesn’t like him, and she’s disappointed when it seems like witchery isn’t going to work out for her, but she’s not going to pretend she likes that guy. She keeps feeling out of sync with the world, even when she finds the place where she most feels at home, and she honors and acts on those out-of-sync feelings, no matter the consequences.
We discuss on the podcast how the novel celebrates doing nothing — it’s anti-striving, anti-accumulating, anti-capitalist. It’s also ripe for environmental and ecofeminist readings. I found myself captivated by the scene where Laura hears a “goods train” and feels in her bones how the train violates nature:
Though the noise came from an ordinary goods train, no amount of reasoning could stave off this terror…. It was a wicked sound. It expressed something eternally outcast and reprobated by man, stealthily trafficking by night, unseen in the dark clefts of the hills.
The next day, everything feels normal, and she realizes that hearing a train is nothing to be afraid of, but something about the experience sticks with her, “as though it had laid some command upon her that waited to be interpreted and obeyed.” I’m not sure she ever figures out what this command is or what the episode was supposed to mean, but it hints at some kind of close relationship with nature, where she feels in her body the way industry and commerce are a mortal threat to the natural world. This terror at hearing the train is an obvious way to make a point about women and capitalism, but somehow the way Warner embeds it in the story of Laura’s growing self-awareness makes it moving and mysterious.
In our podcast discussion, the question came up about whether nature is a healing force in the novel, and I think it sort of is, although not in any easy way, and maybe only for people like Laura. Places and landscapes are powerful in this book. Great Mop, the place Laura discovers her witchery, somehow calls to her and compels her to move there. Lady Place, the Willowes family home, lures the problematic Titus and his fiancé Pandora back to it so that Laura can live in Great Mop in peace. The spirit of nature also can’t be removed or destroyed, although it can be harmed:
Once a wood, always a wood. The words rang true, and she sat silent, considering them. Pious Asa might hew down the groves, but as far as the Devil was concerned he hewed in vain. Once a wood, always a wood: trees where he sat would crowd into a shade. And people going by in broad sunlight would be aware of slow voices overhead, and a sudden chill would fall upon their flesh.
Laura goes on to think about how “respectable” people, such as the rest of her family, would feel this chill and move uncomfortably on, but people like Laura, the devil’s people, would find the unshakeable spirit of nature restful:
Not one of the monuments and tinkerings of man could impose on the satanic mind … Wolves howled through the streets of Paris, the foxes played in the throneroom of Schönbrunn, and in the basement at Apsley Terrace, the mammoth slowly revolved, trampling out its lair.
With this thought, people like Laura can find stillness and peace. As a witch, Laura somehow communes with nature, which is not a friendly or welcoming force, but one that is steady and powerful and something she can rely on.
Finally, there’s the question of Warner’s choice to explore a magical, witchy solution to the practical problem of patriarchal capitalism. To the extent that Laura escapes patriarchy, she does so because of a community of witches and warlocks and an actual devil who lures her into it and is there to discuss it with her. What is a person who never gets to meet the devil to do? To a certain extent this never gets answered and a sense of potential power that doesn’t get actualized and that goes nowhere lingers. I’m thinking about the story Laura tells about women and dynamite. She asks if it’s true that you can poke a fire with a stick of dynamite and nothing will happen. Whether that’s true or not, she says, women are like that:
They know they are dynamite, and long for the concussion that may justify them. Some may get religion, then they’re all right, I expect. But for the others, for so many, what can there be but witchcraft? That strikes them real. Even if other people still find them quite safe and usual, and go on poking with them, they know in their hearts how dangerous, how incalculable, how extraordinary they are. Even if they never do anything with their witchcraft, they know it’s there — ready!
But what good is a power if you don’t use it? What good does it do nature that it endures in spirit when it can still be cut down and paved over in actuality? Is the power of women/witches’ power little more than a coping mechanism?
I’m not sure, but I think the book ultimately implies that Laura’s rebelliousness and her path toward escape is the way forward. It’s the refusal, the opting out that matters. One obvious way to opt out is witchcraft. If another possibility had opened up before her, perhaps Laura would have chosen that. It’s not clear at the end of the book what she’s going to do next or what anyone should do next. But Laura has changed her life — she has made a start.
New (mostly) small-press books out in the last couple months that I haven’t yet read and am adding to my TBR. All quotations below are from the publisher:
Nevada by Imogen Binnie (MCD X FSG Originals): This is a reissue, after the novel’s original publication in 2013. I read it back then when Emily Books issued an ebook version. It’s an important book in the history of writing by and about trans people.
No Document by Anwen Crawford (Transit Books): “Disappeared artworks, effaced histories, abandoned futures. No Document is an exploration of loss in its many forms, embracing histories of protest and revolution, art-making and cinema, and border policing.”
Virgil Kills by Ronaldo Wilson (Nightboat Books): “Linked stories alighting from a U.S., Black and Filipino imaginary through a central character Virgil, and his accounts on race, sex, and desire.”
LOTE by Shola von Reinhold (Duke University Press): “Solitary Mathilda has long harbored a conflicted enchantment bordering on rapture with the ‘Bright Young Things,’ the Bloomsbury Group, and their contemporaries of the '20s and '30s, and throughout her life her attempts at reinvention have mirrored their extravagance and artfulness.”
Remnants by Céline Huyghebaert, translated by Aleshia Jensen (Book*hug Press): “Remnants is an exploration of our relationships with family and perception, told through a profound investigation of a father's life and sudden death. Employing various voices and hybrid forms--including dialogues, questionnaires, photographs, and dream documentation--Huyghebaert builds a fragmented picture of a father-daughter relationship that has been shaped by silences and missed opportunities.”
New on the TBR
Once again, I have to report that I have acquired too many books since my last newsletter to list here. In our recent travels, we made sure to leave extra space in our suitcases for books because we knew we were going to need it, and we did. First, I’ll share my book stack from our visit — actually two visits — to Shakespeare and Company in Paris (a bookstore that consistently has a line to get in!):
Here are the books:
And here are some books I picked up in Rome, mostly from Otherwise Bookstore:
The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir, translated by Lauren Elkin (Random House, 2021): I’m not sure if this translation is available in the U.S.; there’s another translation out, but I wanted Lauren Elkin’s in particular. It’s de Beauvoir’s “lost novel” that tells “the compulsive story of two friends growing up and falling apart.”
The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney (AK Press, 2013): “In this series of essays Fred Moten and Stefano Harney draw on the theory and practice of the black radical tradition as it supports, inspires, and extends contemporary social and political thought and aesthetic critique.”
The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s by Maggie Doherty (Knopf, 2020): I’ve been in such a nonfiction mood lately! This is the story of “five brilliant, passionate women who, in the early 1960s, converged at the newly founded Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study and became friends as well as artistic collaborators, and who went on to shape the course of feminism in ways that are still felt today.”
A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940 by Iris Origo (NYRB, 2018): “In 1939 it was not a foregone conclusion that Mussolini would enter World War II on the side of Hitler. In this previously unpublished and only recently discovered diary, Iris Origo, author of the classic War in Val d'Orcia, provides a vivid account of how Mussolini decided on a course of action that would devastate his country and ultimately destroy his regime.”
Interim by Dorothy Richardson (1920): This is the fifth volume of Richardson’s Pilgrimage series. I’m a bit behind the Reading Pilgrimage schedule and should be reading the sixth, Deadlock, but will get there soon.
Firstborn by Louise Glück (1968): I pulled my very large Poems: 1962-2012 volume off the shelves and started reading Glück’s first book.
Post-Traumatic by Chantal V. Johnson (Little Brown and Company, 2022): My current audiobook: very good.
Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949-1975 (Harcourt Brace, 1995): I’m loving reading Arendt’s and McCarthy’s letters. I’m doing it very, very slowly, mostly reading a letter or two over breakfast or when I have a few minutes here and there.
The Cormac Report
A couple weeks ago we returned from a three-week trip to Rome, which included a long weekend in Paris and another in Sorrento. It was a work trip, at least in part: my husband taught a course in person, which was the reason we went, and I taught a class online. But we had plenty of time to be tourists, and we had fun.
It’s challenging to travel with a kid, though. Cormac loves Rome and he was so excited to visit Paris, but his idea of fun does not totally match ours. We love wandering city streets, getting a feel for neighborhoods, stumbling on interesting shops, getting lost and finding our way back. Cormac finds that boring. We all like going to museums, but Cormac would prefer to spend 45 minutes in each one, tops, while Rick and I like to linger more. Fortunately, we’re all fans of ruins and castles, although Cormac would prefer that no tour go on too long and that we see only one major site per day. The poor kid understandably gets very tired.
But he did really well, and we all compromised and got some of what we wanted: Rick and I did a lot of walking and sightseeing, and Cormac got to see high-interest places like the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower, and he also got a ton of gelato. He spent a lot of afternoons resting up from the morning’s walking by hanging out in our apartment playing video games while Rick and I took turns going wherever we wanted. It worked out.
The actual travel part was miserable — delayed flights, missed connections, cancelled trains, etc., etc. — but we were still very lucky to get to go.
Have a great week everyone!