D.H. Lawrence once urged in a poem: “Don’t be a good little, good little boy / being as good as you can,” and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1926 novel, Lolly Willowes, in essence offers the same consoling advice to the "good little girls" of the world—especially those of the grown-up variety. It is the story of these women's unending struggle for solitude and spiritual power, which they must ultimately purchase at the cost of their reputation for goodness and littleness. It is a detailed record of troop movements and flash points, in the eternal campaign of the church-mousy, English, forgotten-except-for-Christmas, confection-dispensing Auntie, to be either left alone, or else endowed with the authority she deserves—but for once no longer to be both in the constant company of others and eternally neglected by them. If that sounds like a field of human experience that has little relevance to you, just stay with me. Because Warner’s book, though intimately tied to her own society, epoch, and experience, has a message for us all.
Lolly Willowes came to my attention because it has been re-issued as a part of the New York Review of Books Classics series. Like most entries in that collection, it is odd, droll, and has the cob-webbed feel of something accidentally unearthed while an associate professor of English in a Midwestern college town was changing apartments. It is officially a book about witchcraft, and the back flap assures us that Laura, the title heroine, will eventually become a witch. The book, however, belongs nowhere in the genre of speculative fiction. For one thing, Laura’s pact with Satan occurs a good two-thirds of the way into it; for another, nothing unmistakably supernatural occurs in its pages. Most of the Gothic quality of the book’s events is only imputed to them by Laura herself: she dubs a black cat her “familiar,” she attends a “Witches’ Sabbath” that is held outdoors and at a strange hour, but in which nothing especially Satanic transpires. The “witchcraft” angle, we suspect, could all just be a wry fantasy of Laura’s -- part of the sardonic lens through which she observes her own war of independence against her family that forms the book’s actual storyline. (The only event that would be difficult to interpret on this theory is a final conversation between Laura and a gardener—the latter of whom is either Satan, or else curiously willing to be addressed as though he is.)
So yes, it is a book about a witch that does not involve witchcraft—but this is only the least of ways in which this book is like a charging mastodon of English understatement. The real plot of the book, after all, concerns Laura’s struggle to achieve independence from her snug and infuriatingly unobjectionable family-- yet we are only granted any overt sign of the dissatisfaction that drives this struggle about halfway into the book. For the first portion of its narrative, the reader is presented with the same veneer of imperturbable good-nature that Laura displays to her relatives. As far as we know, or they know, the heroine is simply a contented and virginal homebody—someone who was too close to her father growing up ever to form a primary attachment to another man (“There is nothing more endangering to a young woman’s normal inclination towards young men than an intimacy with a man twice her own age,” says Warner (27)).
Laura, as a spinster, becomes a burden on her brother Henry and his wife, Caroline, after her father dies, and these relatives feel a sort of pitying affection for her. Caroline clucks internally over the misfortune of being an “unused virgin” (55), for instance. Yet once again, Laura seems outwardly adjusted to the routine of her life, so far as the reader or the relatives suspect. As strange as it may seem to Caroline and to us, she is seen to derive as much satisfaction as she needs in life, through her introverted speculation, her reading, and the distraction of small daily tasks.
This at least is her relative’s perception, and for much of the book it is the reader’s and author’s, officially, as well. But we start to feel on her behalf, even without being overtly warned of its presence, the thickening miasma of depression-- the long, skeleton hands of boredom digging into her brain in the intervals between petty distractions. And very gradually, in Warner’s mode of bravura understatement, the extent of Laura’s sorrow is revealed to us in full.
We sense the dissatisfaction most of all in the contrast between Laura's imaginative inner life, and the banal attitudes of her jailers. Henry, her brother, is a braggart attorney, who has managed to surround himself with a wife and associates so retiring and gracious that they effectively strew rose-peddles in the path of his arrogance. The lack of resistance to his whims has been “very bad for his character,” Laura concludes (50). In confirmation of this, he eventually loses half of Laura’s inheritance, which she had entrusted to him, on an investing scheme whose failure he attributes to “this Government and all this socialistic talk.” (96).
Meanwhile, the mind of Caroline, the sister-in-law, is less malicious, but it is equally dull-- entirely consumed, for the most part, with details of furniture-altering and wall-painting and linen-washing and other activities required to smooth the pillow of her husband’s prosperity. Whereas Laura is “not in any way religious […] not even religious enough to speculate towards irreligion” (49), Caroline is a Calvinist goodwife, whose only ambition is to pass dutifully through this vale of tears and into the next world (she even keeps her future grave-clothes freshly laundered in the dresser, Laura discovers). There is a moment later in the book when Caroline and Laura stop in a church and observe the painting of the “Wise and Foolish Virgins.” The foolish are evidently bound for perdition, but they appear to be enjoying themselves. The wise are depicted sewing and toiling in the present, but with the guarantee of eventual beatitude. Laura takes note of the resemblances.
There are two especially galling features of Laura’s long incarceration. The first is that reader and relatives alike don’t seem to reckon how greatly she suffers. In her role as kind, pleasant, and grateful spinster aunt, she has all of us fooled. Not only is she tormented in her dungeon, therefore, her presence there is also forgotten-- not only by the people who bring her meals, but by us as well, the people who presumably got hold of this book because we wanted to read about Laura and her mental life. So forgotten are Laura’s pains that even she doesn’t seem to notice them. When she finally speaks of their true extent, half-way into the book, it comes as a revelation to her as well as to us: “she trembled,” we are told, “understanding for the first time how miserable she had been[.]” (135).
But the worst thing by far about her distress, worse than any neglect, is that Laura doesn’t even have justice on her side; she lacks even the small compensation of knowing that she suffers at the hands of cruel and wicked despots, whom history will judge accordingly. Instead, she is “defeated and justly defeated,” to borrow a phrase from Orwell. "Custom, public opinion, law, church, and state," she reflects, "-- all would have shaken their massive heads against her plea, and sent her back into bondage." (199)
The reason is simple: her captors, we observe, are all such perfectly good, perfectly nice people—who could fault them! They take Laura under their care and protection after the death of her father, they try to match her with a husband, they uncomplainingly assimilate her to the orbit of their family life. Caroline’s only crime against Laura, really, is her tyrannically bustling solicitude. A few examples: as soon as Laura asks Caroline whether she can live with herself and Henry, Warner tells us, Caroline’s thoughts “had already journeyed back to London to buy an eiderdown for the bed in the small spare-room. If the washstand were moved towards the door, would it be possible to fit in a writing-table between it and the fireplace? Perhaps a bureau would be better […]” (3) and so on. When a stranger falls from a bike within the radius of her vision, Caroline descends upon her with equally sudden and maniacal indulgence—“and then there was a great deal of cold compress and hot tea and animation [….] The perfect stranger was a Secretary to a Guild [….] They went on discovering Committees in common till tea-time[.]” (127)
And we discover in this that Laura’s chains are not forged by any physical constraint or financial necessity. She has inherited a small private income from her father, after all, and she could (and eventually does) use it to live on her own. What keeps her shackled in place, rather, is the debt of family gratitude—the onus of filial obligation. Her manacles are as “mind-forged” as William Blake’s, but just like his, they are nonetheless quite adequate to “bind with briars” one’s “joys and desires.”
In this lies the true genius and artistic insight of Warner’s book. This is what makes Lolly Willowes an exceptional treatment of a familiar theme. The fairy tales, after all, would have us believe that it is so difficult to achieve adult independence from our families because those families are evil, and are not actually related to us, and try to lock us away in towers or poison us with apples. But the real reason it is so difficult to become an adult is of course that we love our families, and they have done more for us than we can repay, and we are terrified that our gestures of independence will hurt them. Laura for one loves the house she grew up in, by Warner's telling. She is attached, in spite of herself, to the “Willowes ways,” and to the elaborate lore that surrounds them; she even loves her nephew Titus, who descends upon her in the book’s later portion in order to disturb the solitude she has so painstakingly cultivated, and who becomes the victim of her hexes.
For the Lauras of the world, the thought that one might slightly upset the feelings of one's loved ones by any independent gesture is entirely unbearable. Yet, by endlessly denying herself for their sake, she only makes that eventual upset more inevitable, and more destructive when it comes. Beneath the facade of “Dear Aunt Lolly,” Laura accumulates a subterranean reservoir of anguish and resentment that must finally have an outlet. I note again some resonances with William Blake-- Laura's rage is like the fruit of his “Poison Tree”: “I was angry with my foe: / I told it not, my wrath did grow,” he says: “[…] / And I sunned it with smiles, / And with soft deceitful wiles.” This describes Laura’s inner horticultural method quite well.
Salvation does finally come for Laura, however-- and it comes from the fact that Laura discovers, when she does finally attain her freedom, that it is precisely by this emancipation that she is able to entertain generous thoughts again toward her family—instead of outwardly mouthing pleasantries at them and inwardly settling accounts. At her moment of liberation, Warner tells us: “she ceased to triumph mentally over her tyrants [….]” She sees that “The amusement she had drawn at their disapproval had been a slavish remnant […]” (150). The desire to hurt her family was in fact inseparable from the tremendous terror of doing so. Freed from one, she is rid of the other.
It’s not hard to imagine how much of this is autobiography. Warner herself was a lesbian, communist, feminist writer, and here she is writing a cozy book about cozy little English people. Is it too much to suppose that the latter folk are the ones she grew up with in real life, and whom she saw as her own captors— wardens at once relished and resented, sweet and despotic? And is it much of a stretch to suppose that Laura’s “witchcraft” is a stand-in here for the revenge against these beloved tormentors that Warner herself sought through her pen and her politics?
The conclusions of Warner’s book are addressed most explicitly to women, and Lolly Willowes is thought of, I take it, as a feminist classic. This is a book intended to console and advocate for all those good wives and sisters and mothers and aunts and grandmothers, whose goodness has been used against them-- the ones whose kindness is mistaken for weakness—and employed thereby as an excuse to write them off, to remove them mentally from the competition, to forget they exist until they must be sought out for cookies or consolation.
But as much as this fate has threatened women throughout history, it hovers no less over many of the rest of us, of whatever gender we may be—the moth-eaten bachelor librarian, the nice Midwestern guy whom everyone in the office likes but nobody pegs for a promotion, the “peacekeeper” husband with the gorgon wife and hellish children. Laura Willowes speaks for them as much as for the old-maid. She is the patron saint of all those sweet, kind-hearted people who are always thought of fondly, but who are not thought of very often.
Warner’s aim is not just to draw attention to the plight of such individuals, however, but to inform them of their power. Her novel reminds them that, as the meek, they really shall inherit the Earth. For the non-meek, meanwhile, Lolly Willowes has the following message: it is not ultimately the rich kid in the sports car you must fear, or the top student, or the braggart or the brownnoser or the bully. The real one to watch out for is the introspective, quiet one in the corner, the one you’ve forgotten, the one who doesn’t say anything when the loud-mouth is spouting off. Such people are the ones Warner compares to dynamite: “Even if other people still find them safe, and go on poking with them, they know in their hearts how dangerous, how incalculable, how extraordinary they are.” (214). These deadly quiet types are the ones who will become either witches or-- much more dangerous-- writers.