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Lolly Willowes or The Loving Huntsman

August 22, 2020

IMG_4154First published in 1926, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novel Lolly Willowes or The Loving Huntsman is the story of an unmarried woman who is expected to subsume her wants and desires to those of others.

Lolly’s name is Laura. When she is a child, her older brothers, when told to play with her, would give her “some passive female part” and later, if “it was discovered that the captive princess or the faithful squaw had slipped away unnoticed to the company of Brewer in the coachhouse or Oliver Cromwell the toad, who lived under the low russet roof of violet leaves near the disused melon pit, it did not much affect the course of the drama.”

After her father dies, Laura conforms to expectations and is moved to London, along with some of the pieces of furniture from the country house. She lives with her older brother Henry, his wife Caroline, and their two children, and is expected to share Caroline’s busy schedule of household chores. Her family falls into calling her Lolly because that’s how they refer to her for the benefit of her nieces and nephews.

We get Laura’s point of view on how Caroline has been bad for Henry’s character because “she fed his vanity, and ministered to his imperiousness.” Laura also thinks that
“the law had done a great deal to spoil Henry. It had changed his natural sturdy stupidity into a browbeating indifference to other people’s point of view. He seemed to consider himself briefed by his Creator to turn into ridicule the opinions of those who disagreed with him, and to attribute dishonesty, idiocy, or a base motive to everyone who supported a better case than he. This did not often appear in his private life, Henry was kindly disposed to those who did not thwart him by word or deed. His household had been well schooled by Caroline in yielding gracefully, and she was careful not to invite guests who were not of her husband’s way of thinking.”
You can probably feel how stifling it might be to live as a dependent in the house of such a man.

Henry and Caroline undertake to invite young men over to the house, to give Laura a chance at making a marriage of her own, but she finds them uninteresting. When they produce one man she is willing to talk to, a Mr. Arbuthnot, she doesn’t hold back but manages to
“talk naturally of what came uppermost in her thoughts. Laura’s thoughts ranged over a wide field, even now. Sometimes she said rather amusing things, and displayed unexpected stores (General Stores) of knowledge. But her remarks were as a rule so disconnected from the conversation that no one paid much attention to them. Mr. Arbuthnot certainly was not prepared for her response to his statement that February was a dangerous month. ‘It is,’ answered Laura with almost violent agreement. ‘If you are a were-wolf, and very likely you may be, for lots of people are without knowing, February, of all months, is the month when you are most likely to go out on a dark windy night and worry sheep.’”
At this point in the novel, unless you have paid very close attention to the subtitle, you are likely to dismiss Laura’s remarks as fanciful.

Laura’s one extravagance as she goes about her London errands is buying bouquets of cut flowers for her room, and one autumn day when she sees some particularly fine chrysanthemums, she decides to move to the part of the country where they were grown, a little town called Great Mop. The sight of the flowers and her subsequent purchase of a guide book and maps makes her feel “as though she had awoken, unchanged, from a twenty-years slumber” and she realizes that “even Henry and Caroline, whom she saw every day, were half hidden under their accumulations—accumulations of prosperity, authority, daily experience. They were carpeted with experience. No new event could set jarring feet on them but they would absorb and muffle the impact.”

So Laura asks Henry for the money left to her by their father. He is put into the position of having to admit that he has not managed it for her benefit, but he doesn’t do that; instead he tries to forbid her to leave. Laura has made up her mind, however. She takes a room in a house in Great Mop and begins to enjoy her life, doing exactly as she pleases.

After a few months, however, when a nephew she is fond of comes to Great Mop, Laura feels that “when she was with him she came to heel and resumed her old employment of being Aunt Lolly.” This is the point when the novel seems to take a turn, although its direction has been clear from the start. Rather than fancy, Laura’s perception that she has sold her soul to be able to live as an independent woman is revealed, little by little, to be fact. When she cries out in the middle of an empty field and stands waiting for an answer, it seems fanciful when she relates that “the silence that followed it had been so intent, so deliberate, that it was like a pledge. If any listening power inhabited this place; if any grimly favorable power had been evoked by her cry; then surely a compact had been made, and the pledge irrevocably given.”

It seems fanciful when, discovering a kitten in her room, she decides that “she, Laura Willowes, in England, in the year 1922, had entered into a compact with the Devil….And now, as a sign of the bond between them, he had sent his emissary. It had arrived before her, a rank breath, a harsh black body in her locked room. The kitten was her familiar spirit.”

It might still seem fanciful when Laura decides that “she was a witch by vocation….What else had set her upon her long solitary walks, her quests for powerful and forgotten herbs, her brews and distillations… How she had come to Great Mop she could not say; whether it was of her own will, or whether, exchanging threatenings and mockeries for sweet persuasions, Satan had at last taken pity upon her bewilderment, leading her by the hand into the flower-shop….Near at hand but out of sight the loving huntsman couched in the woods, following her with his eyes.”

However, at the point when Laura’s landlady Mrs. Leak invites her on a walk at 10:30 pm, Laura thinks that “there was no need for further explanation. They were going to a Witches’ Sabbath.” And this is clearly not just her fancy. Even if readers might still be inclined to dismiss it as an overactive imagination, when they get to the field where almost everyone in the village has turned out for what is undoubtedly a Witches’ Sabbath, readers can doubt no more. Laura doesn’t just fancy herself a witch; she is one, and this ostensibly realistic novel is going to describe her adventures–as indeed it has been doing, all along.

At the climax of the novel, Laura has a pleasant conversation with Satan, who has appeared to her as a game-keeper and then a grave-keeper until she calls him out, saying “O Satan!….Do you always hide?” At that point, “with the gesture of a man who can never hold out against women, he yielded and sat down beside her on the grass.”

Here is one of the things Laura says to Satan during this conversation, during which she is free to hold forth on various topics at her leisure:
“Is it true that you can poke the fire with a stick of dynamite in perfect safety? I used to take my nieces to scientific lectures, and I believe I heard it then. Anyhow, even if it isn’t true of dynamite, it’s true of women. But 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! Respectable countrywomen keep their grave-clothes in a corner of the chest of drawers, hidden-away, and when they want a little comfort they go and look at them, and think that once more, at any rate, they will be worth dressing with care. But the witch keeps her cloak of darkness, her dress embroidered with signs and planets; that’s better worth looking at. 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 they are all so accustomed, so sure of her! They say: ‘Dear Lolly! What shall we give her for her birthday this year? Perhaps a hot-water bottle. Or what about a nice black scarf? Or a new workbox? Her old one is nearly worn out.’ But you say: ‘Come here, my bird! I will give you the dangerous black night to stretch your wings in, and poisonous berries to feed on, and a nest of bones and thorns, perched high up in danger where no one can climb to it.’ That’s why we become witches: to show or scorn of pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure.”

The way Townsend reveals Laura’s seemingly fanciful ideas to be quite literally true is a joke on unwary readers who might assume that because a woman doesn’t seem extraordinary to them, she isn’t. You can be sure of old Aunt Lolly, but if you never take the trouble to pay any attention to her, you may find that you do not know her at all.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 22, 2020 7:34 am

    I have to confess, shame-facedly, that I felt completely at sea reading this book. Very little of it has stuck with me, I suspect because I understood it very little as I was reading it. I have several friends who are in LOVE with this author, so I want to maybe try something else by her, but I may not be smart enough. :p

    • August 22, 2020 10:02 am

      I think it more likely that you weren’t old enough when you read it. As a woman gets older, the issues raised by this novel get more and more clear.

  2. lemming permalink
    August 22, 2020 8:41 am

    (mumbles extended historiography lecture)

    Curious if any mention is made of the loss an an entire generation of marriage-eligible men on the battlefields & hospitals of WW I?

    • August 22, 2020 10:01 am

      The introduction to the novel by Alison Lurie mentions “the terrible male mortality of WWI” and compares this novel to Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own” (the novel came first).

  3. August 22, 2020 1:02 pm

    Woah! This sounds like a psychological thriller! Is the author presenting the conversations with “Satan” as happening outside of Laura’s head (making the book a fantasy novel)? Or are they ultimately part of Laura’s imagination, pushed to the edge by a society that offers her only one option for escaping the patriarchy? Is she a witch because supernatural beings actually exist in her world or because she thinks that’s the only role available to a woman who insists on independence?

    • August 22, 2020 6:26 pm

      This is not a fantasy novel; it is realistic fiction. You could read the whole thing as if the conversations with Satan were really with gamekeepers, etc. but then you would be falling into the trap. Laura is way more interesting and potentially powerful than anyone gives her credit for–she does think that “witch” is the only role available to a woman who insists on independence in her era.

  4. August 23, 2020 2:23 pm

    Oh, I’ve been wanting to read this ever since I heard about it but had totally forgotten about it in recent years, so thanks for the reminder of its reputed magic.

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