The year 1936 was a watershed for Bloomsbury fellow traveler Sylvia Townsend Warner. She traded a respectable existence editing Tudor Church Music for what Sarah Waters describes as “a kind of rural outlawry” in Dorset with the poet Valentine Ackland. The pair soon decamped for Barcelona, as newly committed Communists, to work with the Red Cross during the Spanish Civil War. And 1936 marks the publication of Warner’s fourth novel, Summer Will Show, a passionate lesbian love story charged with political and sexual upheaval.
Sophia Willoughby, Summer’s wealthy Victorian heroine, travels to Paris in 1848 with the intention of reclaiming her husband from his French Jewish mistress, Minna. Instead, Sophia finds herself drawn to Minna “with a steadfast compulsive heat,” “a thing not of the brain but in the blood.”1 Sophia trades English “cold-hearted respectability, … hypocrisy, … and domesticity” for life with her husband’s ex-lover in a bohemian Parisian underworld, and eventually finds herself loading guns on the barricades.2
A decade earlier, however, Warner’s first novel, Lolly Willowes; or, The Loving Huntsman, told a more surprising and original tale about the journey from domesticity to wildness. In Summer Will Show, Sophia Willoughby’s erotic liberation is enabled, and to a degree explained, by historical tumult in distant France. Lolly Willowes instead finds its heart of darkness in a placid modern-day English village, one that just happens to be a hotbed of demonic possession. Warner chronicles a self-effacing English spinster’s gradual realization that, far from being a forgotten superfluity in the modern marriage market, she is actually a witch in league with Satan. It is as if Virginia Woolf had rewritten Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Young Goodman Brown,” complete with afternoon teas and a feckless nephew at Oxford.
Lolly Willowes initially presents itself as a conventional post-WWI spinster story. Its opening sentences find Laura (nicknamed “Lolly” by a niece) moving in with her elder brother, Henry, and his family after the death of their father, for whom she had cared for nearly a decade. “They took for granted that she should be absorbed into the household of one brother or the other. And Laura, feeling rather as if she were a piece of property forgotten in the will, was ready to be disposed of as they should think best.”
Quiet English everyday realism is revealed as witchcraft—and as having always been that way.
Laura chafes inside a patriarchal English world defined by the mechanisms of ritual and tradition, but what can she do? She finds her sole means of escape in moments of vivid imagination. “She was subject to a peculiar kind of day-dreaming, so vivid as to be almost a hallucination: that she was in the country, at dusk, and alone, and strangely at peace. … Her mind was groping after something that eluded her experience, a something that was shadowy and menacing, and yet in some way congenial.”
Only after Laura suddenly strikes off on her own, moving from her brother’s home, in London, to a small village in the Chiltern Hills called Great Mop, does the novel’s muted occult strain come to the fore. A small kitten turns up in Laura’s rented bedroom. She is not sure how it found its way in, and when she reaches down to stroke it, it suddenly bites and claws at her, raising a single “bright round drop of blood.” Laura is overcome:
Not for a moment did she doubt. But so deadly, so complete was the certainty that it seemed to paralyze her powers of understanding, like a snake-bite in the brain. …
She, Laura Willowes, in England, in the year 1922, had entered into a compact with the Devil. The compact was made, and affirmed, and sealed with the round red seal of her blood.
Satan had always had his eye on Laura, she now realizes: “The ruling power of her life had assaulted her with dreams and intimations, calling her imagination out from the warm safe room to wander in darkened fields.” With the drop of blood raised by the mysterious kitten, Laura realizes that her straitened spinster experience had always been troubled by a barely discernible undertow. Lolly Willowes now morphs into a delightful novel of self-actualization through witchcraft. It beats The Bloody Chamber (Angela Carter’s 1979 feminist reappropriation of fairy tales) to the punch by half a century—and with a far lighter touch.
The Sisters Grimm
Great Mop soon turns out to be full of witches and warlocks, and in a pastoral Black Sabbath Laura enjoys a dance with a “pasty-faced and anaemic young slattern whom she had seen dawdling around the village … they whirled faster and faster, fused together like two suns that whirl and blaze in a single destruction. … The contact made her tingle from head to foot.” This full-body tingling is the novel’s only real hint of what Summer Will Show unfolds into explicitly lesbian eros. Witchcraft is neither lesbianism nor Communism—at least, never explicitly so. Laura’s taboo longing operates here instead as a deliciously subterranean force; we feel her desire all the more for its encoded disguise.
Laura’s new identity as “the inheritrix of aged magic” releases her from those conventional mechanisms—of custom, tradition, duty—that had constrained her. In a long speech to Satan at the novel’s conclusion, she offers a sweeping vision of an England filled with women whose birthright occult powers have been suppressed:
When I think of witches, I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded. … And all the time being thrust down into dullness when the one thing all women hate is to be thought dull. …
Is it true that you can poke the fire with a stick of dynamite in perfect safety? … Anyhow, even if isn’t true of dynamite, it’s true of women. Even if other people still find them quite safe and usual, … they know in their hearts how dangerous, how incalculable, how extraordinary they are. Even if they never do anything with their witchcraft, it’s there—ready!
The brilliance of this novel lies in Warner’s success in imbuing the “common,” the ordinary, and even the “dull” with the force of dangerous magic while still permitting each to remain its ordinary self. Quiet English everyday realism is revealed as witchcraft—and as having always been that way.
Warner went on to write six more novels, along with a raft of other work, including poetry, short stories, and the first English translation of Proust’s Contre Sainte-Beuve. Late in her life—in the stories of delightfully perverse fairy lore mostly published in the New Yorker and collected in the 1977 Kingdoms of Elfin—she turned to thoroughgoing fantasy. But never more successfully than in this first novel did she call out the imagination to wander—perhaps because in Lolly Willowes fantasy is so convincingly embedded in the everyday.
When first invited to be “absorbed into” her brother’s household, Laura had “accepted the inevitable,” and “behaved very well.” However, the novel’s turn to witchcraft (is it an early turn to magical realism as well?) rejects the inevitable and misbehaves, offering a beguiling vision of a world of incalculable women bearing within them disruptive dark powers. If Summer May Show trades English respectability for un-English bohemian revolution, Lolly Willowes pulls off the more difficult feat of making English respectability itself seem dangerously revolutionary.
This article was commissioned by John Plotz.