I had easily thirty-plus questions while reading this fantastic, fantastic novel. (Seriously, I’ve already bought a copy for a friend’s birthday.) But the question I’ll engage with is this: is the devil (as presented in Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner) the “god” of shortcuts? And who is God when the Devil is the loving huntsman (Warner)?
The devil’s motivations are about as clear as his natural form, by which I mean they aren’t clear at all. The devil appears as lightning and thunder, as a man walking through the woods, potentially as bees and a kitten, and finally, definitively, as a gardener. A male gardener! The audacity. (Why did the Devil, and by extension Warner, decide to appear to Laura as a male? Going with traditional tropes or what? There’s another great thesis right here.)
What are his motivations? Is he setting women free from society or is he capturing them for himself? We only get Laura’s conjectures here, and it’s worth noting that the Devil appears to have little interest in correcting her thoughts. Oddly teacher-like, he tells Laura, “I encourage you to talk, not that I may know all your thoughts, but that you may” (pg. 216). He’s not here to be analyzed. He’s here to help Laura mentally unpack.
Whatever he exacts from his servants, we are left unaware. While the entirety of Great Mop appears to be under the devil’s “persuasion”, we are only privy to one other’s interaction with the devil. The man behind the mask, described as both China-man like and as a young girl’s face on pg. 181.
On pg. 217-18, the devil describes the masked man thusly.
“‘He’s one of these brilliant young authors,’ replied the Devil. ‘I believe Titus knows him. He sold me his soul on the condition that once a week he should be without doubt the most important person at a party’”
When Laura asks why he didn’t barter to just be a talented author, the Devil replies, “He preferred to take a short-cut, you see” (pg 218).
What shortcut, then, has Laura taken in exchange for her servitude to the Devil?
What if, just as the writer skipped the work and went straight to the reward, Laura too has skipped the work of establishing the independence she values so much?
In fact, this is exactly what she has done. Lolly Willowes employs magic realism to disappear the feminist struggle. Who needs to use your own voice to engage and enact your personal freedom when the Devil is around to casually throw wrenches (or bees) into your oppressor’s way? It seems Warner is unable to completely imagine a world free of some sort of patriarchy, or at least some form of oppression. Unable to leave the binary, twentysomething know-it-alls might say. But then again, who’s to concretely say she’s wrong?
Examining the Devil character seems, on the surface, to make things even more confusing. During his time helping Laura, no blood is shed, and no feelings are hurt. Indeed, the Devil solves the problem of Titus by marrying him off! How is this Devil character so nice – patiently waiting for Laura to come around to him, correcting not only her life but the other lives around her down beneficial lanes? How is he such a gentle, kind being, giving Laura time and open-ended questions to come fully face to face with who she has become – exactly what one might wish from a teacher?
This is problematic, or at least worrying, if we allow what the other literature has to say about Satan as he appears in other literature. Or is it?
Satan is the revolutionary-thinking hero of Paradise Lost, and (spoiler alert) in the Genesis section of the Bible, assuming the snake is the Devil (never actually stated in the Bible – read this critically to analyse the typical shaky logic-ing required to equate them), all the Devil does is tell a different story. He states that God is lying, and that Adam and Eve will not die if they eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Instead, they’ll just get knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 4-5). Which is exactly what happens.
And do Adam and Eve die? Or do they just get kicked out of paradise because God now fears they’ll eat from the Tree of Life and become just like him? (Genesis 22.) (Side note – if you want to argue that A & E did die, as God then banished them from Eden and doomed them to one day die, 1. This is lazy and redactive – how are they threatened with death if the concept doesn’t yet exist?, and 2. Eve’s “mistake” is then the only reason they leave the garden and start all of humanity. So the eating of the apple, just like the tree’s name implies, gives them knowledge, perhaps, but also the lives of everyone who has subsequently lived on Earth. It does not, opposite of popular belief, give them death. Weird that knowledge is somehow anti-religious though.)
I’ve successfully connected to one of my other questions – who is God when the Devil is a loving, harmless huntsman? Where the Devil works and low-key lusts for his subjects, values and enlightens them, is it correct or fair to paint God as the Devil’s direct opposite? As aloof, removed, a thing of artifice in opposition to the thunder, wolves and foxes and wildness of the Devil? (218ish). If the Devil is pro-feminist, pro-nature and pro-independence, what is God? The critique is unflattering, even if Warner never directly brings Him into the text.