The Witch and Lolly Willowes: Spoilers (Did I mention spoilers?)


by Simon Cropp

Understanding modernity in a literary context becomes difficult as Rita Felski notes in “Modernity and Feminism” due to “a cacophony of different and often dissenting voices” (13) trying to explain exactly what the modern is. Felski writes, “To be modern is to be on the side of progress, reason, and democracy, or, by contrast to align oneself with ‘disorder, despair, and anarchy’” (13). But this is only a piece of what modernity can be for Feslki.

Felski explains that modernity for some “comprises an irreversible historical process that includes not only the repressive forces of bureaucratic and capitalist domination but also the emergence of a potentially emancipatory, . . . self-critical, ethics of communicative reason” (13). These concepts are important in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novel Lolly Willow’s when Laura sheds the oppressive shackles of “repressive forces” to ultimately find a kind of emancipation from the life she lived under a dominating, patriarchal rule.

Much can be said about the fact that Laura moves under the rule of another male authority– represented by Satan–when she becomes one of the witches of Great Mop. But it is also worth noting, the repressive order of Britain’s primarily male hegemonic structure no longer rules her, and Satan’s “rules” are easily understood to be much looser and more in line with Laura’s self-interests. Whatever rules he may have.

An interesting recuperation of the spirit of Warner’s story has recently occurred in thethe_witch_poster world of independent movies with the release of 2015’s horror film The Witch. Whether or not director Robert Eggers is a closet Lolly Willowes fan is not worth the debate, but the thematic core of his film is remarkably similar to Warner’s classic text. While vastly different in tone, Eggers presents his viewers with a young female protagonist named Thomasin who is the oldest daughter in a family run by a strict, puritan patriarch. Her father’s adherence to religious doctrine places Thomasin in the role of serving her family with no regard for herself. When her father decides the seventeenth-century puritan village they live in is not holy enough, he moves his small family deep into the woods to be closer to God. Instead, Thomasin and her family find themselves overcome by a series of tragic events that could be due to nature, madness, or perhaps a haunting by a witch who lives in the woods.

This concept of Puritan developments in the seventeenth-century becoming too big, too modern, is not something only believed by Thomasin’s father.

In her article “The Puritan Cosmopolis: A Covenantal View,” Nan Goodman writes about recent scholarship on Puritan globalism “that defined English sovereignty in this period and that characterized the colonization and imperialism inherent in the Puritans’ settlements in New England” (4). Compare this concept of Puritan globalism to Felski’s expanded notions on modernity. Feslki writes, “On the other hand, the idea of the modern was deeply implicated from its beginnings with a project of domination over those seen to lack this capacity for reflective reasoning. In the discourses of colonialism, for example, the historical distinction between the modern present and the primitive past was mapped onto the spatial relations between Western and non-Western societies” (14). Colonialism has a long history in the United States, and despite commonly held views that Puritans retreated from the modernizing of the world, the opposite is perhaps true in the sense that Puritans used the modernizing of the world for their own proselytizing.

eggers-witch-650So when The Witch begins with Thomasin’s father, William, delivering a speech before his friends, neighbors, and perhaps family, that he has presumably traveled from England with to start life anew, the meaning of the speech has particular relevance given Felski’s and Goodman’s context. William says in the opening of the film, “What went we out into this wilderness to find? Leaving our country, kindred, our fathers’ houses? We have travailed a vast ocean. For what? For what? What went we out into this wilderness to find? Leaving our country, kindred, our fathers’ houses? We have travailed a vast ocean. For what? For what? . . . Was it not for the pure and faithful dispensation of the Gospels, and the Kingdom of God?” Here seems to stand a man who does not understand the method and practice of those he thought he knew. So William takes his family and moves them deep into the New England countryside to find a more pure way toward “the Kingdom of God.”

Soon puritanical madness overtakes the family, and because Thomasin is on the verge of womanhood, the family turns on her and believes she has made a pact with Satan. That she has become a witch herself. As viewers, we know this to be untrue, and if the images on the screen are to be trusted, we know a witch in the woods is causing the family’s torment. Thomasin behaves exactly as a young woman of her time is supposed to behave. She takes care of children, cooks, cleans, prays, and does everything the hegemonic order of her community has asked.

At one point in the film, her father—who seems to be her only true ally in the family—suggests to her mother that they take her back to the village and marry her off. That her problems will be fixed by this solution.

The mother’s anger wins the father over though, and they decide Thomasin is a witch, though the film clearly depicts her as innocent. Dutiful, good-natured, kind-hearted. Everything she has been raised to be. It seems as if her fate will be to be burned as a witch though she clearly is not one at all.

Ultimately tragedy befalls the entire family, and Thomasin learns there is a witch in the woods, but worse, Satan has been on their property the entire time hiding amidst their livestock. He has been watching her suffer at the hands of her family, and in the end, he takes a human form and offers her freedom from the oppressive control of her community. All she has to do is sign his book, or consent to his rule, become a witch, like the other witches that have been in the woods all along.lucifer-renewed-season-2

Thomasin takes him up on his offer, and the film ends with her gleeful laughter as she leaves Satan behind and joins a coven of witches around a fire. Finally, she is free from the oppressive rule of her society.


Better the Devil You Know

I was honestly a little disappointed with the ending of Lolly Willowes. I was reading with the expectation of some great awakening in Laura that would free her from the life she has been forced to live. I thought she was going to be independent, but instead she is merely passed on to another man.

Throughout the novel, Laura is handed from her father, to her brother, then she is briefly alone (but still seeks out a man in the form of Mr. Saunders). When Titus comes to Great Mop, she is once again under the authority of a man. Satan provides her escape from Titus, but still he owns her, she is not independent.

Laura seems to consider belonging to Satan to be a better option; she even seems to think she is free. The choice to become a witch seems to be not a choice at all, but rather something that happens to Laura. She has been chosen by Satan, not the other way around.  Laura’s relationship with Satan reminds me of a captive with Stockholm syndrome and the captor who completely controls his victim. As Naomi mentioned, Satan tells Laura “you are in my power. No servant of mine can feel remorse, or doubt, or surprise…you will never escape me, for you can never wish to” (210). This quote suggests that Laura has no agency and that she can no longer feel anything. She will be happy as a witch because she has no other option.

Satan, in this sense, seems to represent just another member of the patriarchy. A man who takes Laura under his authority. I suppose for a woman like Laura in a society like London in the 1920s there are no options. If she has to be under someone’s control might as well be the devil.

Accidentally a Witch? – Naomi

When we were reviewing the literature for the semester, I was very excited about Lolly Willowes. Some of my favorite literature includes Paradise Lost and Doctor Faustus, so the concept of a woman trading her soul for a quiet life in the country was compelling. While the novel itself was fine, I was disappointed by the turn of events with Lolly and her “connection” to Satan, and it seems as though Lolly was as well.

Lolly Willowes moves to Great Mop to escape her family obligations and meddling family. She wants to live a quiet life without feeling as though she is responsible for those around her. Lolly is initially pleased with her move, but becomes agitated when her nephew, Titus, moves to the same small town. Her quiet life has been hijacked by her family once again. Enter, the devil … sort of.

Lolly goes to the woods in frustration and muses on the turn of events. She cries into the night, “No! You shan’t get me. I won’t go back. I won’t … Oh! Is there no help?” (151). And that is it. We are to believe that that single cry for help has damned her soul and locked her into service with Satan. The book goes on to explain that, “She stood in the middle of the field, waiting for and answer to her cry. There was no answer. And yet the silence that had followed in 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 surly a compact had been made, and the pledge irrevocably given” (151). Upon returning to her home, Lolly finds a kitten and realizes that it is her familiar and that she has made a pact with the devil.

This is where I disconnected, and remained disconnected. How could Lolly Willowes trade her soul without acknowledging it? Without full knowledge? It seems as though the most accepted concept in the trope of a literary character selling his/her soul to Satan is foreknowledge, and I find that to be blatantly lacking here. To further complicate this, when Lolly finally meets with Satan at the end of the text, he admits that, “No servant of mine can feel remorse, or doubt, or surprise. You may be quite easy, Laura: you will never escape me, for you can never wish to” (210). Again, this seems to remove her freewill and desire to contract with Satan. And freewill is vital to the concept of pledging to either God or Satan. This statement also removes the potential for contrition and forgiveness, both of which are found rampant throughout Christian mythology.

Ultimately, I was left wanting more. More from Satan claiming a soul, more from Lolly aligning herself with the devil, more discussion of what it means to trade a soul for a quiet life.

Rusti, Olav. Woman with cat. 1876, oil on canvas, Bergen Art Museum,  Norway.

Warner, Sylvia Townsend. Lolly Willowes. 1926. The New York Review of Books, 1999.

Female Affection – Naomi

I’m going to need some help developing this idea (if there is anything here at all). It seems as though there is allusion to or acknowledgement of sexual attraction or connection between female characters in each of the novels we’ve covered so far: The Return of the Soldier, Mrs. Dalloway, and Lolly Willowes.

It struck me that there was a brief moment of (perhaps) lesbian affection between Lolly Willowes and another witch with whom she was dancing at the Witches’ Sabbath. At the dance, Lolly is moving from partner to partner and finally connects with Emily. “Laura liked dancing with Emily … They whirled faster and faster, fused together like two suns that whirl and blaze in a single destruction. A strand of the red hair came undone and brushed across Laura’s face. The contact made her tingle from head to foot. She shut her eyes and dived into obliviousness …” (175). Previous to this interaction, Lolly does not have an intimate connection to anyone she comes across; even to the several men whom her brother tries to set her up with. Although, I understand that writing is not strictly autobiographical, knowing that the author herself found companionship with a woman makes me wonder if there is perhaps some nod to that in the text.

In Mrs. Dalloway, the title character also has a moment of self-reflection as she remembers her love of another woman, Sally Seton. While at first, Clarissa’s internal monologue reflects that “on looking back, was the purity, the integrity, of her feeling for Sally. It was not like one’s feeling for a man” (33), she goes on to describe how Sally “kissed her on the lips” (35). The feelings that stirred in her were profound: “The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling!” (35). Again, this writing is done by an author who had a female lover.

The female connection in The Return of the Soldier is very different. After concluding that the truth must be told to Chris, Jenny and Margaret share a kiss: “We kissed, not as women, but as lovers do” (116). This seemed to come out of nowhere as I read the book, and indeed did not come up again. In this instance, Jenny and Margaret both loved the same man, perhaps mirroring West’s love affair with a married H.G. Wells.

Most of my classical reading from this time period is by male authors, so this is some of the first exposure I’ve had to early twentieth century British female authors. This trend is interesting as it may connect other things going on socially (ie. women’s suffrage). I’m interested to see if others found this as well, or if it is coincidence.

Warner, Sylvia Townsend. Lolly Willowes. 1926. The New York Review of Books, 1999.

West, Rebecca. The Return of the Soldier. 1918Broadview Editions, 2010.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. Harcourt, 2005.

A Little History about Witches and their References in Lolly Willowes

Throughout Lolly Willowes there is a variety of references to witches (and the history of witches) before Laura Willowes makes a deal with the devil. As we find out later in the novel, Laura’s interest in brewing, botany, and nature is because she is a witch. Although Laura has a fascinating connection with nature and the feminine, I will save this discussion for my response paper on Thursday. For this post, I will take a quick look at a few (not all) of the references or allusions to witches or witchcraft in the novel.

The first encounter with witchcraft history is alluded to in the setting of Somerset. Though Laura did not commit herself to witchcraft during her youth in Somerset, her interests in brewing, botany, and nature are rooted there. In my brief searching, I found that witchcraft has an interesting history in Somerset (and still has an active Wicca culture today). During the 1660s the Somerset Witch Trials took place (though not as prominent as the Salem Witch Trials). Though I did not find extensive research on the Somerset Witch Trials, I found that Robert Hunt, an English lawyer and politician, uncovered a cult of witches in Somerset. I think it is interesting and purposeful that Townsend chose Somerset as Laura’s first home considering the history of witchcraft. (Somerset pictured below).


There are also a few places in the novel where specific books are referenced that discuss witches. On page 25, Laura mentions learning from “Locke on the Understanding or Ganvil on Witches” (Townsend 25). Though I couldn’t find exactly what Laura was referring to, I found that John Locke and Joseph Glanvill did some writing about witches. I could not find exactly what Locke wrote about witches; however I found that Glanvill wrote Saducismus Triumphatus (pictured below), which is a book about the existence of witches and witchcraft.


After moving to Great Mop, Laura develops an interest in getting her landlady, Mrs. Leak, to talk to her. Though this relationship takes time to build, eventually they discover their shared interest in distillery. Mrs. Leak begins opening up to Laura and telling her vivid stories about the townspeople. During some of Mrs. Leak’s stories, Laura compares her to “the Witch of Endor calling up old Samuel” (Townsend 115). The Witch of Endor (pictured below) is an interesting character in the Bible’s Book of Samuel. This is also a fascinating connection to make because the Witch of Endor brought Samuel back from the dead. I would say that this comparison implies that Mrs. Leak has the ability to “bring” people “back to life” through the use of her stories. However, I think it is also significant to note that Laura is comparing Mrs. Leak to a witch (and a biblical witch for that matter) before she even knows that she or Mrs. Leak are witches.


Here are a few other links to sites with history about witches and witchcraft:

And here is an interesting video about witch trials that occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries:


Warner, Sylvia Townsend. Lolly Willowes. New York Review Books, 1999.


What’s In A Name?

Everyone at some point or another is addressed by a title or a nickname that differs from our own birth name. This was something that I never really thought about before reading Lolly Willowes. In the novel, Laura was oppressed by her family and the societal expectations that were forced on her for years. This oppression came in many forms, especially in her nickname Aunt Lolly.

It might seem weird to think of a title, especially one as playful sounding as Aunt Lolly, as a form of oppression, but this name became a burden for Laura. “Aunt” is not a title that a person is born with, rather it is something that is placed upon them. It characterizes a person by being someone’s sister, and not necessarily being a separate person. In the OED Online, “aunt” is defined as “The sister of one’s father or mother” (def. 1a). This title, while it may be endearing, takes away the individuality of a person and essentially turns them into an object. I think that the same thing happens with Clarissa in Virginia Wolfe’s novel when she is called “Mrs. Dalloway.” These titles are used to see women as objects instead of people. And more importantly, they become objects belonging to specific people. In Laura’s case, this title ensures that she and everyone else knows her place. She is her brother’s sister. And this means that she was burdened with certain responsibilities. She was expected to be a caretaker of children that were not hers, pious, frugal, and obedient. These responsibilities were lifted from Laura she made her escape from London to Great Mop, but they were thrust onto her again immediately when Titus came to live there. In the novel, Laura showed great contempt for Titus being there because it forced her back into her old position, “When she was with him she came to heel and resumed her old employment of being Aunt Lolly” (Warner 149). Immediately this title of being “Aunt Lolly” thrust the dull and restricting responsibilities that Laura was trying to escape back onto her.

Escaping this oppression led Laura into the service of the Devil because she wanted to be free of a title that restricted her. Laura explained to the Devil that she did not become a witch because she was evil, but instead, she said: “It was to escape all that– to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others” (Warner 215). This novel is about a search for freedom, and to attain that freedom Laura, and other women, had to shed the titles and expectations that society placed on them. In Laura’s case this led to her becoming a witch, but in reality, this led to women becoming actual people instead of an assumed object.


“aunt, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 21 September     2016.

Warner, Sylvia Townsend. Lolly Willowes. New York Review Books, 1999.