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.