Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman was written by Sylvia Townsend Warner and published in 1926. The title page of my edition features a set of three stamped blue witches, flying diagonally from corner to corner. Until the last fourth of the novel, it’s unclear why they are there; for most of its 250 pages, the book follows the emancipation of frustrated spinster Laura (“Lolly”), who flees her cloying London family for a lonely country town in the Chilterns called Great Mop.
And then in the novel’s final act, she sells her soul to the devil.
The sale is not metaphorical. Lolly acquires a black kitten as her familiar, attends a Witches Sabbath, and lounges beside the Loving Huntsman himself in a graveyard, philosophizing about why women are driven to sell their souls for freedom. The novel closes by assuring us that Lolly will spend her life living happily beneath the Devil’s “undesiring and unjudging gaze, his satisfied but profoundly indifferent ownership.”
There’s an essay to be written about that closing line, but I will refrain. Instead, I want to praise the uncomplicated literalness of Lolly’s conversion (it is, pointedly, not damnation). I have trouble fitting her story easily into any contemporary fantastic genre, perhaps because Warner’s realism includes Lolly’s logical explanations of what is happening to her. (The genres to which I would otherwise assign the novel—weird fiction, magical realism, and speculative fiction—do not seek logical explanations for mystical phenomena, and often actively avoid them). The novel’s magic, however symbolic, is neither merely figurative nor used mainly for atmosphere. Warner’s Devil is not just a metaphor for women’s liberation. He is real, and his behavior has rules that Lolly deduces. “For Satan is not only a huntsman,” she explains. “His interest in mankind is that of a skillful and experienced naturalist.”
Warner’s, and Lolly’s, interest in taking their symbols literally filters down into the novel’s prose. Warner’s language becomes more metaphoric as the book advances, but its figures always remain precise, deliberate—logical. A single figure often commands an entire paragraph, which develops it with the rhetorical grace of a Latin orator organizing a speech around a central verb:
She had struggled to come, but there had been no such struggle for Titus. It was as easy for him to quit Bloomsbury for the Chilterns as for a cat to jump from a hard chair to a soft. Now after a little scrabbling and exploration he was curled up in the green lap and purring over the landscape. The green lap was comfortable. He meant to stay in it, for he knew where he was well off. It was so comfortable that he could afford to wax loving, praise its kindly slopes, stretch out a discriminating paw and pat it. But Great Mop was no more to him than any other likeable country lap. He liked it because he was in possession.
Also like an orator, Warner gracefully translates rhetorical arguments about abstract concepts into successions of neatly-interlocking concrete images. This literary trick is one of my favorites, and she does it especially well. Combined with Warner’s robust endorsement of witchery as a viable alternative to bourgeois femininity, Lolly Willowes’s precise metaphors unfold into a vivid roadmap of First Wave awakening—and something of a magical spinster’s how-to guide, if you are into that sort of thing.
Since I know a lot of you are, you should probably read this book.