Witches, spinsters and lesbians

Thursday, April 9, 2020 - 6:41pm


Prinzhorn Collection

Both of these novels, written nearly fifty years apart, concern women who go against the grain of society in ways that are, in the grand scheme of things, rather inconsequential. In doing so, these stories reveal the stakes of the everyday.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, “Lolly Willowes”

The cover of my copy of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s first novel is decorated with a drawing of a witch by August Neter. Neter was an outsider artist, one of Hans Prinzhorn’s “schizophrenic masters,” whose art was an attempt to capture his hallucinations. The image depicts the profile of a short-haired woman covered in plants, roads and animals, an effect that suggests a map. It’s an apt choice on the part of the publisher: Warner’s style resembles Neter’s double image in its porous curiosity and naturalistic oddness. It’s also apt because the novel is about a witch. The witchiness here is less Shakespearean and more ordinary, spinster-ish; Warner suggests that the closest relative to the witch is the unmarried tradeswoman or the country wife who prepares her own dandelion wine. Written in the 1920s, the novel seems to suggest that someone can become a witch simply by refusing the trappings of polite society, by “politely declining to make the expected connection with the opposite sex,” as John Updike (of all people) puts it on the back cover of my copy.  

We first see the titular Laura Willowes (called Lolly by her niece, a nickname that sticks) moving in with her brother Henry and his wife Caroline after the death of their father. It’s a move from the countryside to London. Caroline describes Laura in passing as “a gentle creature” and then turns to logistics: a writing desk has to be moved, a bureau that another relative wanted is allocated to “small spare room” in which “aunt Lolly” will live. The rest of the novel is, in part, an elaboration on what Caroline missed. Laura won’t become a witch until the last third of the novel, but even before then she has a strangely textured inner life and a tendency to feel out strange essences from ordinary surfaces. We next see a very young Laura stealing into the room where her great-aunt’s disused harp collects dust and plucking the strings, which “answered with a melancholy and distracted voice.” She then dwells on the lock of her great-aunt’s hair that was embroidered into a picture of a willow tree as something of a memento mori. 

 Hints of morbidity and the occult are common in Warner’s evocation of English country life. Laura’s childhood with her father is quiet and practical, to be sure, but there’s suggestion of rural magic everywhere. She helps her father out in his brewery, gathers medicinal herbs from the forests, climbs trees, absorbs traditional remedies and age-old practices from the “country servants of long tenure.” While her brothers Henry and James get shuttled off into professional life, Laura stays with her father and notes how one servant makes traditional beeswax polish and fills the house with “a resinous smell” and how another recommends infusions of nettles and mugwort for longevity. She’s content to continue living like this, and has an antipathy toward marriage that she never loses. Her father doesn’t push the point. She becomes instead the mistress of the house with “an easy diligence.”   

When her father dies and Laura moves to Henry’s house in London, she brings her preternatural intuition to bear on the rhythms of life in the city. Henry and Caroline are people with customs and routines in place of personalities, but Warner still has a flair for catching the shadow that follows each gesture. At one point she describes Henry winding the grandfather clock in the hall — “first one and then the other the quivering chains were wound up, till only the snouts of the leaden weights were visible, drooping sullenly over the abyss of time wherein they were to make their descent during the seven days following.” This image, at once bleak and Carroll-esque, captures well the feeling of dullness that starts to weigh on Laura as she settles into her new life. Even so, the satire is even-handed and just. Laura’s relatives aren’t caricatures, they’re just ordinary middle-class English people, and that’s the problem. We get a sense of Laura’s strangeness, not the uniqueness of her quiet subjugation. 

 Laura is twenty-nine at this point and it’s 1902, meaning her prospects for marriage are increasingly unlikely. Caroline and Henry occasionally host Eligible Bachelors, but Laura determinedly ignores them or says eccentric things to them and after a while everyone involved stops trying. Laura then becomes something like an unpaid housekeeper to her brother’s family. There are long passages that list her duties, which range from the arrangement of flowers to embroidery to looking after her nieces. After nearly twenty years of this Laura starts to long for more, starts to feel tempted to leave. She is finally persuaded to do so after seeing canned fruit and homemade preserves in a “countrified” shop while running errands: she has a sudden vision of herself staring up at an apple tree late in the season, reaching up for the fruit outlined against the fading grey sky. That night, she announces to her relations that she’s moving to Great Mop, a small town in the Chilterns. She ignores their indignant protests (“now Lolly, what you want is absurd!”) and sets off the next day. 

Just as Warner avoids generalizing about her characters, she also avoids panoramas and self-conscious theses. It would have been easy to write this book in a manner that presented opposites — the stiflingly domestic world of Caroline and Henry’s house and the totally free world of country life. When Laura arrives in Great Mop her newfound independence is rather vexing. She spends her days exploring the area on foot for hours and ends up exhausting herself. “She knew in her heart that she was not really enjoying this sort of thing, but the habit of useless activity was too strong to be snapped by a change of scene.” 

She eventually settles in, meets some quirky townspeople, figures out how to relax (“life becomes simple if one does nothing about it”), and in doing so finally dispenses with the self-imposed discipline built up by her long years attending to other people. Then, as if to spite her, her nephew Titus shows up in Great Mop. Titus is there to write a book about an obscure painter and thought he could focus better in the country, and quickly renews the demands of Laura’s time and attention imposed by her family.  

Titus loves Great Mop and quickly ingratiates himself with the townspeople, but Laura sees his love as “different in kind from hers.” She has a distaste for his “reasonable appreciative appetite” for the country, the “possessive and masculine love” that makes the country a thing to be appreciated like a work of art or a lover’s body. Laura’s relationship to the country is more intuitive, almost spiritual: Warner writes that she had “trusted the place and staked everything on her trust.” It’s an equitable, companionate relationship with her surroundings that presumes no possession and makes no demands. She finally becomes a witch (encountering Satan in the form of a kitten) to get rid of Titus, but also to finally acknowledge that she’s always stood outside of this “masculine” (which could just as easily have been Western or Modern) way of seeing.  

Above all, Laura mostly just wants to be left alone. After becoming a witch she chafes a little bit at some of her new obligations. She doesn’t particularly enjoy the Witches’ Sabbath, which involves a lot of dancing and gossiping, but she does note that her landlady (who she sees at the Sabbath) generally leaves her be. “[witches] do not mind if you are a little odd in your ways, frown if you are late for meals, fret if you are out all night, pry and commiserate when at length you return.” In other words, Laura’s witchiness is her way to build a dignified existence for herself in a world that so harshly restricts women. Toward the end of the novel, she tells Satan (in the form of a woodsman) what she sees in being a witch. “Women have such lively imaginations, and lead such dull lives,” she says. “There is a dreadful kind of dreary immortality about being settled down on by one day after another… Doing, doing, doing, till mere habit scolds at them like a housewife, and rouses them up — when they might sit in their doorways and think.” This is, in the end, all that she wanted to escape, and she needed to come this far to find it. Laura is a uniquely stubborn woman; in the end Warner’s brilliance is to show us how little she actually wants.


Anna Wilson, “Cactus” 

When I was idly googling Sylvia Townsend Warner after I finished “Lolly Willowes,” I found out that she was in a relationship with the poet Valentine Ackland for nearly forty years. It didn’t surprise me, exactly, that Warner was a lesbian: though “Lolly Willowes” is demure on sex per se (besides, possibly, a moment at the Sabbath where the touch of a village girl makes Laura “tingle from head to foot”), Laura’s determined avoidace of marriage and family could easily be read as an analogy for the difficulty of queer life in a conservative society. Fifty years after “Lolly Willowes” was published, the mostly-unknown British writer Anna Wilson wrote “Cactus,” a novel that deals with this particular kind of refusal. Her 1970s are no less repressive than Warner’s 1920s, and if anything feel more so. The story concerns two lesbian couples, one that broke up in the late 50s and one determined to live together twenty years later. The “scolding” that Warner spoke of nudges this quartet of women in ways that are subtle and complex. There are restricted possibilities afforded to lesbians in a culture that assumes straightness (and, ultimately, the nuclear family unit), and oppression necessarily bends well-intentioned people out of shape. None of the women are as heroically stubborn as Laura Willowes, but each of them finds a creative way to respond to the straight world that surrounds them.  

I feel the need to advocate for this novel: Warner is a minor writer who deserves more attention but Anna Wilson is virtually invisible, and “Cactus” is a remarkable work that deserves a place in the lesbian canon. Wilson’s complex and not entirely optimistic reckoning with lesbian life rivals that of Patricia Highsmith in “The Price of Salt,” and the quality of her writing and talent for psychological portraiture is that of a masterful artist. It deserves to be reprinted (it wouldn’t be out of place in the NYRB classics series, which published by copy of “Lolly Willowes”), but until then I imagine people in the greater lesbian community will keep handing around the extant copies. It was lent to me, as it happens, by a transmasc friend who I’ve been exchanging books with for a while. Inside, I found a bookmark from the much-missed Common Language Bookstore, which was a place where people could readily discover books like this one.  

My friend mentioned that they picked it up on the strength of the opening scene, which has a Winterson-like quality of weaving intense sensuality with psychological detail: a lover’s attention to the beloved’s body (her hands, her shoulders, her back, the “hollow” of her neck) combined with dazed bemusement at the whole scene. Wilson’s style is fluid and dense with thought: long sentences unravel memories on top of the current moment; memories of trepidation, hesitation and longing are juxtaposed with present pleasures. In a close third person, Eleanor feels the “thread of connection” between her and Beatrice, a woman who was simply her friend from work until recently, as they walk together along a beach. The world recedes in importance: even as Eleanor starts wondering how they could continue this relationship back in London, she tries to suspend the moment, to understand it and live inside it more fully: “she needed to take stock of what had happened, to finish the story in her head, to draw breath and stand back from it all for a moment.” 

 This opening scene is an exhilarating rush that abruptly gives way to the complicated, messy story that follows. The next thing we see is Beatrice dragging her foot through the gravel of a path. The two women are back from their holiday and Beatrice is reluctantly breaking up with Eleanor. Marriage is on the horizon. “It has to happen some time, you know.” Beatrice says. A while later, Eleanor lays out the underlying problem: “it’s so totally inexplicable to the rest of the world that it doesn’t exist. You can’t live it. Everything we do out there denies it.” Framed like this, neither of the women have many real choices. Eleanor is asking Beatrice to stay despite this, but their relationship already has a feeling of impossibility hanging over it.  

 It might be difficult for a contemporary reader to reconstruct the psychological landscape that the characters in “Cactus” move in, especially Eleanor and Beatrice’s pre-Stonewall relationship. The taboo against queer life was, even in the 1970s, a unified and thoroughly consolidated cultural position, one that would calcify horribly in the AIDS crisis in the decade after this novel was written. When Eleanor says “it doesn’t exist,” she means that there was at that point a near-total lack of public discourse surrounding same-sex partnership that would make sustaining a relationship of that sort complicated, and would make the two women prone to ostracization and backlash.  

After Beatrice and Eleanor separate, the narrative skips twenty-five years and lands in the seventies — Beatrice, like Laura Willowes, is now in her fifties and is beginning to feel the weight of her choices. She is married to a man named Tim and has had children who have since grown and left, and all at once feels like she has nothing to fill the rest of her life with. Eleanor has worked as a greengrocer in a small town outside of London in the intervening time, pointedly unattached and independent but also functionally closeted. No one minds if she’s “odd in her ways,” but one gets the sense immediately that she doesn’t have many friends and that her customers and neighbors pity her. The arrival of Ann and Nell, a twentysomething lesbian couple from London experimenting with country life, inevitably complicates Eleanor’s proud defiance. Then, as one might expect, Beatrice comes looking for Eleanor when the life of an empty-nester starts to feel increasingly desperate. The climax of the novel, the dinner party in which all of the women are present, represents a sort of collision of sensibilities and approaches. Far from being a Witches Sabbath of solidarity, this is a meeting between flawed, compromised women with varying degrees of complicity, who might not entirely know what to say to each other.  

Wilson’s writing is beautiful, at times resembling the Virginia Woolf of “Mrs. Dalloway.” Characters follow trails of hypotheticals, revise judgements, interpret and reinterpret their memories, their thoughts occasionally turning on something they run into while sweeping a floor and putting a kettle on. She’s so thorough in her depictions of her characters’ inner lives that the miscommunications and little resentments between them sting with the force of betrayal.  

The title of the novel comes from something Ann tells Dee shortly after they move to the small town in which Eleanor lives:  “If I want to go back to the city it’s not you I want to leave, it’s this desert. I’m tired of always having to use cactus skills, as if that’s all there ever was for lesbians in the world — drink the fleeting support of the ghetto, grow a thick skin to withstand the heat of a hostile environment, go sit in the desert for a year drinking your juices meanly.”  

Ann and Dee have roots in a larger community of lesbians in London (the “ghetto”) that both of them find stifling in its own way. Both women are also apprehensive about this experiment, what it might mean. “We came here partly to make a tangible commitment… Because it was always so destructive, or time-consuming, to be doubting and reaffirming all the time,” is how Ann puts it; it’s implied that polyamory is the norm in this community of lesbians (“there was too much personal life,” Dee tells Eleanor later) and that this is partly an experiment in monogamy. Still, this arrangement (and maybe domesticity itself) chafes on Ann in particular. After she is slighted by Eleanor and Dee (or perceives a slight) she thinks about the possibility of leaving, rejects it out of hand, broods on that rejection: “not only am I not going to react with any decent vigour to these betrayals, I am not going to pack my belongings and go looking for wild women and wild landscapes. I am not even going to stop making the lunch… as bound as any other housewife by other people’s expectations.” 

Being like “any other housewife” is what Ann is ultimately afraid of: there’s a latent tension in their relationship between the desire for a quiet, domestic life and a fear of reproducing the stifling world of the nuclear family that they disavow, really a collision of two paradigms. More generally, Wilson is concerned with how individuality might be sacrificed when people united only by the coincidence of a gender and a sexuality have to stick together, but she also sees in the search for individuality something destructive, nihilistic almost. Eleanor embodies the latter possibility: as embittered as she is by the time Beatrice arrives, when she finally shows up at her door Eleanor doesn’t have much to say to her former lover. Beatrice’s years away are interpreted by the younger women as a betrayal (Dee tells Beatrice at the dinner party that she wouldn’t “bolster up your heterosexual world at any price”) and Eleanor feels knotty feelings between bitterness and yearning that render her mostly noncommunicative. Though there are halting gestures toward continuing where they left off, Beatrice feels shut out and eventually leaves Eleanor for home and Tim. 

The specter of the “heterosexual world,” tragically misapplied onto Beatrice, never really appears but around the edges. Wilson shows, briefly, the manners and lifestyles of the women in the village (Dee overhears groups of women discussing their recipes and blandly flirting with men toward the beginning) but for the most part, we only get what the women say the outside world is like, a clouded mirror made of impressions and judgements. The polite smiles of Eleanor’s customers or the bland aesthetics of the local Women’s Institute become, for these women, thinly veiled resentment, representation only of difference. One of the most clear-eyed judgements comes from Beatrice herself: “she had become, for those two women, just what they would expect. A representative figure, the world in miniature propped up on a bench: come unto me and I shall disapprove, I am the unyielding tradition of centuries, carried on from hand to hand by those waiting to die. You shall all come to this, I’ll see to that.” That this “tradition of centuries” necessarily includes women like Beatrice is just what the other lesbians, especially Ann and Dee, miss: in the moralistic bent of 1970s feminism, heterosexuality is falsely held up as a choice, something one can and should rebel against. It’s never quite as simple as that. 

We also get the character of Tim, Beatrice’s husband, as a sort of avatar of heterosexuality. Tim is a manager of some sort and a dedicated hobbyist gardener. In other words, he’s an everyman, and while he’s occasionally rude or dismissive to Beatrice he is never unreasonable or cruel. He encourages her to find secretarial work when their children leave, doesn’t mind too much when Beatrice decides to leave town for a few days, and is by all appearances a well-intentioned if slightly oblivious man.  

For me, Tim is Wilson’s most devastating gesture. One understands fully at the end of the novel how easy Beatrice’s decision was; how straightforward her path was in comparison to the bleak life her former lover leads. Warner, in depicting Henry and Caroline, didn’t caricaturize them but at least gave Laura (and the reader) a foothold in rebelling against them. Tim is depicted so naturally and in such blank, placid prose that he appears as someone like him might appear in life: someone whose faults do not make him evil even if they make him intolerable. In the end Beatrice can’t, or won’t, rebel against him, won’t leave him for Eleanor, won’t leave London for the countryside. It’s unclear if she would be happier if she did.