Friday, March 8, 2013

On Being a Witch

Lolly Willows by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978)

I often think of how fortuitous it was to have been born when I was, in that great demographic surge after World War II, to have been born in that tiny window that released me from participating in the horrors of the twentieth century--the two Great Wars, Korea, Vietnam and the endless wars of empire since.  To have come into a world relatively at peace, as a man, as a 'white man,' exempted me from the painful lives that have been the lot of most others. Somehow, not through my own worth but perhaps, again, due to dumb luck, I grew up in an idyllic time, or at least it seemed so to me as an unformed boy, ignorant of what my brothers and sisters--African-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, Jews, women, gay men and women, and many others endured (and much of what they endured was at the hands of a leadership I thought of, in my folly, as benign and paternal.)  Had it not been for the great good luck of my library card, the luck that Andrew Carnegie--hardly a friend of working class people like my parents--had endowed a library a block from where I grew up, and then, the best luck of all, the accidental fact (of all the possible facts in the world!) that my mother, who never attended college, nonetheless loved to read and put books in my hands, books that were, over time, to carry me, in imagination, out of the apartment in which I lived, to experience, however vicariously, the lives of others--the first step on the arduous road to the mindfulness of other's lives that is not only the point of all great literature but, I am convinced, among the chief points of our lives.

Many years ago, I mentioned to a friend how much I had enjoyed reading Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.  She congratulated me on my half-understood introduction to feminist thought and then told me about another book, by a Englishwoman of whom I knew nothing, about an unmarried woman--an 'aging spinster'--who struggles for twenty years to escape the spirit-deadening life of a maiden aunt, a companion first to her father, then to her older brother, and then to her nephew, a woman of character and imagination who discovers, in the most quotidian of ways, that she is, in fact, a witch.  The book was Lolly Willows and, after all these years, I've only just gotten around to reading it today.  I suppose what scared me off was the talk of witches--I am fatally repulsed by any mention of the supernatural in literature, outside, of course, of Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, and John Updike.  But Warner's Laura isn't a toad-rubbing, newt-nabbing daughter of Satan; no, she's a lonely woman who discovers that her connection to the earth takes extraordinary form:

   "Well, you're a witch now." [the Devil, in the form of a gardener tells Laura/Lolly]
   "Yes...I really am, aren't I?"
   His voice was so perfectly grave that she began to suspect him of concealing some amusement.  When but a moment before he had jested she had thought a deeper meaning lay beneath his words, she almost believed that his voice had roared over her in the thunder.....
   [Laura says] "I can't take warlocks so seriously, not as a class. It is we witches who count. We have more need of you. Women have such vivid imaginations, and lead such dull lives. Their pleasure in life is so soon over; they are so dependent upon others, and their dependence so soon becomes a nuisance.....When I think of witches, I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded....All men's things, like politics, or mathematics. Nothing for [women] except subjection and plaiting their hair."

The Devil, it transpires, is a benign master, much less demanding than a father, a husband, a brother, or the jealous, puritanical God of Christianity.  Not a room of one's own so much as a conscience free of others' control and demands is what was wanted.  Laura 'discovers' herself--I thought at the end of this tidy little book of the sprawling Marilyn French novel, The Women's Room (1977).  Laura finds in the little community of Great Mop like-minded women and sympathetic, rather ineffectual men (the best kind) and becomes, of all things, herself.  If societies stand in the way of such a simple business, what good are they? 

Sylvia Townsend Warner was born into an educated family--her father was a history lecturer at Harrow--and she enjoyed "an idyllic childhood in Devonshire."  Warner's life partner, until 1969, was the fascinating figure known to us as Valentine Ackland, a woman born Mary Kathleen Ackland, but transformed into a male by her father, who yearned for a son (an old and tragic story).  Abused by her sister, Mary/Valentine "transgressed" the traditional lines of patriarchy by dressing as a man and taking up masculine past times like hunting and dalliances with other women.  Both Warner and Ackland were communists--anti-fascists really, which meant, in the '30's in England, membership in the Communist party--both were pacifists, and, Ackland at least struggled, mostly without success, to define a relationship with the Christian faith.  Ackland died of breast cancer in 1969.  The story of these two women is extraordinarily interesting and cannot be told here--there doesn't appear to be a full-length biography of Ackland, though Claire Harmon published a study of Sylvia Townsend Warner in 1989 (I have not seen it).  I plan to review the letters of Warner and Ackland in this literary journal in the near future.  Meanwhile, check out Lolly Willows, published by New York Review Classics, with a fine introduction by Alison Lurie.

[That's Valentine Ackland, above.]

George Ovitt, (3/8/13)

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