How Lolly Willowes Smashed the Patriarchy by Selling Her Soul to Satan

Sylvia Townsend Warner's 1926 novel is about a woman being smothered by expectations, and how she breaks free

Photo by Amie Martinez

Heinrich Kramer, the author of the Malleus Maleficarum or Hammer of Witches, the 1487 treatise on witchcraft, was not a man who thought highly of women. In the sixth of a series of questions, Kramer asks “Why is it that Women are chiefly addicted to Evil superstitions?” After all, he notes, most witches are women. His answers to his question are predictable and familiar: women are naturally inclined toward wickedness, their intellects are childish and weak, they gossip too much, they are feeble in mind and body, they are lustful, they are deceitful, they have weak memories, they need governance by men but resent and resist it, they tend toward hateful jealousy. Even in the Bible, Kramer reminds us, Potiphar’s wife falsely accused Joseph of rape when he wouldn’t satisfy her sexual demands. Women: you just can’t trust them.

Heinrich Kramer wrote his treatise after he was kicked out of town for his obsessive attentions to the sex lives of the women of Innsbruck, particularly the sex lives of women who refused to attend his sermons. The Malleus Maleficarum is his justification for his behavior, and he advances the claim that witchcraft, once viewed as a minor offense, is actually heresy, a much graver crime. The punishment for heresy was to be burned alive. His treatise, with the help of new technology, spread his ideas far and wide and helped kick off the witch hunts that took place in the early modern period throughout Europe and lands colonized by Europeans. The vast majority of convicted witches burned, hanged, or drowned over this several-hundred-year period were women, often older single women, and they were killed by the tens of thousands.

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

In her 1926 novel Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner, who did think highly of women, asks much the same question as Heinrich Kramer had asked over four hundred years earlier: why are witches so often women? What about selling your soul to the devil is so much more appealing than living by the standards of goodness and womanhood under patriarchy? Her protagonist, an unmarried middle-aged woman named Laura Willowes, has a different answer than Kramer, and yet they are in agreement on the premise: women are more inclined to sell their souls to the devil than men are, and witchcraft is a largely feminine preoccupation. In Lolly Willowes, that’s just a logical reaction to patriarchy.

The first sentence of Lolly Willowes reads, “When her father died, Laura Willowes went to live in London with her brother and his family.” The second sentence begins, “Of course.”

In Lolly Willowes, patriarchy is assumed as a fact of life. The book takes place among the white middle classes of England: the comfortably landed professionals who benefit from the violence of patriarchal colonization and yet rarely encounter violence themselves. Laura Willowes, the daughter of an English brewer with a small inheritance of her own, is hardly one of the foremost victims of English might. None of the men in her life feel any antipathy toward her, and some even love her. Her material needs are met, and she should be satisfied.

Despite the comfort of the middle classes, however, Laura will, by the book’s end, sell her soul to Satan and become a witch.

Though Lolly Willowes starts in 1902, the question of what to do with the unmarried woman was also relevant to 1926, when it was published. Between the Great War and the pandemic flu of 1918, a whole generation had become sexually lopsided in the course of just a few years. The colonial demands of Empire had also bled the British Isles of young British men, who proliferated in the lands they settled, far from English women and English marriage, ready to reshape and model English patriarchy for a new population—who, though they had never asked for such instruction, were still Englishly judged to need it. Lolly Willowes was a surprise success among people who saw themselves as liberated and modern. It was an international bestseller and the first Book of the Month Club selection. 

Lolly Willowes explores the ways that patriarchy can quietly, gently, lovingly deform a woman’s entire life.

Lolly Willowes explores the ways that patriarchy can quietly, gently, lovingly deform a woman’s entire life. Even the title is molded by outside influences and expectations. “Lolly” is a nickname bestowed upon Laura by the first child to make her an aunt, and it is immediately and irrevocably taken on by Laura’s family, although Laura herself dislikes the name, and the narrator never uses it, except to illustrate the thoughts of Laura’s relatives. Laura sees “Aunt Lolly” as a state into which she enters when she is moved into her brother’s house, and it is, moreover, a state she finds increasingly unbearable, and yet she bears it for years on end without any of her relatives suspecting her inner rebellion against it. It imposes itself on the title of the book, shaping from without. You cannot pick up the book without becoming complicit in making Laura into Lolly.

When I was a young mother, sometimes my duties to my family would become overwhelming, and I would imagine a scenario in which I got sick—not deathly ill, but ill enough to be hospitalized. In that state, people would have to take care of me, and I would have to take care of no one. I’ve talked to other women who had the same fantasy, and I was surprised by how long it took me to realize that if I was imagining it, I could imagine something better. I could imagine winning a paid vacation or being the kind of rich that only exists in fiction, where all is done for you, and you harm no one. I could even arrange something better in real life: ask for help, ease up on some duties, acknowledge that I was struggling. But no. Instead I pictured a hospital stay, which could not be my fault, and therefore could not be, even in my mind, a shirking of my duties.

Heterosexual couples, as a rule, don’t split parenting or housework duties evenly. This is true whether both partners work outside the home or not, whether the couples are old or young, whether they are college educated or not, whether they are on the left or right of the political spectrum. I’m pretty lucky, because my husband and I both despise housework fairly equally, and our expectations of one another are not terribly focused on domestic labor. Still, domestic labor needs doing, and while we split it as evenly as we can, we still live in a society that doesn’t place the burdens of those expectations evenly across genders. Even if we are fairly equitable, the judgment of a messy house is more likely to fall on me. 

Why not sell your soul when it doesn’t belong to you anyway?

In Lolly Willowes, though Laura is unmarried, her move into her brother’s house launches her into this role of domestic expectation. She is needed to help care for the children, needed to assist her sister-in-law in mending and embroidery, needed to take the children to their dance lessons and to do the shopping and to clean the canary’s cage. “Needed” is the word used in the text, but in fact it is work almost anyone could do, and work that presumably got done before she arrived. On Tuesdays she must go to the library to change out their books. Every summer, Laura goes with her brother’s family on holiday. She looks forward to it with anticipation of taking “long walks inland and find[ing] strange herbs, but she [is] too useful to be allowed to stray.” Every summer ends with a list of things she had hoped to do and failed to do. She is too useful to follow her interests and her work too useless to hold her interest. During the war she takes on war work, but this, too, is useful and useless at once. She is put to work wrapping packages, and is so good at it that she is never offered other work. Laura spends the first World War in an office, tying up brown paper parcels, needed by everyone but herself.

Why not sell your soul when it doesn’t belong to you anyway?

Over the years in Lolly Willowes, Laura settles into middle age and a state of Aunt Lolly so grim and permanent that she almost forgets her own name. Autumn unsettles her yearly. When autumn comes, she wants more than anything to be in the country, not for beauty, but for a something she doesn’t understand, “a something that was dark and menacing, and yet in some way congenial; a something that lurked in waste places, that was hinted at by the sound of water gurgling through deep channels, and by the voices of birds of ill omen.” But it passes yearly, leaving behind the frustration of having missed whatever the point of her “autumnal fever” might be. She buys small indulgences by which to wrap herself in “a sort of mental fur coat.” But the mental fur coat, too, fails. Being Aunt Lolly is stultifying to such a degree that Laura, at the age of 47, can no longer perform the part. Something in her cracks and she finds herself imagining a new life in a place she has never been. 

On a sudden autumn impulse, Laura moves, alone, to a village called Great Mop, where she both finds what she wanted and fails to find it. She wanders the countryside, map in hand, looking for that unknown something she has wanted in the autumns. But all of this comes crashing down when Laura’s nephew Titus shows up. 

Titus, the son of Laura’s brother James, is about to settle down into the family brewing business, but first he wants to stop and visit his Aunt Lolly. As soon as Titus arrives, he starts gently, lovingly pushing Laura back into the state of Aunt Lolly that she fled. Titus falls in love with the Chilterns, the range of hills north of London where Great Mop is located. But his love is oppressive: 

Love it as he might, with all the deep Willowes love for country sights and smells, love he never so intimately and soberly, his love must be a horror to her. It was different in kind from hers. It was comfortable, it was portable, it was a reasonable appreciative appetite, a possessive and masculine love. It almost estranged her from Great Mop that he should be able to love it so well, and express his love so easily. He loved the countryside as though it were a body.

Titus, a kind man, a good nephew, the best and closest of Laura’s family, is still unable to enter her world without loving her into pain and nightmarish alienation from herself and from nature. Walking with Titus in the hills and woods, Laura feels “the spirit of the place withdraw itself further from her.” She feels it as an animate rejection by the land. If she walks it as an aunt with a nephew, soon she will only be able to walk it as an aunt with her nephew.

Worse, because Titus’s oppressive love is true, he quickly decides to move to Great Mop himself. Laura feels the specters of the rest of her family coming alongside Titus, as he, sure of her, sure of himself, sure of the landscape, tells them, “You see, it’s all right. She’s just the same.” She feels it as an attack on her soul, which her family feels certain is already theirs.

When a soul is at stake, there is always a buyer. Laura cries out into the evening sky her determination not to go back, not to be held by those who love her and don’t know her. She begs for help. And in the moments that follow, she feels an animate silence that tells her that “surely a compact had been made, and the pledge irrevocably given.” When she gets back to her room, a kitten is waiting there, and Laura recognizes her familiar.

The middle-class spinster from a respectable family has made a pact with the devil. Laura feels at peace.

The middle-class spinster from a respectable family has made a pact with the devil. Laura feels at peace. She knows that, had she been “called upon to decide in cold blood between being an aunt and being a witch, she might have been overawed by habit and the cowardice of compunction.” But in a state of desperation, afraid of being forced into Aunt Lollyhood once more, Laura chooses unerringly: becoming a witch is the instinctive right choice. Moreover, she has always been a witch in training, she just wasn’t allowed to see it.

Grateful and secure in Satan’s loving hands, Laura knows that between the kitten and the devil, Titus will be gone. And indeed, mysterious bad luck suddenly seems to dog Titus. His milk spoils, even when it is fresh and new. When he replaces the milk with canned condensed milk, he cuts his thumb on the tin lid, and his wound festers. He is unable to write. He is plagued by flies, and then by bats. His lovely hair is chopped close. And finally, he is set upon by wasps and becomes engaged to the first female friend he runs into after the wasp incident. Titus will leave Great Mop. 

Gender under patriarchy can’t help but harm women. It harms men, too, but it offers particular benefits that make that harm worthwhile for a whole lot of men. Gender under capitalist patriarchy is necessarily impossible. It isn’t a coincidence that gendered expectations are contradictory. The contradictions make it impossible to fulfill those expectations, and the impossibility places it always just out of reach, fixable with the right product, new look, new attitude, new behavior. For women under capitalist patriarchy, failing to fulfill gendered expectations is financially punished, but, crucially, so is fulfilling those expectations reasonably well. You might get the job or the marriage by being attractive and tidy and correctly female, but the rise to authority and true ownership of wealth is unlikely to follow. Fulfilling femininity to the satisfaction of men is nearly always an argument against your own potential. 

A system that prevents alliance between women prevents witchcraft as well.

The women in Laura’s life who perform gender better than she does, who read the right books, got the right look, the right husband, the right house in London and the right holiday spots in the country or by the seaside, don’t have lives that look more open or fulfilling than her own. They are mothers, menders, and spoilers of husbands less capable than themselves. Of the sister-in-law with whom she lives for much of the book, Laura thinks, “She was slightly self-righteous, and fairly rightly so, but she yielded to Henry’s judgment in every dispute, she bowed her good sense to his will and blinkered her wider views in obedience to his prejudices.” This constant indulgence by his wife changes Henry’s “natural sturdy stupidity into a browbeating indifference to other people’s point of view.” A good wife makes a worse husband. 

Solidarity between women isn’t fully possible in this state. Perhaps Heinrich Kramer, writing his manifesto against female devilry, was right about “the woeful rivalry” between married and unmarried women. Kramer worried that when women talked to one another, they spread witchcraft. Their “slippery tongues” made them “unable to conceal from the fellow-women those things which by evil arts they know.” A system that prevents alliance between women prevents witchcraft as well.

The novel ends on a hillside. Laura finally gets a nice long sit-down talk with Satan. Reminded that Satan seeks out men as well as women, 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 dependent upon others, and their dependence so soon becomes a nuisance.” She imagines women all over Europe “living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded.” She describes the lives of women, “settling down,” in “a dreadful kind of dreary immorality.” 

Being a witch offers so much more. Laura’s family is so sure of her soul, but they hardly know she has one. The Devil, though, knows women have souls, and he wants those souls, and he knows that they must be pursued and courted. Being a witch offers an escape from good and evil both, from the habits of useless work that Laura learned as a woman and aunt, from the need to always be in service to everyone else, anyone other than yourself. Laura, in giving up her soul, can finally call it her own. After all, Satan only worries at those he does not yet have. Like a hound, he pursues and attacks, but the attacks end when the hunted submits. The book is called Lolly Willowes, but its full title is Lolly Willowes, or, The Loving Huntsman.

Laura sold her soul in 1922. It seemed a strangely old-fashioned thing to do in the age of riotous nihilism and centers that would not hold and the looming shadows of Great Wars leaning in on either side. And yet it was also the most modern solution Laura’s author, a woman living a very modern life, could fashion.

We sit nearly a hundred years out from the events of Lolly Willowes, and it is still true that women’s lives are constrained, often by those who love us most. What Sylvia Townsend Warner saw was that patriarchy is not always a blow from a closed fist, but often the enclosure of an enveloping shawl, wrapped forcibly with love and concern, around someone who doesn’t want it and is already too warm. Throughout Lolly Willowes, characters insist that Laura will be too cold, is too cold, that she must avoid the outdoors where she is most secure and peaceful, that she must protect herself against that which most pleases her. Women are loved, in this world, not as individuals, but as archetypes. What Lolly Willowes imagines, and what Laura Willowes eventually attains, is a world where women can go out in the cold. A soul can be as much an encumbrance as a shawl, but in Lolly Willowes, it turns out to be just as easy to discard.

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