Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Witchcraft and Non-Conformity in Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes (1926) and John Buchan's Witch Wood (1927)

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Witchcraft and Non-Conformity in Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes (1926) and John Buchan's Witch Wood (1927)

Article excerpt

IN THIS ARTICLE, I DISCUSS THE LITERARY USES OF WITCHES AND WITCHCRAFT IN British fiction of the mid-1920s, in the social context of the contemporaneous interest in the occult. Almost nothing has been written about this significant cultural phase, in terms of the fiction produced as a response to it as part of 1920s society. The works I cite below are those novels most obviously relating to witchcraft from a survey of fiction published in 1926 and afterwards, and the most prominent popular works on the history and practice of witchcraft at the time. Lolly Willowes (1926), by Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Witch Wood (1927), by John Buchan, are the only two of the group to remain in print, and their authors are the only ones to have received critical attention. The fact that so many works dealing with witchcraft were published in this period is itself enough to warrant investigation, yet I have found no scholarly work that explores this moment of literary history from this perspective. It is not clear why this phenomenon should have been so neglected: much attention has been paid to the fashion for the occult from the 1890s and the role of important literary figures such as W. B. Yeats in their devotion to Theosophy and similar cults, and a great deal of work has been done on Aleister Crowley and his associates. Yet the literary evidence, from popular and literary fiction of the period, has been ignored.

The evidence presented in this article will, I hope, show that fantasy and the occult were used in this period to make important sociological points on topical subjects. In these two novels by Warner and Buchan, witchcraft symbolizes non-conformity to society's norms. I use "non-conformity" rather than words like "resistance" or "rebellion," because non-conformity has a specifically religious meaning, and Warner and Buchan were both writing about belief. In both novels, the protagonists embrace non-conformity because this enables them to believe sincerely in their moral values that derive, certainly in the case of Witch Wood, less obviously so in Lolly Willowes, from Christian values. Warner's modern heroine becomes a witch, and finds herself at peace. Buchan's hero is already a seventeenth-century Presbyterian minister, and thus a non-conformist by definition, but on discovering that his parish, the hidden Borders village of Woodilee, is riddled with witchcraft condoned by his own Kirk elders and parishioners, he refuses to conform any longer to the rulings of the Kirk that endorses such practices. Both novels also use witchcraft in order to critique society: Warner's arguments are feminist and anticipate Virginia Woolf's on the subject of women being allowed to spend their own time as they want. Buchan's are sociological, presented as a criticism of the failure to protect the weak and vulnerable in society, and an attack on self-serving intellectual hypocrisy. In using witchcraft as a subject, these novels follow literary and historical convention in condemning the ignorance and cruelty with which witchcraft is usually associated. However, in these novels, witchcraft as a symbol is repurposed: the witches have agency, which we are to understand as a positive demonstration of their free will. The normalizing trend of the fashion for the occult particular to this period made supernatural beliefs respectable, and allowed fantasy elements to be incorporated more freely into normal life. These novels, I contend, reverse the direction of the current of conventional depictions of witches, and invite readers to consider how seeing human behavior through fantasy elements, such as witchcraft, might normalize aspects of everyday life that were not respectable. In Lolly Willowes, Warner was writing about feminist aspirations to independence and self-reliance. In Witch Wood, Buchan was critiquing a point of historical record through fiction, but also attacking contemporary fundamentalism and social corruption.

The novels I discuss here were published within a year of each other. …

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