You have no idea what delights are in store from Sylvia Townsend Warner’s first shadowy sentence, “When her father died, Laura Willowes went to live in London with her elder brother and his family.” Laura, nicknamed Lolly by her niece (and strangely with my exact birthday), is a twenty-eight year old spinster whose virginal presence is tolerated for two more decades by the elder brother’s family in London. At the onset of autumn each year she grows grim about the mouth with a sort of inexplicable autumnal melancholy:
Had the coming of autumn quickened in her only an experienced grief she would not have dreaded it thus, nor felt so restless and tormented.
Her disquiet had no relevance to her life. It arose out of the ground with the smell of the dead leaves: it followed her through the darkening streets; it confronted her in the look of the risen moon. “Now! Now!” it said to her: and no more. The moon seemed to have torn the leaves from the trees that it might stare at her more imperiously. Sometimes she tried to account for her uneasiness by saying that she was growing old, and that the year’s death reminded her of her own. She compared herself to the ripening acorn that feels through windless autumnal days and nights the increasing pull of the earth below. That explanation was very poetical and suitable. But it did not explain what she felt. She was not wildly anxious either to die or to live; why, then, should she be rent by this anxiety?
At these times she was subject to a peculiar kind of day-dreaming, so vivid as to be almost a hallucination: that she was in the country, at dusk, and alone, and strangely at peace. She did not recall the places which she had visited in holiday-time, these reproached her like opportunities neglected. But while her body sat before the first fires and was cosy with Henry and Caroline, her mind walked by lonely seaboards, in marshes and fens, or came at nightfall to the edge of a wood. She never imagined herself in these places by daylight. She never thought of them as being in any way beautiful. It was not beauty at all that she wanted, or, depressed through she was, she would have bought a ticket to somewhere or other upon the Metropolitan railway and gone out to see the recumbent autumnal graces of the countryside. Her mind was groping after something that eluded her experience, a something that was shadowy 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. Loneliness, dreariness, aptness for arousing a sense of fear, a kind of ungodly hallowedness– these were the things that called her thoughts away from the comfortable fireside.
In this mood she would sometimes go off to explore among the City churches, or to lose herself in the riverside quarters east of the Pool. She liked to chink of the London of Defoe’s Journal, and to fancy herself back in the seventeenth century when, so it seemed to her, there were still darknesses in men’s minds. Once, hemmed in by the jostling tombstones at Bunhill Fields, she almost pounced on the clue to her disquiet; and once again in the goods-yard of the G.W.R., where she had gone to find, not her own secret, but a case of apples for Caroline.
As time went on Laura grew accustomed to this recurrent autumnal fever. It was as much a sign of the season as the falling leaves or the first frost. Before the end of November it was all over and done with. The next moon had no message for her. Her rambles in the strange places of the mind were at an end. And if she still went on expeditions to Rotherhithe or the Jews’ Burying-Ground, she went in search for no more than a little diversion. Nothing was left but cold and sleet and the knowledge that all this fuss had been about nothing. She fortified herself against the dismalness of this reaction by various small self-indulgences. Out of these she had contrived for herself a sort of mental fur coat. Roasted chestnuts could be bought and taken home for bedroom eating. Second-hand book-shops were never so enticing; and the combination of east winds and London water made it allowable to experiment in the most expensive soaps.
Finally, after two decades of having no life except that as companion to her brother’s wife and daughters, she breaks free. She indulges in buying flowers for herself and on one extravagant expedition, buys all the chrysanthemums in the shop. The florist throws in sprays of beech leaves which Laura smells deeply, “She sniffed. They smelt of woods, of dark rustling woods like the wood to whose edge she came so often in the country of her autumn imagination.” Suddenly, she buys a guidebook and map and determines to go and live in a tiny village named Great Mop. She announces this at dinner and everyone treats it like the usual nonsense that comes from her mouth. The next day she buttonholes her brother and asks him to arrange her finances so that she can move to the village. Apparently he has wasted some of it in unwise investments, but agrees to settle on her a small monthly sum from her dividends. And so, she takes a small parcel of belongings and heads to Great Mop to live as a boarder with Mrs. Leak. Lolly finds the village to be strange– very quiet but the residents stay up late at night, lights burning until 3, 4 in the morning.
Surprise, we find out she’s a witch! And the whole town is filled with them! While I didn’t see this plot twist coming, the groundwork was certainly laid throughout, early pages of her scouring the countryside as a girl for herbs, even when she announces her plan to her brother he ribs her and says she’ll become the town witch. It’s almost too unbelievable and yet it’s a story that has stuck with me for a few days since I finished it.
Reco’d by the Alastair Cooke character at Trotsky lecture.