Wednesday, October 31, 2012

This is the Last Halloween Story of the Season

This is the last Halloween book I'll be recommending this season, and it's the best. It's the book I've been rereading every Halloween without fail ever since I discovered it several years ago. It's not free, but it's so good that I'm writing about it anyway. It's Lolly Willowes, or the Loving Huntsman, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, published in 1926.

Lolly Willowes, the title character, begins her life like the heroine of a romance. She is orphaned, she leaves her family estate to live with her brother in London, and there she becomes a quirky, misunderstood spinster. She's everyone's favorite aunt, but she longs for something she can't really express. Then she shocks her family by moving out to the country, to a small village full of odd inhabitants. This is the point where you would expect Lolly to meet a man, fall in love, and start a new life. But this is not that kind of story.

(George Clausen, "The Road, Winter Morning," 1923.)

Lolly Willowes is not a story where a woman meets a man. It's a story where a woman meets the Devil. And it's not about falling in love; it's about finding freedom. By becoming a witch. "One doesn't become a witch," Lolly says to the Devil, "to run round being harmful, or to run round being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It's to escape all that -- to have a life of one's own, not an existence doled out to you by others ..."

(Illustration of a witch by Australian artist Margaret Clark, from The Florist Shop.)

This book makes a witch's life sound pretty appealing, especially if you, like Lolly Willowes, are somewhat unconventional and a little introverted. "That was one of the advantages of dealing with witches," Warner says; "they 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. Lovely to be with people who prefer their thoughts to yours, lovely to live at your own sweet will, lovely to sleep out all night!"

(Paul Nash, "The Forest," 1930.)

The Devil is also very attractive in this book. Maybe it's because he's not very much like the traditional Devil. He's a huntsman, as the title says. The woods belong to him, and he's more like Pan than Satan:

"Whistling to himself, a man came out of the wood. He walked with a peculiarly slow and easy gait, and he had a stick in his hand, an untrimmed rod pulled from the wood. ... She thought he must be a gamekeeper, for he wore gaiters and a corduroy coat. His face was brown and wrinkled, and his teeth were as white and even as a dog's."

(Constant Troyen, "Gamekeeper and Dogs," 1854.)

There are so many things I love about this book. But one of the main reasons I read it every Halloween is that Sylvia Townsend Warner does such a wonderful job of describing autumn. I love the scene where Lolly, still living in London, goes into a little shop and finds all of the beauties of the autumn countryside:

"Fruit and flowers and vegetables were crowded together in countrified disorder. On the sloping shelf of the window, among apples and rough-skinned  cooking pears and trays of walnuts, chestnuts, and filberts, was a basket of eggs, smooth and brown, like some larger kind of nut. At one side of the room was a wooden staging. On this stood jars of home-made jam and bottled fruits. It was as though the remnants of summer had come into the little shop for shelter. ... 'Which one would you like, ma'am?' he asked, turning the bunch of chrysanthemums about that she might choose for herself. She looked at the large mop-headed blossoms. Their curled petals were deep garnet colour within and tawny yellow without. As the light fell on their sleek flesh the garnet colour glowed, the tawny yellow paled as if it were thinly washed with silver. ... 'I think I will take them all,' she said. ... When he brought her the change from her pound-note and the chrysanthemums pinned up in sheets of white paper, he brought also several sprays of beech leaves. ... 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."

(Wenzel Mussill, 1828-1906, "Study of Fruits and Nuts."

I really just want to keep quoting all of my favorite passages from Lolly Willowes, but there are so many of them! You should just get the book and read it. Even when Halloween is over, it's still the perfect book to read in the fall, or the winter, or any time you're in the woods, or any time when you feel a little witch-like.

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