The Witches of Arthur Machen and Sylvia Townsend Warner

“Sorcery and Sanctity,” said Ambrose, “these are the only realities. Each is an ecstasy, a withdrawal from the common life.” (Arthur Machen, The White People)

Reading Sylvia Townsend Warner’s letters, I was delighted to discover that she knew, and was related by marriage, to Arthur Machen. My interest in this connection was piqued by a recent re-read of Machen’s story The White People (1904). The tale, which Lovecraft admires in his essay on Supernatural Horror, features the diary of a girl initiated into a rural witch-cult by her nanny. Although Lovecraft claims this story possesses ‘a lurking terror generously mixed with pathos’, I have always found it a beautiful and transcendent portrayal of self-awakening, with echoes of James Hogg’s ‘Kilmeny’. The central episode, described as ‘the White Day’, involves a long walk in a wild and remote landscape, likely influenced by Machen’s Welsh home. The young protagonist goes out alone and is at first afraid, but soon exhilarated by the landscape, dancing among the stones and drinking from a stream:

It tasted much better, drinking it that way, and a ripple would come up to my mouth and give me a kiss, and I laughed, and drank again, and pretended there was a nymph, like the one in the picture at home, who lived in the water and was kissing me.

That this story, about a teenage girl discovering her own power and sexuality and reveling in the natural world, could be terrifying to the likes of Machen and Lovecraft, is rather revealing of their own issues and anxieties. Regarding the background of the witch-cult and the worship of idols, which Machen presents as an Evil beyond that of the ‘average murderer’, it is interesting to note that the publication of The White People pre-dates Margaret Murray’s long discredited The Witch-Cult in Western Europe by 17 years.

Sylvia Townsend Warner’s debut novel, Lolly Willowes (1926), can be read as a response to Machen’s tale. Warner’s witch is not a young girl but a maiden aunt, keen to escape the obligations of society for independence and solitude in the countryside. Laura takes solitary walks in the woods and meadows of her new home: ‘Wherever she strayed the hills folded themselves round her like the fingers of a hand’, and is given a kitten as a familiar. When she discovers the villagers’ secret, their nocturnal Sabbaths, she is not afraid but rather reminded of ‘a Primrose league gala and fete.’ Although Laura embraces her new identity, she does not gain any thrill from the illicit gathering and is unable to ‘get into the proper Sabbath-keeping spirit.’ The entire event is described as a mundane social ritual, as tiresome to the introverted Laura as a ball or garden party.

The focus of Lolly Willowes is on escape from, rather than initiation into social circles, whether conventional or esoteric. Laura spends the novel looking for ‘her secret’, following a vision of herself standing in an orchard, arms raised, while ripe fruit falls about her. Laura and the unnamed girl in Machen’s tale are both Eve, but one is condemned and the other vindicated. For Machen, the imagination of a young woman is as terrifying as the untamed landscape, wildness in both cases leads to temptation and sin against God. Warner eloquently argues for the restorative power of being alone in nature:

…she had pounced on a clue, the clue to the secret country of her mind. The country was desolate and half-lit, and she walked there alone, mistress of it, and mistress, too, of the terror that roamed over the blank fields and haunted around her.

There are elements of Warner’s novel just as dark as those Machen hints at: Laura casts a curse to drive away her nephew and the Devil himself appears as a predatory figure who seduces unsatisfied women. Yet the tone, a parody of social commentary, demonstrates the fearless irreverence that is key to Warner’s style. While Machen presents subject matter that shocked his Victorian and Edwardian readership, he responds to ‘perversity’ of religion, sexuality or morality with conservative terror. Warner is unflappable and finds both humour and freedom in the idea of a rural witch-cult. She seizes upon Machen’s theme of self discovery through solitude in nature and grants her heroine the maturity and agency to choose a way of life beyond social expectations. Lolly Willowes is a powerful feminist text that supports my reading of Machen’s The White People as a female bildungsroman.

Art: ‘Eve Tempted by the Serpent’ by William Blake, c. 1800.


Summer Reading: Cider With Rosie

There are some books that are entirely seasonal, and cannot be fully appreciated at the wrong time of year. In summer I find myself craving desert fables, Mediterranean travelogues and heady, green poetic prose – to this later category belongs Cider With Rosie, by Laurie Lee, first published in 1959. I picked up my copy (above) from a charity shop last year, and put off reading it until the weather was warm and sultry. It’s an out-of-doors sort of book, for reading on uncut lawns beneath wilting, over-blown roses.

Cider With Rosie is a memoir, a rural elegy of an early 20th century childhood in a semi-isolated village where modernity had yet to catch on. Laurie Lee is a poet writing prose, always trying to break away from the form. The first chapter is some of the most languid and sensuous stuff I’ve ever read:

Here I discovered water — a very different element from the green crawling scum that stank in the garden tub. You could pump it in pure blue gulps out of the ground, you could swing on the pump handle and it came out sparkling like liquid sky. And it broke and ran and shone on the tiled floor, or quivered in a jug, or weighted your clothes with cold.

The tone changes as each chapter reveals a vignette of some aspect of Cotswold’s life; vivid portraits of local characters, village gatherings as seen through the eyes of a young boy, native folklore and darker happenings, all heavily mythologised.

Lee’s own character is only a vague presence, a spectator through which the scenery is experienced. He writes distinctly of youthful memories, his description of summer brought me physically back to my own out-of-doors childhood, despite the different climate and landscape:

…of sweat running down the legs; of boiling potatoes on bramble fires, of flames glass-blue in the sun; of lying naked in the hill-cold stream; begging pennies for bottles of pop; of girls’ bare arms and unripe cherries, green apples and liquid walnuts; of fights and falls and new-scabbed knees, sobbing pursuits and flights; of picnics high up in the crumbling quarries, of butter running like oil…

However it is, without doubt, a boys’ book, a masculine perspective, and all of Lee’s women are of some other species, separate and remote. The chapter which receives the most praise and inspired the title I found underwhelming. Rosie is nothing but a cameo, a stand-in for Eve, an archetype, never a person. The adolescent boys are predatory and disturbing under the veil of ignorance he casts over them.

Despite this, the whole book is dominated by one incredible woman who feels more three-dimensional, sympathetic and real than Lee himself; his mother, Annie Lee. The chapter dedicated to her is easily the best and she wanders through the rest of the book with armloads of wildflowers, holding up buses, losing her corset under the piano and reciting poetry on cross-country walks. She is an Anne Shirley; an indomitable, scattered, romantic figure who seems to possess an endless supply of optimism and hope. I could relate to her compassionately, but never pity her despite her circumstances, her courage and loyalty forbade it.

I fear Cider With Rosie is a slightly dated classic now, not because it achieves its aim of preserving a slice of rural history, but because the Arcadian vision of England it presents is out of fashion, and it fails modern standards of discrimination, but I feel it is still worth reading for the beauty of its prose, especially on a hot summer’s day.

Skye M. W.


Outside of Time: Play in Nature

The second concept I wish to reflect on from the CHE collaboratory is more nebulous; the relationship between play, nature and time. I was interested, in particular, with the idea of a separation between children and adults signified by both their relationship to nature, and their natural inclination towards play.

Ros King’s paper on Play and National Identity in Renaissance England encompassed, in its broad scope, play as an evolutionary trait in humans and animals. She suggested that play was a means for experiencing the environment and building a familiarity with it that gave a survival advantage. In physical play both children and animals test and explore the limits and capabilities of their bodies and the material world around them, increasing their spacial awareness. Ros discussed the connection between physical sensations and memory, which evokes nostalgia for childhood experiences.

Jack Tan’s paper on Dickens explored the idea of access to nature as a key element of play. The character of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations refers to herself as a woman who “has never seen the sun” since Pip was born. She further suggests that play is something that belongs to children, and not to the realm of “men and women.” This reflects a change in attitudes to both childhood and the ‘outdoors’ in Victorian mentalities.

As we saw in other papers on medieval and early modern sources; adult play was often something that took place outside, with hunting as a prime example of direct engagement with the natural world. However the Victorians were, more so than their predecessors, ‘indoor people’ as a result of urbanisation and changing forms of work and recreation. Additionally, they had an elevated awareness of childhood as a time both separate and sacred, and this is reflected in Dickens’ many child characters who are often denied this ‘golden age’ of childhood by circumstance, but still retain its inherent innocence.

This idea of childhood play as a state outside of time and connected with idealised nostalgia and immersion in nature reflects the biblical Eden or classical Arcadia. Indeed, the Victorians frequently projected this longing for a state of innocence before sin onto childhood. Concurrently there is a growing romanticism of the ‘countryside’ and rural pastimes as timeless and innocent. Like the literary fairies of the period, nature is attached to the realm of childhood and made innocent, where previously it was wild and dangerous. The childhood golden age of the Victorians exists at once in the distant past of nostalgia and in a realm outside of time, as inaccessible by adults as Barrie’s Neverland.

Bob White mentioned Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village which, although an 18th cent example, evokes this sentiment perfectly:

Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain,
Where health and plenty cheared the labouring swain,
Where smiling spring its earliest visit paid,
And parting summer’s lingering blooms delayed,
Dear lovely bowers of innocence and ease,
Seats of my youth, when every sport could please,
How often have I loitered o’er thy green,
Where humble happiness endeared each scene!

Skye M. W.

St. Cecilia’s Day, 2015

image: A Young Girl in a Field, Ludwig Knaus (1829-1910)