the white people

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.

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