November 6th, 2018


A Witch in Waiting

I just finished Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes (1926), which I'd been meaning to read since forever, and I'm very glad I did. It's funny, and sharp, and Laura's gradual metamorphosis from Fanny Price to Mother Shipton is handled really well. One of my friends on FB called it "stealth SFF", which seems fair enough. I should say that I was sufficiently spoiled that I knew in advance the story's general direction of travel, but that didn't ruin it in the least (I was able to spot some foreshadowing that I would otherwise probably have missed), though it did make it a different experience from the one I'd have had cold.

Attentive readers of this blog will know that I am rather attracted to stories that change genre halfway through, or seem to. I've written about the phenomenon here, and elsewhere. But today the most relevant link from my previous maunderings is this one from six years ago, where the issue is much more personal to me. For I too am a story that changed genre - or seemed to - halfway through. The "seemed to" is explained at length in that entry, but briefly, my subjective experience before and after transition was largely one of continuity - I seemed to myself the same person - but some people found a jarring disconnect between me before and me after. In the entry I attempted to explain this by offering an analogy between reading genre and reading gender. People who'd read me in one way had to start reading me in another, according to another set of genre conventions, and for some it was a wrench; whereas for me (on the inside track, as it were, and thus "spoiled"), there was no such rupture.

So, does Laura really undergo a change from acquiescent maiden aunt to Satan-worshipping witch? Isn't it rather that certain qualities, interests and dispositions, present throughout, are allowed to assert themselves when her circumstances change? That she always was a witch in waiting, as it were? Her eventual pact with the Devil comes as no surprise to her, nor does it cause her any apprehension; that comes earlier, when she "comes out" to her family, defying social and financial pressure to assert her selfhood and move to a life of isolation in Great Mop. From there the step to witch-hood is almost inevitable. What else could such a woman be seen as?

(No such disquisition would be complete without at least a glancing nod at Madoka Magica, in which girls enter into a Faustian bargain to gain magic and, as it turns out, become witches. That revelation is certainly widely seen as a plot twist, and many viewers have seen it as triggering a change in genre, from idealistic shoujo anime to cynical seinen anime, but that change too may be more apparent than real, as I have argued here.)

"You should be women," says Banquo, "And yet your beards forbid me to interpret/ That you are so." Recognising witches - or indeed women - is a matter of the beholder's eye, and of the assumptions brought to the task of interpretation. No doubt Macbeth saw something different from Banquo; no doubt James I saw something different from Reginald Scot.