Singleness and Solitude
In fiction dealing with women’s love for other women, characters often move away from the margins of patriarchal space and into a core of centralised being, a place of integrated selfhood that I have termed a new space or new cosmosis. The remarkable thing about such fiction is that it leads the reader away from the normative point of view and towards the antinormative one. The tension between society and the individual embodied in these narrative structures creates an implosion of consciousness, opening the way for a radical shift in vision. Lesbian heroes, precisely because of their marginal perspective, are able to illuminate the nature of patriarchal experience and to posit alternatives for it. This same insight radiates from much of what I define as old-woman fiction. I use the term to describe fiction in which the hero tries to live on her own (whether or not she has been married or is involved in affairs); she is ‘odd’ because she is not half of a couple and fulfils not set function within a nuclear family. She thus holds the same position as the “fallen woman” with regard to her society: “tainted” as her sexually active counterpart is “ruined,” she is an “old-maid”, a target of much of the same scorn heaped upon the sexual renegade.
Single Women and Witchcraft
The accusation of “witch” as we can see in Sarton’s Joanna and Ulysses, springs from an intense societal fear of a powerful, untrammelled woman who, by daring to enjoy her unmarried state, defies social norms. In the past, of course, it was the label of the witch that had brought nine million woman to violent deaths in Western Europe, very often midwives who eased the pain of childbirth and who were the only source of safe abortions. “The role of witch”, remarks Mary Daly,
“was often ascribed to social deviants whose power was feared. All women are deviants from the male norm of humanity (a point emphasised by the “misbegotten male” theory of Aristotle and Aquinas, the “penis-envy” dogma of the Freudians, and other psychological theories such as the “inner-space” doctrine of Erikson and the “anima” theory of Jung). However, those singled out as witches were frequently characterised by the fact that they had or were believed to have power arising from a particular kind of knowledge, as in the case of “wise women” who knew the curative powers of herbs and to whom people went to counsel and help. Defined as evil, they became the scapegoats of society, and in this process, the dominant ethos was reinforced.”
The old maid is frequently associated in popular culture with the witch, the two stereotypes springing from a common gynophobic fear of self-determined women. Thus, Mary Wilkins Freeman, in an unpublished manuscript, “Jane Lenox”, has a single woman hero declare herself perfectly contented with a status that she recognises as “monstrous” to the normal point of view:
“I am a rebel and what is worse than a rebel against the over-government of all creation… I even dare to think that, infinitesimal as I am… I, through my rebellion, have power. I, Jane Lennox, spinster… living quietly, and apparently harmlessly in the old Lenox homestead in Baywater, am a power.
And another thing which was my birth right: the character of the usual woman. I am a graft on the tree of womanhood. I am a hybrid. Sometimes I think I am a monster, and the worst of it is, I certainty take pleasure in it.”
I will speak in “witches’ incantations, poetry, old women’s mutterings,” declared poet Robin Morgan one hundred years later. “I/am/a/monster. I am/a/monster. /I am a monster. /And I am proud.” Like Pangela Hansford Johnson and Rosamond Lehmann, such authors recognise that the being they relish is necessarily transformational, a new gender beyond maleness and femaleness.
Two novels, Esther Forbes’s historical novel A Mirror for Witches (1928) and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (1926), make an interesting pair, taking opposite sides in extending the old-maid debate to cover the subject of witches. In Forbes’s novel, the author condemns the central character from the very beginning. Doll Bilby is dragged away from the pyre where her parents are being burned to death to be adopted by a kindly New England sea captain, against whose family she gradually works her inherited evil. “Bewitched,” she will “bewitch” others, and the novel merely shows how the inevitable results of her evil blood unfold. Lolly Willowes, in contrast, is a carefully balanced portrait of an unmarried woman who becomes a witch, dealing first with her old-maid situation and then with her quest towards a completely satisfying and self-determined status as a member of a coven.
From her childhood Laura, has known that to “come out” and marry will be to dwarf her personality. Townsend Warner describes her as a young girl:
“her legs were very slim and frisky, they liked climbing trees and jumping over haycocks, they had no wish to retire from the world and to belong to a young lady… Sooner or later she must be subdued into young-ladyhood; and it seemed befitting that the change should come gravely rather than with the conventional polite uproar and fuss of “coming-out”- which odd term meant as far as she could see, and when once the champagne bottles were emptied and the flimsy ball-dress lifted off the thin shoulders, going in.”
Here we have the eventual old maid as a young tomboy who, in refusing to “grow up grotesque,” becomes “odd” from the point of view of a society whose norms the hero dislikes. Laura remains on her parents’ estate, which is a brewery (brewsters in England were originally women wise in herbs, we learn) until she gives in, after her parents’ death, to her brother’s demand that she lives with him and his wife. There she stays for twenty years, suffering the full opprobrium of an old-maid relative as “Lolly”, until one day she takes it into her mind to go and live by herself as “Great Mop.”
The brother’s reaction expresses the civil status of the unmarried female in a capsule: “lolly! I cannot allow this. You are my sister. I consider you my charge,” but when it turns out that he has lost half of her money in stupid investments, she takes what remains and goes. At first she works with a hen wife and “felt wise and potent. She remembered the hen wife in the fairy tales… She was sister to the spaewife, and close cousin to the witch.” She gradually realises that all of the villagers are members of a coven and goes with them to the all night dance, hardly the evil conclave described in Forbes:
“These depressing thoughts were interrupted by red-haired Emily, who came spinning from her partner’s arms, seized hold of Laura and carried her back into the dance. Laura liked dancing with Emily; the pasty-faced and anaemic young slattern whom she had seen dawdling about the village danced with a fervour that annihilated every misgiving. They whirled faster and faster, fused together like two suns that whirl and blaze in a single destruction. A strand of the red hair came undone and brushed across Laura’s ace. The contact made her tingle from head to foot. She shut her eyes and dived into obliviousness- with Emily for a partner she could dance until the gunpowder ran out of the heels of her boots.”
Like the “five-pointed flower” of June Arnold’s lesbian collective, the energy of the dancing women generates from a communal acceptance and solidarity and redeems them from the “normal” frustrations of the patriarchy. The dance transforms “Lolly” back into Laura, her true self, the witch experience becoming a redemptive one for the woman who has been thwarted from development by a couple-filled world.
Townsend Warner thus redefines the negative old-maid/ witch stereotype, developing not a “cute” portrait of a “good coven” for its fantasy effect but a picture of a mutually supportive community. “When I think of witches,” remarks Laura to the devil,
“I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries and as unregarded. I see them, wives and sisters of respectable men, chapel members and blacksmiths… listening to men talk together in a way that men talk and women listen. Quite different to the way that women talk, and men listen, if they listen at all… Is it true that you can poke the fire with a stick of dynamite in perfect safety?… Anyhow, even if it isn’t true of dynamite, and long for the concussion that may justify them. Some may get religion, then they’re all right, I expect. But for the others, for so many, what can there be but witchcraft? That strikes them real.”
Reacting to patriarchal bonds, which make them “outsiders” in their own world, knowing themselves to be full of spunk and rage, these women long for a space where they can bond with like-minded spirt and “be natural” without censure.