- Modernist Feminist Witchcraft: Margaret Murray’s Fantastic Scholarship and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Realist Fantasy
In February 1926, a month after the publication of her first novel, Lolly Willowes; or, The Loving Huntsman, the story of an English spinster who moves to the countryside and discovers that she is a witch, Sylvia Townsend Warner spent a “pleasant afternoon” with Margaret Alice Murray, Egyptologist and folk-lorist.1 Murray was the author of The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), that decade’s other popular book on women and witchcraft. After the lunch, Warner wrote to her friend David Garnett with characteristic playfulness, remarking, “I wish I were in her coven, perhaps I shall be” (Letters, 9). Murray too was taken with Warner, or at least with her novel. She had responded to her complimentary copy with an enthusiastic letter, and she seemed to regard Warner as a fellow traveler, if not quite a member of the same coven. She congratulated her on writing “one of the finest & most human presentations of a witch that I know” and even offered empathy should Warner, like herself, receive “a crop of extremely objectionable letters” in the wake of such a production.2
Today, both women’s witches may seem equally fabular.3 But Warner and Murray were each engaged in imagining new possibilities for women in modernity: Warner through the familiar practice of writing fiction and Murray through the more surprising practice of writing scholarship. Warner is now firmly established as an auxiliary to the modernist canon, while Murray is an almost invisible figure within academic considerations of [End Page 565] modernist-era literature.4 This article aims to expand our view of interwar literature by introducing Murray and by showing how a consideration of her work deepens our understanding of Warner’s novel and illuminates overlooked forms of feminist writing. In this period of secularization, modern enchantments, and introspective feminism, authors such as Murray and Warner pursued transformative states of enchantment through scholarly and fictional representations of religion and belief.5 Reading their books together suggests how feminist writing in this period fosters modes of reading that demand extreme forms of belief, altering not just the reader’s relationship to the text but to reality beyond it.
This article contributes to the ongoing effort to recognize the diversity of women’s engagements with modernity in early twentieth-century Britain and, more specifically, to recover the variety of “feminisms” and feminist literary practices in this period.6 Critics universally recognize Lolly Willowes as a feminist novel; it is part of my contention that The Witch-Cult in Western Europe is just as definitively a work of feminist writing. Here, I invoke the term “feminist” both in its contemporary academic sense of indicating a commitment to the furthering of women’s interests—a sense that was just beginning to solidify in Britain and the United States during the 1920s—and in the narrower sense of indicating a commitment to the furthering of women’s individual, internal development, what Lucy Delap calls Edwardian “avant-garde feminism” (The Feminist Avant-Garde, 311).7 The Witch-Cult’s and Lolly Willowes’s affinities with these discourses illustrate how women writers’ feminist literary experiments are found not only in the formally difficult work of authors such as Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, and Mary Butts but also in popular fiction and scholarship.8
Murray’s monograph argues that British and European witches were members of a historically real, highly organized religion that was more ancient than Christianity. Locating the origins of the “witch cult” in a matriarchal, preagricultural civilization, Murray reimagines Western culture as originally woman centered. Moreover, she depicts the witch cult as both a joyous and a rational religion, superior to the dour, oppressive Christianity that eventually succeeded it. Warner’s Lolly Willowes, by contrast, constructs its witches within the terms of Christianity. This indeed was Murray’s chief objection to Lolly Willowes: Lolly’s devil, she wrote, “is not the devil of the witches but the devil of the Christians.”9 Warner’s novel presents the witches as Satanists, though of a peculiarly staid type. In contrast to Murray’s proud pagans, Warner...