Imagining Ways of Constructing the Occult in Fiction: The Nature Mystic Novels of Mary Webb and Sylvia Townsend Warner
Mary Webb wrote novels, essays and poems in the early Twentieth Century. She composed her fiction by way of an extraordinary process of spending time in altered consciousness in nature, which was followed by frenzied periods of writing. Using this method, wrote her first novel in three weeks. The resulting novels are rich in folklore, occult references and the sacred qualities of nature. Sylvia Townsend-Warner was so entranced by the idea of witchcraft that she wrote her most successful novel about one woman’s quest to move to the countryside and become a witch. When she later met Margaret Murray, she declared that she wanted nothing more than to join Margaret Murray’s own coven.
In this talk I will examine two early Twentieth Century depictions of witches, and will illustrate the paper with slides. Webb’s novel Precious Bane follows the story of Prudence Sarn, a woman cursed by a hare and trained by a Cunning Man, before being subjected to the ducking stool. Not only does the novel portray a lively and engaging portrait of a woman accused of witchcraft, it also depicts one of the few fictional representations of a Cunning Man of the period. Meanwhile Townsend-Warner’s Lolly Willows and the Gentle Huntsman follows Laura Willows and her blossoming into witchcraft through her relationship with the devil, the uncertainty she faces at the prospect of joining a coven, and the imagined social anxiety that comes with regular attendance at sabats.
I will posit that both of these Magickal Women contributed to the cultural cauldron that enabled Modern Occult movements to emerge in the latter part of the Twentieth Century, and that whilst they have largely been forgotten to readers of the Twenty-first Century (until recently); they both deserve a place in the occult canon.
I am a published author, jeweler, novelist practitioner of Wicca, and a PhD student. I undertook a rigorous apprenticeship in the witch’s craft over a decade ago, and am now in the privileged position of teaching regular magical workshops at Treadwell’s Bookshop in Bloomsbury. For my PhD in Creative Writing at Middlesex University, I am taking inspiration from the life and work of Mary Webb to write a novel which seeks to use imagination to fill the gaps in the record. I set out to create ‘a living, breathing, fictional Mary Webb’ through the imagined recreation of her diaries.