Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner

Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner

This was novel was recommended by a friend and I took a while to get to it, but I am glad I did.

Here is the plot summary from Wikipedia …

Lolly Willowes is satirical comedy of manners incorporating elements of fantasy, it is the story of a middle-aged spinster who moves to a country village to escape her controlling relatives and takes up the practice of witchcraft. The novel opens at the turn of the twentieth century, with Laura Willowes moving from Somerset to London to live with her brother, Henry, and his family. The move comes in the wake of the death of Laura’s father, Everard, with whom she lived with at the family home, Lady Place. Laura’s other brother, James, moves into Lady Place with his wife and his young son, Titus, with the intention to continue the family’s brewing business. However, James dies suddenly of a heart attack and Lady Place is rented out, with the view that Titus, once grown up, will return to the home and run the business.

Laura finds herself feeling increasingly stifled both by the obligations of being a live-in aunt and living in London. When shopping for flowers on the Moscow Road, Laura decides she wishes to move to the Chiltern Hills and, buying a guide book and map to the area, she decides upon the (fictional) village of Great Mop as her new home. Against the wishes of her extended family, Laura moves to Great Mop and finds herself entranced and overwhelmed by the chalk hills and beech woods. When out walking, she makes a pact with a force that she takes to be Satan, so as she can remain in the Chilterns rather than return to her duties as an aunt. On returning to her lodgings, she discovers a kitten, whom she takes to be Satan’s emissary, and names him Vinegar Tom, in reference to the English history of witchcraft.

In the meantime, Titus, having visited Laura, has decided he wants to move from his lodgings in Bloomsbury to Great Mop and be a writer, rather than inheriting the family business. Titus’ renewed social and domestic reliance on Laura make Laura feel frustrated that even as a witch living in the Chilterns she cannot escape the duties expected of women. Satan intervenes, plaguing Titus with tricks, such as curdling his milk and, finally, setting a nest of wasps upon him. Finally, having had his wasp stings treated by a Londoner named Pandora Williams, Titus proposes marriage to Pandora and the two retreat to London. Laura, relieved, meets Satan at Mulgrave Folly and tells him that women are like ‘sticks of dynamite’ waiting to explode and that all women are witches even ‘if they never do anything with their witchcraft, they know it’s there – ready!’ The novel ends with Laura acknowledging that her new freedom comes at the expense of knowing that she belongs to the ‘satisfied but profound indifferent ownership’ of Satan.

My version has an introduction by Sarah Waters, which contains this gem

Having read verbatim accounts of 16th Century Scottish witch trials and been struck, as she described it, by the ‘romance of witchcraft’ for the women who became involved with it, the ‘release’ it represented to them from ‘hard lives’ and ‘dull futures’ it occurred to her to try out a novel on this theme, but with a contemporary setting.

and that is what she does with Lolly Willowes.

She wrote to her friend David Garnett

Other people who have seen Lolly have told me that it was charming, that it was distinguished, and my mother said it was almost as good as Galsworthy. And my heart sank lower and lower, I felt as though I had tried to make a sword only to be told what a pretty pattern there was on the blade.”

I have to admit I thought it was charming (subversive as well, but definitely charming!). This novel is about gender and the role of unmarried women in particular. Laura moves to Great Mop in 1921 – women had been granted the vote in 1918 (well some women) and England was dealing with returned service men (unable to find jobs and emotionally damaged) and surplus women (which was seen as a problem). For the most part unmarried older women were seen as chronically unfulfilled. There was a contrast between the lives they lived and their passionate imaginative emotional lives. Laura turns to Satan who, in the words of Sarah Waters, “who pays them the compliment of pursuing them, and having bagged them, performs the even more valuable service of leaving them alone.”

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