Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner – Book Review
As for her own share in the matter, she felt no shame at all. It had pleased Satan to come to her aid. Considering carefully, she did not see who else would have done so. Custom, public opinion, law, church, and state – all would have shaken their massive heads against her plea, and sent her back to bondage.
Sylvia Townsend Warner’s debut novel Lolly Willowes (1926) stands with her final short story collection Kingdoms Of Elfin (1977) as her major contribution to the Fantasy genre. Remarkably assured for a debut novel, Lolly Willowes stands as both a feminist classic and a lyrical evocation of the uncanny in the British countryside. Following the story of a middle-aged woman who escapes the crushing restrictions of her conservative family life to become a witch in a small village in the Chilterns, the novel reclaims the figure of the witch as a feminist icon, a woman who stands outside the patriarchal structures of society’s expectations. It is beautifully written and full of deft character moments. Establishing many of the key themes that Warner would explore throughout her career, the book was deservedly a huge success that helped launch her career as a novelist.
Laura Willowes is forced to leave Lady Place, her country house in Somerset where she looked after her father until his death, and move in with her brother Henry and his domineering wife Caroline in London. She is given the nickname Aunt Lolly by Henry and Caroline’s children mispronouncing her name. After twenty years of being a live-in Aunt, having her life constricted by her familial duties and expectations, Laura decides she has had enough and moves to the village of Great Mop in the Chilterns, much to the dismay of her conservative family. The move brings a freedom from the restrictions of her previous life, but Laura soon discovers that it is not just the country life that calls to her, but witchcraft.
Lolly Willowes is a powerful rejection of the restrictions placed on women by 1920s society; the expectations of society that mark out the woman’s role as caretaker, housemaker, nurturer; the social norms that delineate the acceptable behaviours and thoughts available to women. Laura embraces Satan and witchcraft because this is the only available way of escaping the bondage of the patriarchy. She has no desire to have a husband or children, and is unimpressed by the solace Caroline finds in Christian religion. Even the solitude of the countryside is marred by the appearance of her nephew Titus, who unintentionally brings with him all the expectations society has for correct women’s behaviour. Next to all of this, the “satisfied but profoundly indifferent ownership” of Satan seems like a pretty good deal. As Laura says:
One doesn’t become a witch to run round being harmful, or to run round being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It’s to escape all that – to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others, charitable refuse of their thoughts, so many ounces of stale bread of life a day, the workhouse dietary is scientifically calculated to support life.
Becoming a witch gives Laura the agency to find her own meaning in her life, rather than to have it predetermined by her family or societal expectations. Laura’s rejection of societal expectations for women reflects that of Warner’s in her own life – Warner would later join the Communist party with her partner Valentine Ackland and work for the Red Cross in the Spanish Civil War.
The supernatural elements of Lolly Willowes are built up subtly and delicately. The first part of the novel is rooted in the mundanity of Laura’s family life, and the novel starts off in the vein of a comedy of manners. Warner’s dry wit is on full display as Laura tries to navigate her unsatisfying life as the spinster Aunt who gets loaded with all the household chores. The fantastical is brought in slowly and subtly. Once Laura moves to Great Mop, there are more and more hints that everything in the quiet country visit is not as it seems. Warner describes the English countryside lyrically and vividly, conveying a powerful sense of awe and mystery that does much to build up the supernatural atmosphere of the novel. It is this exploration of the uncanny and the awe-inspiring in the landscape itself that forms a major thread through the novel, bringing the story to a place where Laura can join her fellow villagers in a witches’ Sabbath and can have a frank conversation with Satan without it coming completely from left field.
Lolly Willowes is subtitled The Loving Huntsman, which describes how Warner portrays Satan in the book. The novel wholeheartedly rejects Christianity, and this can explicitly be seen in Warner’s portrayal of Satan as a charming country gentleman. Warner’s Satan hunts the lost souls he claims as witches with care and respect, and in his conversation with Laura, reveals that once the witches belong to him he allows them a fair amount of agency because he already owns them. Warner sees this as preferable to the Christianity experienced by the devout Caroline, whose supplication to the church to escape the influence of her husband is really the replacement of one master with another.
Charming and witty yet powerfully evocative of the strange and the mystical, Lolly Willowes is just as delightful now as when it was first written, and its feminist nonconformist message still resonates. It is a wonderful demonstration of Warner’s talents as a writer, and its influence can be felt across the genres of Fantasy, wherever authors explore the domestic and the inner life of their characters, and in folk horror in its powerful evocation of the uncanniness of the English countryside. It is no surprise it remains one of Warner’s most enduringly popular and loved books.