Lolly Willowes (1926) is a satirical comedy of manners centred on an unmarried woman who suddenly decides to escape the claustrophobic domestic role her family tries to force on her. Funnily enough, the means she will use to fight against her family are no less morally equivocal than the life they were trying to impose on her.
At the start of the novel, the eponymous main character, Laura Willowes, is 28 years old. It’s 1902, and her father has recently passed away. The narration then jumps back and forth, and we find out that Laura, the youngest of three children, had been a solitary tomboy, adored by her father, Everard. They lived on his country estate, Lady Place, and from an early age she had been drawn to nature, collecting herbs and making potions. As a young woman, she had never particularly cared about getting married, and her family’s attempts at subduing her into the narrow mould of British ladyhood had been fraught and not really successful.
After her father’s death, she is persuaded to move to London to live with her brother, Henry, and his family – “as if she were a piece of family property forgotten in the will“, passing “from one guardianship to another”. It was the natural way of things for an unmarried woman, and Laura is forced into the role of the conventional spinster, pitied, patronised and treated as a child: Laura becomes “Aunt Lolly”, the diminutive by which her family know her; the persona they impose on her, that of a spinster who makes herself useful to the family to compensate for the burden of her lodgings. It is assumed that she has no life of her own, no identity. It was expected that she should find the meaning of her life solely in being an accessory to her family. “When Laura went to London she left Laura behind, and entered into a state of Aunt Lolly. She had quitted so much of herself in quitting Somerset that it seemed natural to relinquish her name also.”
Despite the stifling life she has in London, Laura can never escape the longing for change, a feeling that there is something missing, a sense that her mind is “groping after something that eluded her experience, a something that was shadowy and menacing, and yet in some way congenial“. Laura grows ever more restless over time. It is a quiet but steady process of transformation: she wants to leave, and something is calling her to the countryside again. “I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded.”
Then, in the 1920’s, at forty-seven, when her nephews had grown and did not need her anymore, Laura moves to Great Mop, a country village she had never seen. Against the wishes of her family, for whom “she was too old now to begin living by herself”, our protagonist demands to have her own way for the first time in her life. Laura leaves Lolly behind.
There is something strange about this village – mysterious meetings at night, a sound hanging in the sky – but Laura seems to feel perfectly comfortable with everything. She settles easily into her new solitary life.
Unfortunately, her family is not so keen on relinquishing their control over Aunt Lolly. Little do they know that Laura is willing to do anything so as not to be pushed back into that persona. “She walked up and down in despair and rebellion. She walked slowly, for she felt the weight of her chains. Once more they had been fastened upon her. She had worn them for many years, acquiescently, scarcely feeling their weight. Now she felt it. And, with their weight, she felt all their familiarity, and the familiarity was worst of all.” When our protagonist’s freedom is threatened by the arrival of her nephew Titus, Laura is forced to use the only weapon she has to escape her controlling relatives.
And here, more than two thirds into the novel, the narrative takes an unexpected turn. Just as her family is about to cling to her once more, Laura does the only thing she is able to as a woman: she sells her soul to Satan – the ‘Loving Huntsman’ of the novel’s subtitle, “a kind of black knight, wandering about and succouring decayed gentlewomen” – and becomes a witch, in exchange for freedom from her family. “The one thing all women hate,” she tells the devil, “is to be thought dull.” What seemed to be a realist domestic tale takes on a darkly funny nature.
The highlight of the book for me is its weird sense of humour. Satan turns out to be more protective and less demanding a master than Laura’s well-meaning relatives. From a dull spinster, Laura is turned into a witch who bakes scones in the shape of her neighbours, and quietly watches as a guest eats “the strange shapes without comment, quietly splitting open the villagers and buttering them”; she is turned into a self-assured woman who quietly talks to the devil – who, by the way, happens to be both a pleasant, middle-aged country man and a cat; a witch, who attends a pagan Sabbath, where she dances with and feel attracted by other women. “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 could 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.”
We feel about the narrative much like Laura’s family must have felt about her when she announced she would leave: that’s absurd! Much like your character’s decision, your narrative choice is bold, subversive, and liberating: you break the mould we as readers were tempted to force your novel into.
Laura’s quest for freedom and meaning can only be a radical one – she at once rejects men, religion, family and social class, and embraces her role as an outcast. She does not fit in; therefore, she is a witch. Is Laura losing her grasp on reality? Is she fantasizing about an escape? Has she become mad due to her claustrophobic life? Or is Laura really a witch?
For me, despite its satirical nature, the book had a very dark undertone: for women like Laura, there is no complete freedom, and nothing comes without a price. So as not to be kept caged in a suffocating domestic role, our protagonist is forced to choose another master – but a master, nonetheless. Is she truly free? Or is she under Satan’s spell? “For so many, what can there be but witchcraft?” Or madness, I would add. That a woman can only free herself if she is willing to dispose of her own soul forever – well, that’s not very reassuring, is it?
“One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around 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 by others.” ― Sylvia Townsend Warner,
“They say: ‘Dear Lolly! What shall we give her for her birthday this year? Perhaps a hot-water bottle. Or what about a nice black lace scarf? Or a new workbox? Her old one is nearly worn out.’ But you say: ‘Come here, my bird! I will give you the dangerous black night to stretch your wings in, and poisonous berries to feed on, and a nest of bones and thorns, perched high up in danger where no one can climb to it.’ That’s why we become witches: to show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure.” ― Sylvia Townsend Warner,
“She had come to the edge of the wood, and felt its cool breath in her face. It did not matter about the donkey, nor the house, nor the darkening orchard even. If she were not to pick fruit from her own trees, there were common herbs and berries in plenty for her, growing wherever she chose to wander. It is best as one grows older to strip oneself of possessions, to shed oneself downward like a tree, to be almost wholly earth before one dies.”― Sylvia Townsend Warner,
“The amusement she had drawn from their disapproval was a slavish remnant, a derisive dance on the north bank of the Ohio. There was no question of forgiving them. She had not, in any case, a forgiving nature; and the injury they had done her was not done by them. If she were to start forgiving she must needs forgive Society, the Law, the Church, the History of Europe, the Old Testament, great-great-aunt Salome and her prayer-book, the Bank of England, Prostitution, the Architect of Apsley Terrace, and half a dozen other useful props of civilization. All she could do was to go on forgetting them. But now she was able to forget them without flouting them by her forgetfulness.” ― Sylvia Townsend Warner,
“She had never wavered for an instant from her conviction that she had made a compact with the Devil; now she was growing accustomed to the thought. She perceived that throughout the greater part of her life she had been growing accustomed to it; but insensibly, as people throughout the greater part of their lives grow accustomed to the thought of their death. When it comes, it is a surprise to them. But the surprise does not last long, perhaps but for a minute or two. Her surprise also was wearing off. Quite soon, and she would be able to fold her hands upon it, as the hands of the dead are folded upon their surprised hearts.” ― Sylvia Townsend Warner,
“Her disquiet had no relevance to her life. It arose out of the ground with the smell of the dead leaves … She compared herself to the ripening acorn that feels through windless autumnal days and nights the increasing pull of the earth below. That explanation was very poetical and suitable. But it did not explain what she felt. She was not wildly anxious either to die or to live; why, then, should she be rent by this anxiety?” ― Sylvia Townsend Warner,
“Laura looked at the bottled fruits, the sliced pears in syrup, the glistening red plums, the greengages. She thought of the woman who had filled those jars and fastened on the bladders. Perhaps the greengrocer’s mother lived in the country. A solitary old woman picking fruit in a darkening orchard, rubbing her rough fingertips over the smooth-skinned plums, a lean wiry old woman, standing with upstretched arms among her fruit trees as though she were a tree herself, growing out of the long grass, with arms stretched up like branches. It grew darker and darker; still she worked on, methodically stripping the quivering taut boughs one after the other.
As Laura stood waiting she felt a great longing. It weighed upon her like the load of ripened fruit upon a tree. She forgot the shop, the other customers, her own errand. She forgot the winter air outside, the people going by on the wet pavements. She forgot that she was in London, she forgot the whole of her London life. She seemed to be standing alone in a darkening orchard, her feet in the grass, her arms stretched up to the pattern of leaves and fruit, her fingers seeking the rounded ovals of the fruit among the pointed ovals of the leaves. The air about her was cool and moist. There was no sound, for the birds had left off singing and the owls had not yet begun to hoot. No sound, except sometimes the soft thud of a ripe plum falling into the grass, to lie there a compact shadow among shadows. The back of her neck ached a little with the strain of holding up her arms. Her fingers searched among the leaves.” ― Sylvia Townsend Warner,
About the book
- NYRB classics, 1999, 222 p. Goodreads
- Virago, 2012, 224 p. Goodreads
- First published in 1926
- My rating: 4 stars
- This book was read in October for R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril XII & The Virago Modern Classics Book Club, during Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon (October, 21st). It was reviewed in December for the Virago Author of the Month (LibraryThing Group).