Books and Reading Reviews

‘A Life of One’s Own’: Lolly Willowes (1926), by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Lolly WillowesDo you want to read about an old, respectable English spinster who moves to the country and sells her soul to the Devil to become a witch in the heady days of the 1920s?

Of course you do. It’s a fantastic idea. Forget great parties at Gatsby’s, I want to see an old English lady drop her drop-waisted dress and do Satanic dances on top of a hill. I want to see her chat with the Devil over tea and biscuits. I want it to be kind of like The Master and Margarita only less confusing.

And who knew that in between the two World Wars such a book was actually written? I couldn’t believe that this book existed, but I knew the minute I read about it in Samantha Ellis’ How To Be A Heroine that I had to find it. Quite how Lolly Willowes came into existence I have no idea. But I’m glad it did.

Samantha Ellis points out that after the First World War books about spinsters began appearing more and more – Cold Comfort Farm, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Lolly Willowes – because there were, quite simply, a lot more spinsters about. The war had severely depleted the stock of available young men, and so there were more single women. Add to this the fact that women were riding the high from their new roles during the war (as nurses, factory workers, farm labourers) and trying to figure out exactly where they fit in the new world that was emerging, and suddenly there were a lot more spinster heroines in fiction.

Miss Marple
Lolly Willowes is in good company.

Laura (‘Aunt Lolly’) Willowes is one such spinster. Raised by a doting father and later absorbed into her brother’s family, she’s considered by all to be a useful, quiet sort of person. We are told, “It was not as if she had had any experience of life; she had passed from one guardianship to another: it was impossible to imagine Laura fending for herself” (Part I). Having spent the entirety of her life in the care of one male relative or another, Laura surprises everyone (including herself) when she matter-of-factly buys a guidebook one day, and decides to leave London for a little village called Great Mop, in the Chilterns.

The book races ahead at breakneck speed. There are no chapters, and the narration is almost undisturbed by major breaks or long, heavy descriptions. Things happen suddenly, sometimes without either Laura or the reader realising. So when Laura makes a pact with the Devil, it is only several pages later that she realises that it’s actually happened. Her transformation into a witch is presented to the reader as a fait accompli, and Laura feels as if she’s only now realised a part of herself that was always there. Throughout the book she is in search of “the clue to secret country of her mind” (Part II), and the reader is swept up in the feverish attempt to unearth this “clue”.

Cooking Witches
Witches doing witchy things. (Image Source)

Does witchcraft offer Laura a way into this “secret country”? At the end of the novel, as she chats with the Devil on top of a hill, she tells him that “We have more need of you. Women have such vivid imaginations, and lead such dull lives […] they are so dependant upon others, and their dependence so soon becomes a nuisance” (Part II). She muses that, “One doesn’t become a witch to run round being harmful, or to run round being helpful either […] It’s to escape all that – to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others”. Warner shows us the way that women are trapped – not just physically, but mentally – by the narrow opportunities traditionally on offer. Laura’s escape to Great Mop, her witchcraft, are ways to engage with and explore the self, rather than the idea of ‘Woman’ that society creates.

Exactly who or what the Devil is in this story is a little difficult to puzzle out. He seems more like a kind of benevolent spirit. Laura calls him a “knight-errant”, riding around the country to save women’s souls from the drudgery that is their lot in life. Perhaps he’s even just a part of Laura’s own self; after all, she meets him only when she is alone, and it is through him that she can finally articulate her desire for subjectivity and identity. But although he is less the embodiment of evil and more a kind of shape-shifting sprite, the novel ends with Laura as the object of his “indifferent ownership”. While this is possibly supposed to be ironic, suggesting that Laura has merely swapped one kind of guardianship for another, it may also suggest that although technically his property, the Devil doesn’t care to control her thoughts and actions. Instead, her mind is her own, as is her body, and she can “wander off in search of a suitable dry ditch […] or wading through last year’s leaves and this year’s fern […] penetrate into a wood and burrow herself a bed”, free at last from the rules of her overbearing family.

Witches Sabbath
Who or what is the Devil in Lolly Willowes? (Image Source)

Whether the Devil is benign or dangerous, one thing is clear. There is an anarchic spirit lurking in this book, a restlessness that is born out of the experience of womanhood in early twentieth-century England. Laura is never resentful of her family or herself for the narrow range of experiences she has; but she takes her life into her own hands in sudden, exhilarating fashion. It’s this spirit that makes the book so readable; the narration sweeps you up, carrying you along until you can’t wait to see what Laura will make of Great Mop, or its inhabitants, or her new role as witch. There may not be quite as much (or, indeed, any) naked dancing or elaborate Satanic rituals (which, considering the state of English weather, is probably not all that surprising – witches are self-aware, not stupid), but Lolly Willowes certainly makes the reader want to discover more of that “secret country” of the mind.


Rating: 4.5 Stars


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