Lolly Willowes (1926) by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Book Review by Sylvia D: Lolly Willowes or The Loving Huntsman, by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) was her first successful novel, published in 1926 when she was still working as an editor of the ten volume Tudor Church Music. It is set around the turn of the twentieth century and is the story of a woman who makes a pact with the Devil and becomes a witch.

Lolly is a twenty-something spinster, real name Laura, who cares for her widowed father, head of the family brewing company, and her second brother James, in a house she loves called Lady Place in Somerset. Laura is green-fingered and spends a lot of her time looking after the gardens and tending her plants in the greenhouse. Then everything changes.

Her brother marries and convention demands that she cede managing the household to her new sister-in-law. Then her father dies. No-one consults her but ‘like a piece of family property forgotten in the will’, she is whisked off to live with her older brother, pompous lawyer Henry, and his very organised and organising wife, Caroline, in Apsley Terrace in Bloomsbury. Henry and Caroline are the epitome of Victorian conservatism and respectability

‘They were half hidden under their accumulations – accumulations of prosperity, authority, daily experience.’ ‘They were carpeted with experience. No new event could set jarring foot on them but they would absorb and muffle the impact. If the boiler burst, if a policeman climbed in at the window waving a sword, Henry and Caroline would bring the situation to heel by their massive experience of normal boilers and normal policemen.’

Laura stays with them for 20 years, expected to be an “adored” Aunt Lolly to their children to attend their church although she’d like to explore different religions whilst Henry disastrously mismanages her financial affairs. On the family annual outing when they took lodgings or a furnished house ‘in some seaside village without any attractions. . . the days seemed to dribble out very much like the days in London.’

But, in London, she is restless; she would go into daydreams or take herself off to explore among the City churches, to lose herself in the riverside quarters east of the Pool or to wander around graveyards. She would allow herself little treats such as eating hot chestnuts in her room or browsing second-hand bookshops or bring home very colourful, exotic flowers.

Then, after 20 years, she rebels. You can imagine the family’s reaction when she announces she intends to go to live in the wonderfully named village of Great Mop in the Chilterns. Despite their opposition, she sticks to her guns and takes lodgings on the village main street. She has a whale of a time exploring the countryside, wandering the lanes and the woods, helping a taciturn young man with his hens until the spell is suddenly broken by the arrival in the village of her pipe-smoking, would-be author nephew, Titus. He soon ingratiates himself with the villagers and when he starts to share her wanderings and she is exhorted by his mother to “look after” him, she begins to feel the chains of family obligation once more, ‘They were come out to recapture her, they had tracked her down and closed her in.’ She is in despair.

But the Devil is to hand. He sends what she sees as a sign in the form of a familiar, a tiny kitten whom she names Vinegar and who scratches her and draws blood on her hand. She realises that ‘She, Laura Willowes, in England, in the year 1922, had entered into a compact with the Devil. The compact was made, and affirmed, and sealed with the round red seal of her blood’. The Devil sends a series of minor misfortunes to plague Titus until, hating all these ‘small bothers’, he finally opts for marriage and a return to London. Laura meanwhile, now recognised as one of their own, is taken by the villagers to their bacchanalian witches’ sabbath and, rejoicing again in her renewed solitary walks, has two encounters with Satan himself, first in the guise of a gamekeeper with gaiters and a corduroy coat and again as a jobbing gardener. She sees him as a ‘kind of black knight, (the Loving Huntsman of the title) wandering around and succouring decayed gentlewomen.’

In the course of their second encounter she explains to him why women need him,

‘Women have such vivid imaginations, and lead such dull lives. Their pleasure in life is so soon over; they are so dependent upon others, and their dependence so soon becomes a nuisance. . . there they are, child-rearing, house-keeping, hanging washed dishcloths on currant bushes, and for diversion each other’s silly conversation, and listening to men talking together in the way that men talk and women listen. Quite different to the way women talk, and men listen, if they listen at all. And all the time being thrust further down into dullness when the one thing all women hate is to be thought dull.’

The novel ends with her entering into a new independence and empowered to do exactly what she feels like.

Lolly Willowes has incorrectly been labelled a proto-feminist novel: the word feminism in the sense of women-led activism for equality actually became a common term in the 1890s. Lolly Willowes has also been compared to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own but Woolf’s extended essay wasn’t published until 1929. It was more likely that Townsend Warner was addressing the issue of those young women who had struggled for their independence before 1914 and, in the face of the social unrest and the economic upheavals of the post-war period, were seeking a raison d’être at a time when many had experienced a new independence which conflicted with the continuing pressure to conform to social norms.

The novel has also been criticised for still leaving Laura in thrall to a man, arguing that all she had done was move from the power of her father to the power of her older brother to the power of the Devil. Indeed, at one point he admits that she is ‘in his power’ but recognises that, now that he has a compact with her, his is a ‘satisfied and proudly indifferent ownership’ and that he ‘would not disturb her’.

Did I enjoy it? Yes and No. In terms of characterisation, the members of Laura’s family are all very caricaturable but Laura, herself, I found rather floaty and nebulous and I certainly didn’t really connect with her. The first half was very successful at evoking the claustrophobia of middle-class turn of the twentieth century family life and the stifling lot of the middle-class unmarried daughter and sibling. The Great Mop section, however, with its rather ethereal language had elements of mysticism and fantasy that I struggled with. Maybe it was the portrayal of Satan as a rather benign and lowly wandering knight that was rather unsettling for someone who had succeeded in shaking off the low evangelical church fire and fury vision of Hell of her childhood years! It is certainly not ‘a charming novel’ as one review puts it, and Townsend Warner herself was dismayed when it was styled ‘whimsical’. The themes it addresses were those of the 1920s: gender roles, particularly the lot of the unmarried woman after the loss of so many young men during the Great War, social convention, family and personal relationships, and although Townsend Warner might come at these themes obliquely, the originality of her approach definitely has an impact.

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