Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner

I’ve been hearing about Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, for a few years now. This curious proto-feminist book has been having a bit of a moment on the bookish internet. I was sold when I heard that the book contained witches. I just had to know what a book with witches would look like in 1926. I’m not sure what I was expecting. I’m not sure I got what I wasn’t expecting. If nothing else, I got a lot to think about what life might look like for a woman who realizes that she doesn’t fit into the mold of womanhood in her era and realizes that her only option is to make a pact with the devil.

Laura “Aunt Lolly” Willowes has always been a curious woman. Other people would say that her father—a well-off country brewer—indulged her by letting her read all of those books and not pushing her to get married for the first 27 years of her life. When her father dies, her older, London-based brother just assumes that his spinster sister will come live with him and his family. Lolly becomes a live-in, unpaid nanny, companion, and servant to her family. They can’t imagine that she would want anything else. Any time she speaks her mind to share her, admittedly odd, thoughts, they dismiss her individuality.

The first part of Lolly Willowes sees our protagonist’s life pass her by. To be fair, Lolly isn’t sure what she wants. All she knows is that life with her stolid, traditional family does not make her happy. The only things in her life that cheer her up are memories of her past, before her father’s death, when she would wander the woods and hills near the family home. She loved to commune with nature. Unlike so many other Victorians of her age, Lolly is not a self-taught scientist—although she does learn a lot about botany. Plants aren’t necessarily important to Lolly because of their medical or nutritional or economic value. They matter to her because she can be alone in nature, but not feel lonely.

It’s only towards the end of Lolly Willowes that things start to get weird. After a fit of inspiration, Lolly chucks off her stifling family and moves to Great Mop, in the English countryside. The Willowes are horrified. Lolly is ecstatic. I kept waiting for the witchy stuff to happen. I was kept waiting until I was worried that I had been misinformed about the witchy stuff. At last, in the final third-ish of the book, supernatural stuff started to happen. (Finally!) I won’t say too much about this part because I don’t entirely understand why Warner decided to end her book with Lolly wandering into a low-stakes version of Young Goodman Brown.” But I supposed, from the perspective of 1926, a writer might feel that it takes magic for a woman to find a life that doesn’t involve taking care of other people, breaking ground by becoming the first woman to do something, or being punished by interwar morality.

I’m glad I read Lolly Willowes. I was fascinated by its commentary on the lives of middle-class women and what it might take to break the bounds of propriety. This puzzling, lightly entertaining novel turned out to have surprising depths.

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