I had a really tough time getting my hands on a copy of Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. I ended up having my local independent bookstore special-order a copy from the UK for me, which makes it officially the furthest I’ve ever gone to track down a book for this project. That said, I can kind of see why, having read it, there aren’t many copies in circulation. The premise and the writing are… shall we say, esoteric. But Sarah Waters, who wrote the introduction to this edition, insists that Townsend Warner is “certainly one of the most shamefully under-read great British authors of the past hundred years”. How could I resist?
Lolly Willowes (alternative title: The Loving Huntsman) was Townsend Warner’s first novel. It was published in 1926 and billed as an “early feminist classic”. Even by today’s standards, it’s a leftie book. The author was open and frank about her commitment to radical left-wing causes (like, y’know, social justice and women having rights and stuff like that). She gets an A+ from me for the way she translated her political leanings into a plot. Lolly Willowes is the story of a mild-mannered spinster who moves to a country village to escape her pain-in-the-arse family; there, she turns to witchcraft, and sells her soul to the devil.
Now, don’t even TELL me you don’t find that at least a LITTLE bit relatable! I mean, who among us hasn’t, on some occasion, been just slightly tempted…
Meet our titular protagonist: Laura Willowes, “Lolly” being the affectionate nickname given by her family (one she secretly hates). After her father dies, she moves to London to live with her brother Henry and his family. Her own home (Lady Place – Townsend wasn’t mucking around with these feminist symbols) is passed to her other brother, James… only James kicks the bucket pretty quickly thereafter, too, and the house ends up rented out to strangers. There’s a lot of family politicking going on for the first half of the novel. The part I found most infuriating was the fact that they owned a brewery – i.e., they were living the dream! – but they just kind of let it fall by the wayside. I mean, come on! Where are their priorities?
The most important thing to bear in mind if you’re thinking of picking up Lolly Willowes is that there’s very little dialogue. Almost all of this plays out in the narrative. So, if you’re one of the “show, don’t tell” types, this is definitely not the book for you.
Anyway, meek and mild Lolly spends twenty-odd years just kind of… hanging around. She never marries, and never causes any trouble. She just raises Henry’s kids for him, and (understandably) gets pretty bored.
Once she finally decides she’s had a gut-full, she declares her intention to move to the charmingly-named town of Great Mop. If she were a man, she would’ve just married a twenty-two-year-old blonde and bought it a sports car and called it a day, but here we are. She then learns that Henry, who has been “managing her affairs” while she lived under his roof, has lost all her money. He tells her this in the hopes that she’ll stick around (she is, after all, his unpaid househould help), but she gives not a single fuck. She forges ahead with her move to Great Mop, and figures she’ll just live more frugally than she originally envisaged. Lolly Willowes is meek and mild no more, y’all!
Once she’s settled, she gets really into hiking. Lolly becomes obsessed with the views of the chalk hills and the beech wood trees. At times, these passages read more like nature writing than fictional prose. When she’s not traipsing around the woods, she makes friends with her landlady, hangs out with a poultry farmer, and tries not to wonder about the weird noises she hears at night…
Then, terrible news: Titus, her nephew (son of James, the brother who died), takes it into his head that he should move to Great Mop, too. He’s going to live with Lolly and “be a writer”. She doesn’t even get a chance to object; he just storms in and takes over. That means she’s back to a life of darning someone else’s socks and cooking someone else’s meals and all the other crap that comes with a privileged white man’s presence. Hmph!
Lolly has really had it now, guys. On her next wilderness walk, she calls upon Satan – yes, the same one – to ask that he release her from the shackles of domestic duty. For freminism!
When she gets home, she finds a kitten (aw!), whom she believes to be Satan’s emissary (oh…). She names him Vinegar, and adopts him as her familiar. That’s when shit gets witchy. I mean, it’s unlike any witchcraft with which I’m familiar, but that’s not saying much. And it’s around this time that Lolly starts calling Satan her “loving huntsman” (thus, the subtitle).
To seal the deal with the devil, Lolly tags along with her landlady to a local Witches’ Sabbath, attended by just about every woman in Great Mop. Apparently, this “normal” town is populated exclusively by women who want to dismantle the patriarchy. They work some magic, and that’s when things start going south for Titus. He’s plagued by all kinds of bad luck: his milk always curdles, he falls into a wasp’s nest, the usual. He winds up proposing to the woman who treats his wasp stings, and they fuck off back to London together to escape the curse – good riddance!
Lolly is relieved of her duties, and so glad to be finally free of them. She calls up her new buddy Satan, and (this is my favourite bit) tells him that women are like sticks of dynamite, ready to explode. They’re all witches, apparently, “even if they never do anything with their witchcraft, they know it’s there – ready!” (PREACH). The book ends with Lolly making peace with the fact that she sold her soul to the devil for a bit of peace and quiet. She’s okay with it.
Now, as I alluded to earlier, I don’t know dick about witchcraft… but from what I do know, I’m fairly confident that most of the women who identify as witches would be horrified/disgusted/angry at yet another literary representation linking their identities to “Satan”. Various witchcraft-based religions are ancient and have nothing to do with Christian representations of good, evil, or anything else. So, let’s just make that clear: this isn’t an accurate representation of real-world witchcraft, and to claim it is would be highly offensive.
That said, I don’t think Lolly Willowes was meant to be representative or accurate. Townsend Warner was Doing A Thing(TM). I think she deliberately invoked the image of Satan to symbolically fuck with the power structures (including religion) that oppress women. This is a fantastical novel in many ways, and a satirical one; I don’t think Townsend Warner wanted to sign on to represent any particular group. She just wanted to shit on whiny entitled white dudes, sucks to be them.
Lolly Willowes was published a year after Mrs Dalloway, and it’s got a very similar vibe: the search for a room of one’s own, women’s post-war liberation, the roles and responsibilities of widows and spinsters… If you liked Woolf, chances are you’ll dig this one, too.
Upon publication, Lolly Willowes was critically acclaimed in the UK, but didn’t make much of a splash with the general public. Townsend Warner eventually found her audience in the US, where Lolly Willowes was selected as the inaugural Book Of The Month title. Her affinity with American readers continued until her death; she was a regular contributor to The New Yorker and other American publications.
So, what did I think of it? Well, it’s hard to say. If I was asked for a brief description of Lolly Willowes, I think all I could say is “it’s weird”. Good weird, yes, but weird nonetheless. It’s a book of interest, a book worth reading, but not a gripping page-turner for most people. It’s unlikely to show up in any “best classic books” lists, but I’m glad I read it all the same.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Lolly Willowes:
- “Lolly moves in with relatives. Lolly seeks independence. Lolly gets mixed up with the Devil. I must have missed something.” – J. Rodeck
- “Help. I did not order this. Have been hacked!” – Martha R Zimiles