Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner

A radio programme I listen to regularly is BBC Radio 4’s “A Good Read”, it’s a book programme with a difference as rather than focusing on new works the presenter and her two guests each choose a book they like; they then read all three and finally meet up in the studio to discuss them. The last episode in June had novelist Nicci Gerrard pick an odd sounding book, but the title seemed familiar to me and sure enough it is on my shelves. Now from the discussion I have a slight idea as to what happens and it sounds intriguing, from the summary on the radio shows website we get.

Nicci’s favourite is Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, a novel which takes a surprising turn halfway through and provokes a debate about the merits of sleeping in ditches

What’s not to like with a precis like that so here I go. My copy is the 1937 first Penguin Books edition, the first ever edition was by Chatto and Windus in 1926. It’s still in print although now as a Virago Modern Classic.

20190716 Lolly Willowes

The book tells the story of Laura Willowes, known to her nieces and nephews as Aunt Lolly and starts with the death of her father leading her to move in with one of her brothers and his wife in London. We then take a step back and learn about her childhood growing up in Somerset; her mother had died when she was in her teens and by the time her father died she was twenty eight, still a spinster and showing no signs of being interested in marriage. The Somerset family home would go to her other brother, James, and his wife and Lolly looks to settle into the role of the maiden aunt to both couples children. Life in the London home of Henry, Caroline and their two girls was undoubtedly respectable as befitting the late Victorian period, but also full of dull routine. So it continued for many years, through the Edwardian period and up to the First World War with even that failing to disturb Lolly’s routine much.

All begins to change in the winter of 1921 when Lolly whilst out shopping has ‘a revelation’, she is now forty seven and she needs a complete change out of London and back to the countryside. She buys a guidebook and map and announces that evening at a family get together that as the children are all grown up, she isn’t needed any more so she is moving to Great Mop in the Chilterns. Upon this apparently random decision the book pivots.

There are hints soon after she arrives about what is going on in the village, groups of villagers standing around in groups late in the evening, the fact that the place is strangely quiet after that. But she soon fits in to village life however without feeling that she is fully accepted. The arrival of her, now grown up, nephew further upsets her hopes of fitting in by his decision to also move to Great Mop.  But one evening Lolly finds a kitten in her room at her lodgings and suddenly her landlady wants to go for a walk late that evening and takes her to a remote field where most of the rest of the villagers can be found dancing and enjoying a witches sabbath.

Lolly realises that she also is a witch and that must have been what drew her to the village with the help of Satan who appears to her in the guise of a gamekeeper and also a gardener during the rest of the book. Now you can read the book as a mystical adventure but it really is a feminist novel about a woman finding herself and escaping her fusty background. She gets her independence from the family to whom she will always be just dependable old Aunt Lolly and realises just what she can become. In the last twenty or so pages where she is discussing this with Satan you could, apart from the setting obviously, be reading from works by the great feminist writers such as Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I’ll finish with an extract where Lolly is describing the position of women at the time which gives a good example of the quality of the writing as well.

women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded. I see them wives and sisters of respectable men, chapel members and blacksmiths. and small farmers and puritans…
Well there they are, there they are, child rearing, home-keeping, hanging washed dishcloths on currant bushes; and for diversion each other’s silly conversation, and listening to men talking in the way 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 that all women hate is to be thought dull. And on Sundays they put on plain stuff gowns and starched white coverings on their heads and necks – the Puritan ones did – and walked across the fields to chapel. and listened to the sermon. Sin and Grace and God and the – (she stopped herself just in time) and St Paul. All men’s things like politics and mathematics. Nothing for them except subjection and plaiting their hair. And on the way back they listened to more talk. Talk about the sermon, or war, or cock-fighting; and when they got back there were the potatoes to be cooked for dinner. It sounds very petty to complain about, but I tell you, that sort of thing settles down on one like a fine dust, and by and by the dust is age, settling down.