Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes (1926)

I noticed this book in the list made by Fleur Fisher for the Once Upon a Time challenge. I rarely read fantasy or fairy tales, but the sound of this title appealed to me so much that I couldn’t forget it. I was a bit disappointed to learn that Lolly was short for Laura (as a foreigner I never know where the nicknames come from) – but I was fascinated by the willows imagery and I was not disappointed.

From the back-cover I expected something about witchcraft, but there was a lot more to it! It’s light and deep at the same time, touching many themes, so that this review will barely scratched the surface of the book. It’s actually something of a witty feminist book that never takes itself seriously, even in its denunciation of women’s alienation. And the witchcraft does not only arrive late into the story, but seems peripheral and rather more of a symbol for female liberation than a real element of the plot. There’s no scary bit, even when the devil is involved, but instead we feel pity and alarm as, for the better half of the book, Lolly Willowes’ family only see her as a useful and dull spinster. Oh, they always mean well, but the weight of conventions in this family is so stifling that eccentric Lolly is turned into a little mousy aunt.

“Laura, feeling rather as if she were a family property forgotten in the will, was ready to be disposed of as they should think best.” After growing up as the beloved (but left to herself) daughter of a well-to-do gentleman-farmer, Lolly’s adulthood is spent living in London with her brother’s family, far from the countryside’s sensuality she so craves. Yet it takes her ages to be aware of her own desires and to rebel in her little mousy way.

The moment she announces her brother that she will leave them and settle down in the remote village of Great Mop (in the Chilterns) is no big feminist manifesto but a subtly ironic scene where the London family is convinced that their dull aunt is kidding them. Indeed, they growingly considered her an oddball not quite to be trusted, especially as they tried unsuccessfully to marry her off, attempts she didn’t even seem to understand. There’s this hilarious scene with a suitor, where we begin to sense that Townsend Warner’s critical eye for English social conventions veers off towards fantasy and sheer pleasures of the imagination:

Mr. Arbuthnot certainly was not prepared for her response to his statement that February was a dangerous month. “It is,” answered Laura with almost violent agreement. “If you are a were-wolf, and very likely you may be, for lots of people are without knowing, February, of all months, is the month when you are most likely to go out on a dark windy night and worry sheep.”

Sylvia Townsend Warner’s prose is gorgeous, and her depictions of British countryside reminded me of the great holidays I had last year in the Cotswolds. This book was indeed a very pleasant surprise and Lolly quite an attaching character. I wouldn’t mind having her as my aunt, and I would visit her in the Chilterns, never forgetting to feed her little black cat who might be, who knows, the devil himself.