Friday 3 May 2019

Lolly Willowes

Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes was fervently recommended to me by a friend some years ago, but at the time I consigned it to the reserves bench, suspecting that a novel about a woman who becomes a witch might not be quite my cup of tea. Since then I've read a couple of STW's other novels – The Corner that Held Them and Mr Fortune's Maggot – and been hugely impressed. So, when I saw Lolly Willowes on the charity shop shelf a couple of weeks ago, I ended my resistance. And I was right to: it's a terrific piece of writing, and, for a first novel (published in 1926), quite amazingly assured.
  It tells the story of Laura Willowes ('Aunt Lolly' to her family), who, after her father's death, finds herself assigned by her stuffy family to the role of 'indispensable' maiden aunt, unpaid nanny and housekeeper. The novel begins in Edwardian times, then shifts forward to the Twenties, at which point Laura, chafing at her situation, finally decides she has had enough and takes off to live on her own in a remote village in the Chilterns, chosen almost at random. Here she finds herself feeling completely at home, wandering at large in a countryside that seems to be welcoming and enveloping her, but in a way that leaves her free to be herself. Before long she does indeed become a witch, but in no ordinary way.
  Warner's skill is to make the whole process seem perfectly natural, even ordinary, an extension of Laura's yearning for independence and a life of her own. There is nothing explicitly supernatural in the narrative; if viewed from a different angle, the whole thing could be quite naturalistic (or, from another angle, a metaphorical projection of Laura's struggle). Laura discovers that she is far from alone in being a witch; it seems to be a routine part of village life, and she doesn't practise magic, either white or black – for her being a witch is a state of being, of being free. She does, in a sense, sell her soul to the devil, but experiences him as a kindly guardian rather than a rapacious predator (the subtitle of the novel as first published was The Loving Huntsman). He manifests not as a horned monster but an ordinary, rather attractive countryman. Similarly the 'witches' sabbath' that Laura attends seems to be no more than an unusually wild bucolic dance. As she looks at the assembled witches and warlocks milling around during a break in the music, 'There was something about their air of disconnected jollity which reminded Laura of a Primrose League gala and fete.' (The Primrose League, its emblem Disraeli's favourite flower, was a highly respectable nationwide social organisation that aimed to promote Conservative values. It was tremendously successful until well into the 20th century.)
  Deft, unpredictable and beautifully written, this is a novel that really holds the attention, and more than repays it. When it came out, it was a big hit, but Warner was dismayed that most readers took it for a charming piece of English whimsy. 'I felt as though I had tried to make a sword,' she wrote, 'only to be told what a pretty pattern there was on the blade.' I don't think any reader today is likely to make that mistake.

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