Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Book review – Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

A spinster who makes a pact with the devil, becomes a witch and finds herself in the Chiltern Hills. Sounds intriguing – Right?

This novel came highly recommended and has undoubtedly settled itself in my top 10 most favourite books.

It was written in 1926, between the wars by a British lesbian author who was quite revolutionary for her time.

My soul was stirred whilst the book unfolded – very much like the heroine of the story, an Edwardian spinster (we don’t like this term!) called Laura Willowes. Laura, an unmarried Aunt, was adopted by her sister’s family after the death of her father and was moved from the countryside to London. She was absorbed into the household “like a piece of family property forgotten in the will”. They even changed her name affectionately to the childish Aunt Lolly.

It was taken for granted that she was not whole without a husband. This attitude appears to have changed little in the last 100 years. I have been party to discussions with women who may find themselves single at a certain age, that have experienced all sorts of assumptions and prejudgements, often dropped from the mouths of the “well meaning”.

Basically, still reminding us that society does not think women can be happy, fulfilled or even capable on our own outside of a relationship.

Aunt Lolly sleepwalks through her London existence doing what was expected of her with a mere hint at witchiness – filling her rooms with extravagant purchases of exotic flowers. Slowly but surely the erotic and powerful forces of nature start to stir within her and she suddenly decides to move to the village of Great Mop much to the disapproval of her suffocating family. Here in the beautiful and wild Chiltern Hills she gradually, with the help of the gentle Huntsman (aka the Devil), discovers her strength of character and her vocation to be a henwife or a witch. The author skilfully evokes the beauty and secret mysteries of the English countryside. I am reminded of the healing power of nature as Laura takes her wild walks and begins to uncover her real self, the self that has been buried alive by the accumulating dust of societal expectations.

Why make a pact with the Devil though, another man, when the patriarchy has suppressed you so much? The Devil for me represents the dark side of ourselves, the part that is sometimes a little wicked but also the side that speaks up rather than pleases and settles for a quiet life. The Devil was not interested in controlling her, he just wanted to set her free.

I took away a lot from this book and it will be one that I will revisit frequently to remind myself of the lessons that spoke to me. Specifically…

Maybe we all need to make peace with the darkness within us in order to become liberated. That a deep connection with nature can heal us and guide us towards our true selves.

That so much joy and beauty can be found in throwing off a bit of unwanted conditioning and convention and becoming undomesticated. Which, in sense, is living by others and society’s common expectations.

Jackie Bean

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

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