Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes: Or The Loving Huntsman. [Chatto 1926] Introd.  Sarah Waters. London: Virago, 2012.
Lolly Willowes is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s first novel and tells how Laura Willowes in late middle age renounces the comforts (?) of a London home with her brother and his family and her role as “spinster” aunt to live in the country. The old family home, Lady Place, being held in trust for her nephew, Titus, she had intended to buy herself a little place but discovers that her brother has mismanaged her funds. Nevertheless, she moves to Great Mop and becomes the paying guest of Mr. and Mrs. Leak. Even here, however, she is not free. Titus descends upon Great Mop, supposedly to write a book on the artist Fuseli, and Laura’s blessed privacy and independence are no more.
According to the blurb on the cover, John Updike describes the novel as “witty, eerie [and] tender.” I agree with the epithet “tender”; I can see, too, evidence of ironic wit. I particularly enjoyed the exchange between Laura and the Devil when he is explaining “one of these brilliant young authors” who sold his soul “on the condition that once a week he should be without doubt the most important person at a party” (198). I’m not sure, however, that I found the work “eerie.”
Laura’s apparent submission to Lucifer is imbued with such bathos. Yes, Townsend Warner does in her description of Laura’s last desperate walk in the fields and woods before she seals her pact with the Devil manipulate the reader’s mood with description of a “sour field” (136) and of “a clammy chill” in an “impassive wood” (138). Then there is the foreshadowing of “the silence that . . . had been so intent, so deliberate, that it was like a pledge,” and the assertion that “the pledge [was] irrevocably given” (138). But this high anticipation is somewhat broken for the reader when Laura meets her familiar, a kitten that bites her. In the drawing of her blood, Laura understands the pledge has been given. Further contemplation reveals her understanding that her interest in wild herbs and in distillation shows that “she was a witch by vocation” (146). It had just taken her to her late middle age in 1922 to realize the fact.
The fact that it does take so long—until the last third of the novel—for Laura to discover the truth about herself was one of the challenges for me as a reader. The first two parts of the novel outline the history of the Willowes family, Laura’s partial independence as an unmarried daughter running her father’s home, and her loss of that autonomy on her father’s death. She moves to London to live with her brother, sister-in-law and their family. She becomes not Laura but Aunt Lolly. All this background is perhaps a little wearying for the reader, but perhaps intentionally so, for it captures Laura’s own weariness, the weariness of being not herself, of being defined by others, of lacking freedom.
Words like “slavery” and “freedom” occur often in this novel, for, as Sarah Waters says in her introduction, the novel is “a statement of individuality” (xiv). Lolly Willowes addresses the issues of gender roles and expectations. It was published when the franchise in Britain was still not extended fully to all adult women, a time when the unmarried woman was “being subtly redefined as a social problem” (Waters xiii). Laura asserts her self, but in order to do so she submits to Satan. The ultimate implications of Laura’s pact with the Devil are not really examined. While giving some attention to Satan’s own limitations—not knowing much of death, being immortal—and his strengths—“the dignity of natural behaviour and untrammelled self-fulfilment” (201), the novelist’s primary concerns are neither theological nor spiritual. They are sociological. Laura rejects and the novel critiques a society that regards women’s self-actualization, women choosing for themselves, women being independent as evil. Laura tells Satan that women become witches “to show our scorn for pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure . . . . to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others” (196). The book ends with her in thrall to his “indifferent ownership” (203).
While within the parameters of the novel’s own structure, this is a satisfactory resolution to the story, it is not, of course, a satisfactory resolution to the gender issues Townsend Warner addresses in the work. Rather, it is, in the language of a slightly later generation of feminists, a call to consciousness-raising. While some of those gender issues have at least been addressed over the last eighty-seven years since the novel was first published, there is still much validity in Townsend Warner’s critique of social expectations, and the work does not feel out-of-date in any way. I finished Lolly Willowes feeling that I would certainly be prepared to read more by Sylvia Townsend Warner.