Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
Here’s the first read for 2012: Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes. Yup, it’s another New York Review Book and it hasn’t shaken my conviction that all of their books are great. Warner combines the perceptiveness of Jane Austen with the supernatural touch of Shirley Jackson.
Laura “Lolly” Willowes is a single woman in the early 20th century, and the novel concerns her spiritual renewal late in life (well after she has been consigned to the role of spinster aunt by her family) when she becomes a witch of the Margaret Murray type. It’s a slow but fascinating novel, off-kilter in its meandering, but focused in its observations even though the plot really never strays too far from “spinster aunt sells her soul to the devil and lives happily ever after”.
By its end the ground is so well laid that when Warner kicks off the braces and lets fly with some social critique it’s honed to needle sharp perfection.
“’They say: ‘Dear Lolly! What shall we give her for her birthday this year? Perhaps a hot-water bottle. Or what about a nice black lace scarf? Or a new workbox? Her old one is nearly worn out.’ But you say: ‘Come here, my bird! I will give you the dangerous black night to stretch your wings in, and poisonous berries to feed on, and a nest of bones and thorns, perched high up in danger where no one can climb to it.’ That’s why we become witches: to show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure.”
Also as a slight aside since I read a lot of weird late Victorian horror fiction, this book’s the perfect antidote to the veiled puritanism in Machen’s work. His women characters are so often “corrupted”, either inherently or by circumstance, that it’s fun to read Lolly Willowes and have that paradigm thrown on its ear. The bachelor nephew, Titus, who would be the hero in a Machen novel, here gets consigned to the role of villain and fool, and the “corruption” Lolly experiences is her hard-earned right to live as she pleases and be respected for it. Bravo for her!
A last point, save the introduction until after you finish the book since it’s one of those that lays out the entire story and, you know, SPOILERS.