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Lolly Willowes or The Loving Huntsman (original 1926; edition 2004)

by Sylvia Townsend Warner

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6262615,510 (3.89)1 / 130
Member:tiffin
Title:Lolly Willowes or The Loving Huntsman
Authors:Sylvia Townsend Warner
Info:Kessinger Publishing, LLC (2004), Paperback, 256 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:****1/2
Tags:Modern English Lit., Writing by Women

Work details

Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1926)

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Showing 1-5 of 26 (next | show all)
“One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It’s to escape all that – to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to by others.”

I have wanted to read Lolly Willowes for ages, and yet for some unknown reason I read three other Sylvia Townsend Warner novels before tackling the one I have always assumed is her best known. It’s not an especially long book, but it wasn’t just the length which made me gobble it up in great gulps. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s writing is wonderful; she was a gifted, imaginative storyteller whose use of language is really quite lovely. Having read The Corner that Held Them, Mr Fortune’s Maggot and Summer will Show, I was already a fan of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s writing, so I had big expectations of Lolly Willowes which I know a lot of people love. Thankfully I wasn’t disappointed, hence the gobbling up of it. Even in the midst of the gobbling up however I was often stopped in my tracks by the most glorious prose, descriptions of utter perfection.

“…she looked with the yearning of an outcast at the dwelling so long ago discarded. The house was like an old blind nurse sitting in the sun and ruminating past events. It seemed an act of the most horrible ingratitude to leave it all and go away without one word of love. But the gates were shut, the time of welcome was gone by.”

The story itself is tender and a little magical, and I simply adored the character of Lolly Willowes herself. Laura Willowes (to allow her, her given name) is a dutiful unmarried daughter of twenty eight when her beloved father dies. Laura had always enjoyed her quiet life in the country, sometimes gathering herbs and making distillations with them. Laura is at one with the countryside, and its yearly round of traditions. Born some years after her two elder brothers; Henry and James, Laura grew up almost as an only child, the apple of her father’s eye. Laura has run her father’s home with ease, helped by the servants, people of good old country stock, who make beeswax furniture polish and pigeon pie. Upon her father’s death Laura is devastated; everything she knows and feels secure in is lost. Her elder brothers and their wives take control, it is quickly decided – that despite Laura having a good income of her own left to her by her father – she should go away from the country to London and live with Henry and Caroline and their two young daughters. Between them; Henry, James and their wives make all the decisions, what furniture Laura will take with her, and how useful she will be. London life will be very different, but Laura submits to the decisions made for her.

Of course Laura is useful, for that is how she is made, she proves herself invaluable. It is one of Henry’s young daughters who bestow the name Aunt Lolly on Laura – and the name sticks and Laura is Laura no longer, her life no longer her own. Laura settles her things into the small spare room in the London House that she will now call her own, while her brother and sister-in-law set about introducing her to potential, suitable husbands.

For twenty years Aunt Lolly makes herself indispensable to family life in London. Holidays are taken at Lady Place, her former home where her brother James his wife and son Titus live. Aunt Lolly is taken for granted, she is so very reliable. The years slip by quickly – the girls grow up and begin to make lives for themselves. A war is fought; the world is a different place. In the 1920’s Laura finds, at forty-seven, that she wants something different for herself. She has the feeling that something is pulling her towards the countryside again, feeling herself at one with the natural world, she longs for woods, and hillsides. Laura decides to break free of the life which has been organised for her realising suddenly that she can have a life of her own. Laura’s realisation coming in a greengrocer’s shop of a quite old fashioned kind;

“Laura looked at the bottled fruits, the sliced pears in syrup, the glistening red plums, the greengages. She thought of the woman who had filled those jars and fastened on the bladders. Perhaps the greengrocer’s mother lived in the country. A solitary old woman picking fruit in a darkening orchard, rubbing her rough fingertips over the smooth-skinned plums, a lean wiry old woman, standing with upstretched arms among her fruit trees as though she were a tree herself, growing out of the long grass, with arms stretched up like branches. It grew darker and darker; still she worked on, methodically stripping the quivering taut boughs one after the other.”

Laura finds herself drawn to the countryside of Buckinghamshire, and the tiny village of Great Mop. Her family are both horrified and astonished at Laura’s announcement, and at first they don’t take her quite seriously. On finding her brother has mismanaged her money; Laura can only afford to rent a couple of rooms in the cottage of Mrs Leek. Here in two small rooms and roaming free in the countryside that surrounds the cottage, Aunt Lolly becomes Laura again, her happiness is complete, and she finds within herself the woman she should always have been. There appear to be unusual forces around the village of Great Mop and the nearby countryside, forces with which Laura is at one. Here the story does get a little odd – but I knew that before I started – the reader has to suspend belief a bit, that’s all. When Titus turns up to stay with his good old Aunt Lolly; his presence upsets the delicately balanced atmosphere of the area, and unleashes forces, that finally bring Laura to an understanding of who she really is.

Published three years before Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Lolly Willowes is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s assertion that all single women should have their own liberty and lives of their own not dictated for them by others. ( )
  Heaven-Ali | Dec 12, 2015 |
A pleasant enough story at the beginning, but ending in a mystico-psychological way that annoyed me. ( )
  JRuel | Mar 18, 2015 |
Well, this was strange yet wonderful. Laura Willowes was set to be the quintessential "auntie" of English life; unmarried, unappealing to the opposite sex (and uninterested in it as well), living with her brother, adored by his children, useful to his wife. But niggling in the back of her mind was the notion that she wouldn't just carry on that way indefinitely, and one day she picked an odd little village with nothing to recommend it but its odd little name--Great Mop-- and announced that she was going to move there. Leaving her "Aunt Lolly" persona behind, Miss Willowes settles in to Great Mop and gradually begins to know the villagers. Although she doesn't seem to fit in here any more than she did in London society, she is at peace with her situation until one day she comes home to find an inexplicable kitten in her rooms. Here the wonder and the strangeness truly begin. The moment the kitten grabs and bites Miss Willowes's hand, she realizes that she is a witch, and this kitten her familiar. Although she puts it that she has "made a compact with the devil" nothing about her story suggests a conscious decision to do that. (It isn't a spoiler to let you in on the fact that "the loving huntsman" of the subtitle is Satan, though not the horned satyr of so much popular culture. Rather he is a very ordinary looking gentleman who can disappear into his background, and who does not seem to move anyone to acts of sheer evil.) It just comes to her that now she is a witch. This passive acceptance of a fact so utterly outside the framework of this woman's prior existence struck a discord with me, and if I hadn't known it was coming (from reading blurbs on the cover and several reviews) I think I might have had one of those “WTH” moments and tossed the book aside. As it was, I kept reading, and I'm glad that I did, because Lolly's exploration of the world from her new perspective is really a joy. Her little conversation with Satan in the English countryside near the end of the book is just brilliant. Overall I was not as taken with this story as those who recommended it to me, but I give it 3 1/2 solid stars. ( )
  laytonwoman3rd | Nov 17, 2014 |
Okay, better after midway. Quick read. Women's plight. Need to have a place of one's own. ( )
  njcur | Feb 13, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Sylvia Townsend Warnerprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Waters, SarahIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To Bea Isabel Howe
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When her father died, Laura Willowes went to live in London with her elder brother and his family.
Quotations
Preference, not prejudice, made them faithful to their past. They slept in beds and sat in chairs whose comfort insensibly persuaded them into respect for the good sense of their forbears. Finding that well-chosen wood and well-chosen wine improved with keeping, they believed that the same law applied to well-chosen ways.
So Laura read undisturbed, and without disturbing anybody, for the conversation at local tea-parties and balls never happened to give her an opportunity of mentioning anything that she had learnt from Locke on the Understanding or Glanvil on Witches. In fact, as she was generally ignorant of the books which their daughters were allowed to read, the neighboring mammas considered her rather ignorant. However they did not like her any the worse for this, for her ignorance, if not so sexually displeasing as learning, was of so unsweetened a quality as to be wholly without attraction.
Being without coquetry she did not feel herself bound to feign a degree of entertainment which she had not experienced, and the same deficiency made her insensible to the duty of every marriageable young woman to be charming, whether her charm be directed towards one special object, or in default of that, universally distributed through a disinterested love of humanity.
She had thought that sorrow would be her companion for many years, and had planned for its entertainment.
After some years in his house she came to the conclusion that Caroline had been very bad for his character. Caroline was a good woman and a good wife. She was slightly self-righteous and fairly rightly so, but she yielded to Henry's judgment in every dispute, she bowed her good sense to his will and blinkered her wider views in obedience to his prejudices. Henry had a high opinion of her merits, but thinking her to be so admirable and finding her to be so acquiescent had encouraged him to have an even higher opinion of his own.
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Book description
From the book cover:
"When I think of witches, I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded. . . and they think how they were young once."

Lolly Willowes is a twenty-eight-year-old spinster when her adored father dies, leaving her dependent upon her brothers and their wives. After twenty years of self-effacement as a maiden aunt, she decides to break free and moves to a small Bedfordshire village. Here, happy and unfettered, she enjoys her new existence nagged only by the sense of a secret she has yet to discover. That secret--and her vocation--is witchcraft, and with her cat and a pact with the Devil, Lolly Willowes is finally free. An instant and great success on its publication in 1926, Lolly Willowes is Sylvia Townsend Warner's most magical novel. Deliciously wry and inviting, it was her piquant plea that single women find liberty and civility--and her pursuit of the theme Virginia Woolf later explored in A Room of One's Own.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0940322161, Paperback)

Sylvia Townsend Warner began her literary career as a poet, and her first novel is as nimble and precise as poetry and reads as if it might have been composed to a meter. Like some of Jane Austen's fiction, Lolly Willowes is a comedy about the perils, pleasures, and consolations of spinsterhood, and the predicament of its heroine is at first deliberately and deceptively commonplace. "Aunt Lolly, a middle-aging lady, light-footed upon stairs, and indispensable for Christmas Eve and birthday preparations," is nevertheless troubled by vague, indefinable longings, a hankering after the solitude of woods and dark rural places. At last a revelation in a greengrocer's leads her to abandon her outraged London family and take rooms in an obscure hamlet, Great Mop.

Here her neighbors keep curiously late and noisy hours, but otherwise allow her to pass the time "in perfect idleness and contentment." She is eventually pursued into her idyll, however, by her nephew, and Titus's familiar small demands drive her to rage and despair: "No! You shan't get me. I won't go back. I won't.... Oh! Is there no help?" She is promptly visited by a mysterious black kitten, who fastens its claws upon her hand and draws blood. At once she understands. The kitten is her familiar, and has been sent by dark forces. "She, Laura Willowes, in England, in the year 1922, had entered into a compact with the Devil."

She has, in short, become a witch--or, rather, she has rediscovered her own slumbering diabolical potential, in the unlikely setting of a Buckinghamshire hamlet that--as she now realizes--is peopled entirely by witches. Laura soon attends a rollicking but ultimately rather disappointing midnight Sabbath; she is visited by Satan in the shape of a pleasant-faced man in a corduroy coat and gaiters who rids her of Titus and restores her to privacy and peace. She is left with a vision of the women "all over England, all over Europe ... as common as blackberries, and as unregarded" to whom he has offered the promise of adventure, "the dangerous black night to stretch your wings in." It is this vision that lends the novel its subversive edge, that ultimately allies it less with the work of Austen than with that of Virginia Woolf, and with later feminists. They "know they are dynamite," says Laura of Satan's women, "and long for the concussion that may justify them." --Sarah Waters

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:22 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Sylvia Townsend Warner's first novel, published in 1926, is magical and subversive, anticipating the ficton of writers like Angela Carter and Jeanette Winterson.

(summary from another edition)

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