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

by Sylvia Townsend Warner

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7213313,038 (3.87)1 / 132
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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Laura Willowes was a much loved daughter, she grew up happily in the country, and she became the kind of countrywoman whose life moved with the rhythms of nature in the way that lives had for generations. But when her beloved father died she became a ‘spare woman’ and her life was taken over by her brothers and their wives.

Such was the way of the world in the 1920s, when Sylvia Townsend Warner told her story.

“Caroline spoke affectionately, but her thoughts were elsewhere. They had already journeyed back to London to buy an eiderdown for the bed in the small spare-room. If the washstand were moved towards the door, would it be possible to fit in a writing-table between it and the fire-place? Perhaps a bureau would be better, because of the extra drawers? Yes, that was it. Lolly could bring the little walnut bureau with the false handles on one side and the top that jumped up when you touched the spring by the ink-well. It had belonged to Lolly’s mother, and Lolly had always used it, so Sibyl could not raise any objections. Sibyl had no claim to it whatever, really. She had only been married to James for two years, and if the bureau had marked the morning-room wall-paper, she could easily put something else in its place. A stand with ferns and potted plants would look very nice.”

The world was changing though, I knew it and there was something in the tone, in the rhythm of the words that told me too. There was a wonderful mixture of delicate observation, wry knowingness and love for the story being told; all of that made it feel very special.

Laura accepted her family’s decision, accepted it as the natural way of things, and settled into a new life. She was absorbed by her family, and even her name was changed to Lolly, because one of one of her young nieces cannot pronounce “Laura” and that was the name she came out with instead. Nobody thought to as Laura if she minded. She was a wonderful aunt, she was loved, but she wasn’t valued.

“Caroline resigned herself to spending the rest of her evenings with Laura beside her. The perpetual company of a sister-in-law was rather more than she had bargained for. Still, there she was, and Henry was right—they had been the proper people to make a home for Laura when her father died, and she was too old now to begin living by herself. It was not as if she had had any experience of life; she had passed from one guardianship to another: it was impossible to imagine Laura fending for herself. A kind of pity for the unused virgin beside her spread through Caroline’s thoughts. She did not attach an inordinate value to her wifehood and maternity; they were her duties, rather than her glories. But for all that she felt emotionally plumper than Laura. It was well to be loved, to be necessary to other people. But Laura too was loved, and Laura was necessary. Caroline did not know what the children would do without their Aunt Lolly.”

As her nieces and nephews grew up Laura began to feel the gap in her life, and the country and its traditions began to call her back. All she could do though was fill the house with flowers. Until one magical day when the stars aligned, and Laura realised that she could have the life she wanted, a life of her own.

Sylvia Townsend Warner had painted her gradual awakening to the call of the countryside beautifully, and she makes Laura’s final realisation quite glorious:

“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.”

“As Laura stood waiting she felt a great longing. It weighed upon her like the load of ripened fruit upon a tree. She forgot the shop, the other customers, her own errand. She forgot the winter air outside, the people going by on the wet pavements. She forgot that she was in London, she forgot the whole of her London life. She seemed to be standing alone in a darkening orchard, her feet in the grass, her arms stretched up to the pattern of leaves and fruit, her fingers seeking the rounded ovals of the fruit among the pointed ovals of the leaves. The air about her was cool and moist. There was no sound, for the birds had left off singing and the owls had not yet begun to hoot. No sound, except sometimes the soft thud of a ripe plum falling into the grass, to lie there a compact shadow among shadows. The back of her neck ached a little with the strain of holding up her arms. Her fingers searched among the leaves.”

Laura knows then that she must answer the call of the country, and fate guides her to the village of Great Mop, in the heart of Buckinghamshire. He family are astonished, they protest, but she goes anyway. And she finds happiness, she finds her place in the world, in the country.

It was lovely to watch her quiet, simple transformation.

But then the story changes.

When Laura’s family intrude on her new life, when the balance is upset, the mystical thing that had been calling her towards her destiny became rather more tangible. And, for me, it didn’t quite work. The spirit of the story, the direction of the story was right, but it felt heavy-handed. The best books that dabble with things that may be real or may be fantastical are so captivating that I don’t stop to think about what is going on, and which it is. This part of the story didn’t quite catch me, it wasn’t quite subtle enough and I couldn’t love it as I’d loved what came before.

I came unstuck near the end the first time I read ‘Lolly Willowes’ but not this time

I realised that I might be judging the book a little unfairly, because I’m comparing it with books that were written so much later, and with many of the books that I love the best of all.

I have to cherish a book that, three years before Virginia Woolf published ‘A Room of One’s Own’, said:

“One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either, a district visitor on a broom stick. It’s to escape all that, to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others, charitable refuse of their thoughts, so many ounces of stale bread a day ….”

And I found so much to love that it was easy to let go of small disappointments.

I loved the arc of the story, I loved the telling of the story, and I loved the spirit of the story. ( )
  BeyondEdenRock | Apr 18, 2017 |
This is a strange and lovely book, beautifully observed, darkly funny. Lolly Willowes is a great eccentric character who after many years decides to escape her dreadful family and lead a more fulfilling life. ( )
  AlisonSakai | Apr 17, 2017 |
Lolly Willowes : Or the Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner is sited in rural England at the time of the First World War. I favor the mid century women writers such as Warner. The novel gets off to a great start but Part 2 and Part 3 lost me. The protagonist, a young unmarried woman lives with her brother for about twenty-five years when she decides to go off on her own. She moves to a small nearby village and pursues her life but once she gets to the village and leads a solitudinous life she becomes boring to me. So I recommend this book with reservations. ( )
  SigmundFraud | Dec 24, 2016 |
What a gem. Why be only a useful auntie when you can be a witch? Lovely look into what it means to find yourself. Delightful writing that spirits over a great theme. Where has this been hiding all these years? ( )
  77nanci | Nov 29, 2016 |
A great book to read and re-read and dare I say, profound for its time. Impossible to say much without giving away the plot but let's just say Lolly makes an unexpected and rather wonderful choice. As Alison Lurie points out in her introduction, many of the same themes as Woolf's Orlando and A Room of One's Own, though this Townsend-Warner predates them by several years. ( )
  laurenbufferd | Nov 14, 2016 |
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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)

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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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