Lolly Willowes, first published in 1926, is a little known classic, but deserves to be remembered as a well-written feminist parable of a middle-aged woman learning to embrace independence, her own identity, and paganism in the process.
Laura "Lolly" Willowes is the product of a stifling middle-class Edwardian upbringing. After her beloved, but stern father's death, Laura becomes shuffled between her siblings’ families who are alternately vain and foppish or rigid and uncompromising. To her nieces and nephews, she's nothing but strange spinster Aunt Lolly. To her siblings and in-laws, she is just an afterthought, someone to take up space in the spare room and awkwardly be introduced to at parties and family gatherings.
In almost supernatural coincidence (probably intentionally so considering later events), Laura finds a way out of her confining existence. She takes up residence in a small cottage in the Great Mop, a village near Cotswold, England, supplements her own income with creating herbs and potions, encounters some very eccentric friends including a mysterious figure that may or may not be the Devil, and learns to embrace witchcraft.
Lolly Willowes works well as the story of a woman finding her own individuality. There are parts that don't work quite so well. One of Laura's nephews comes to live with her and wears out his welcome within the first few lines perhaps to remind Laura of her family looming over her, a constant presence in her life. While I enjoyed Laura's interest in witchcraft, I could have done without the link to Satan. That is more of the stuff of horror films and the witch trials and unnecessary in feminist literature.
However, the witch angle is mostly fascinating, partly because of the lack of theatrics making her decision to become a pagan as natural as the other choices she makes. A cat appears and though Laura is at first apprehensive that it is a minion of Satan; she is matter-of-fact as though it’s just the natural way of things. When she is invited to her first coven meeting, she is just as shy and as much a wallflower as at her family parties. She becomes a pagan, not through some magic spells, but because of her closeness to nature and for the freedom paganism provides for women.
Lolly Willowes is similar to the character that many of us knew and feared as a child, or that some of us were fascinated with and grew up to become: the strange woman who lives alone, the odd lady who talks to her animals as though they were children, who grows weird plants and herbs, and who never goes out except at night, the woman who is the stuff of rumors and gossip: the witch. Warner however does us a favor, by taking the reader into that character’s mind shows us the whys and how she became that way. Instead of giving us a hoary stereotype, Warner gives us a full and complete character, one in which we are proud to share with the journey towards her independence.
Related Links & Activity Suggestions
The Sylvia Townsend Warner Society-This website’s mission to “provide a wide readership and better understanding of Townsend Warner’s readings.” It includes a biography, bibliography, and an ongoing list of scholarly writings about her life and works. Has there ever been a little known book or author that you would like to tell the world about? How would you promote them? What would you want to say about them?
Witches in Pop Culture & Witches: Depiction through Art History - These websites offer a few glimpses on the way witches have been portrayed through art, literature, film, and television. What other depictions can you think of? Compare these with how Warner views witches, how are they similar and how are they different? What about other supposedly frightening creatures such as vampires, zombies, werewolves, what noted portrayals are there? What do they have in common and how do they differ from each other?
1. Discuss Laura’s life before and after her move to the Great Mop. How does moving to the country give Laura her freedom? What impact does it have on her family? How do you think Laura and her family will treat each other in the future?
2. Analyze Laura’s interactions with witchcraft. What advantages does it give her? What questions does it answer for her? How does the treatment of witches differ in this than in stories like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown?” Do you think the authors’ genders may have made a difference in how Hawthorne and Warner wrote about the witches? Why or why not?