“Say you won’t leave us, Lolly.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
“But Lolly, what you want is absurd.”
“It’s only my own way, Henry.”
In many ways, Lolly Willowes is a familiar book. Like Villette or The Odd Women or The Crowded Street, it is the story of a woman whose life does not conform to the expected story of love, courtship, and marriage. Single women were both a social and a fictional (and thus a formal) problem from at least the mid-19th century on into the 20th. The statistical overabundance of women in the earlier period led to articles with titles like “Why Women are Redundant” and “What Shall We Do With Our Old Maids”; the terrible losses of World War I created a similar feeling of crisis, at least among those who saw marriage as the only natural and desirable aim for women’s lives. That was never everybody, of course, especially not all women, but it was an assumption that one way or another affected the horizon of expectation for most people.
Stylistically and tonally, Lolly Willowes is most like The Crowded Street, which makes sense, I suppose, as they are close together chronologically: Holtby’s novel was published in 1924, Townsend Warner’s in 1926. The world they depict is quite similar: for their heroines, it is one of stultifying limitations, well-meaning but hampering advice and attention, and near-debilitating mental suffocation. Lolly Willowes is brisker, though, and (for want of a better term) quirkier: Holtby plods along realistically with Muriel until finally she makes a little space for herself in the world — at last, most readers are likely to exclaim! — because the vicarious experience of her life is really very depressing.
Lolly Willowes feints in that realist direction. In fact, for most of the book you wouldn’t necessarily know it’s going to take a turn into the weird and wonderful unless you knew it already and so were watching (as I was) for signs — Lolly’s interest in herbs and potions, for instance, and the faintly uncanny way she has of not being altogether present in her immediate place and time. What’s so important and subversive about her story is that her cry for liberation — her demand to have her own way — arises from the most ordinary circumstances of her life. Nobody is intentionally cruel to her; she’s not abused or harassed or tormented … except by being an unmarried woman expected to find sufficient meaning for her life in being an accessory to other people’s plans and purposes. The complaint, in other words, is explicitly not personal but political, not individual but systemic: it’s an indictment of normalcy.
Once Lolly has removed herself from the benevolent tyranny of her family, establishing herself in the wonderfully-named town of Great Mop, she reflects on their disapproval:
There was no question of forgiving them. She had not, in any case, a forgiving nature; and the injury they had done her was not done by them. If she were to start forgiving she must needs forgive Society, the Law, the Church, the History of Europe, the Old Testament, great-great-aunt Salome and her prayerbook, the Bank of England, Prostitution, the Architect of Apsley Terrace, and half a dozen other useful props of civilization. All she could do was to go on forgetting them.
Lolly does find contentment when she has thrown off and (mostly) forgotten these “props of civilization,” but it turns out to be harder to shake them off than she’d hoped. I loved that it was her nephew Titus who followed her to Great Mop: again, precisely because he’s the one she likes best, the one who seems least threatening, the threat he does represent turns out to be most revealing. “Where are you off to, Aunt Lolly?” he cries cheerfully as she passes him; ” Wait a minute, and I’ll come too.” But Lolly doesn’t want him to come along; she doesn’t want him anywhere near her new life:
She walked up and down in despair and rebellion. She walked slowly, for she felt the weight of her chains. Once more they had been fastened upon her. She had worn them for many years, acquiescently, scarcely feeling their weight. Now she felt it. And, with their weight, she felt all their familiarity, and the familiarity was worst of all.
Happily for her, that familiarity turns eventually into a familiar, and Lolly is able to draw on forces outside “civilization” to break those chains once and for all. The turn is sly and mischievous and almost disturbingly gratifying: things turn against Titus (milk curdles, bees swarm) until he’s driven safely away. Lolly never seems overtly in control of these events: even as she feels a new power, her disperses. She’s certainly not innocent, though, as she openly and unrepentantly allies herself with Satan.
Lolly’s final dialogue with Satan (winningly in the guise of a common gardener) is the pay-off for the somewhat slow burn of the first two thirds or so of the novel. In fact, it’s mostly a monologue, in which Lolly makes a compelling case for Satan’s intervention. “It’s like this,” she explains:
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. . . . Well, there they were, there they are, child-rearing, house-keeping, hanging washed dishcloths on currant bushes; and for diversion each other’s silly conversation, and listening to men talking together in the way that men talk and women listen. Quite different to the way women talk, and men listen, if they listen at all. And all the time being thrust further down into dullness when the one thing all women hate is to be thought dull.
“Some may get religion,” she concedes, after more bitter musing about women’s wasted potential, “and then they’re all right, I expect. But for the others, for so many, what can there be but witchcraft?” It’s not about exercising malevolent power, or benevolent either, for that matter:
One doesn’t become a witch to run round being harmful, or to run round 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 you by others . . .
It’s the mordant genius of Lolly Willowes that this conclusion makes such perfect sense, in context–that Sylvia Townsend Warner has done such a good job bringing out the menace of the everyday that Lolly’s escape from it by such morally equivocal means is itself unequivocally something to celebrate, rather than fear or judge. She’s only trying to go her own way, after all: that should not be too much to ask.