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3.7 out of 5 stars
Lolly Willowes (VMC)
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38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
This was Townsend Warner's first novel, and it's a striking one, which by all accounts caused quite a stir when it first appeared in 1926. The innocent-sounding title, and the quasi-Victorian, Gilbert-and-Sullivanish subtitle "Or, The Loving Huntsman" are deliberate attempts to lead the reader up the garden path. For the Loving Huntsman is none other than the Devil himself, to whom maiden aunt Lolly Willowes has sold her soul for a bit of peace and quiet.
Laura Willowes, known to friends and family as Aunt Lolly, is the youngest child and only daughter of brewery owner and doting father Everard, with whom she lives a happy, bookish existence until his sudden death when she is twenty-eight. She moves in with her brother and sister-in-law in London, who treat her with well-meaning condescension as a sort of unpaid nanny: "Henry and Caroline did all they could to prevent her feeling unhappy. If they had been overlooking some shame of hers they could not have been more tactful, more modulatory." Friends and family are unanimous in considering the Lolly problem settled. A few years later, however, she astonishes them all by renting a cottage in the obscure Bedfordshire village of Great Mop, where she intends to stay alone. But all is not as it seems there: the village community seems strangely closed, and there are odd goings-on by moonlight. None of this greatly troubles Lolly, who relaxes into a gentle nature mysticism. However, when her family begin inviegling for her return to London, she finds that there is no option but to invoke supernatural assistance...
Don't be misled into expecting a Gothic tale, however: although the book is undoubtedly quietly subversive (even nowadays), there is never any doubt that Lolly intends no real harm to anyone; and all ends satisfactorily for everyone involved. The Devil is a surprisingly gentle character when he makes his unexpected personal appearance towards the end of the book; really more Pan than Satan. (Townsend Warner was never afraid of bringing big names into her narratives: Queen Victoria has a similarly unexpected cameo role in "The True Heart".) John Updike has succinctly summarised this book as "witty, eerie, tender": like several of Townsend Warner's novels, it is an indefinable, genre-breaking work, and is unlikely to be much like anything you've read before.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Sylvia Townsend Warner's debut novel is always worth reading. A hit in its day it has always remained her most popular book, although all her tales are well worth reading. A story most definitely of its time this is much more than a whimsical read, which alas for all of Warner's books have got a reputation for being whimsical, or too hard. This book indeed has a whimsical surface, but scratch away the veneer and you will find something much deeper.

Laura 'Lolly' Willowes has grown up with her father, and then eventually living with one of her brothers. Gradually aging and being a spinster she lives as many others of her type have done so, always with members of the family, alone to a certain extent, bored and to an extent put upon for help. As the First World War takes men off to battle women are more and more called upon to fill men's roles, and Lolly does her little bit by making up parcels. With the world returning to a degree to its old habits, Lolly eventually finds a yearning for something more.

Leaving by herself she moves to Great Mop in the Chilterns. Seemingly an idyllic pastoral setting, it seems as if Lolly has found her own paradise, but then Tobias, one of her nephews, also moves to the area. As Lolly wants to be left alone, so she meets the 'Devil'.

This story, which was extremely relevant at the time is still for a lot of women quite relevant to their lives nowadays. If you are stuck at home, you would like to get a job, or just take more interest in something, then this book is well worth reading. With a light touch Warner tackles a problem that took most of her peers pages and pages to put down.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on 11 February 2000
'With a chilling immediacy this book speaks today, as it did in 1925, for women. Not only women like Laura who are incapable of loving men, but for all those who have been "subdued" into ladyhood, or dwindled into wives. Women were strongly concerned with their status during the first forty years of this century. Now, after a sleep of twenty years, they, like Lolly Willowes, are awake again, seeking for lives of their own...Lolly Willowes...is the witty, eerie, tender but firm life history of a middle-class Englishwoman who politely declines to make the expected connection with the opposite sex and becomes a witch instead' -- John Updike, THE NEW YORKER
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on 13 April 2012
The story of Laura Willowes who (belives she has) sold her soul to the devil in return for freedom from her tiresome family. The book begins with the bleak statement that, her father having died and she being unmarried and already 28 years old, Laura must go to live with her married brother in London. Laura is dreamy and unambitious. Unlike a modern fable where she would discover amazing talents and dynamism once released from her family, Laura remains dreamy to the end - good for her! The first half of the book describes the successful, organised, dull life of her brother's family in their London house. Having endured 20 years there and helped bring up one generation of children, the family assumes Aunt Lolly will do the same for the next generation too. But she makes the first of her increasingly frequent stands against convention and goes off to live by herself in a small Chiltern village. The second half, where she escapes further and further from polite society, with the help of mild spells and encouraging conversations with the devil, is the heart of the book. I loved it.
Why have Virago used a stark cover pictre of the folly on Mow Cop? The essence of the Chilterns portrayed in the book is all night sounds, beech leaves, damp soil and darkness - just the opposite of the sharp visual senses.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 24 June 2013
The uneventful life history of an Edwardian spinster doesn't sound a riveting read, but it is. In part that is the quality of the writing - smooth, evocative, exact. Partly the understated but sharp social satire. But principally the evocation of a mysterious undercurrent in the life of Lolly that draws her out of the staid, respectable world of her relatives and into the wild, dark wood of female autonomy.
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on 15 May 2015
This book is beautifully written, and has lovely descriptions of the natural world. However, The Devil appears as unexpected character half way through the book (Huh?) and is then described in a friendly way as both helpful and a personality worth giving one's life over to. Not a theme I felt at all comfortable with and would have liked a warning!

(I knew the book was about a woman who abandons her respectable home to become a witch, BUT didn't think for a second that a 1920s bestseller would veer off fantasy and tenderly describe a character that most mainstream religions believe to be both real and dangerous. I don't think that the devil represents a force for good, so felt very uncomfortable with the author's viewpoint.)
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on 5 March 2012
Sylvia Townsend Warner's first novel and one of her best. It has the sort of subtlety that you don't see too much of these days and sparkles with flashes of wit and perception. A sort of quiet Romanticism pervades the book, as the heroine discovers a way to live that conforms to none of the strategies that would usually be available to her. Not for everyone as the pace is best described as 'leisurely', but that's one of the pleasures of reading Sylvia Townsend Warner - she takes her time to let the story and the characters develop.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
I'd just like to add a little bit to existing reviews, all of which are interesting and have merit. The end of the book, though, is a lot darker than it might seem. Unhappy, pigeon-holed Lolly does escape from her suffocating (though well-meaning) family, and she is pleased. I should not give too much away, but it is fair to say that her escape, to say the least, takes an unconventional form. She is happy on the whole, and certainly feels liberated, but there is plenty of evidence in the book to suggest that she has in fact entered a new (and perhaps much more sinister) kind of thralldom, indeed that she has not so much made as move as been drawn or led into her new existence without understanding why (though she does in the end). This book is the work of a highly accomplished writer who uses whimsy and acerbic wit with remarkable skill (it was her first novel), but in the end it is a jeu d'esprit and not, in my view, entirely successful at that. Having said that, there are many more consistently successful books which are less fun to read!
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
The vast majority of this book is about Lolly Willowes living as the proverbial maiden aunt in the bosom of her family, in her eldest nephew's house. She is a useful person, helping with the children, embroidering cushion covers and so on, but a sudden extravagant moment changes everything for her. The family are puzzled and rather disgruntled when she decides to up sticks and live in a country cottage in the Chilterns. Titus (nicknamed Tito), her most loved grand-nephew, unexpectedly decides that he will live in the village too, and promptly takes lodgings nearby. Lolly Willowes is utterly dismayed. She had wanted something different, away from everyone who ever knew her, and here is Tito asking her to darn his socks, make him junket, or whatever, when all she wants is to be left alone.

Or not quite alone. She meets the lovely chicken man, renames him Adam, but she is not in love or any version of that thing. She is happy to become a member of village life, but something is holding her back. She believes in the end that it must be the presence of Tito. She is a woman who does not need anything or anyone else to be perfectly content. Her basic longing is for a solitary life, making her herbal remedies, learning about the land and the life of the forest. It is at this jointure that she meets Satan, who is a remarkably pleasant person. He claims her, but does not need her presence. She must go her own way and be what she wishes to be. And so she does.

One might wish for more wickedness to attend this Faustian pact, but it is not present in Sylvia Townsend Warner's book. It goes almost without saying that the plot is beautifully played out and written with exceptional beguilement. The book is much too gentle, but one feels this might be a pointer to how much inner darkness is painted over with a kind of mysticism about woodlands and meadows. Lolly has given herself to the devil, and maybe he will call her some time in the future? Or perhaps the devil really is a nice chap in a cloth cap who keeps his sheep in a fold and feeds them their golden future? Or is this book the true fore-runner of Virginia Woolf's 'A Room of One's Own' with a similar sub-text of the need for women to determine their own future - even if it means they go to the devil?
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 11 March 2014
This is the most beautifully written, lyrical, eerie, delicious tale of witchcraft in rural England - I cannot recommend it enough. The story concerns Laura Willowes ("Aunt Lolly") the maiden aunt of the family, confirmed spinster, who upon the death of her beloved father is exiled out to live with relatives and pretty much ends up being the "useful" aunt upon whom everyone comes to rely. An appendage in the family, Lolly is taken for granted by all, until she decides to do something for herself and moves to the charming village of Great Mop. There she meets a whole coven of witches, a kitten called Vinegar and Satan; and life starts to pick up for her.

There is not a word out of place in the novel and reading it is quite simply a bewitching experience (if you'll pardon the pun). In fact, by the end I was longing to move to Great Mop myself, visit the fantastically named pub "The Reason Why" (every village should have one) and perhaps take up witchcraft. I also found a lovely quote from the book: "Life becomes simple if one does nothing about it." How true.
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