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3.9 out of 5 stars
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on 22 February 2004
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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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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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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on 1 October 2016
Southern England, 1920s. Laura’s life has been spent caring for her father. When he dies, she is taken in by her brother’s household in London, who do their best to find a suitable man for her to marry. However she is a little too ‘strange’ for any of her suitors, and instead helps look after her brother’s and sister-in-law’s children. When they are grown up, she decides to move to Great Mop, a village in the country, and live on her own. Great Mop turns out to be a village as ‘peculiar’ as she is, with midnight festivities and undercurrents of pagan religion. There’s even someone who appears to be the Devil. Is he, after all, the ‘man’ for her?

To my mind, the first part of this novel went on too long, and had too little dialogue, though it has its funny moments and it does convincingly build up Laura’s long years of mild depression. It gets going once Laura reaches Great Mop – but even then refuses the expected narrative moves: it doesn’t become a love-story, exactly, nor does Laura ‘find her place’, exactly, nor is the supernatural element either explained or explicitly embraced, but remains ambiguous. To me this was a bit frustrating, in the sense that I felt ther was a lot of comical potential left unused. It was a curious but not unenjoyable read.
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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 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 16 October 2015
Lolly Willowes is essentially about a spinster who, after years of being used as a babysitter for her various nieces and nephews, makes a pact with Satan and becomes a witch. Y'know, just your classic modern classic storyline. For the most part I did enjoy this book; I thought Laura was a charming protagonist, and while some parts of the story were quite sad other parts were fantastically funny, but I didn't like it as much as I'd hoped I would. The book just got a little too weird for me near the end, which is saying something; I quite like weird books, but this one took such a turn that it suddenly felt like I was reading a different book.
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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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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 13 February 2009
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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on 9 September 2015
Over the past few years, I have made an attempt to read some of the Virago Modern Classics - novels by apparently under-valued female authors of the mid-twentieth century such as Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym and Sylvia Townsend Warner. I have become used to hearing them described as being unfairly 'underestimated' writers, unjustly forgotten or only appealing to a small band of dedicated readers but deserving of a larger audience. I am an experienced reader and a feminist, so I approached them with an open mind. But I can't help feeling that their supporters are over-reaching themselves in their enthusiasm - Elizabeth Taylor is pretty good, but the others I've read don't seem to me to be as admirable as they are claimed to be.

Take 'Lolly Willowes', for instance - the first novel by Warner, who was undoubtedly a fascinating woman who lived an unconventional life. the novel was apparently a hit in its day though controversial, for obvious reasons. And Warner has a poetic touch that is quite skillful. But, frankly, I found the story narrow and dull - it seemed to me that Warner wanted to deliver Laura's long speech about how irritating it is to be a maiden aunt which appears in the final chapter in her conversation with the devil, and she created the rest of the novel in order to provide a platform for this speech. The speech is ok - it expresses some important and possibly ground-breaking (at the time) ideas. But why not just give a speech or write an article for a newspaper or journal - why bother with the rest?

Laura Willowes is marginally interesting though the rest of her acquaintances and family seem under-described, implausible or just boring. The novel's style distances the reader and I found it extremely difficult to empathise or even understand Laura, despite myself being of a similar age and introverted personality. I sympathised with her plight and her desire to escape her family, and there were moments of half-baked humour, but the novel lacked both edginess and whimsy, despite its magic realism. It just felt thin and slight. I'm not saying it is a bad novel, just not a particularly good one in my view. I accept that I might be missing the point - it came with a glowing intro by Sarah Waters, a writer I consider to be far more talented than Warner (based on this one novel at any rate), so maybe I am just missing the point. But for me it was a damp squib, difficult to finish, ridiculous in places, lacking in energy and pace, and also lacking in engaging plot. Not for me, I'm afraid.
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