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A gentle tale of Devil worship in the English countryside
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.