Virago Modern Classics have done the reader no favours in managing expectations by publishing this in a twee edition illustrated with a strangely distorted ginger cat, and a quote from John Updike, author of yesterday’s reviewed novel, describing this as “witty, eerie, tender”. (How many times have you said to yourself, “You know what I need to read right now is a funny but scary but romantic novel”?)

The eponymous Lolly, a childish transliteration of Laura, is a prosperous young woman. The first third of the novel follows her very conventional background and birth, and in a fractured time scheme that must have felt very modern in the 1920’s takes the reader up to Lolly’s 47th year. Her family have long since attempted to marry her off – one suitor is dismissed with a joke about werewolves. The company of men -as potential husbands anyway – leaves her cold. She prefers wandering the more obscure parts of London looking for herbs to turn into medicines. One day she has an epiphany, and decides to break free from the patriarchal forces that have been suffocating her, and go and live alone in a small village in the middle of nowhere. Here she begins to breathe at last, but her peace is short-lived, because a visit from her nephew Titus quickly comes to feel like an invasion.

And this is where the novel takes an unexpected turn. Having been quite naturalistic for three quarters of the story, Townsend Warner introduces the occult. More specifically Lolly becomes a witch, and shortly thereafter meets Satan. This development isn’t quite as sudden as I have suggested – looking back over the text there are clues that the village of Great Mop is not the rural backwater it seems on the surface – but it is a strange turn of events nonetheless. Satan is a genial chap, whose idea of supreme evil extends as far as stinging Titus with wasps, and making his milk go off. Titus flees Great Mop, happily engaged as it happens, and the novel ends with Lolly looking forward to a long career of witchcraft, presumably fairly relaxed about the eternal damnation that will follow shortly thereafter.

The allegorical intent of the novel is not hard to decode. As is often the case, sex is at the root of it all. ‘Lolly Willowes’ is at once a manifesto for the liberation of women from patriarchy, with witchcraft being the symbolic representation of the rejection of control of women by men, but also a more subtle plea for the right of women to control their own sexuality. Lolly begins to discover her long dormant feelings w
hen she moves to the countryside and starts to commune with nature:

“In February came a spell of fine weather. She spent whole days sitting in the woods, where the wood-pigeons moaned for pleasure on the boughs. Sometimes two cock birds would tumble together in mid air, shrieking and buffeting with their wings, and then would fly back to the quivering boughs and nurse the air into peace again. All around her the sap was rising up. She laid her cheek against a tree and shut her eyes to listen. She expected to hear the tree drumming like a telegraph pole. (page 110/111)

Admittedly there are phallic symbols aplenty here, but look at the verbs – moaning, tumbling, shrieking, buffeting, quivering, rising, drumming – this is an extraordinarily physical experience for someone just sitting still.

The novel’s climax is a witches’ Sabbath, which threatens to end in a Bacchanalian orgy – “They whirled faster and faster, fused together like two suns that whirl and blaze in a single destruction … contact made her tingle from head to foot…like a torch she was handed on from one to another…partners came and went, figures and conformations were in a continual flux…sometimes the dancers were coupled” (159/160). This scene is followed by a more reflective conversation between Lolly and a very gentlemanly Satan, dressed as a gamekeeper, her very own Mellors. Lolly explains her conversion to witchcraft in a quite sad, melancholy speech, only some of which I can offer here:

“One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around 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 by others….That’s why we become witches: to show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure… 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. I see them, wives and sisters of respectable men…there they are, child-rearing, house-keeping, hanging washed dishclothes on currant bushes, and for diversion each others silly conversation, and listening to men talking together in the way that men talk and women listen”.
There definitely is a poignancy and tenderness to this unexpected ending to what starts as such a conventional novel. Once I had taken time to comes to terms with the subversion of my expectations about the direction and tone of the novel, I liked it!