And Then I Read: LOLLY WILLOWES by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Cover art: Witches’ Heads (detail) by August Neter, 1919.

This book was chosen as a favorite by Neil Gaiman. I own and like two other books by the author and decided to try it, her first novel.

Laura Willowes is a shy child of late nineteenth century England who loves country walks in and around her family estate, collecting herbs and making herbal teas. The family owns a brewery and is secure enough for her to not worry about money. As she becomes a young woman, prospects for marriage seem slim, something she seems unconcerned about. Laura is happy with her life, and takes care of her father in his later years. On his death, Laura is moved to her brother’s home in London almost without her having a say in the matter, and for twenty years she becomes a household helper and nanny for her brother’s children. Laura, renamed Lolly by those children, comes to feel increasingly stifled by her life and duties, and longs to return to the countryside. A visit to a florist is the final spark. She decides to move to the small, isolated village of Great Mop as if by chance choice, though the choice proves to be an important one. Laura’s family is against this move, but she stubbornly carries out her plans, renting a room in a cottage in Great Mop, and beginning a new life.

Great Mop is a strange place, and Laura gradually begins to uncover its secret life and make new friends there. That process is interrupted when her nephew Titus decides to also move to the town to become a writer, and soon has Laura under the thumb of family obligations again. What Laura does in her desperation makes up the final section of the book, and is the only part involving an element of fantasy. Laura makes a pact and becomes a witch.

This book is much more about the place of women in English life than about magic, and that surprised me a bit. In fact, it ended just when I thought it was about to really begin. I enjoyed reading it all the same. Laura is a type of woman I know from my own family, and one that exists in many families. The unmarried helper, assumed to be always ready and willing to do whatever is asked of her by family. It’s a role unmarried men can usually escape, but women often can’t, at least in times past. Perhaps that’s changing through the influence of writers like Warner and the feminist movement. The writer’s own life was unconventional, and this book must represent many of her own feelings, I think. It’s well written, but I would have enjoyed seeing the story go further. It certainly kept me thinking about what might have happened next.

Recommended.

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