This surprising gem of a book, which happens to have been the very first “Book of the Month Club” selection (1926), came to my attention through the delightful New York Times “By the Book” series. Every week, an author or other famous person is interviewed about their favorite books and authors, their least favorite, etc. About a month ago, Helen Macdonald (author of H is for Hawk) was the subject and she mentioned Lolly Willowes as a favorite book. Having never heard of it, I looked it up and decided to give it a go. Even though it’s still early in the year, I suspect that Lolly Willowes will be one of my favorite books of CBR8. Set in the early 20th century in London and in the English countryside, it tells the story of a woman who defies convention and fights for her independence in a most unorthodox way.
Laura is the youngest child in a wealthy family whose estate, Lady Place, sits in an idyllic countryside. Laura’s two much older brothers go off to school and on with their lives while she stays at home, much adored by her father, reading books and roaming the countryside as she will. Laura recognizes that she is not much for social life, doesn’t care for parties and has no desire to marry. She is perfectly happy until her father dies, and her brothers determine that Laura, now age 27, must go live with her brother Henry, his wife Caroline and their two young daughters, who call her “Aunt Lolly.” Laura has lost her home, her personal space, her freedom to do as she pleases, and even her name. Her identity is no longer Laura, an independent person, but Aunt Lolly; she is defined by her connection to the family. While Henry and his family are never cruel or mean to Laura, and they love her in their way, they are creatures of habit — dull and predictable habit — and Laura deeply misses the countryside. Every fall she feels a deep yearning to return there. Years pass, the children grow up, a world war is fought and the world changes, but not for Laura who is now 47 years old. But something has changed in Laura. In the autumn and winter of 1921, her desire to return to the countryside grows more powerful and a sense of connection to the earth overtakes her while visiting a small florist and grocer’s shop. She purchases a guidebook to the Chilterns and resolves that she will move there, to the town of Great Mop (pop. 227). Her nephew Titus supports her plan but the rest of the family is aghast and refuses to take her seriously.
…she was too old now to begin living by herself. It was not as if she had had any experience of life; she had passed from one guardianship to another: it was impossible to imagine Laura fending for herself.
Laura knows her brother views her as a helpless child, despite the fact that she is 47, and that her sister-in-law pities her as an “unused virgin.” She also knows that the rest of the world shares their views, but she is adamant about going. Eventually, her brother Henry must confess that he has invested her inheritance poorly and that there is less money for Laura than expected, but Laura is not to be put off. She follows through with her plan and takes up lodging in Great Mop. She gets on well with her landlady, Mrs. Leak, and enjoys her walks about the village and its environs. The other villagers are cordial if somewhat reserved and they seem to keep odd hours. Laura doesn’t think much of this at all. She is truly happy and feels herself changing for the better, becoming humbler and more simple. She feels less resentment about her family but has a hard time with forgiveness:
…the injury they had done her was not done by them. If she were to start forgiving she must needs forgive Society, the Law, the Church, the History of Europe, the Old Testament ….
Laura sees, and shows the reader, that the world and all of history have been unfair toward women like her, that they have infantilized women and prevented them from living full, happy lives of independence.
Laura seems to have found her joy, but then convention rears its ugly head and threatens it all again. Her nephew Titus, now a grown young man, visits Laura and falls so in love with Great Mop that he decides that he will live there, too! He inserts himself so easily into life at Great Mop, as he could have done anywhere because he is a man, and seems to get on with everyone so swimmingly. Laura is in danger of becoming Aunt Lolly again forever. Titus is always there, following her on her walks, taking away this special thing that was hers and hers alone. The reader feels Laura’s frustration and shares it. It is then that Laura, shouting her misery to the woods, finds help from a most unlikely quarter — Satan himself.
The events that follow are often rather humorous, but even more importantly they present a feminist manifesto and a condemnation of the world’s treatment of women. Keeping in mind that this book came out in 1926, which is contemporary with the events of the book, it is all the more impressive. Laura finds she is unsurprised to be a witch; it seems the natural thing for women to be, in her opinion.
[Women] know they are dynamite, and long for the concussion that may justify them.
One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either…. It’s to escape all that — to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others….
Laura’s conversations with Satan might actually cause the reader to feel some sympathy for the devil! Honestly, reading this novel I couldn’t help but wonder if it would even get published today without people screaming about the witch and devil business. And that’s a shame because this is a wonderful, thoughtful novel. The real evil shown is the ignorance of a world that pushes women down and is oblivious to how extraordinary they are; a world that has demonized women who were intelligent, unusual outsiders like Laura. Or like author Sylvia Townsend Warner, a woman who was a student of 15th and 16th century music, an editor of Tudor Church Music, a poet, a novelist, and biographer of T.H. White. I am curious as to what sexist nonsense she must have faced in her life and how she overcame it. This is an entertaining novel with a feminist heart. How wonderful that the Book of the Month Club selected it. It’s still an excellent read. Two thumbs up!