“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.”
After the death of her father, 28-year-old Laura ‘Lolly’ Willowes goes to live with her brother, her sister-in-law and their two daughters in London. There, she becomes a sort of nanny, always busy with very few moments for herself. She is seen as somewhat of an eccentric because she never really expresses any sort of interest in getting a husband. But after years of good services, she decides to be in charge of the money that her father left her (which her brother had been responsible for so far) and rent a room in a village in the Chiltern Hills. There, for the first time in her life, as a forty something, she leads the life she wants to have and has no one to tell her what is proper to do. Her nephew, Titus, falls in love with the place, too, and decides to move in with his aunt. Laura, feeling her independence slipping through her fingers, becomes a witch and after a series of misfortunes, Titus goes back to London leaving his aunt on her own, doing whatever she feels like doing.
“The night was at her disposal. She might walk back to Great Mop and arrive very late; or she might sleep out and not trouble to arrive till to-morrow. Whichever she did Mrs Leak would not mind. That was one of the advantages of dealing with witches; they do not mind if you are a little odd in your ways, frown if you are late for meals, fret if you are out all night, pry and commiserate when at length you return. Lovely to be with people who prefer their thoughts to yours, lovely to live at your own sweet will, lovely to sleep out all night!”
I first heard about this novel in the amazing How to Be a Heroine, by Samantha Ellis. I was obviously very intrigued by the story of this middle-aged woman turning to witchcraft to gain independence. It is a very intriguing story, indeed, but not one about wizardry per say. Most of the novel tells Laura’s childhood and family history, and her life in London with her brother. Only about a quarter of the book is devoted to Laura’s life at Great Mop, the little hamlet where she finds shelter from everybody.
To me, this story reads more like a proto-feminist manifesto. Laura’s loving father taught her many thing, but not exactly how to be the perfect Edwardian housewife (the story starts in 1906, when Laura is 28). He shared with her many things that have led her to be her own person. And so the book is about Laura’s quest to be her own, on her own. Everyone who enjoys time on their own will understand Laura. Imagine your life if the only time you could have for yourself was at night, when you sleep. It would drive you insane, actually. But her sister-in-law, Caroline is very active and busy and never leaves a moment to rest to herself or Laura. So during one of her errands, Laura stops at this grocery shop and falls into a reverie and dreams of being in an orchard, where she can enjoy nature on her own.
A few hours later, she has made her decision to move away from London… on her own. Everybody is rather angry and astonished by this strange decision but here she goes anyway. At Great Mop, she is alone or at very best lonely, and she loves it. She feels young again and reconnect with some habits she had in her youth – when she was living in Somerset with her dad. It seems like a rather drastic decision nowadays that, in order to have time on your own, you have to leave everything and everyone behind… or is it? I can relate to Laura, although my move was quite the opposite of hers: I escaped my small French village to settle down in London, and there only, away from my friends and family, did I manage to find some peace of mind. Obviously, I did not have to wonder on what people would think because it is now pretty common for a woman to move away on her own. But Laura, in the end, did not have to face that problem either because at Great Mop, nobody really asked her questions on where she would spend her day or why she would roam the fields at dusk.
Three years later, Virginia Woolf asked for a room of her own to write, but in Lolly Willowes, Susan Townsend Warner is asking for a life of her own in order to actually live, and escape this state of merely living that most women – especially single – could have. As a result, this novel is very moving because it just asks for one simple thing, a thing that every human being should be entitled to have.
“Women have such vivid imaginations, and lead such dull lives. Their pleasure in life is so soon over; they are so dependent upon others, and their dependence so soon becomes a nuisance.”
This book is also very moving because it praises a simple life, turned towards nature and simple relationships. It is quite easy to feel close to Laura because she is a very normal person, but she is also surprising in the strength of her character – which, obviously, is really enjoyable. I loved how she was just not interested in having a husband. Not because she didn’t like the men she had met, but just because she didn’t feel the need to be married. She remarks the handsome figure of her young neighbour farmer, but there is never desire for more. She also explains how she particularly liked to dance with a young woman during the Sabbath, and that may be the only hint at a sexuality. The author was a lesbian and she lived with a woman, a writer as well. However, I like to see Laura as an asexual (although the term would be quite anachronistic, I think); and having a character with no desire for sexual or romantic relationships, even today, is somehow groundbreaking.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Lolly Willowes and would recommend it to absolutely anyone. The only problematic issue for me was that Laura got helped by Satan, who has the appearance of a man, and she recognises that she belongs to him, now that she’s a witch. Although this “man” helps her in a way that makes her independent, I couldn’t help but to think that it would have been amazing if she didn’t have to belong to anybody or anyone.
However, this is still a very modern and original book that won’t leave any reader indifferent. I have finished this story a while ago, now, and I am still thinking of it, I have so many questions! And that, I think, is a sign of a great book.
“I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded. If they could be passive and unnoticed, it wouldn’t matter. But they must be active, and still not noticed. Doing, doing, doing, till mere habit scolds at them like a housewife, and rouses them up – when they might sit in their doorways and think – to be doing still!”