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Discussion: Lolly Willowes

Below are some questions for us to discuss about our first book, Lolly Willowes. Add your two pennyworth in the comments below!

What do you think the book is about?

What do you think the book is saying about women’s opportunities in twentieth-century Britain?

Much of the novel is set in the countryside. Is this important do you think? Would it work if set in a city? If not, why not?

How does the character Lolly Willowes change during the story? Did your feelings about her change?

How far do you feel that some women (then and now) could relate to Lolly Willowes?

What do you feel that Lolly Willowes has to say about love? And about marriage, and families?

Were you surprised by the turn of events in the book? What did you make of them?

What did you like most (and least) about the book?

Does this book make you want to read more by Sylvia Townsend Warner?

If you could ask the author one question about the book what would it be?

 

17 comments on “Discussion: Lolly Willowes

  1. I didn’t know anything about this book before reading it – I very much enjoyed the first part and then was completely taken aback by the second part. This was partly because, as someone who is an academic who studies and teaches early modern English witchcraft, it came as a bit of a shock to be confronted with my subject in what was meant to be a non-work read!

    I found the witch narrative quite bizarre at first and was waiting for it to be overturned as a symptom of Lolly’s overactive imagination (still a possibility in analysing the book I think). But, I was very much struck with Lolly’s conversation with the Devil toward the end of the book. Her discussion of why women become witches really struck me – it was so accurate, so close to how we now actually talk about early modern witchcraft. And so insightful into the female condition throughout the last 400 years.

    I am not sure what it says about me that I preferred the first, domestic part of the book rather than the second. I found I read the first half in a few hours but the second half took me several days of picking up and putting down again. Perhaps I found the witch part slightly strange and just a bit too weird to relate to – although I think it was a fascinating way of talking about women’s roles in 20th century Britain.

    I enjoyed Lolly’s description of feeling trapped and angry at her nephew – at her desire to just get away and be left alone but not being able to articulate this or to make people understand. I found this very powerful.

    Overall I enjoyed the book and would read more of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s work.

    Looking forward to hearing what other people think!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi,
    Not answering the questions directly but I wonder if anyone else found the first part of this book a bit of a slog. I had to force myself to read it. I’m sure if this hadn’t been for the book club to book would have joined the recycle pile. Then she moved out of London and ‘bang’ the narrative woke up the pace increased, and the story got interesting. I guess the author wanted to contrast the different periods in the protagonist’s life but even so, there must be a line between contrast and boredom.
    This sounds as if I didn’t enjoy the book, I did, but I thought the first part would have benefited from a good editor.
    Moving on to the witches. I thought this was interesting. The attitudes expressed where not what I would have expected considering the date of publication. (my lack of knowledge I admit) I also thought the comments about the boy pretending to be the devil were revealing. Everyone knew but it was convenient to let him play the game – a way for ‘acceptable’ extra marital sex maybe.

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    • Michael Davies

      I agree with Bridget. I would have stopped reading Lolly part way through the first part if it wasn’t for the book club and the fact that my friend is going to read it and attend the meeting. I’m glad I didn’t as the second and third parts were engrossing, especially the third part.

      The line about women’s imaginations explains their need to embrace Lolly’s devil. “Women have such vivid imaginations, and lead such dull lives”. Is the concord with the devil, the devil as kitten or gardener, The Sabbath indeed the entire discussion real or a world the character goes to to escape the comfortable boredom of an upper middle class woman such as Lolly was preordained to live in? (Sorry for the long sentence).

      I found that there were some excellent descriptive passages in part one, Sally Waters quotes from it in her introduction, but overall “a slog” as Bridgett found. Part two engaged the interest but part three Sen he mind off in all sorts of directions.

      I’ve looked on line for other books by Ms Warner, they are plentiful but her poetry with Valentine Ackland is incredibly expensive. There is an excellent second hand bookshop in Liverpool, I live in Liverpool, called Henry Bohn. The proprietor tells me that Ms Warner’s novels and short stories are very popular and sell quickly. Her poetry is scarce but he sells it quickly when it comes in. All of which surprises me as I hadn’t heard of her or Ms Auckland until I received the reading list. In fact the only name I recognised was George Sand. I’ve never read any of her work either and only know her from history A level, 1972/74!

      Mike Davies

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  3. I found it easier to empathise with Laura in the first half of the book in that we have all been in situations where people try to pigeon hole us because of our age, sex or position. It was familiar territory. Laura in the second part is a ‘new creature’ someone who has broken the mould. She is a more complex individual and I don’t fully understand what she does or why she does it. She is therefore, a more exciting, but unpredictable character.A person allowing their desires and emotions free rein. I haven’t read the end yet, and am slightly perturbed as to what she will get involved with next, but love reading about the sense of sheer freedom she is feeling.

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  4. Cornelie Usborne

    I think Townsend Warner prepares us from the beginning for the new independent Laura in the second part by showing the hiatus between her family’s perception of her and her own: Although she also feels like `a piece of family property forgotten in the will’ she retained the ability to go against convention and foil her family’s plans. Caroline thinks of her as `a gentle creature’ who would soon `fit into her new home’ but Laura herself sees herself as `an inmate of the tall house in Apsley Terrace where hitherto she had only been a country sister-in-law on a visit’. Caroline perceives her as `sallow’ with `pale grey eyes… paler…than ever’ and un- fashionably dressed, but Laura had absentmindedly `picked a red geranium flower, and was staining her left wrist with the juice of its crushed petals’. This reminded her of her youth when `she had stained her pale cheeks’ and when her reflection in the greenhouse tank `showed a dark shadowy Laura, very dark and smooth like the lady’ in the Leonardo painting. Laura in her youth was animated and spirited, especially as her father’s companion and her independent thinking was clear in her total indifference to `the need of getting married’ and as a consequence she remained `insensible to the duty of every marriageable young woman to be charming’. Caroline, however, was mean-minded and bigoted and only felt pity for the `unused virgin beside her’. When faced with Caroline’s last effort to get her hitched Laura `chose to indulge her fantasy, and to wreck in five minutes the good intentions of as many months’ by suggesting he could be a werewolf going out `on a dark windy night and worry sheep’. All this was no doubt to prepare the gentle reader for the dark events of part 2.
    Laura becoming a witch, taking part in the sabbath and striking up a relationship with Satan is largely symbolic and reveals her inner life, her dreams, erotic desires and a wish to have a respectful rapport with a `dark knight’ who does not demand control over her. It is exhilarating to see this apparently sedate maiden-aunt revel in her new freedom to be and do exactly as she pleases. This is a feminist sentiment which echoed that of many other women who felt liberated by their experiences in the Great War. But Townsend Warner goes much further by giving us a tale of a visceral dark fantasy.
    The many nature references to Laura’s inner life are striking, especially the recurrent theme of fallen leaves and dark foliage. Not quite sure what this means over and above her rootedness in the countryside and her determination to escape from city life.
    I loved the author’s ironic tone and her satirical social commentary on the Willowes’ narrow and predictable middle-class conventions.

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  5. I agree with the reader’s comment above that Laura identifies with the countryside on many different levels. She compares herself to ‘ripening corn’ P77 and exclaims ‘ It is best as one grows older to strip oneself of one’s possessions to shed oneself downward like a tree’ P107. At the beginning of autumn she feels unsettled . The springboard for Laura’s change of direction are the chrysanthemums she sees in the shop. When she makes her move from the city she chooses to learn the countryside of Great Mop by heart.P111. Moreover, Laura is angry when Titus arrives and feels a similar bond with his surroundings.Laura thinks the countryside feels betrayed by her bringing Titus to it and believes it is closing itself to her.
    One of the discussion questions asks if it important that the book is set in the countryside. I would say yes, definitely . The contrast between the city and the country mirrors the difference between Laura and her family. Caroline artificially preserves things forcing them into an unnatural shape. Henry has the garden gravelled over and the city in Laura’s mind is full of the hardness of men.London gives Laura chilblains and the water is hard. So, no I don’t think the novel would work if was set in the city.

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  6. I really loved the first half of this book. Or, well, I’m not sure loved is quite the word I recognised that feeling of closeness to a place and a situation and the how easy it is to let yourself be pushed and pulled into a place (and person) that isn’t what you want.

    I kept wanting to see Laura go back to making food and pickles and really being part of the countryside and although I loved the end of the book I kept wanting her to seem more like her old self. Though as I type that I realise that might make me just as bad as all the rest of Laura’s relatives!

    I did love the way Laura reacted to her nephew showing up- that desperate need to be alone even from people you love was so well described as an introvert.There were all sorts of little details that I’ve found coming back to me after reading.

    I think if I was to ask Sylvia Townsend Warner one question it would be whether she always new the supernatural would be so real and present in this story.

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  7. I enjoyed this book, and I liked the sense of darkness in the countryside. It reminded me a bit of The Witches of Eastwick, but I found this more enjoyable, thoughtful and Satan is more sympathetic in this. Likely that’s why there’s a quote from John Updike on the cover.

    I felt sorry for Laura at the beginning when he father died and she had to leave the life she enjoyed, but at least she got a new freedom later on in life. And while some of her rant to Satan at the end past me by a bit, I quite liked that she got fired up about women being pigeon-ed holed into roles and not being left to their own devices and personalities.

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  8. btw. I bulk brought the books for the next few months and now cannot find which book i should be reading next. can someone tell me please.

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  9. Sue Howell

    Enjoyed this book far more than I expected . The first part was full of witty observations about society and how Lolly was treated being a maiden aunt . I found the second part a little peculiar and was not completely convinced that she became a witch . I think Lolly had an affinity with nature and felt that she could be herself in the countryside with no expectations from society.

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  10. I know what you mean Sue. The witchcraft bit seemed a bit of a bolt on idea. Laura did feel a sense of oneness with nature, but I felt she was more of a druid than a witch. She did not feel at home in the Witches Sabbath .Her conversation with the Devil seemed to be one of two equals, an exchange of opinions rather than a Master talking to a disciple.

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  11. A comment from one of our readers:

    I think that Lolly Willowes can be read in many ways.

    The story can be interpreted as a re- telling of STW’s story, of her own life; her feeling of being in the right place when she met her partner (Valentine Ackland) [the devil in disguise?] and lived with her (for decades) in a small Dorset village: breaking conventions by “going over to the dark side”!

    Or it can be read as a portal; a way in to the lives of middle-class, single women in the past century– how they were absolutely dependant on the men in their lives. How their lack of opportunities and education, limited their agency and allowed them only to’ live little lives’, unless they leaped into the great unknown – took courage, and made their own decisions with some great difficulty. Desperate lives leading to desperate solutions.

    Or, it can just be read as an interesting quite fanciful tale, with a slightly bizarre ending – almost as “see what happens when a silly single woman spends too much on beautiful flowers and doesn’t mind who she speaks to” …

    I loved the book, and found STW’s writing subtle, funny and quite lyrical – and painted such real, intimate portrait of a believable heroine. Consorting with the devil, she may have been, but there seemed no demonic retribution lurking – it all fitted so well with the sylvan surroundings, the cosy accommodation, the quaint villagers… a good resolution which I found fitting and unsurprising.

    Yes! Great choice for the first book in the Emotions Book club.

    Joanne Scott, Penzance, Cornwall UK

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  12. A comment from one of our readers:

    My attempts at the questions are as follows:

    1. What is the book about?

    I think that the discussion with The Devil is at the heart and holds the purpose of the book. It concerns the situation women found themselves in in 1920s Britain notwithstanding changes such as The Married Women’s Property Act, (referenced at page 9 “Feme sole, you know, and feme couverte, and all that rot”), and the extension of the vote to include some women. It starts in earnest at page 192 in Part Three.

    “There are warlocks to, remember”.
    “I can’t take warlocks seriously, not as a class. It is we witches who count. We have more need of you. Women have such vivid imaginations, and lead such dull lives. Their pleasure in life is soon over; they are so dependent upon others and their dependence soon becomes a nuisance…

    …”When I think of witches, I seem to see them 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, chapel members, and blacksmiths, and small farmers, and Puritans. I see them in places like…there they are, child rearing, house keeping, hanging washed dishcloths on current bushes; and for diversion each other’s silly conversation, and listening to men talking together in the way that men talk and women listen. Quite different to the way women talk, and men listen, if they listen at all. And all the time being thrust further down into dullness when the one thing all women hate is to be thought dull…Nothing for them (on a Sunday) except subjugation and plaiting their hair. And on the way back they listened to more talk…and when they got back, there were the potatoes to be cooked…that sort of thing settles down on one like a fine dust…there is a dreadful kind of dreary immortality about being settled down on by one day after another. And they think how they were young once… If they could be passive and unnoticed…But they must be active, and still unnoticed…

    Is it true you can poke the fire with a stick of dynamite In perfect safety? … Even if it isn’t true of dynamite, it’s true of women. They know they are dynamite, and long for the concussion that may justify them. Some may get religion, then they are alright, I expect. But for the others, for so many, what can there be but witchcraft? That strikes them real. Even if others still find them safe and usual, and go on poking with them, they know in their hearts how dangerous, how incalculable, how extraordinary they are… Even if they do nothing with their witchcraft, they know it is there – ready….That’s why we become witches: to show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe buisness, to satisfy our passion for adventure. It’s not malice…not wanting to plague cattle and make horrid children spout up pins and “blight the genial bed”… one doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful or…helpful…It’s to escape all that – to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others…”.

    I apologise for quoting extensively, and for missing chunks out which others may think I shouldn’t have. I’ve tried to summarise but I didn’t do it very well.

    In Part One the lively girl is “subdued into young lady hood” doomed to live in a stultifying comfort under her brother’s wing. Whilst both Bridget and I found this part somewhat dull reading it is essential to the issue she was going on to address.

    Part Two is a transition where some thing can happen which wouldn’t have if she’d stayed with Henry and his family.
    In Part Three she makes her compact with The Devil. Why The Devil? Why witchcraft?
    Religion underpins patriarchy? “Some may get religion, then they are alright”. The Devil is counter?
    Witchcraft is covert and the women likened to sticks of dynamite are covert and awaiting the concussion which will justify them.

    Witches have been purged in the past. Women seeking equality have been condemned.
    Witcraft is subversive and the status quote needed subverting?
    Sarah Waters said in her introduction, “If women, Townsend Warner implies, are denied access to power through legitimate means, they will turn instead to illegitimate methods”.
    I haven’t strayed from Sarah Waters’ analysis. I basically agree with her. The author would have had the example of the suffragette and suffragist movements. (Whether the suffragettes hastened or delayed female suffer age is not our issue here. The suffragettes would have been an example which may have been an influence.) I’m not convinced that the book is about access to power. It may be implicit. It is undeniably a prerequisite. I think that the author is simply saying that women are being denied the rewarding lives they could and should be allowed to live. All women at some level know that. The knowledge and experience is stored up inside and waiting to emerge and it will. It is irrelevant whether it is viewed as “harmful..or helpful”. It is an entitlement to have, “a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others”. In other words the arguements about whether a woman should be a housewife at home or at work, whether The Church is right or wrong about women’s role is irrelevant. That’s a matter of personal preference. She is proclaiming the right for each individual woman to “dole out” to herself the life she chooses to lead.

    The other questions.

    Women’s opportunities?

    Limited and not fulfilling.

    Countryside versus city?

    The break from the city to country is a device. When Lolly was a happy tomboy she lived in the countryside. Her subjugation into young lady hood started there but for twenty years it is associated with the city. Going back to the countryside could bee seen as Lolly retracing her steps to the point on the road where her life took a wrong turn and this time taking the right one. If I’m right about the purpose of the novel then of course the naritive could be altered to enable the point to be made in a city setting. In this book the device worked on all sorts of levels. It is a stereotype of city people to think that country people can be suspicious of outsiders. That the women of the village acknowledged Lolly but no more before they walked up the path to the field would be viewed by Lolly and us in that context. She would remain “outside the secret”. That she might consider one day going with them is natural. It took on a different and unexpected meaning when she eventually did.

    How would some women then and now relate to Lolly?

    The world Lolly lived in is unfamiliar to most Western women. However for those who wear the burqa she may resonate or be resented. I suspect that women in 1920s would instantly recognise what she was about. They would either agree or disagree depending on their viewpoint.

    Love, marriage and families?

    Not sure it is saying much. I think the focus is on someone who wants to plough their own furrow. Henry’s marriage to Caroline is seemingly a prosperous union. Whether that has left them unfulfilled or not is unclear. Perhaps it is hinted at. Presumably she is one of those who got religion and is therefore “alright”. Not a ringing endorsement.
    After helping Mr Saunter all April, “..she felt perfectly free to wander away and forget him once more, certain of finding him as likeable and well liked as before whenever she might choose to return”. Whether this is anything to do with love I doubt.

    She cannot stop being a caring aunty to Titus. She suffers his presence in silence when she would prefer he wasn’t there. Whether that is intended as a familial or female condition is conjecture on the evidence.

    Surprise?

    If I hadn’t read the introduction I would have been surprised.

    Like best?

    The compact and conversation with The Devil. It opened the window to the book’s purpose, in my view.

    Read more?

    Yes. I’ve asked the owner of Henry Bohn, (second hand book shop in Liverpool), to set any of her books aside.

    One question?

    Why did she give The Sabbath an unhappy ending?

    Mike Davies

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  13. Have been meaning to write down my thoughts on this for a while; I bought the book in January already, and as soon as I’d got past the first part, couldn’t put it down. Overall, I absolutely loved the book, and have been recommending to everyone ever since.

    So, like some of the above commentators, I too enjoyed the book a great deal more once Lauren had shed her ‘Aunt Lolly’ persona and left it back in London. It was wonderfully uplifting reading about how she thrived and enjoyed her own, and nature’s, company once she had made her decision. This of course speaks to many women’s struggle of not quite fitting in, or not wanting to fit in, the particular role bestowed upon them by societal norms and expectations – as indeed today as well (and no, I do not agree with the above commentator that this is only something women in burqas can fully relate to…). But even more generally, I think many introverts – speaking from my personal sense, anyway – can relate to the freedom and pure joy of being on your own; the silence and sensorial experiences it allows. STW’s descriptions of nature are beautiful and enjoyable to read (whereas, the London-part of the book was in my view, fittingly, gray and dull and lifeless).

    I think, apart from the lovely story and romanticisation of nature, there were a couple of things that struck me as really interesting. I was surprised that she did not react differently to her nephew’s arrival, for example, but seemingly put back on that Auntie-Lolly-mask (regardless of what went on behind it). The Sabbath was another surprising turn of events; I expected her to somehow ‘finally find her community’, but instead STW gave what was a wholly unromantic image of the silliness of the townspeople/witches and warlords. Having read the book blurb, knowing some kind of witchery would be coming, I thought it would surely be either the ‘scary’ witch or the romanticised one – neither of which I found here; Lolly was surprising in just how ‘ordinary’ she seemed! And this was why I think I ended up loving the book so much… And, of course, her interactions with the Devil – and Vinegar! – were unlike anything I have read before. I couldn’t help imagining some strong women I knew there, having a very matter-of-factly conversation with this man they’d happened to meet in the woods. Anyway, my copy of the book has a range of bookmarks throughout, indicating profound snippets and aphorisms. For example, her description of the nephews love of nature as a ‘masculine’ love, a possessive one, was interesting (sorry I don’t have the page number here!).

    I realise none of this really answers the questions directly in order; however, I think it does cover much of it. The above comment about the book potentially being about a lot of things is something I agree with, and which is what characterises a really good book anyway – it touches on a range of issue that many can relate to on different levels. It also draws a clear picture of women’s opportunities, and normative judgement if they attempted to stray beyond those. Nevertheless, Lolly did manage to leave spinsterhood behind, which I imagine is more than what women in earlier books on the reading list will have been able to (already bought the next!). Anyway, to close, I would most definitely love to read more by STW! And if I were to ask her something, it would be wonderful to know what *she* thinks the book was about – and if she would have thought the meaning has evolved with time too…

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  14. I’m not sure I can add anything to these lovely assessments of Lolly. I will report that this is the first bit of fiction (non-science literature) I’ve read in quite some time and it was great fun to get lost in the language of the day.

    Like several of you, I found the beginning a bit of a slog, but largely because Laura’s life was being described from more of a third person’s objective view. She was quite literally an object – like the forgotten furniture in the family estate.Then she came alive as a sentient and liberated subject in part 2 – replete with her own idiosyncratic, meandering stumbles of self-discovery, the vital blossoming of pent but vibrant potential.

    As a secular humanist, I must confess that the whole witch thing was – at first – bothersome to me. But later, I came to appreciate the many layers and nuance it provided, including as someone suggested, how it might symbolize her own imaginative, sardonic, Walter-Mitty sort of lens upon the world.

    Ultimately, for me, the book was about attaining the freedom and empowerment to be the kind of person she wanted to be in all her quirky glory, such innate human needs being as natural and non-negotiable as the country breezes and moonlight shadows – even for women. Indeed, she found the freedom to explore the dark intuitive transpersonal and magical depths of her own nature, the sacred feminine dark Goddess creative capacities associated with “witches”. (The awe or fear inspiring dimension of human being Jung described as the anima in men, long stifled by overly exaggerated gender expectations that are as emotionally crippling to men as they are dis-empowering to women.) That such freedom to be a full and complete human being on her own terms be attainable only through Faustian compacts, spoke volumes about the value of the sacred feminine afforded women in the day. That the story may also reflect Silvia’s own journey of finding love and full self-expression in a lesbian relationship seems reasonable and likely.
    Many thanks to you all for this lovely opportunity.

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