Why you need to read this 90-year-old novel about a spinster witch


Sylvia Townsend Warner was a young British poet living in postwar England when she wrote a story about a witch. Lolly Willowes, Townsend’s debut novel, is an eerie, smart tale of a woman who rejects marriage in favor of moving to a quaint countryside town and becoming a witch.

Lolly Willowes was released in 1926, a year after Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and though its story carries some remnants of that time, its tone and moral stance hold almost impossibly modern elements.

Laura “Lolly” Willowes, the novel’s protagonist, is an aging, unmarried woman who goes to live with her brother and his family after her father dies. Quickly, she becomes an indispensable member of the household, and Aunt Lolly to her niece and nephew. Though she has a room of her own in the house, Lolly realizes that she doesn’t have the space to be the woman she knows she is. In a moment of pure rebellion, she leaves.

Lolly Willowes is a book on the edge of fantasy. It is realism with a twist: a woman without opportunity or prospect given a chance to create magic. In this aspect, the book certainly fits in firmly among other novels of its day: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, for example, or Rebecca West’s Harriet Hume.

March is a month dedicated to women’s history. Like many brilliant women before her, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s career faded quickly after her initial fame. Her work appears on very few college syllabuses. She is not talked about with the revere of a Woolf or an Austen or a Plath. Though many lovers of literature read and adore Townsend Warner, her existence as an author has been all but forgotten by the general public. As Joanna Russ wrote in her book How to Suppress Women’s Writing:

Of those [women writers] who are not ignored completely, dismissed as writing about the “wrong” things, condemned for impropriety…condemned for writing the wrong genre, or out of genre, or simply joked about… it is still possible to say quite sincerely: She wrote it, but she doesn’t fit in. Or, more generously: She’s wonderful, but where on earth did she come from?

Lolly Willowes is a book that feels so fresh and modern that it could have been written ten years ago or last week. And it was a book that, at the time of its publication, was pretty popular. Until the 1960s, the manuscript of Lolly Willowes was on display in the New York Public Library next to manuscripts by Virginia Woolf and William Thackeray. Only in recent memory has Townsend Warner’s talent become steadily clouded by that of her contemporaries, many of them men.

As Lolly herself says in the novel:

Is it true that 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. But they know they are dynamite, and long for the concussion that may justify them. Some may get religion, then they’re all right, I expect. But for the others, for so many, what can there be but witchcraft?

In 1929, Lolly Willowes was chosen as the inaugural title for the Book of the Month Club, and became very famous mostly among American and French audiences. Townsend Warner is often remembered for her historical work. Despite being a prolific and admired writer during her day, audiences have largely lost touch with this brilliant, subversive writer and her work. The Guardian called her “one of the most shamefully under-read great British authors of the past 100 years.”

Townsend Warner went on to write six more novels, more than a dozen short stories, and two collections of poetry.  Much of her work carries the same themes: elements of the supernatural, a fascination with women’s inner lives, and an unwillingness to play it safe. Her novels are smart, but entertaining. Her characters take risks and don’t abide by the rules society sets for them. Much like Townsend Warner herself, a lesbian and a communist, Lolly Willowes refuses to be complacent.

“The one thing all women hate,” Lolly tells the Devil late in the book, “is to be thought dull.”

Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.

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