Lolly Willowes (1926)

by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Lolly Willowes was the first-ever selection of the Book of the Month Club, and it's not hard to imagine members of that mainstream club being bewildered by it. The novel starts out conventionally enough, but by the ending, Laura Willowes thinks herself a witch and has made a pact with the devil.

Yet no demonic deeds happen, nor does gentle Laura (Lolly to her family) turn into an evil being. Witchcraft can be taken as metaphor, Laura's best hope for asserting her independence. The devil obliges her desire to be left alone.

Laura's is a conventional, controlling family in early-20th-century England that can't fathom a single woman on her own. Laura drifts through 20 years in the home of her brother and sister-in-law before realizing she has to escape. "Great Mop," where she chooses to live, happens to be a village inhabited by witches.

As the story becomes stranger, Laura becomes more substantial. At the beginning she appears to be a passive creature with no purpose other than to be what her relatives want from her. But by the end she is giving long declarations about the oppression of women.

Lolly Willowes is quite a subversive book about self-definition. Independent single woman are not unusual in the Western world anymore, but Lolly Willowes still has a relevant message for everyone about resisting the pressure to be what others want and finding and being content with one's true self.


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