Lolly Willowes
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Lolly Willowes

3.81 of 5 stars 3.81  ·  rating details  ·  793 ratings  ·  120 reviews
In Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner tells of an aging spinster's struggle to break way from her controlling family—a classic story that she treats with cool feminist intelligence, while adding a dimension of the supernatural and strange. Warner is one of the outstanding and indispensable mavericks of twentieth-century literature, a writer to set beside Djuna Barnes a...more
Paperback, 222 pages
Published September 30th 1999 by NYRB Classics (first published 1926)
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Sylvia Townsend Warner, London, 1920s

When we meet Laura Willowes in the opening pages of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s first novel, Lolly Willowes (pub. 1926), her sister-in-law Caroline is distractedly offering for Laura to live in London with herself and Laura’s brother Henry, following the death of Laura’s father:

“Caroline spoke affectionately, but her thoughts were elsewhere. They had already journeyed back to London to buy an eiderdown for the bed in the small spare-room. If the washstand were m...more
This is a book about witches. But when I finally put this book down last night, I mostly just thought about my father.

I don’t think it is controversial to say that duty is a bit of an old fashioned word these days. Like honor. It’s one of those words you hear someone say and squirm uncomfortably, like you would if they said, “I’m hip to that,” without irony or asked where all the “hep cats” are partying while wearing a fedora. It’s not a word that works with a land of ironic t-shirts and Lady Ga...more
“Her disquiet had no relevance to her life. It arose out of the ground with the smell of the dead leaves: it followed her through the darkening streets; it confronted her in the look of the risen moon. ‘Now! Now!’ it said to her: and no more. The moon seemed to have torn the leaves from the trees that it might stare at her more imperiously.”

The book started off well-enough. It tells the story of Laura Willowes (“Lolly”), a very independent aging spinster (I dislike that word but that’s the word...more
Feb 08, 2010 Terence rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone
Recommended to Terence by: Nation book review of Summer Will Show
I wish I could write in such a way as to convey the rhythms and flavor of Lolly Willowes, which is only one of the things I fell in love with while reading this book. There was always a tendency to get so caught up in the prose that I forgot to follow along in the action and had to go back and reread passages (a “good” thing in this case).

I’ve tried to find a representative passage short enough to reproduce here so readers don’t imagine that I’m making things up but I can’t so I’ll just throw in...more
Nov 24, 2008 Kathryn rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: those interested in a wonderful "lost classic" and women's independence
Wow! A great book. Impossible to say much without giving away the treasures to be discovered in these pages. As the jacket says, "an upper-class spinster rebels against her role as the universal aunt" and how does she do this? With the help of the Devil. But not the devil we are often told of--this is a loving huntsman, who catches women's souls to save them from dying by the confines of society. This is not a sort of compelling, page-turner read but every time I decided to sit down with it, I w...more
Mar 03, 2014 Abby rated it 5 of 5 stars
Shelves: 2014
British writer Sylvia Townsend Warner is best known for the short stories that appeared over decades in The New Yorker. Even brief biographical blurbs usually reference her leftist political affiliations and sometimes her 40-year relationship with Valentine Ackland, a poet. “Lolly Willowes,” the first of her seven novels, was published in 1926 and was a bestseller both in the U.K. and in the U.S., where it was the first selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club.

“Even in 1902, there were some forwa...more
Christy B
That’s why we become witches: to show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure. It’s not malice, or wickedness - well, perhaps it is wickedness, for most women love that - but certainly not malice, not wanting to plague cattle and make horrid children spout up pins and - what is it? - “blight the genial bed.”


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 esca
My paternal grand-mother went back to school in her sixties. She had always wanted to be a lawyer, but a girl born in 1917 in a traditional family in Brazil was not to fulfill such ideas. She married at age 20 and had 4 children. Her youngest child died at age 2, and my grandfather died soon after. She was 47 when she became a widow – a year younger than I am now -and she came undone! Widowhood suited her better than married life. Her older children were married or already gone. She found a job...more
A brittle, earthy and magical tale about a woman who, as a spinster, is passed as a dependent from family member to family member. She, as the maiden aunt, is endlessly useful. Finally, Laura (or Lolly Willowes), being increasingly drawn to solitude, her talent for herbs, and the rhythms of nature, leaves her family for a small village. It is there that she sells her soul to Satan, the charming, mischievous shepherd of damned souls. The premise sounds dark, but the language is limber and careful...more
The title was playful, but I didn't understand the purpose of the book. Nothing interesting happened. Rather, nothing happened. A spinster moves to a place because she liked a flower that was grown there, her nephew moves there and she all of a sudden hates him for no reason, she sees a man who is the devil, she wakes up a witch and nothing happens because of it. What? On a positive note, it was short.
I didn't like it. It's slow, naive, and it thinks I'm both, too.

I mean. Laura moves to Great Mop during part two, though she only becomes a witch in the beginning of part three, and then she doesn't do anything special with her magic. Her nephew is attacked by wasps and his food is constantly ruined, and then eventually, the devil drives him away to get married. That's it.

There's no foreshadowing.

There's no serious hint that this woman is going to make a deal with the devil and become a witch, o...more
This was not what I expected at all. I thought it would a bit of a twee Barbara Pym type book about spinsterhood with a bit of whimsy thrown in with some witchcraft. I should have known really when I noticed on the book's blurb it says Woolf's 'A Room of One's Own' carries on this book's subject matter. I probably wouldn't go that far, but it does detail how maiden Aunts can slowly be made into slaves by their families under the guise of being 'useful' to society. This is the story of Aunt Lolly...more
The Wee Hen
This was a sweet little book and I very much liked it. I liked the slice of late Edwardian spinster life and I liked that Laura did as her heart bid her do. She was brave and strong and looked after herself. I had great sympathy with Laura.
I do think it's too bad that the lovely gentleman who granted Laura her freedom was called Satan because it's doing a bad service to witches; witchcraft and satan worship are too entirely discrete subjects. Warner did choose to include the bit about the horrib...more
"One doesn't become a witch to run round being harmful, or to run round 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 you by others"

The story of a woman who declines to conform to the expectations of her gender and class, knowing that custom, public opinion, the law, the church and the state all conspire to keep her in bondage to a dull and dependent life. She instead chooses a very different and ind...more
When I read Lolly Willowes, I was enchanted by the delicacy and humor of Sylvia Townsend Warner's prose, and I felt a kinship with the Lolly, a woman who refuses to recede into the background and lead a conventional life. To cut to the chase - she becomes a witch - that is, she gives herself over to the spirit of adventure. The pact she makes with the devil (who appears in the guise of a middle aged man) of the sort that feminists can easily understand.

This is a gentle book -- not as sensationa...more
I'd call this one - "The Story That Got Away". I liked it a lot, liked the character, the premise, the writing - everything, and then it just faded away. I loved the whole older-woman-takes-control-of-her-life-and-defies-all-conventions theme, and Warner had just placed Aunt Lolly in a sweet spot where she could've gotten into all kinds of trouble, when she backed off and let it slip away. It's too bad, the writing was very good, and Laura was an intriguing character.
Lori (Hellian)
What an enchanting little book! It beckoned me back after I almost gave up on it - first appearances are VERY deceiving. I feel absolutely and thrillingly bewitched. The only reason I'm not giving it 5 stars now is because that would seem too hasty, and out of joint with Lolly Laura. And the prose sparkles too.

Now I'm left in thoughtful ponder.
Meh. The plot was dull. Or rather, the idea wasn't bad, but the execution was dull. The characters couldn't save it. It would all be salvageable if the prose were luminous or intricate or bold or crazy funny. But it wasn't. Feminist classic? Ok, but there must be better.
Charles Dee Mitchell
Before the Willowes family moved from Dorchester to Wales and made a tidy fortune as brewers in the last half of the 19th century, their greatest claim to distinction was King George III’s commendation of great-great Aunt Salome’s puff pastry. Everard Willowes, patriarch of the second generation of brewing Willowes, had two sons and one daughter, Laura, born in 1874. His sons married and left Wales for London and the South. When his wife died, it was only natural that unmarried Laura would look...more
What starts out (a little inauspiciously, even) as a straightforward modernist-feminist story of independence, turns slowly but steadfastly to something more sinister, leaving the reader with deliciously weighty questions to turn over in one's mind. Warner's prose is rich and enveloping, and it does not take long for one to become comfortable and even quite cozy in the gentle rhythms and minutia of Lolly's genteel day-to-day existence. Yet all throughout one has the sense of a somewhat supernatu...more
“It is best as one grows older to strip oneself of possessions, to shed oneself downward like a tree, to be almost wholly earth before one dies.” (98)

Though I was initially really eager to delve into this unknown that I knew next to nothing about by an author I seemed to know even less about, it took me awhile to get into it. Published in 1926, and generally thought of as one of the definitive “feminist” novels, Lolly Willowes tells the story of Laura, or Aunt Lolly, a spinster who comes of age...more
Wow, oh, my, just read the GR reviews. How could this not be one of my 6 selections for HEIOTL (Howard's End Is On the Landing about reading books you own)?

Sometimes, gobbling the latest modern novel, you forget how good good writing can be. Sylvia Townsend Warner is a fine writer who spins a compelling tale with unique and varied characters. Lolly Willowes is a maiden aunt living with her brother and his family in London after growing up happily in the country."She spent her life being useful t...more
The back-cover blurb of my NYRB Classics edition of Lolly Willowes tries to paint this book as an incisive, probing account of "a single woman's struggle to break away from her controlling family." That it is not. Sylvia Townsend Warner's novel is teeming with charming Austen-esque descriptions of the silly external trappings of straitlaced aristocratic life in post-World-War-I England, but rarely does it delve with satisfying depth into the internal lives of its characters. The protagonist, 47-...more
While most people approach this novel as some sort of feminist story of liberation from an oppressive male-dominated society, I rather find that the main character, Laura Willowes, borders on the psychotic. Warner conflates Satan with some sort of savior Green Man and the witches' coven with the rural chapter of the Nature Conservancy for recluses. The socially awkward and misanthropic Laura, after somewhat nonchalantly making a pact with the Devil, inexplicably finds acceptance at the Sabbath D...more
Kristina A
Jan 01, 2009 Kristina A rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Kristina by: Sarah Waters, Kelly Hager
How could I not read a book recommended by Sarah Waters? We like all the same books, including her own!

Usually it doesn't bother me anymore to know what's going to happen in a book before I read it (that is, if I read a review or critical article that "spoils" a plot twist), but in the case of Lolly Willowes, I do wish I hadn't known, because it certainly would have been a big surprise. Then again, I might not have put it on my to-read list if I hadn't known. In any case, I enjoyed this delightf...more
"Lolly Willowes" is an endearing, down-to-earth fable of spinsterdom ambling towards a benign and solitary form of witchcraft. The eponymous character is a fresh and welcome addition to the world pantheon of lady characters: her quiet, self-sufficient demeanor and her underlying stubbornness reminded me of Robert Walser's protagonists (notably Von Gunten) while Warner's wry subaltern humor and impeccable sense of decorum (and her sense of where it fails to satisfy) also suggested affinities with...more
May 11, 2014 Amarie added it
I was trying to describe this to someone and all I came up with was: "A Room of One's Own... but better, because there are WITCHES."

Grace Harwood
This is the most beautifully written, lyrical, eerie, delicious tale of witchcraft in rural England - I cannot recommend it enough. The story concerns Laura Willowes ("Aunt Lolly") the maiden aunt of the family, confirmed spinster, who upon the death of her beloved father is exiled out to live with relatives and pretty much ends up being the "useful" aunt upon whom everyone comes to rely. An appendage in the family, Lolly is taken for granted by all, until she decides to do something for herself...more
Cynthia Dunn
"...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 at night!"

I found it hard to believe that this book had been written in 1926, it seemed so modern. Hurrah for women's rights! Oh, and I also want to move to a tiny cottage in the woods in England.
Beautiful book- one to add to my all time faves. This books starts out as a quiet, meditative tale of a woman who's life is passing her by. Very reminiscent of Persuasion- but without all the plot! In fact nothing much "happens" until- BAM! Here comes the Devil! Written in 1926, this book feels like the beginning of something new. It anticipates authors like Angela Carter and Kelly Link. A beautifully written call to arms for women. This is a book I won't forget.
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NYRB Classics: Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner 1 7 Oct 25, 2013 12:27PM  
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Sylvia Townsend Warner was born at Harrow on the Hill, the only child of George Townsend Warner and his wife Eleanora (Nora) Hudleston. Her father was a house-master at Harrow School and was, for many years, associated with the prestigious Harrow History Prize which was renamed the Townsend Warner History Prize in his honour, after his death in 1916. As a child, Sylvia seemingly enjoyed an idyllic...more
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“It is best as one grows older to strip oneself of possessions, to shed oneself downward like a tree, to be almost wholly earth before one dies.” 1085 likes
“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.” 4 likes
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