Kelly's Reviews > Lolly Willowes

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
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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 Gaga. But it is still around, and fashionable, in some places. The military is the first place that comes to mind. The Catholic church is another. The third is the lock-step, precedence obsessed Republican party that nominated John McCain. I grew up in a household defined by all three of these things, in a state that was defined by their opposites. It’s fair to say that “duty” was therefore the defining characteristic that seperated out my childhood from most of my friends. I don’t think I called it by that name then. Mostly I called it by the name “Catholic guilt,” with a knowing smile- that was the way to quickly explain it to friends who were mostly atheist and had, accordingly, sort of a romanticized horrid image of what that meant.

All of this came from my father. His defining characteristic is “duty”. I can’t think of a better way to describe it, and before I read Lolly Willowes, I didn’t have that word either. My dad is one of the best people I know. He always, unerringly, puts other people first. To a fault. He tries to be sensitive about other peoples’ opinions and feelings, always remembers occasions, and when you argue with him he makes you feel bad for disagreeing with him because his reasoning is always so moral and he’s clearly put time into formulating whatever opinion he’s going to give you, and he takes it seriously. As you can imagine, our political discussions did not (and still don’t) end well for me- I always end up sounding like a petulant child somehow and he’s still “father,” patient, kind, waiting for me to figure it out. Like “Aunt Lolly,” my dad strongly believes in his role as “father.” If he was in the middle of a conversation and all of a sudden my brother or I did something or said something that was wrong in any way, he would stop, put on the mask and say, “Now, Kelly, remember to be kind and…” like if he didn’t correct me for making fun of someone’s shoes I was going to turn out to be a bad person who kills kittens and it was going to be his fault somehow. If this makes him sound cold or distant- he wasn’t at all, he just had such a deeply ingrained sense of this duty that meant that what he should be doing always took priority. It was like a compulsion. He couldn’t help it.

As Lolly says, it might “all sound very petty to complain about, but I tell you that sort of thing settles down on one like a fine dust.” Because of the fine dust of the system of obligations he inherited from a generation wrapped up in values like Lolly’s, I really don’t think I officially met my dad as a person until I turned 21. Somehow, that age was like Aurora’s sixteenth birthday and triggered a magic spell that meant that “duty” could be relaxed a little- only a little, and only gradually, but it happened. The person I only saw in glimmers before that finally appeared. And you know what? He was kind of a cool dude. He was funny! He had some petty resentments! He knew about wine. He had favorite books, and used to love the Doors. His friends gave his car the nickname “Squirrel” in college and made fun of him for being unable to fix it.

I blame everything that Lolly Willowes rebels against in this book for the fact that I didn’t really meet my dad until four years ago. This book is about witches, but mostly my first wish was that my dad decided to be a warlock a long time ago. (Wow. There’s a sentence you don’t write every day.)

Lolly Willowes is about these ‘duties’, these obligations, the little things that are not bad in themselves, but accumulating year after year just crush the life out of the most vibrant of personalities. It is about people who become their roles and responsibilities, to the extent that they forget that they were ever anything else. Caroline, the wife of Lolly’s brother Henry is the embodiment of this trend. Described as the “married nun,” she is reminiscent of Jane Eyre’s cousin- whose highest value is order for no other reason but order’s sake. But what I loved about Warner’s depiction of this is that she doesn’t do this in an abstract way. She gets into the material aspect of the story- just like Clarissa Dalloway with her flowers and her dresses that need mending and the men who are “perfectly upholstered.” Warner captures a reality in the way that women and men living the lives they do would process emotions and ideas, through objects and customary expressions, and even further how these people don’t really understand what it is that they’re reacting to or why they say the things they do, except for custom, convention, and the lack of alternative to say anything else that would be acceptable. Lolly describes being at a ball where the biggest problem is not dancing with someone, but dancing with someone twice: one uses up all the commonplace conversation appropriate for acquaintances in the first dance, and then one has the obligation to say something different but in fact rather like the things one said in the first dance. Warner exquisitely captures the torture of wanting something different, something more, but being aware that anything “more” or “different” will only ensure that you find yourself completely shut out. And moreover, that you will feel bad about it yourself because you have failed in some way.

Being a person, in this world, is a failure. It is a failure to be always and ever living up to what one should be doing, which, after all, as Lolly achingly feels over and over again- isn’t such a problem when someone just wants you to wind the yarn, or just help mend this one sheet. But eventually the dust settles and Laura (who tries and tries again to emerge from behind Lolly) grows so tired of it that taking to her bed ill for two weeks is a blessed relief- all the understanding of her desire to do nothing (which is the only coded way she can express her real desire for independence) that would not have been there otherwise is hers. It offers even more understanding of the “fashionable” invalid of the era. There are few alternatives for a woman who desires to be independent but living on her own in a town of 200 people called Great Mop. But even then, she is not safe until she makes a deal with the devil.

Why must a woman imagine herself an agent of the embodiment of all evil only so she can take long walks and refuse to fetch and carry for others and not feel bad about any of it? The greatest gift that the devil gives Laura is the gift of watching her nephew in distress and not caring. Why should the devil be the only one to understand why this would be a gift? Warner explains this, a bit, to the reader at the end, but I do not think she needed to. It was in the way Laura shuddered when Caroline’s deepest feeling was revealed to have to do with Christ’s folded grave garments, it was in the way she saw a small, helpless kitten as the sign of her witchhood, in how she felt she had to give up the pretty flowers she bought for herself to Caroline’s living room and how she didn’t scream when her brothers left her tied to the tree as a child, but carried on singing and dreaming until her father found her that evening.

Warner has the ability to make the domestic magical, and the magical mundane and present. She’s better at this than most fantasy writers I’ve encountered, in fact. She’s able to be witty and understanding, warm and cutting, wise and wonderfully silly, in a way that few writers I’ve encountered outside of Austen and Woolf can. This is a book I want to read on a bench in a quiet park, in front of a fire in the winter, in bed with a mug of tea, in a bay window looking out on a rocky Maine coast. It made me smile and laugh, and when I put it down, it made me think until I went to sleep. This was just a book about a middle aged woman who moves to the country and becomes a cat lady with delusions about the devil. And I expect to be back to share those delusions with her many times in the future.

I didn't give this book five stars. But that was mostly because I think it would be too showy for Lolly Willowes. I think she would prefer to get four stars and find her visitors surprised into finding that she's worth every bit of five and more.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
May 1, 2011 – Finished Reading
May 16, 2011 – Shelved
May 16, 2011 – Shelved as: 20th-century-early-to-mid
May 16, 2011 – Shelved as: fiction
May 24, 2011 –
page 93
41.89% "This is just the best book. It is everything that was lacking from my last read and more."
May 25, 2011 – Shelved as: brit-lit
May 25, 2011 – Shelved as: examined-lives
May 25, 2011 – Shelved as: vita-virginia-violet-and-kindred
August 17, 2011 – Shelved as: shes-quite-an-original-my-dear
August 17, 2011 – Shelved as: its-the-quiet-ones

Comments Showing 1-32 of 32 (32 new)

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Kelly I know! I thought this would be too obscure for them! Not only did they have it, it came in a big book with another story, Mr. Fortune's Maggot, so I can read that too. I'm excited!

Kelly As you'll see, I loved it. Thanks so much for the awesome review that gave me the push to read this one ASAP. :)

Tony Well, you've done it again: written a superb review, with a killer opening two sentences, about a book I would never consider reading.

message 4: by Ben (new)

Ben You've just been in cities too long, Kelly!

message 5: by Kelly (last edited May 25, 2011 08:29AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kelly Thanks everyone!

I thought of the theme of "duty" too while reading the book. I thought of it as "obligations" and "responsibility" though, which is really interesting. I would never have come up with "duty," which, of course, is a perfect description.

It's fascinating, I think, how many experiences and memories have to come together to produce certain word choices. And sometimes the word choice is everything. I've been beating around trying to explain the things I talked about with my dad in this review for awhile. I think when you don't know what you want to say exactly you need a lot of words to explain what you mean. After this book, I really only needed the one. The poets were right after all, damn them.

Also, thanks for the Jane Eyre 'cousin' reminder. Oops- I must've been thinking wicked stepsisters. Fixed! Thanks for saving me from losing my Bronte fan club card. :)

You've just been in cities too long, Kelly!

... okay I'm intrigued. Why do you say that?

Lori ANd another convert to Lolly Willowes! Terence, Elzabeth, and now you! I am expecting this in from the libes any day now.

Kelly Oh I think you'll love it! I don't want to overly hype it and ruin it or anything, but really I do think you will!

message 8: by Ben (last edited May 25, 2011 09:44AM) (new)

Ben ... okay I'm intrigued. Why do you say that?

Because America is more traditional and conservative than you seem to think it is.

Terence Wonderful review, Kelly.

I'm batting .500 with you (Warner vs. Erikson) but you may want to put T.F. Powys on the To Read list. He was a favorite of Warner's, and he's one of mine as well (though I don't dare put my literary tastes on a par with Sylvia's :-).

message 10: by Kelly (last edited May 25, 2011 10:48AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kelly Because America is more traditional and conservative than you seem to think it is.

Well I can only speak to the bit of America that I grew up in, but for what its worth I don't think that the difference has anything to do with city/country experiences. I grew up in Connecticut which was basically created to self-consciously NOT be the city, and it was liberal, not very religious, and was pretty indifferent to the military. I'm aware that where I grew up isn't typical, but I don't think I'm wrong that at least the way we talk about why we do the things we do is very different these days. The reasons might be similiar, but I think there's an obligation to say it differently and think about it differently that makes it different.

... if that makes sense. :)

Terence, I'm adding Powys to the list! It'd take more than one book I disagreed with you on to destroy my faith in your powers of judgment. Thanks for the recommendation!

message 11: by Ben (last edited May 25, 2011 10:54AM) (new)

Ben Oh, I disagree : ) All you have to do is look at a map of red/blue voting habits in any national election from the past 20 years.

message 12: by Kelly (last edited May 25, 2011 11:09AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kelly If you're saying that urban areas are more likely to vote blue, then I think that's irrefutable. (Though, like I tried to imply there are non-city areas that also vote blue.) I think we might've wandered from the point behind the city/country point a little bit, though... It seems like what you're disagreeing with me on is my comment that "duty" is an old-fashioned concept. Let me know if I'm wrong about that. If so I would just say that most of the lasting cultural movements since the 60s have been about individualism and self-expression and "doing your own thing"- which hardly encourages concepts like duty. I think that traditional areas or not, this is a trend that exists in both red and blue states- it certainly exists in the generalized popular culture that is consumed throughout the country. You'll note also that I did make exceptions for three things that are more likely to be found or believed in in a red state area- the military, religion, and the Republican party.

Anyway, I didn't mean to make a sweeping statement about America, though. Just about my little childhood corner of it where I felt different. :)

message 13: by Ben (last edited May 25, 2011 11:19AM) (new)

Ben I was referring to honor, more or less. Honor is still a big concept in most rural areas of the united states. Duty, maybe not as much, but if serving the country through the military is an indication, then again, look at rural areas...

message 14: by Kelly (last edited May 25, 2011 11:22AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kelly I was referring to honor, more or less. Honor is still a big concept in most rural areas of the united states.

Really? I'd actually more believe that about duty than "honor". Honor seems like the more archaic concept of the two*. I'll trust you, though.

*because I mostly have heard this word used at 1 am to refer to defending the honor of someone's beirut team, or in my fantasy novels.

... I guess if anyone needed additional confirmation I'm from the land of the heathens, we've just found Exhibit 562. :)

message 15: by Ben (last edited May 25, 2011 11:26AM) (new)

Ben Honor: the concept, not necessarily the word. Gladwell (who, for the record, I'm not a fan of) goes into it with relation to the rural south in one of his books.

And of course you're in the land of heathens, silly. That's what makes it so fun out there!

Kelly Does he? I'll have to look into that, thanks for mentioning it.

And of course you're in the land of heathens, silly. That's what makes it so fun out there!

Well. This I cannot deny. Also: we have cookies.

message 17: by Ben (last edited May 25, 2011 11:40AM) (new)

Ben It's in Outliers: he traces it to Scottish migration patterns -- one of the more interesting studies in the book.

Cookie Monster is king of the heathens. I don't even wanna know what he does behind the closed doors of his upper eastside penthouse.

message 18: by Ben (new)

Ben Elizabeth wrote: "Interestingly, serving in the military increases when there are not other viable economic options (inner cities, too). While some motivation is about duty, honor, patriotism (which I do not think a..."

True. It'd be interesting to compare poor urban military enrollment with poor rural military enrollment.

message 19: by Ben (new)

Ben I don't think it really is a political thing, frankly, but a cultural one.

Agreed. But sadly culture and politics are often related, at least from a demographic standpoint.

It seems to have more to do with a broader lack of public engagement with morality - an embarrassment that people feel, when moral questions are raised. I suspect that it may be a secular rebellion against what is imagined to be a religious mindset: ie, that only the religious worry about these things. Which is absurd... and hopefully only a temporary phase?

Yes. And if you don't think this mindset/culture is heavier in, say, NYC, than in the heartland, then I have to disagree...

message 20: by Ben (last edited May 27, 2011 06:57AM) (new)

Ben There is a false impression, to me, that urban areas are highly secular, which I think is untrue considering the diversity of cultures usually found in urban areas.

Not highly secular: more secular than the heartland. It's fact: look at the stats/polls, etc...

message 21: by Ben (new)

Ben I completely agree with everything you just said, Abigail. Message 32 is right on the mark.

message 22: by Kelly (last edited May 27, 2011 09:21AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kelly I just think that in discussions of moral issues, there is a certain kind of language that many (not all) secular people are uncomfortable with, because it smacks of religiosity to them. I think this is unfortunate, because ethics should be front and center.

This point right here is kind of what I was trying to get at, if not perhaps with the religious emphasis. I think that cultural memories of religious attitudes have a lot to do with it. I also think that the reasoning has something to do with the idealization throughout pop culture of a certain kind of adolescent behavior that prizes self-indulgence to the extent of narcissicism at times, which resents the idea of being "judged", or anyone taking an "adult" attitude. Which certainly is a part of the rejection of a culture that included the religious cornerstone.

as that a person concerned with ethics/morality can feel like a fish out of water, whether their environment is liberal or conservative.

I think that this is so true. I've heard this from several people (who happen to be mostly conservative) that I know that they feel like they have to be on the defensive immediately against people rolling their eyes at them. They feel like they're an embarrassing buzzkill- the "pushy" guy. I think that this perceived attitude is definitely part of why certain Christian groups claim they are "persecuted" in America. It does have real political effects.

Kelly I've been thinking about some of these issues the last few days, as a consequence.

That's the best part of goodreads, I think! Talking about a book that you might just have decided on and moved on. I've also really enjoyed the discussion!

message 24: by Ben (new)

Ben If we must be surrounded by dumb asses all day, at least we can live in intelligent conversation through goodreads.

Kelly Ben wrote: "If we must be surrounded by dumb asses all day, at least we can live in intelligent conversation through goodreads."

Well. And through extended bad jokes, tangential commentary, and the baiting of trolls who dare to enter our sanctuary. Let's be real. :)

message 26: by Ben (new)

Ben And yet I love them all!

Hayley I love this review. I just finished the book, and I'm currently having my own Lolly Willowes existential crisis. You articulated it perfectly for me.

Kelly Thank you. This book really is something special. I'm not surprised it isn't more well known, but it certainly deserves to be.

message 29: by Deondre (new)

Deondre Up ☝of Cambridge university of California in really want up ☝construction industry is dogging

message 30: by Deondre (new)

Deondre Up ☝of Cambridge university of California in really want up ☝construction industry is dogging

Yvonne Aburrow This is a great review. I found the book fascinating but I wish the author had let Lolly escape from her stultifying life a bit sooner. The last third of the book when she becomes a witch is much better than the first two-thirds!

Kelly I do love the witch part too!

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