Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner


In this quick comedy of manners, a lone aunt breaks free of her family and makes a new life on her own terms, only to discover, well, that she may be under Satan's spell. I, for one, was enchanted, drawn well into the parable of what happens to women who don't play by society's rules. 

The narrator speaks of the appeal of a life so different from that offered by the well-meaning nephew gifting his spinster aunt a hot-water bottle or a black lace scarf:

... you say: 'Come here, my bird! I will give you the dangerous black night to stretch your wings in, and poisonous berries to feed on, and a nest of bones and thorns, perched high up in danger where no one can climb to it.' That's why we become witches: to show our scorn of pretending life's a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure. ... 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, charitable refuse of their thoughts, so many ounces of stale bread of life a day ...

Fierce, powerful, provocative, Lolly Willowes was Warner's first book, and it was published in 1926---and recently reissued by NYRB. (The prose also belies an eye for interesting detail; the demonic kitten named Vinegar is burned into my subconscious.)

In some ways, Warner's work called to mind Zona Gale's Miss Lulu Bett for me, in that they both filtered the experience of the independent woman of the 1920s through high satire to throw into relief the narrowly circumscribed conception of femininity. In any case, I'm interested to dip into Warner's six other novels for a closer look at her oeuvre; perhaps I'll turn to Mr. Fortune's Maggot next.