Monday, July 29, 2013

Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Laura Willowes is a spinster in post-WWI England, men being in especially short supply after the war. She's been shuttled dutifully from her late father's home to that of her brother and his family, where she becomes the quiet but helpful Aunt Lolly. As she reaches middle age, her family members forbear her mild eccentricities until the evening she announces that she is moving out. She intends to go live in a cottage in Great Mop, a village in the Chilterns, and perhaps even keep a donkey. Her sister-in-law (who believes that rain and falling leaves result in ill health unless one is safely in London) frets about the foul weather in the country. Her brother says, "It is not sensible. Or suitable."  For the first time in her 47 years, however, Laura Willowes takes charge of her life and sets out for Great Mop, population 227.  (She acquired this detail from the map and guide book she was mysteriously compelled to buy in a London shop, divining from it that Great Mop was where she must go.)

And so Lolly lets a cottage from Mrs. Leak. She takes long rambles over the hills and on the country paths. She collects herbs, listens to the wind and trees and falls down and weeps for joy in a field bursting with cowslip blossoms.
The weight of all her unhappy years seemed for a moment to weigh her bosom down to the earth; she trembled, understanding for the first time how miserable she had been; and in another moment she was released.
She revels in her sudden freedom to simply be -- she no longer needs to be of service to others to justify her existence. Her bliss is interrupted when her nephew, Titus, comes to Great Mop for a visit and decides to stay. Laura's exhilaration is shattered.
She had thrown away twenty years of her life like a handful of old rags, but the wind had blown them back again... And she was the same old Aunt Lolly, so useful and obliging and negligible. They were come out to recapture her, they had tracked her down and closed her in... they were all leagued against her. They were come out to seize on her soul.  
On a disconsolate walk through the woods, she cries out for help, for someone or something to alleviate her distress. When she comes home, she finds a small kitten in the cottage. How had it got in? The doors and windows were all closed. She realises, just as certainly as she'd known she must come to Great Mop, that the cat is her familiar, and she is a witch.  Her plea for help had been heard.

She is quite calm in her new role. Perhaps some newly discovered powers result in Titus leaving Great Mop, or maybe that was a coincidence. She doesn't want to wreak chaos or cast wicked spells -- she just wants to be left in peace.
When I think of witches, I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded.... There they are, child-rearing, house-keeping, and all the time being thrust down into dullness. I tell you, that sort of thing settles down on one, like a fine dust, and by and by the dust is age, settling down... If they could be passive and unnoticed, it wouldn't matter. But they must be active, and still not noticed.  
And there you have it, the ageless definition of a witch: an old, unmarried (spinster or widow, it makes no difference) woman who would like to live a tranquil, independent and self-reliant life, allowing her intuition to synchronise with the natural environment around her.  In other words, a life neither sensible nor suitable.

Although I've made my own retreat to Kuala Lumpur, where I can live life pretty much as I choose (to the extent that the two cats, my own familiars, permit it), Lolly Willowes made me ache for the countryside -- hedges and coppices, rolling hills and seasonal flowers. I need to get out of the city more often.

My only grumble about this book was the copy I bought second-hand from an online seller who described it as being in "like new" condition. The cover was unscathed, but the young woman who last owned it annotated madly, underlining what seemed to be random passages and commenting with distressing frequency and large, juvenile letters, "YUCK" or "Hahahahaha" or "funny how all the houses have names." That's what they do in England, dear. She drew boxes around all the unfamiliar words, and since her vocabulary seems slightly less than that of a working border collie, the pages look like erratically tiled floors. I don't mind buying used books with annotations here and there, but these were an annoying distraction. I have no idea who the previous owner was, but a pox on her anyway.

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