Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner – review

This early feminist classic is also an enchanting tale

Sylvia Townsend Warner's first novel (published in 1926) begins with 28-year-old Lolly Willowes being sent, "as if she were a piece of family property forgotten in the will", to live with her brother and his family after the death of her father. She is "so useful and obliging" but after 19 years finds her senses dulled and her mind "groping after something that eluded her experience".

Escape beckons when she decides to move to the village of Great Mop in the Chilterns. And here, this satirical social commentary takes a turn towards the fantastic as Lolly sells her soul to the devil – "a kind of black knight, wandering about and succouring decayed gentlewomen" – and becomes a witch.

Lolly's own realisation of what she has done strikes with the rapidity and venom of "a snake-bite in the brain", just as the novel sharply undercuts its genteel appearance to reveal a dark and visceral heart riddled with gloriously uneasy images (a young woman eats "with the stealthy persistence of a bitch that gives suck").

Lolly Willowes calls for "a life of one's own" three years before Virginia Woolf's impassioned cry for a room. "We have more need of you," she explains to the devil. "Women have such vivid imaginations, and lead such dull lives. Their pleasure in life is so soon over; they are so dependent upon others, and their dependence so soon becomes a nuisance." With its clear feminist agenda, Lolly Willowes holds its own among Townsend Warner's historical fiction, but it's also an elegantly enchanting tale that transcends its era.


Lucy Scholes

The GuardianTramp

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