Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, originally published in 1926, was my first read of 2020. I confess that I might have passed this book by if I'd only seen the cover inexplicably chosen by Virago, which makes it look like one of those cosy, whimsical romance novels about a pretty young woman who moves to the Cotswolds to run a cupcake shop. But don't be fooled. It's not like that at all. It is, in fact, like a cross between Barbara Pym and Dennis Wheatley and one of the strangest books I've read for a good while.

Laura Willowes, known to her family as Lolly, is an upper middle-class spinster in her 40s who has been living in London for 20 years with her dull brother and his dull wife and their dull children. She's spent her life fading into the background, helping her sister-in-law run the household, sleeping in the smaller of their two spare bedrooms, and generally being overlooked - a less capable version, perhaps, of one of Barbara Pym's 'excellent women'. One day, she suddenly decides that enough is enough, and casually announces out of the blue that she intends to move to Great Mop, a mysterious village she has discovered by reading guide books about the Chilterns, where she will live in a cottage and keep a donkey. Her dream is momentarily scuppered when she discovers that her brother, who has been managing her inheritance for years, has invested most of her money in shares that have plummeted to half their value, but she decides to press on regardless with a scaled-back version of her plan. There's no donkey, and instead of buying a cottage she lodges with a villager, Mrs Leak, but that doesn't matter: she's free of her family and she's rejuvenated by her rural surroundings.

Then she becomes a devil-worshipping witch.

Yes, you did read that correctly. What begins as an offbeat but genteel comedy of manners becomes something quite different. It's still very much a satirical exploration of society's expectations of women (particularly single women over thirty) in the early 20th century - Laura muses on the nature of women's freedom and whether, in fact, all women would be witches if they would only embrace it - but it becomes dreamlike, almost hallucinatory, and increasingly creepy. When Laura's grown-up nephew Titus arrives in Great Mop and reminds her of her old life, calling her Aunt Lolly again and intruding on her new-found independence, Laura's initial reactions are mild and comic, but there's a underlying sense that she might be prepared to go to more extreme lengths to put him permanently out of the picture. Moreover, while effectively Laura gets the life she wanted, she is aware that it comes at the cost of another potential loss of freedom.

The descriptions of Great Mop itself are vaguely unsettling too - it's more Wicker Man than chocolate box, and the people are mysteriously quiet. There's a strong folk horror vibe and Townsend Warner evokes the natural surroundings beautifully but without sentimentality. The landscape is often damp and brooding and the witchcraft itself isn't the cosy, hippy New Age ritual of modern Wiccans, either - think curdling the milk and making blood pacts, rather than purifying your living room by burning sage.

When things take their darker turn, the writing is both lyrical and thoughtful - and, crucially, it doesn't stop being funny. The matter-of-fact and the magical are juxtaposed to great comic effect.

There's no getting away from the fact that Lolly Willowes is an odd book, perhaps all the more so for being almost 100 years old. To me it somehow feels ahead of its time, although in the aftermath of the First World War, when a generation of young men was so dramatically reduced in numbers that more women found themselves leading single lives than ever before, it was perhaps at its most relevant. But it's odd in the best of ways, and I'm delighted that I've finally got round to reading it.