Lolly Willowes: Old fashioned fantasy

Written in 1926, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, and re-released in 1999 with an introduction by Alison Lurie, the book has now made its way to Kindle, where I found it.

But if you don’t like Jane Austen, where some people feel that nothing happens, you won’t like this. If you want a book made up of Important Events or and Exciting Narrative, you won’t like this.

I loved it.

Laura Willowes grows up on the family estate, where she roams around the countryside, learns to distill herbs into useful potions, is companion to her father, and does not marry. As a result, when her father dies, she must, of course, go to live with her brother’s family in London, where she becomes Aunt Lolly, or Miss Willowes. Laura disappears, subsumed in the life of a useful spinster. For twenty years.

That covers almost half of the novel. But before she, and we, are half asleep, Laura decides to go live by herself in Great Mop, Buckinghamshire. There, she wanders the woodlands, happily alone. There she meets the Loving Huntsman of the title (who is Satan, although he isn’t very evil), and learns that she’s a witch.

But witches have to do good, or evil, and she just wants to be left alone.

The prose is meandering, evocative, and unlike anything I’ve ever read. Although it’s a new discovery for me, it’s been through 93 editions, from London, New York, Paris, Leipzig, and Milan. In France it was shortlisted for the Prix Femina. It was the very first Book Of The Month in the U.S.. In 2014, Robert McCrum chose it as one of the 100 Best Novels in English.

I hope that students now read this as a matter of course. In my day, we didn’t.

As Alison Lurie writes in her introduction to the 1999 re-release of this astonishing novel:

“Three years later, Virginia Woolf was to make the same point , saying that if a woman wants to be more than a household appliance, if she is to have a life of her own . . . she must have freedom and privacy and “a room of one’s own.” She spoke, as we now know, for thousands of women then and in years to some. But Sylvia Townsend Warner spoke for them first.”

Revenge Fantasies and Hag-Seed

Hag-Seed, the Tempest Retold, by Margaret Atwood

 

I love revenge fantasies. I indulge in them all the time. Makes my husband nuts; he complains about an incompetent or  psychopathic employee (he’s had both), and I’m ready to out the asshole all over social media. Turning such impulses into fantasy helps me to control my temper, which breaks out unexpectedly after I’ve been over-patient for too long. (Or just because my inner Little Judy is having a bad day.)

Atwood’s Hag-Seed is the ultimate revenge fantasy. I loved it. I loved it even more because it’s based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Although A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing are my favorite plays by ol’ Will, The Tempest runs a close third.

Felix, our hero, gets pushed out of the theatre company he founded, betrayed by his assistant, who is an up-and-coming political type. Depressed and lost, Felix hides in a run-down cabin for years, before taking a job teaching theatre in a prison. The job helps him as much as it helps the prisoners.

But then they learn that the prison theatre program is on the political chopping block, due to one of those arts-hating functionaries. Worse, the art-hater’s sidekick is Felix’s old enemy. So our hero enlists prisoners into creating a immersive-theatre version of The Tempest, with the two political evil-doers cast as the usurping King Alonso and his henchman Antonio. Insanity ensues. Revenge is sweet.

The book also serves as a a great introduction to The Tempest; if you’re teaching Shakespeare to a bunch of un-interested students, get them to read this instead of Cliff Notes. The prisoner’s notions about what happens after the end of the play are particularly enlightening.

This is the writer who created The Handmaid’s Tale, which I could never finish because it’s too awfully true. I loved her early books, The Edible Woman and Lady Oracle. Clearly I need to read the rest.

 

this is the cover of the version I never finished.