Lolly Willowes, or The loving huntsman | Sylvia Townsend Warner

Miss Willowes, having reached middle age – or her prime, as I prefer – has had enough of being the pitied maiden aunt, put upon and stifled by her well-meaning but deeply conventional family, and decides it’s time to leave London and live independently. Preferably in a country cottage, with a donkey. I’m always up for tales of middle-aged spinsters throwing caution to the wind and striking out on their own, with or without donkeys, so this ticked all my boxes straight away. She follows the promptings of her subconscious, notes signs and symbols strewn along her path, and decamps to the ever so slightly odd village of Great Mop. From then it goes kind of Master and Margarita in the Chilterns. This can only be a good thing, obviously, and it was.

A light and whimsical read on the surface – even Satan himself is quite a pleasant chap (the ‘loving huntsman’ of the subtitle presumably) – but there is a deeper undercurrent of dissociation from nature and the landscape by urban civilisation, and women losing their natural powers in the same way. Not as a great allegory or polemic, but just a little whisper, or distant melody – although Laura’s long impassioned speech to Satan is pretty unequivocally feminist, referring to women as ‘sticks of dynamite’ (which for me recalled her thrill at dancing with the wild redheaded girl at the witches sabbath, hinting at more than a spiritual awakening). (If spiritual awakening is the right term for throwing your lot in with the devil.)

The 1920s search for meaning, especially pertinent to post-war single women, is worked quietly into a gently English comedic little tale, its slightness belying its deeper truths. Ultimately ‘Lolly Willowes’ presents moving to the countryside and becoming a witch as a valid and rewarding life choice for the older single woman, which I can only applaud.