Day 1122: Lolly Willowes

Cover for Lolly WillowesThe two novels I’ve read by Sylvia Townsend Warner are as different as they can be. The True Heart is a historical novel about a woman who lives through great troubles to be with the man she loves. Lolly Willowes is a feminist novel about a spinster who tires of her life dedicated to her family.

The Willowes family doesn’t go in much for change. They have lived in the same house for years, and even after they move, they bring all their possessions, which are never moved from their set positions. Lolly Willowes grows up loving the countryside around her home, and she is so comfortable with her family that she never considers marriage. When her mother dies, she takes over running the house, and neither she nor her father want her to go.

But when her father dies, her wishes are not consulted. Her older brother Henry is more willing to have her in London than her younger brother at the family home. So, she moves to London to be of service to her family.

Twenty years later, she’s had enough. Without seeing it first, she decides to move to a rural village named Great Mop. Her family is very much against this plan, and it is only then that she finds out her brother has mishandled her money and there is very little left. She can’t have the house and donkey she planned on, but she plans to move, and move she will.

It is after Lolly moves that the novel takes a decidedly eccentric turn. Some readers will appreciate it more than others, and I’m not sure how much I do. I’m also not going to tell you what happens. But the message of the novel, though playfully told, is that women are not just adjuncts to their families, to have their lives plotted out for them just because they’re single. There were plenty of women in Lolly’s position in the 1920’s, when this novel was written, and that is probably the reason that the novel became an unexpected best seller in its time.

Related Posts

The True Heart

The Land of Green Ginger

The Daylight Gate


Day 611: The Book of Life

Cover for The Book of LifePerhaps I’m the last woman left in the country who doesn’t think it would be romantic to be in love with a tall, dark man who could suck my blood at any moment. In any case, although I first thought that Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy was refreshingly original, by the third book I was not as charmed by this complicated series.

In The Book of Life, Diana Bishop, a timewalker and special kind of witch called a weaver, and her vampire husband Matthew Clairmont have returned from the past where Diana was learning her skills. They have one of three missing pages from a manuscript called Ashmole 782, or The Book of Life, and they are trying to find the others to reunite them with the book. It was Diana’s accidental retrieval of this book from the Bodleian Library that started all the action. Diana is also pregnant with Matthew’s children.

Matthew and Diana are in violation of the Covenant, an old agreement among witches, vampires, and daemons that they will not associate with each other. They think the Book of Life may provide information about the origins of the three creature races and even help Matthew with his research into a deadly vampire disease called blood rage.

In addition, they are being pursued by Benjamin Clairmont, a crazed child of Matthew who wants Diana and her daughter.

Like the second book of the trilogy, The Book of Life seems rather scattered to me, with Diana and Matthew running here and there on their various quests. The spots in the plot that could be climactic can be a bit of a let-down, as, for example, we don’t even get to hear what Diana has to say to the Congregation when she finally presents the evidence she and Matthew have collected.

After reading the first two books, I wanted to see what happened, and I was fond of several of the characters. But I didn’t think the novel was romantic, nor do I have much use in general for the overprotective male partner.

Day 532: The Daylight Gate

Cover for The Daylight GatePurely by accident, I recently read two books based on historical fact that feature witches. In Corrag, women are falsely accused of witchcraft, and the only thing even approaching the paranormal is a woman with second sight. The Daylight Gate is about the Lancashire witch trials. It supposes that witchcraft exists and that some of the women were witches.

As in Corrag, some of the characters are based on actual people. The novel hinges on the inexplicable condemnation of one woman, Alice Nutter, who was a completely different type of person from the other accused. She is the novel’s principal character. While the Device family and the others are poor, degraded beings who practice witchcraft as well as incest and other abominations, Alice Nutter is a wealthy and apparently blameless older woman who lets them stay in a tower in the wilds of her property.

We soon find that most of the authorities’ attention toward Alice is politically motivated. Alice is known to be linked to Christopher Southworth, a Catholic priest who is implicated in the Gunpowder Plot and has fled to France. In the mind of King James, the Catholic mass and the Black Mass are indistinguishable. So too believes the repellent Thomas Potts, a lawyer who is driving the attempt to build a case against Alice. He is also writing a book about witchcraft in Lancashire. It behooves him, then, to find some actual witches.

Potts has Southworth’s sister Jane, a completely innocent Protestant, arrested with the Devices and their cohorts in an attempt to lure her brother back to England. It works, and Alice is at least guilty of harboring Southworth. As Alice skates closer and closer to danger, we learn that she will not turn back because of love, for two very different people.

This is an interesting novel rather than an affecting one. I sympathized with Alice, and even with the magistrate, Roger Nowell, who does not believe in witchcraft. Other characters, though, are despicable and some events distasteful. Details of the Devices’ lives are picaresque. Not all of the novel was to my taste.

Day 464: Practical Magic

Cover for Practical MagicI’m ambivalent about Practical Magic, the first novel I’ve read by Alice Hoffman. It reminds me a bit of the Vianne Rocher books by Joanne Harris, only it is more heavy handed and less principled.

Gillian and Sally Owens have grown up in their aunts’ house in Massachusetts and have always longed for something different. Their aunts are considered witches, and people walk on the other side of the street when they see the girls. Sally longs for normalcy and tries to keep the untidy house clean and feed everyone wholesome meals. Gillian is spoiled and beautiful.

Eventually, both of them leave. Gillian runs away to begin a series of ill-conceived marriages and affairs. Sally’s brief marriage brings her two daughters of her own, Antonia and Kylie. When her husband is killed in a car accident, she flees the dark old house for suburbia and a chance for a normal life for her daughters.

Thirteen years go by before Gillian arrives unannounced at Sally’s house bringing trouble. Her latest boyfriend Jimmy is a dangerous criminal, and Gillian has accidentally killed him. His body is out in the car, and she has come to her sister for help. Together, they bury the body in the yard, but soon they are being haunted.

This story is told in a fairy tale style, and despite several setbacks, we are in no doubt that everything will turn out all right in the end. Characters fall madly in love on sight, and the troubles between both sets of sisters are worked out. The final removal of the spirit requires the assistance of the aunts themselves. Of course, it turns out that Gillian didn’t really kill her lover.

I guess I felt as if everything was tied up too neatly in this story. It’s a romance novel lightly disguised as magical realism, and I haven’t much patience for either.

On the one hand, I found myself mildly enjoying the novel. On the other hand, I found it too cheerfully immoral. We are supposed to accept through most of the book that Gillian killed her lover, however accidentally, and that it is okay to cover it up. Finally, the law officer who tracks them down while looking for Jimmy is required to fall in love with Sally on sight so that he can help cover up their crime, despite his being perfectly straight-laced up to that point. Even if the “murder” turns out not to be as big a crime as they thought, now he has committed a crime, too, which everyone immediately forgets so that they can live happily ever after. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Day 249: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

Cover for The Physick Book of Deliverance DaneBest Book of the Week!
Connie Goodwin has just passed her orals in history at Harvard and is one thesis away from her doctorate when her advisor, Manning Chilton, challenges her to find an undiscovered primary source on which to base some subject about Colonial America. She is almost immediately side-tracked in her research by a request from her mother to sort out her grandmother’s long-abandoned house in Marblehead and sell it to pay off back taxes.

Connie finds a very old, filthy house with a gate so overgrown with vines that it’s hard to find the house. Almost immediately she has a few odd glimpses, as if she can vividly picture her grandparents and other people in the house.

While sorting through the objects and papers in the house, she finds evidence of a woman named Deliverance Dane, who was found guilty of witchcraft in the Salem trials and left behind a “recipe” book, possibly of spells. Chilton immediately begins putting pressure on Connie to find the book, as it could provide the first evidence that people were actually practicing witchcraft at that time in Massachusetts. As Connie searches for the book, she makes some astonishing discoveries about her family and herself.

Back in the 17th century, Deliverance Dane, a wise woman or healer, is called to attend a child she cannot save. When the child dies, her father accuses Deliverance of satanism.

Some small things at the beginning of the novel irritated me. In laying the foundation of some basic history, I think Howe condescends to the reader a bit too much. For example, she finds occasion to tell us what a familiar is. Although many people may assume that all familiars are cats and find out differently from this novel, I would be surprised if people didn’t know what they were, if only from remembering their grade school lessons about the Salem witch trials. But perhaps I’m wrong.

There are also a couple of instances where Connie takes awhile to figure out something that she, as a graduate history student, should already know. For example, she doesn’t immediately know that “receipt” is another word for “recipe,” and then she has to explain this term to her professor, supposedly an expert in Colonial America. I am no historian or even generally interested in this period of history, but I knew immediately what the word meant. She does the same thing with figuring out that “Deliverance Dane,” mysterious words on a piece of paper, is someone’s name, as if in all her studies of the period she never encountered such an unusual name.

It is also very easy to see where the novel is going and who will turn out to be a villain. However, I still found it interesting enough to regard it as a strong first novel, especially if you enjoy the mixture of historical fiction and the supernatural. The characters are believable, and both story lines kept my attention. The historical portion seems solidly researched.

And I won’t mention the tomatoes, because it’s just too picky.