Sylvia Townsend Warner began her literary career as a poet, and her first novel is as nimble and precise as poetry and reads as if it might have been composed to a meter. Like some of Jane Austen's fiction, Lolly Willowes is a comedy about the perils, pleasures, and consolations of spinsterhood, and the predicament of its heroine is at first deliberately and deceptively commonplace. "Aunt Lolly, a middle-aging lady, light-footed upon stairs, and indispensable for Christmas Eve and birthday preparations," is nevertheless troubled by vague, indefinable longings, a hankering after the solitude of woods and dark rural places. At last a revelation in a greengrocer's leads her to abandon her outraged London family and take rooms in an obscure hamlet, Great Mop.
Here her neighbors keep curiously late and noisy hours, but otherwise allow her to pass the time "in perfect idleness and contentment." She is eventually pursued into her idyll, however, by her nephew, and Titus's familiar small demands drive her to rage and despair: "No! You shan't get me. I won't go back. I won't.... Oh! Is there no help?" She is promptly visited by a mysterious black kitten, who fastens its claws upon her hand and draws blood. At once she understands. The kitten is her familiar, and has been sent by dark forces. "She, Laura Willowes, in England, in the year 1922, had entered into a compact with the Devil."
She has, in short, become a witch--or, rather, she has rediscovered her own slumbering diabolical potential, in the unlikely setting of a Buckinghamshire hamlet that--as she now realizes--is peopled entirely by witches. Laura soon attends a rollicking but ultimately rather disappointing midnight Sabbath; she is visited by Satan in the shape of a pleasant-faced man in a corduroy coat and gaiters who rids her of Titus and restores her to privacy and peace. She is left with a vision of the women "all over England, all over Europe ... as common as blackberries, and as unregarded" to whom he has offered the promise of adventure, "the dangerous black night to stretch your wings in." It is this vision that lends the novel its subversive edge, that ultimately allies it less with the work of Austen than with that of Virginia Woolf, and with later feminists. They "know they are dynamite," says Laura of Satan's women, "and long for the concussion that may justify them." --Sarah Waters [via]