The Wild and the Witchy: Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Well, it’s that time of year again. The time when I reread Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes.

It’s a book I always associate with autumn, although the story cycles through all of the seasons, and describes them in glorious and unpredictable ways. But there is something earthy and eerie and (quite literally) witchy about Lolly Willowes, that puts it firmly in the “autumn reads” camp for me.

Written in 1926, it’s the tale of Laura, or “Lolly” Willowes, who is one of those unfortunate women deemed superfluous by society. At forty-seven, she has lived only by the whims of other people, and she awakens one day to a great calling for something different.

Let me give you a taste:

     Laura looked at the bottled fruits, the sliced pears in syrup, the glistening red plums, the greengages. She thought of the woman who had filled those jars and fastened on the bladders. Perhaps the greengrocer’s mother lived in the country. A solitary old woman picking fruit in a darkening orchard, rubbing her rough fingertips over the smooth-skinned plums, a lean wiry old woman, standing with upstretched arms among her fruit trees as though she were a tree herself, growing out of the long grass, with arms stretched up like branches. It grew darker and darker; still she worked on, methodically stripping the quivering taut boughs one after the other.
     As Laura stood waiting she felt a great longing. It weighed upon her like the load of ripened fruit upon a tree.

Can you see it? Can you feel it? That description does something to my soul. I love the image of the solitary old woman, transforming into an upwards-reaching tree, rooted in the orchard that she knows and loves and works, connected to the earth, darkening with the day.

As I type these words, outside of my window coppery and crimson leaves are fluttering to the ground, shaken from their boughs by a gentle but persistent wind. After reading about Laura, the scents and sights and textures of her countryside, and her strange, vivid imaginings, I set the book aside and notice the textures of my own world.

The air has still a summer-sweet scent lingering in it, yet there is a promise of coldness to come. The sky above is blanketed with clouds, but the weave of the blanket is loose—deep blue sky peeks through, between and around the cloud shapes. Crickets are singing and a bumblebee hovers near, sounding strangely loud in the silence. A woodpecker tap-tap-taps the nearest tree. The falling leaves make space in the canopy where light streams through, making shadows dance on the ground.

But let me not deceive you: Lolly Willowes is not an innocent, nature-loving read. It has an undercurrent of unease, and it turns sharply towards the wild and the uncanny once you are immersed. I wasn’t lying when I said it was witchy, in every sense of the word.

It’s the perfect book for fall, as you watch the trees transform, and smell the decaying leaves.

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