Wonderful analysis of Lolly Willowes here:
The novel became a surprise bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic when it was published in 1926 (it was the inaugural selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club). This might in part have been because there were so many unmarried women in the post-World War I years—“women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded”—who could relate to the character’s situation and savor her fantastic refusal of the role of demure, helpful, but largely invisible spinsterhood (a refusal, without doubt, that was—and still is—considerably harder to pull off in reality). In fact, another highly entertaining novel about a woman similarly resisting repressive social norms (though not by selling her soul), Rose Macaulay’s Crewe Train, appeared the same year.
When I returned to the novel a year or so later for a fourth (or was it fifth?) reading, I started imagining that a third possibility might exist (and this is where it may have gotten a little academic and egg-headed, but I still wonder about it, so I’ll share it here regardless). I started wondering if Warner was really doing something pretty postmodern—if she might be intentionally leaving the “reality” of the novel in doubt in order to focus instead on the whole idea of fantasy itself—of (in this case) a woman’s fantasy of escaping from a rigidly-controlled and ultimately male-dominated culture in which her only value could be as a wife and mother or as a permanent babysitter and domestic servant. Maybe she was questioning the politics of this escapism (Warner herself sympathized with Marxism and might well have been suggesting that fantasizing doesn’t make the world a better place)? Or maybe she was questioning if it was even possible to escape in any meaningful way from the culture we live in?
After all, whether Laura is dreaming comforting dreams or whether she really becomes a witch, it strikes me that the life Laura chooses for herself is really, when you think about it, only a sort of lonely, wide-open prison instead of a socially enforced, tightly constraining one. When her nephew Titus becomes engaged to be married, Laura thinks of the engagement as a business transaction, an engagement between the country estate Titus already owns and the woman he is about to own. She has no understanding of—or, perhaps more accurately, no trust in—romantic love—or, for that matter, much of any other kind of social interaction. Laura’s escape from society and social oppression has been a (surely somewhat bittersweet) escape from any meaningful human interaction whatsoever!