Lolly Willowes seems to be the best-known of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novels, and is much loved by many (though not all). Having read several reviews of the book I felt that I knew what to expect of the story – Lolly becomes a witch. The premise was intriguing: a serious literary novel about witches? But this is not a book of broomsticks but instead of hen-wives. It is a book of its time written in the shadow of the Great War when women received a taste of freedom but choice was still largely and tantalisingly out of reach. In his series, 100 Best Novels, Robert McCrum placed Lolly Willowes at no. 52 and described it as ‘proto-feminist and a minor classic’.
Lolly Willowes is written in three parts with no chapters. This frustrated me at first; chapters are such helpful pausing places. But the book soon pulled me in and I adjusted. It may have been written in three parts but it felt like a book of two halves or perhaps of two lives: the dutiful and accommodating life to which Lolly initially accedes and the independent and free-spirited life which she later chooses. But in so choosing, has she truly achieved it?
Eloquently written and wryly amusing throughout, the first half presented itself to me as a well-written conventional narrative, relating the tale of a young girl growing into a young woman, whose mother dies when she – Laura, known within the family as Lolly – is not quite grown. Lolly is slightly apart from other women, young and old, in thought and interests. She has no desire to follow the conventional path expected of her and marry, despite the efforts of the local matrons who invite her to tea and to other suitably improving social gatherings. Lolly is happy to remain in the family home in the countryside, keep house for her father and revel in the freedom of her days where she is answerable to no one. When her father dies, Laura is dispatched to live in London with her brother and his family. Her place in life has been re-fashioned for her. It was, her sister-in-law concluded, the right thing to do.
Still, there it was and Henry was right – Lolly ought to come to them. London would be a pleasant change for her. She would meet nice people, and in London she would have a better chance of marrying. Lolly was twenty-eight. She would have to make haste if she were going to find a husband before she was thirty. (p. 2)
Caroline’s efforts came to naught:
Mr Arbuthnot received their advances without surprise, for he had a very good opinion of himself. He felt that being thirty-five he owed himself a wife, and he also felt that Laura would do very nicely…. He began to think of Laura quite tenderly and Caroline began to read the Stores’ catalogue quite seriously. This was the moment when Laura, who had been behaving nicely for years, chose to indulge her fantasy, and to wreck in five minutes the good intentions of as many months. (p. 56)
Laura’s status is again reviewed and refashioned. She is now the maiden aunt. She remains living in London with Henry and his family for twenty years.
But slowly, things begin to change. Laura’s kindliness and her willingness to please battle against inner frustration. Dissatisfaction with her life creeps to the fore. The small asides introduced so subtly earlier in the book become more prominent. The petty and smug foibles of the English middle classes appear more pronounced; the listlessness and futility of Laura’s days demand her attention.
Laura knows there is something she is missing; every autumn she is possessed of a restlessness which she cannot identify. Something is wrong.
Loneliness, dreariness, aptness for arousing a sense of fear, a kind of ungodly hallowedness – these were the things that called her thoughts away from the comfortable fireside. (p. 77)
It is Lolly’s habit to buy abundant bunches of flowers (much to her frugal sister-in-law’s frustration). One day she enters a florist’s shop overflowing with displays of produce and flowers which fills her with joy. In her delight she buys the full stock of chrysanthemums and in acknowledgement of such a good customer, the florist throws in some sprays of golden-brown beech leaves.
Lolly ascertains their source; she buys herself a map and a guidebook. Her decision is made, she is moving – by herself – to the village of Great Mop, to the village where the beech woods grow. And no one can prevent her:
Laura stamped her foot with impatience.
“Have done with your trumpery red herrings!” she cried.
She has never lost her temper like this before. It was a glorious sensation.
“Henry!” She could feel her voice crackle round his ears. “You say you bought those shares at eight and something, and that they are now four. So if you sell out now you will get rather less than half what you gave for them.”
“Yes,” said Henry. Surely if Lolly were business woman enough to grasp that so clearly, she would in time see reason on other matters.
“Very well. You will sell them immediately…”
“… and reinvest the money in something quite unspeculative and sound, like War Loan, that will pay a proper dividend. I shall still have enough to manage on. I shan’t be as comfortable as I thought I should be. I shan’t be able to afford the little house that I hoped for, nor the donkey. But I shan’t mind much. It will matter very little to me when I’m there.”
As she left the room she turned and looked at Henry… But he was sitting with his back to her and did not look round. When she had gone he took out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead.
Ten days later Laura arrived at Great Mop. (p. 105)
Thus begins Laura’s new life.To say that Laura settles to village life; stands once again against her family’s efforts to monitor her behaviour, acquires a familiar (though not a donkey) and becomes a witch is to belie the nature of this second half of the book. It is more subtle and more bewitching and carries a more serious message than this. There are glorious passages of prose describing the countryside and the changing seasons which Lolly experiences as she wanders the countryside. There are memorable characters such as her landlady, Mrs Leak. (Since Henry has mismanaged her money, Laura was indeed obliged to rent rooms rather than have her own little house). And there is Mr Saunter, who teaches Lolly to care for hens – which gives rise to a wonderful section about hen-wives (p. 147) which in turn led me to a fascinating piece by Terri Windling.
In 1929, three years after Lolly Willowes was published to some acclaim, Woolf produced the iconic A Room of One’s Own – written as an impassioned plea to inspire young women at Cambridge. In 1931 Vita Sackville-West published All Passion Spent in which the elderly Lady Slane turns her back on the plans made for her by her children on the death of her husband. In this same vein, Lolly Willowes can be read as a charming and wryly humorous tale of one woman’s struggle in middle age to break free of the establishment and be her own person. Indeed the Guardian describes it thus:
Stripped of convention, of safety and habit, Lolly opens herself up to a different reality. She defies society as well as everything society has raised her to be. Her future is uncertain, but it is free, and the novel that houses her is a great shout of life and individuality.
But to achieve her freedom Lolly, it seems, has placed her faith in Satan; she has rejected the protection and constraints of father, husband and God in favour of another – still male – protector. Has she perhaps jumped out of the frying pan into the fire? (A potentially inappropriate turn of phrase!) There is a long dialogue between Laura and the devil in the book’s closing pages. It requires a more careful reading than I have given it so far. The devil appears to be almost kindly: a disinterested kindliness through which he encourages Laura to examine her thoughts and which gives rise to some wonderful passages about the lot of women and how they think. (There are so many quotable insights here; I have included just the one at the top of this post.) The devil appears to me more as a motif, a conduit through which Laura can examine her thoughts and her desires for her own life. Having snared Lolly, the devil leaves her to herself; there are no rules she must follow, no code of conduct to which she must subscribe. Neither does he offer her a view of the future. She is left as the book closes, at an exhilarating and uncertain juncture: free to live as she wishes and to be mistress of her own thoughts and behaviour – but with no safety net, no one to catch her should she stumble and no one to take responsibility for her mistakes.
When it was first published, to quite some acclaim, there were some including STW’s mother, who viewed the book as whimsical, much to STW’s chagrin. It can certainly be enjoyed as such, but clearly this was not the intent behind the tale. I didn’t pick up on the fact that this was her first published novel until after I had read it. It certainly surprised me. This is a book of originality and accomplishment, of charm, humour and wry satire. As such I thoroughly enjoyed it. But I am not unaware of the deeper message behind its idiosyncrasy. And for that I applaud its writer.
I also applaud Helen at a gallimaufry and thank her for hosting this week. My interest in Sylvia Townsend Warner and her works has been kindled and the flame is burning high. I might even risk tackling Mr Fortune’s Maggot one more time!