Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner ~ 1926. This edition: Virago, 2012. Introduction by Sarah Walters. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-84408-805-8. 203 pages.
My rating: 10+/10
It’s awfully early to be reading the best book of the year, but I suspect this may have just happened. And if not the absolute best – for one can only hope for better, without any assurance whatsoever that that will occur – this one will be high in the top ten. No debate.
I’ve been brooding over a suitable review for days, and I still don’t know how to best express my deep appreciation of this exquisitely written novel. It pushed all my buttons, as it were, and it appears I am not alone, for the most superficial effort at online scouting reveals an astounding number of appreciative reviews.
No review that I have read can adequately express the unique quality of this novel, though many have come close, and those many being the ones which include a generous sampling of excerpts and quotations. It is very likely that my discussion shall follow suit.
SPOILER WARNING! After labouring unsucessfully to produce a thoughtful but vague-on-details analysis, I find that all I’ve done is to basically recite the plot below, so if you want to come to this cold, you will want to stop reading NOW.
Though this novel is so good that even knowing what happens beforehand will not take away from the experience. For those of us who like this sort of thing, it’s a marvelous bit of work.
Okay, giving you time to decide…
Laura Willowes is born in 1874 into a soberly traditionalist family, well-off brewers who take pride in their prosaic calling, and whose attention to detail has resulted in financial success.
Younger sister of two brothers, Laura lives a quiet country life, contentedly prevented from having to go out into the world by the vague ill health of her mother, which serves to provide an excuse for Laura’s remaining close at hand, though neighbouring matrons cluck in growing disapproval of Mrs. Willowes’ lack of enterprise in seeing that her growing daughter be either formally educated or pushed into the society of other young women, and, more importantly, young men.
Her mother dies, and Laura steps willingly into the place of the woman of the household, putting her hair up and her skirts down, and developing to an even higher degree her demeanour of stillness and decorum.
It was easy, much easier than she had supposed, to be grown-up; to be clear-headed and watchful, to move sedately and think before she spoke. Already her hands looked mnuch whiter on the black lap. She could not take her mother’s place – that was as impossible as to have her mother’s touch upon the piano, for Mrs. Willowes had learnt from a former pupil of Field, she had the jeu perlé; but she could take a place of her own. So Laura behaved very well – said the Willowes connection, agreeing and approving amongst themselves – and went about her business, and only cried when alone in the potting-shed, where a pair of old gardening gloves repeated to her the shape of her mother’s hands.
The years slide by. Brother Henry has established himself as a successful lawyer, stolidly wedded to a suitable wife and now father of two girls; brother James has unexpectedly returned to the family home to take part in the family business; Laura and her father welcome James, and then his wife and a small son, before Mr. Willowes himself takes ill and quietly and quickly dies.
Laura, deeply bereft but stoic in her grief, finds herself being arranged for, packed off without being consulted to live with Henry’s family in London. For London will be exciting for Laura, the refrain goes, she will see all sorts of sights and her horizons will be enlarged. She might even find herself a husband, for she is, after all, only twenty-eight, possessed of a tidy income of her own via her father’s will, and she is attractive enough in her subfusc way. Oh, and she will also be rather handy to have about the house, looking after her young nieces and making herself generally useful…
The smallest spare room is made over to Laura, and into it she transfers what few effects from her old life there can be found room for – not much, really, but Laura takes this in stride, for her loss of her old life and her beloved father have stunned her into a state of gentle acceptance of her lot. Before long she is transformed into something a little less than she was before, “Aunt Lolly”, handy to have about to walk the children and do their mending, and to provide another pair of ears for Henry’s bombastic preening in the bosom of his family.
But Laura nourishes a secret life undreamt of by her utterly unoriginal brother and sister-in-law. She uses her occasional free afternoons to explore London, wandering far afield to strange neighbourhoods, secretly patronizing luxurious tea shops and, in the only outward show of what soothes her inner self, bringing home lavish bouquets of exotic, fragrant flowers, much to the dismay of her familial sponsors, who feel that these indulgences are just a little, well, odd.
They’ve long given up trying to pair Laura up with a prospective husband; she has made it quite clear that her interest in such is null, and it looks like things will go on as they are forever and ever, amen, in an outwardly serene but secretly unsatisfactory way. Henry’s wife had rather expected that her sister-in-law would remove herself to her own establishment, handy as she is to have around the house, and those little outbreaks – those flowers! – continually irritate, in the most well-hidden way.
We come to 1921. Laura has just turned 47 years old. The Great War has been got through, things are settled down again and are going along much as before. “Aunt Lolly’s” nieces are grown now, but their babies will be her new charges, and the walking out of and mending for will keep her happily busy; the family is rather planning on taking continued advantage of Laura’s permanent position as useful auntie.
And then everything changes.
For Laura has an unusual epiphany one day, and decides to return to the country, to remake her life as a woman living alone, far removed from the duties she has so long carried so uncomplainingly.
Henry kicks up the most predictable fuss, for what will people say to his sister going off in such a strange (not to mention ungrateful) manner? He is undone in his protests by his own ill-dealings; he has rashly lost most of Laura’s capital in sketchy investments, and she demands an explanation and insists on a settlement of what there is left, and the freedom to reinvent her life as she sees fit.
A country residence is obtained, though it is only rooms versus the originally planned-for cottage, due to her diminished finances. Winter passes, and spring arrives in all its glory, and Laura finds herself in a field of cowslips, in the grip of the strongest emotion she has ever permitted herself to feel.
She knelt down among them and laid her face close to their fragrance. The weight of all her unhappy years seemed
for a moment to weigh her bosom down to the earth; she trembled, understanding for the first time how miserable
she had been; and in another moment she was released. It was all gone, it could never be again, and never had been.
Tears of thankfulness ran down her face. With every breath she drew, the scent of the cowslips flowed in and absolved her.
She was changed, and knew it. She was humbler, and more simple. She ceased to triumph mentally over her tyrants, and rallied herself no longer with the consciousness that she had outraged them by coming to live at Great Mop. The amusement she had drawn from their disapproval was a slavish remnant, a derisive dance on the north bank of the Ohio. There was no question of forgiving them. She had not, in any case, a forgiving nature; and the injury they had done her was not done by them. If she were to start forgiving she must needs forgive Society, the Law, the Church, the History of Europe, the Old Testament, great-great-aunt Salome and her prayer-book, the Bank of England, Prostitution, the Architect of Apsley Terrace, and half a dozen other useful props of civilisation. All she could do was to go on forgetting them. But now she was able to forget them without flouting them by her forgetfulness.
Now the tale takes on a rather stranger twist. For the small village Laura has randomly chosen to reside in turns out to be not quite so conventional as it at first appears to be. Everyone is all very live-and-let-live, but things are just a little…well…unusual…
Strains of music and odd lights late at night, people gathering together at strange hours, and a certain universal focus on the woods surrounding the village, wherein seems to reside a disturbing (in the broadest sense of the word) presence.
I’ll save you speculation.
Great Mop (for that is the name of the village in question) is under the patronage of the Lord of Darkness himself, and he is most interested in our quiet Laura.
I’ll give you a hint that Laura’s eventual fate is not quite what one would expect.
Satan himself as he manifests in an aura of crushed fennel and deep woodsiness is a character of unusual and unexpected appeal. For he is the “loving huntsman” of the subtitle:
Near at hand but out of sight the loving huntsman couched in the woods, following her with his eyes…But her fear had kept him at bay, or else he had not chosen to take her just then, preferring to watch until he could overcome her mistrust and lure her into his hand. For Satan is not only a huntsman. His interest in mankind is that of a skilful and experienced naturalist. Even human sportsmen at the end of their span sometimes declare that to potter about in the woods is more amusing than to sit behind a butt and shoot driven grouse. And Satan, who has hunted from eternity, a little jaded moreover by the success of his latest organised Flanders battue, might well feel that his interest in a Solitary Snipe like Laura was but sooner or later to measure the length of her nose. Yet hunt he must; it is his destiny, and whether he hunts with a gun or a butterfly net, sooner or later the chase must end. All finalities, whether good or evil, bestow a feeling of relief; and now, understanding how long the chase had lasted, Laura felt a kind of satisfaction at having been popped into the bag.
This novel, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s first, was her very deliberate and self-decribed feminist manifesto, or perhaps one could call it a humanist manifesto, for in it she argues for the right of the individual to choose one’s own happiness, regardless of what others think is best.
Laura Willowes from her earliest years knows exactly what she needs to make her happy, and what she chooses draws the critical hisses of everyone in her personal circle. Until defeated by Laura’s tenacious refusal to play the game, there are continual urgings to partake in the local social whirl, to “come out of herself”, but Laura isn’t having any of it. Not as a young woman making reluctant duty calls and visits to parties and dances, and not as a middle-aged spinster, as we see when she willingly samples and quickly rejects the eerily similar protocol of her first Witches’ Sabbath in Great Mop.
Peace is what Laura Willowes seeks above all, to be left alone to pursue her solitary interests, to do nothing if she so chooses, and her surrender to Satan offers her just that, a protection against those who seek to meddle with her preferred style of life.
Did she do the right thing with her capitulation? Or not? The reader must decide…
Equal parts conventional novel and far-fetched fantasy, this is one of the most relatable novels I have read in a very long time. The writing, the twisting of the plot partway through, the sensuous descriptions of countryside and flowers and food, the character of Laura Willowes, and that of Satan himself…all combine to create something which sings and resonates, at the same time as it quietly disturbs.
In the very best way, of course.
And it is frequently richly and intelligently funny – I don’t think I’ve communicated that aspect. Another point in favour.
Oh – one last thing. Here’s a snippet of trivia for you. In 1926, Lolly Willowes was chosen to be the first book offered by the newly created Book-of-the-Month Club. And its author was perpetually annoyed by finding some readers reacting to it merely as a “sweet story”, versus the subversively moral tale she meant it to be.