Book Review by George S: Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (1926) is about a woman leaving an ordinary environment and developing in extraordinary ways (she becomes a witch). Summer Will Show also describes the extraordinary progress and liberation of a previously conventional woman, but this time the process of liberation is not magical but emotional and political.
It is a very good book, but is the sort that you can only describe by telling a fair amount of the story, and giving away some surprises, so perhaps I should tell you to just read the novel and skip the review, which inevitably contains spoilers. I read it in the NYRB paperback edition, and made the mistake of reading the back cover first, which reveals at least one of the book’s major twists.
But if you’re sure you want to read the review – here goes…
Sophia Willoughby starts the novel as a very Victorian woman, a strong-minded creature of extreme conventionality. She comes from a landed family, has made the kind of marriage that was expected of her, and is bringing up her two children according to what she sees as the rules. ‘Crusts, cold water, cold rooms, scanty clothing, rough romping games to harden them, philosophical conversation to enlarge their minds.’ She is disappointed in her son Damian for not being manly enough: ‘She had not yet succeeded in striking a spark of horsemanship from the boy, and he was fast turning into that most ignoble type of rider: a rider who knows how to avoid falling off.’ She is one of the class who accept that labouring people are ‘insolent, mutinous and violent’, and likely to be led astray by agitators.
Gradually it is revealed that her husband, Frederick, has left her. She had become tired of his dalliances He now lives in Paris, with a mistress, Minna Lemuel. Minna is Jewish and artistic. Sophia could accept it when her husband was chasing flighty young things, but this is different. She sends him a businesslike letter, telling him to stay away. There is a rather extraordinary episode where Sophia takes both of her children to the local lime kiln, to breathe in the fumes that are supposed to be a preventative or cure for whooping cough. Both children find it a terrifying experience. Sophia is remarkably competent and rational at everything she does, and when she is asked to take care of the illegitimate child of her Uncle in the West Indies, she takes on the responsibility without any impractical moralising about it, and finds him a school in Cornwall. It is while she is taking him to Cornwall that her own two children fall sick with smallpox (which may have been caught from the man at the lime-pit). Both die.
She is a person who needs to keep her life under control, and she fights to do this when her two children, who were her purpose in life, have gone. She becomes certain that what she needs is another child. She even considers going to see the disreputable man who has made several local women pregnant, but then decides that she will go to Paris and ask for another child from her estranged husband. She sees this rather extraordinary behaviour as simply a rational expedient. It’s a measure of Warner’s skill as a novelist that we accept this as credible.
Paris turns her life upside down. The year is 1849, and the monarchy of Louis Philippe is tottering. Sophia meets Minna Lemual, her husband’s mistress. Previously she had been rather obsessed by this woman, jealous because she is obviously supplying something that Sophia could not. She hears Minna give a performance, a story of her childhood in Lithuania, with her Jewish family trying to escape from a pogrom. Sophia falls under Minna’s spell. At first she is contemptuous of Minna’s circle of Bohemian artists and revolutionaries, but she is drawn closer and closer to her. When Minna is short of money, Sophia impetuously gives all of her travelling money – twenty-five pounds to her. Minna, equally dramatically, donates it all to a collecting box for the liberation of Poland. The two women face the world together, with nothing, because Frederick, annoyed by his wife in effect stealing his mistress from him, has asserted his rights as a husband, and has told his banker to give her no more money.
Minna and Sophia live together, living on their wits. For a while Sophia makes money singing English hymns for an anti-clerical speaker who uses her as an exhibit showing the wickedness of the clergy.
In the background, the events of 1848 continue to shake Paris; barricades are built, both sides prepare for a showdown. Sophia, once the ultra-conservative English lady now scavenges scrap metal that can be turned into bullets for the revolutionaries. There is a big dramatic finale, as the republic fails and Louis Napoleon takes power. There is no real tidying up of the plot – just the sense that history continues, and Sophia will now be a part of it.
By 1936 Sylvia Townsend Warner was herself a committed Communist, who had joined the party in 1935, and had been to Spain to support the Spanish government. The novel was clearly written as a response to her times. The story of the massacre of Jews in Lithuania had especial relevance because Hitler was now firmly in power in Germany. The book has discussions about what it means to be a revolutionary, and whether bourgeois supporters of the cause were a help or hindrance. Sophia becomes a revolutionary through joining in – revolutionary praxis.
The quality of the novel is again shown by the fact that one is taken through the extremely unlikely transformation of Sophia without thinking it absurd. This is partly because of the characterisation of Minna, who at first seems to Sophia unattractive and immoral, but she learns that:
One could love her freely, unadmonished and unblackmailed by any merits of mind or body. She made no more demands upon one’s moral approval than a cat, she was not even a good mouser. One could love her for the only sufficient reason that one chose to.
The introduction suggests that the character of Minna is based on that of Sylvia Townseld Warner’s lover, Valentine Ackland.
Minna liberates Sophia from her hidebound assumptions, and leads her into a new world that is dangerous and unpredictable. The ending is open. We don’t know what will happen to Sophia next. She is alone in Paris, and the revolution has failed. The proto-fascist Louis Napoleon will take power. But Sophia has piked up a copy of the just-published Communist Manifesto, and the implication is that now anything could happen.
It is a remarkably well-written book, and has made me determined to read more of Sylvia Townsend Warner. A good place to start might be Kingdoms of Elfin, a very interesting-looking collection of fantasy short stories just republished by Handheld Press.