Book review by Sue R: Sylvia Townsend Warner was a poet, short story writer, novelist and musicologist. She wrote non- fiction works including a biography of T.H. White, and a translation of Proust. She and her partner Valentine Ackland, a poet, were both active in the Communist Party; they worked for Red Cross during the Spanish Civil War. Lolly Willowes was her first work, published in 1926.
This is a book of two halves: the first concerns the life of Laura, a middle class spinster who, after the death of her much-loved father, moved to London to live with her older brother and his wife. It did not occur to them or Lolly that she would set up on her own despite having private means. She was disposed of like a piece of furniture. Moving to London she became two persons:
One was Aunt Lolly, a middle aging lady, light footed upon stairs, and indispensable for Christmas Eve and birthday preparations. The other was Miss Willowes… But Laura was put away.
Moreover her relatives had other motives:
She would meet nice people. 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.
Being naive and lacking in coquetry she had not realised the necessity of marriage for a woman of her age and class. This indifference had been reinforced by her role as her father’s companion:
There is nothing more endangering to a young woman’s normal inclination to young men than an intimacy with a man twice her age
She was to spend twenty years playing the roles of dutiful sister and aunt. On the annual family holiday she never got any time to herself:
…she was too useful to be allowed to stray.
However there were signs of unease especially in Autumn:
Her mind was groping after something that eluded her experience, something that was shadowy and menacing and yet in some way congenial.
There were daydreams of being in the country at dusk, alone and at peace. At this time she had gotten into the habit of exploring London and every winter she bought flowers there:
Henry and Caroline condoned this extravagance but mistrusted it.
They were right to mistrust it for a purchase of expensive chrysanthemums in London proved to be the catalyst for change. She tracked down where the flowers were grown, and immediately bought a map and a guidebook to the Chilterns, deciding to buy a house there.
As she told her family: ‘I am going to live there and perhaps keep a donkey. ‘
Henry and Caroline were shocked; as we had learned earlier,
“She[Caroline] had resigned herself to spending the rest of her evenings with Laura beside her…it was impossible to imagine Laura fending for herself.”
Unfortunately her brother had handled her income unwisely so she would be unable to buy a house or a donkey. When she realised this she lost her temper
“She had never lost her temper like this before. It was a glorious sensation.”
The second half describes her escape from the confines of her comfortable middle class life to her more penurious existence in the village of Great Mop.
Unable to buy her house, she rented rooms with a Mrs Leak in Great Mop and settled in to a slower, unhurried life. It was not a sociable village though the villagers did keep late hours for reasons she was to discover: most of them were witches or warlocks. On one of her many walks she met Mr Saunter who kept hens, and for several months she helped him with his chicks. She felt she was becoming the henwife of fairy tales.
The unexpected visit by her nephew Titus and his decision to move to Great Mop shattered her recently acquired independent existence. Eventually she was driven to escape his company and ended up in an isolated ugly field:
She walked up and down in despair and rebellion. She walked slowly for she felt the weight of her chains… For she wanted, oh how she wanted, to be left alone for once.
At this point, when she screamed out for help, Satan came to her rescue. On her return she found a kitten which scratched her and she was convinced this sealed her compact with the Devil. She began to realise being a witch had always been her vocation:
What else had set her on her long solitary walks, her quests for powerful and forgotten herbs, her brews and distillations?
The Devil had been watching her for nine months but all the time he had been coming closer.
In fact Laura felt that:
“…women have more need of you (Satan). Women have such vivid imaginations and lead such dull lives”.
The author’s depiction of Satan is very different from that of Dennis Wheatley :
He is not only a huntsman- his interest in mankind is that of a skilful experienced naturalist.
The problem of the presence of Titus in Great Mop is resolved in a gentle manner – no bloody accident or horrifying haunting in the manner of Wheatley but curdled milk, a plague of bees and Titus’s engagement to a nice middle class girl. In a comic aside Titus explained:
One has to offer marriage to a young woman who has picked dead wasps out of one’s armpit”
The author does pass a dry comment on the question of marriage:
Why should Titus offer her marriage? Why should Pandora accept it? They had been always such friends.
Perhaps Pandora was part of the witchcraft too.
Sylvia Townsend Warner tackles a serious issue: the plight of the unmarried middle class woman in early twentieth century. Her employment prospects were limited by her social standing: a governess or a companion to a rich woman. Or she could live with her family if she could not find a husband and be at their beck and call. World War One only exacerbated the shortage of potential husbands.
Warner is particularly good at describing the stultifying life for such a woman:
Then came shopping, letter writing, arranging the flowers, cleaning the canary cage, and the girls’ walk. …Every Tuesday the books were changed at the library. After lunch there was a spell of embroidery..
Everything was ordered:
On Sunday mornings Henry (her brother) would wind the clock … After that the family went to church, and there were wound up for the week in much the same manner.
In a conversation with the Devil towards the end of the book she described the effect of the never ending domestic routine:
Nothing for them except subjection and plaiting their hair…It sounds very petty to complain about, but I tell you, that sort of thing settles down on one like a fine dust, and by and by the dust is age..
If they could be passive and unnoticed, it wouldn’t matter. But they must be active and still not noticed.
Laura explains the attraction of Satan and witchcraft to women, and one hears the echo of Virginia Woolf and her room of one’s own:
One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful or to run around being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It’s to escape all that, to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others…
I enjoyed this book especially the first half; it becomes a little too whimsical for me when she moved to the countryside. There is a touch of magical realism which does not completely work for me.
There is a tongue-in-cheek humour which I found very funny especially in the first half of the book. Her descriptions of middle class life were acute and Laura/Sylvia is a perceptive observer of character, especially the pompous brother Henry. He was:
…spoiled by the Law… his natural sturdy stupidity becoming browbeating indifference to other people’s points of view
Laura came to the conclusion that her sister –in- law was complicit in Henry’s dominance:
.. Caroline had been very bad for his character…she yielded to his judgement in every dispute, she bowed her good sense to his will…
… she fed his vanity and ministered to his imperiousness.
The author, who spent most of her life in Dorset, writes lyrically about the countryside ; even the description of the shop where she bought the chrysanthemums includes details of the different nuts and fruits sold there, evoking images of darkened orchards and cool, moist air.
Perhaps unsurprisingly there is a hint of same -sex attraction:
“Where are you taking me?” she said. Mrs Leak made no answer but in the darkness she took hold of Laura’s hand.
Together they went to the Witches’ Sabbath where Laura enjoyed dancing with Emily a local redhead. Her face is touched by a strand of her hair:
The contact made her tingle from head to foot.
It has been described as a feminist book: a perceptive comment on the plight of the middle class single women trying to be independent in the face of the expectations of a patriarchal society. This was something Sylvia Townsend Warner knew only too well, especially living with her female partner in the conservative countryside of Dorset .An impressive first novel.