Lolly Willowes

Sylvia Townsend Warner’s debut novel, Lolly Willowes, begins disguised as a conventional novel, but eventually blossoms into something very strange and unexpected, not unlike the title character herself. As the novel opens, Lolly (properly Laura, the nickname being one of a number of ways in which the family infantilise her) is staying with her brother, Henry, and his wife, Caroline, who think of her as “a gentle creature and the little girls love her.” Their only concern is that “she would need to make haste if she were going to find a husband before she was thirty.” Lolly, on the other hand, seems little interested in marriage:

“But her upbringing had only furthered a temperamental indifference to the need of getting married.”

She puts paid to a final suitor by commenting, “If you are a were-wolf, and very likely you may be…” At the same time, we understand she is not entirely contented with her current life, as she sits each evening opposite her sister-in-law, reduced to embroidery by the knowledge that Caroline’s sewing (and indeed her aptitude in any domestic skill) is superior to her own:

“She had actually a sensation that she were stitching herself into a piece of embroidery with a good deal of background.”

The unconventional thought or phrase hidden in the conventional narrative, we soon discover, is Townsend Warner’s forte:

“Then the house, emptied of another day, creaked once or twice, and fell into repose, its silence and security barred up within it like a kind of moral family plate.”

Even on holiday, Lolly cannot find the freedom she is longing for:

“She would have liked to go by herself for long walks inland and find strange herbs, but she was too useful to be allowed to stray.”

The desire to collect herbs, and an earlier mention of her interest in “rural pharmacopoeia” when she still lived with her father, are among the few clues of what is to come. The war, and then influenza (fever so often being a signifier of change in Victorian novels) leave Lolly disappointed that her life remains the same, until she inquires as to the origin of a bunch of chrysanthemums she buys one day when she feels particularly oppressed:

“As Laura stood waiting she felt a great longing. It weighed upon her like the load of ripened fruit upon a tree.”

When she discovers they are from Great Mop, a village in the Chilterns, she immediately decides that she will leave London and live there. When she returns home to tell her family the news:

“She felt as though she had awoken, unchanged from a twenty-year slumber, to find them almost unrecognisable.”

Her brother is, of course, dismissive, but her determination ensures that in the novel’s second part, we learn of her first year in Great Mop. Only now does she understand “for the first time how miserable she had been,” and Townsend Warner characterises the landscape itself as welcoming:

“Wherever she strayed the hills folded themselves around her like the fingers of a hand.”

Still, she cannot entirely escape her family, particularly when her nephew Titus decides that he too will move to Great Mop as it is the perfect place to write the book he has been planning. She objects to the ease with which he settles, to his claim that “she is just the same,” and to the way he disturbs her walks:

“She thought the woods saw her with him and drew back scornfully.”

In desperation, she cries out, “Is there no help?” and, in the novel’s second unexpected turn, enters into a pact with the Devil. Soon she has her own familiar (a cat she names Vinegar) and has been invited to her first witches’ Sabbath. Townsend Warner prevents the novel descending into silliness with a combination of the wit and seriousness she has shown throughout. This is a novel which is often wickedly funny. Lolly, for example, finds the witches’ Sabbath less enjoyable than she had hoped:

“Even as a witch, it seemed, she was doomed to social failure…”

Its darkness can be seen when, at the same Sabbath, a man whom Lolly is convinced is Satan approaches her in a mask:

“With a fine tongue like a serpent’s, he licked her right cheek.”

It later transpires that the man is a “brilliant young author” who has sold his soul to the Devil “on the condition that once a week he should be without doubt the most important person at a party.” The ultimate joke is that only Satan can help Lolly escape from the suffocatingly conventional life and character her family insist in imposing on her:

“It had pleased Satan to come to her aid. Considering carefully, she did not see who else would have done so.”

Lolly Willowes is a novel which balances great naturalism (in both her portrait of life in London and of the countryside) with the strange and unexpected, both in its language and in its plot. It is full of wonderful turns of phrase and witty descriptions. (My favourite is perhaps Caroline’s rationale for her exquisitely folded clothes: “We have our example… The grave-clothes were folded in the tomb.”) In many ways it is like Lolly herself: bursting with a life that finally cannot be repressed. Penguin Classics are releasing the rest of her novels this year and I, for one, cannot wait to read them.

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11 Responses to “Lolly Willowes”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    A truly wonderful analysis of a most beguiling novel! I think you’ve captured the balance between the novel’s realist and fantastic elements to a T. The Chilterns location added an extra layer of interest for me, especially as I live just inside the boundary. (I can’t recall if any of the introductions mention it, but I suspect Great Mop is code for Great Missenden, which is around 12-15 miles from here.)

    Have you decided which SWT you’re going to read next? I get the feeling that her novels are all quite different from one another…

  2. heavenali Says:

    Wonderful review. I love this book, and STW’s writing in general. I haven’t read everything by her yet, but I’ve read Lolly Willowes twice.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Lovely post, Grant – I’ve yet to read this and it sounds like pure delight! I’ve only read Mr. Fortune’s Maggot and her recent Persephone short story collection but both were excellent!

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That sounds remarkable and bizarre. One to add to my TBR clearly! David also had it on his end of year list (http://www.davidsbookworld.com/2020/10/16/lolly-willowes-sylvia-townsend-warner/).

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I just finished this today, so returned to your review. It’s quite something isn’t it? I’m not sure what, but something good in any event. So very much its own thing. Have you read any more Townsend Warner since?

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, I’ve read Summer Will Show since, a quite different novel in many ways, beginning with it’s historical setting. I’ve reviewed that as well.

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