Archive for the ‘Sylvia Townsend Warner’ Category

Summer Will Show

March 1, 2021

Just as when we first meet Lolly Willowes at the beginning of the novel of the same name – an unmarried woman immersed in a conventional, domestic life – we would be unlikely to imagine where she finds herself by the final pages, so too our initial acquaintance with Sophia Willoughby in Summer Will Show suggests nothing of the novel’s final scene. Domesticity is again key as she is firstly introduced as a mother to Damian and Augusta. Tradition, too, is important as she walks down the drive of Blandamer House, remembering her childhood and “How little the place had changed!” Even her purpose echoes her own upbringing as she is taking her children, both suffering from whooping cough, to inhale the fumes of the lime-kiln as a cure:

“Sophia held by old fashioned manners for children. Crusts, cold water, cold rooms, scanty clothing, rough romping games to harden them, philosophical conversations to enlarge their minds.”

One might regard her attitudes as out-dated, even for the 1840s when the novel is set, were it not that they still somehow persist. No wonder, though, that she regards her children, particularly Damian, as “childish”, and worries about him starting school as a “milksop”. She is convinced, however, that she is happy in her role, comparing herself to the chestnut trees which she prefers without their spring blossom:

“Like me exactly, she thought, I admire them, and I am glad to resemble them. I am done with blossoming, done with ornament and admiration. I live for my children – a good life, the life my heart would have chosen.”

The only blemish on her life is her husband, Fredrick, who has not taken to life in the country, or, indeed, the monogamy of marriage:

“A weaker or idler woman might have been jealous; a woman in love would certainly have been so. Indifference and responsibility preserved her from any sharper pang than annoyance…”

Instead she has written to Fredrick telling him that she no longer wishes to live with him, consoling herself that “I am far safer than if I were a widow…unquestioned as a tree.” However, her peaceful life at Blandamer is ended by events beyond her control, and in the aftermath, she heads to Paris to seek her husband, who is living there with his mistress, Minna. In this, too, the novel follows the pattern of Lolly Willowes, with her initial move being an escape which is calmly undertaken but driven by a deeper need.

In Paris, Sophia meets for the first time her husband’s mistress. Minna is Jewish, and Sophia’s immediate reaction is to indulge in anti- Semitic stereotyping as she listen to her tell a story of her childhood:

“…seeing that mournful, dark glance flicker over the listeners, as though numbering so many well-tied money bags. Our ears are your ducats.”

At the same time, the story Minna tells, which opens the novel’s second book and provides the reader’s introduction to the character, makes clear the discrimination she has faced. Sophia is equally scathing of the social milieu Frederick is now mixing with (“Good God, what a menagerie!”) and immediately regards her visit as a mistake. However, placing Sophia in Paris is not entirely, or even predominantly, about her relationship with Fredrick. The year is 1848 and Paris is once again on the brink of revolution:

“Behind that barricade patriots will defend the cause of liberty, will defy the tyrant, will bleed and conquer.”

Just as Lolly’s conventional life was contrasted with witchcraft, so Sophie’s upper-class upbringing is placed in the context of revolutionary politics. Ideology is of little interest to her, but a relationship with Minna develops and Frederick’s importance diminishes:

“Instantly forgetting his existence, save as a character in her narrative, Sophie went on talking. Minna’s clasp tightened upon her hand.”

Summer Will Show is a much longer novel than Lolly Willowes, betraying the complexity of Sophie’s time in Paris. During that time her life will change completely as she finds herself cut adrift from the comfortable life she lived in England, and cut off from her fortune. As with Lolly Willowes there is much to enjoy in the contrasts Warner creates, and she is certainly successful in conveying a sense of Paris during this period. If the novel feels more ambitious, it is also harder to love. Partly this due to the character of Sophia who remains largely dispassionate and withdrawn, but the novel’s length also reduces its impact. Subplots, such as the black bastard son of an uncle whom she places in a school in England and who later follows her to France, do not quite come off. Having said that, it demonstrates that Warner is a writer who, like her characters, is neither predictable nor easily constrained.

Lolly Willowes

January 2, 2021

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.