In "Lolly Willowes," Sylvia Townsend Warner tells of an aging spinster's struggle to break way from her controlling family--a classic story that she ...Show synopsisIn "Lolly Willowes," Sylvia Townsend Warner tells of an aging spinster's struggle to break way from her controlling family--a classic story that she treats with cool feminist intelligence, while adding a dimension of the supernatural and strange. Warner is one of the outstanding and indispensable mavericks of twentieth-century literature, a writer to set beside Djuna Barnes and Jane Bowles, with a subversive genius that anticipates the fantastic flights of such contemporaries as Angela Carter and Jeanette Winterson.Hide synopsis
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This novel is many things; some people say it might be a feminist novel because the main character finally realizes her true vocation as a witch, but _Lolly Willowes_ is so much more beautiful and complex than that. This story is also about one woman?s love of the English countryside and how it is the place her heart longs for. The beauty of the land is on every page. The main character, Laura Willowes, ?Aunt Lolly,? gets so much pleasure from walking the hills and meadows and woods and woodland paths that I feel sure author Sylvia Townsend Warner put herself into Lolly. And if being passionate about solitary walks in nature is a sign of witchcraft, then let?s have more of it.
The novel flows beautifully, and has many lines like this: ?The bees droned in the motionless lime trees? (38). Sensitive images like that do many things: they show the passion for the countryside (as I mentioned), and also give the reader a sense of time, and place, and mood, and Lolly?s interior thoughts. These carefully-crafted sentences are not random poetic lines dropped into the text but part and parcel of this novel?s pace and tone of voice. In a pivotal scene, Lolly is in a shop when she goes into a sort of meditative trance; the room falls quiet like she?s alone outdoors: ?No sound, except sometimes the soft thud of a riper plum falling into the grass, to lie there a compact shadow among shadows? (80).
The novel is 220 pages and divided into three parts of almost equal length, each part mapping out Lolly Willowes?s life through her psychological development. Part 1 shows Laura as she goes from birth through childhood in the care of her loving father, whose nurturing of her is truly a touching portrait of parenthood. This first part of the novel shows Laura becoming Aunt Lolly; the author shows the social environment in which Laura/Lolly is embedded; we see the development of her two brothers and their wives and children, how they are well-off--but perhaps not typically middle-class. The social role of the ?spinster aunt? Lolly becomes someone the Willowes family depends upon. The Willowes?s stalwart Englishness is characterized by steadfast values, often predictable--the very quality that created British society, in my view. Though Lolly seems stuck in one position (the maiden Aunt), it is a comfortable prison. This early portrait of Laura Willowes is necessary to show her later development and how her streak of creativity finds expression when she breaks away from her brother and the Willowes?s stable and secure existence.
Also of note is that this novel was originally published in 1926 and now has a kind of sociological or non-fiction quality. I?m not spoiling the novel for you if I suggest that the turning point is in Part 1 around the topic of how the Willowes family holds up during World War I, or the Great War, during which they have been confined to their London house: During the immediate aftermath of the war, Aunt Lolly becomes aware that she is hungry for change in life: ?She saw how admirable it was for Henry and Caroline [ her brother and his wife ] to have stayed where they were [in London].? The narrator continues, ?But she was conscious, more conscious than they were, that the younger members of the family had somehow moved into new positions. And she herself, had she not slightly strained against her moorings, fast and far sunk as they were?? (66). Again, the key to Lolly/Laura?s happiness is the countryside--not as an escape but as a conscious choice--and in an unusual expression of creative energy and self-consciousness, which you?ll find out when you read.
There is an understated sensuality at work all through this novel, one that male readers can appreciate, too, since Warner knew that there were men similar to the Lolly Willowes of Britain, who wanted to break away from their masculine social roles in the 1920s.
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