13 October 2020

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

There hasn't been much time set aside for reading this past week down to the dwindling warm(ish) days that need to be taken advantage of.  And much less fun was finding out that our furnace doesn't have another winter left in it so we've been researching the next unit to be installed.  At the very least it was a distraction from the endless reporting about rising number of cases of Covid around the world.  But today the sun is shining, the sky is blue without a cloud in sight and it is dry so I'm looking forward to a bit of garden work once this post is done and dusted.

Published in 1926, Lolly Willowes centres around a young woman named Laura.  She was raised in a loving and traditional family with substantial wealth from her family's brewing company located in Somerset.  As was so often the case during this era and in their sphere, Laura's brothers were educated but she was not.  James and Henry have both married and had children, securing the family's legacy.  With society dictating that Laura is edging firmly into a life of spinsterhood, upon her father's death it is assumed she will move in with Caroline and Henry.

"The girls will be delighted" said Caroline.  Laura roused herself.  It was all settled then, and she was going to live in London with Henry, and Caroline his wife, and Fancy and Marion his daughters.  She would become an inmate of the tall house in Apsley Terrace where hitherto she had only been a country sister-in-law on a visit.

Laura is certain the silk and sealskin ladies of London will shy away from welcoming her into their social circle down to her bookish ways.  While enjoying the museums and galleries of London she misses the countryside and time to herself.  Laura isn't particularly close to Caroline and sees her orderly ways as far too meticulous.  A brilliant sentence made me laugh out loud when Laura commented to herself that Caroline's clothes were folded in a purity that disdained even lavender.  

When Henry and Caroline endeavour to find a suitor for Laura they hone in on Mr Arbuthnot, who while searching for a topic of conversation mentions that February was a dangerous month.  Laura strongly agrees, replying that werewolves will venture out on a dark windy night and worry sheep.  She even goes so far as to wonder whether Mr Arbuthnot could indeed be a werewolf himself!  Naturally there is a look of horror on the faces of everyone and no further attempts to play matchmaker are pursued.  

Laura is weary of the responsibility of overseeing the day to day details of running her brother's home and being chief childminder.  When a recurring bout of autumnal fever surges once again coupled with the desperate need for her own space, Laura approaches her brother for her share of their inheritance.  She is furious when he tells her that he has invested it in what he was sure was a sound investment.  It wasn't and now half of Laura's capital has been lost.  More than the loss of the money, Laura has had enough of not being consulted, treated as a child, and being taken advantage of. 

Now at the mature age of forty-seven, Laura is more determined than ever to live her life independently.  Henry is ordered to collect whatever value is left in the investment which Laura then uses to take a room at Mrs Leak's cottage in a village called Great Mop located in the Chiltern Hills.  The village has the usual complement of citizens: clerks, gardeners, a pub landlord, a veteran officer, a dressmaker, and clergy.  

Just as Laura is feeling comfortable in her new surroundings and shedding the invisible shackles to her previous life, her nephew Titus appears at the cottage.  Arriving from Bloomsbury he has plans for a future at the family's brewery but the reader knows he's also very okay with an easy life.  In other words, letting his Aunt look after him.  Laura feels the shackles tightening once again but don't worry, she has a plan.  The only snag is that it involves the Devil.

Now....things do get a bit strange in the third part of the book but it's a fun sort of strange.  The villagers come out for a Sabbath gathering and lose their inhibitions.  The Devil himself joins Laura for a chat while they sit on the grass (he's in human form rather than the pitchfork sort of Devil).  But Sylvia Townsend Warner expresses quite eloquently through Laura's character what it is to be a woman tied to endless restrictions because of her sex.  

One doesn't become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run round 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....

By the end of the book Laura mentions the Devil's unjudging gaze and indifferent ownership.  A startling statement implying that her relationship with the Devil is more open and free than one she could ever have with a man.  Or indeed, as a single woman in society.  

A fun read for any time of year but this slightly witchy tale is especially perfect during October.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  Moonlight Dance by Emma Childs

8 comments:

  1. The bane of single women who have some kind of money even now. I don't think the taking advantage part of it is gone at all.

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    1. It's rather depressing, isn't it, Mystica. At least the main character did come around to the idea of standing up for herself...although, sooner would have been better for her bank account.

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  2. I try not to feel guilt over all the things I haven't read but...I still feel it for not having read this yet. What an oversight, especially given how much I've loved all the other things I've read by STW!

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    1. So many books to be discovered out there, Claire! Still, all we can do is our best. The level of relief at now knowing what this book is about is incredibly satisfying so I'm very glad that I bought it. I think you'd really enjoy it.

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  3. Lovely review of a book I love so much! I hope you get your furnace sorted by the time it gets chillier :)

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    1. The furnace is all sorted, thankfully! Three young men working all day...and a rainy one at that...made for a very cosy evening. And the new furnace doesn't make as much noise so that's been really nice too!
      Take care, Simon!

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  4. This is such a great book, so fun and undermining of society's expectations of women. I hope you get the furnace wrangled into submission or replaced in time for the proper cold.

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    1. Both clever and fun, isn't it. I wasn't expecting to find such a strong message in Lolly Willowes because the 'witch' aspect gets a lot of attention. You have to love a book that gives you even more bang for your buck that you were expecting.
      New furnace and air conditioner....I don't like being a grown-up sometimes, LyzzyBee.

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