“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 by others.”
I have wanted to read Lolly Willowes for ages, and yet for some unknown reason I read three other Sylvia Townsend Warner novels before tackling the one I have always assumed is her best known. It’s not an especially long book, but it wasn’t just the length which made me gobble it up in great gulps. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s writing is wonderful; she was a gifted, imaginative storyteller whose use of language is really quite lovely. Having read The Corner that Held Them, Mr Fortune’s Maggot and Summer will Show, I was already a fan of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s writing, so I had big expectations of Lolly Willowes which I know a lot of people love. Thankfully I wasn’t disappointed, hence the gobbling up of it. Even in the midst of the gobbling up however I was often stopped in my tracks by the most glorious prose, descriptions of utter perfection.
“…she looked with the yearning of an outcast at the dwelling so long ago discarded. The house was like an old blind nurse sitting in the sun and ruminating past events. It seemed an act of the most horrible ingratitude to leave it all and go away without one word of love. But the gates were shut, the time of welcome was gone by.”
The story itself is tender and a little magical, and I simply adored the character of Lolly Willowes herself. Laura Willowes (to allow her, her given name) is a dutiful unmarried daughter of twenty eight when her beloved father dies. Laura had always enjoyed her quiet life in the country, sometimes gathering herbs and making distillations with them. Laura is at one with the countryside, and its yearly round of traditions. Born some years after her two elder brothers; Henry and James, Laura grew up almost as an only child, the apple of her father’s eye. Laura has run her father’s home with ease, helped by the servants, people of good old country stock, who make beeswax furniture polish and pigeon pie. Upon her father’s death Laura is devastated; everything she knows and feels secure in is lost. Her elder brothers and their wives take control, it is quickly decided – that despite Laura having a good income of her own left to her by her father – she should go away from the country to London and live with Henry and Caroline and their two young daughters. Between them; Henry, James and their wives make all the decisions, what furniture Laura will take with her, and how useful she will be. London life will be very different, but Laura submits to the decisions made for her.
Of course Laura is useful, for that is how she is made, she proves herself invaluable. It is one of Henry’s young daughters who bestow the name Aunt Lolly on Laura – and the name sticks and Laura is Laura no longer, her life no longer her own. Laura settles her things into the small spare room in the London House that she will now call her own, while her brother and sister-in-law set about introducing her to potential, suitable husbands.
For twenty years Aunt Lolly makes herself indispensable to family life in London. Holidays are taken at Lady Place, her former home where her brother James his wife and son Titus live. Aunt Lolly is taken for granted, she is so very reliable. The years slip by quickly – the girls grow up and begin to make lives for themselves. A war is fought; the world is a different place. In the 1920’s Laura finds, at forty-seven, that she wants something different for herself. She has the feeling that something is pulling her towards the countryside again, feeling herself at one with the natural world, she longs for woods, and hillsides. Laura decides to break free of the life which has been organised for her realising suddenly that she can have a life of her own. Laura’s realisation coming in a greengrocer’s shop of a quite old fashioned kind;
“Laura looked at the bottled fruits, the sliced pears in syrup, the glistening red plums, the greengages. She thought of the woman who had filled those jars and fastened on the bladders. Perhaps the greengrocer’s mother lived in the country. A solitary old woman picking fruit in a darkening orchard, rubbing her rough fingertips over the smooth-skinned plums, a lean wiry old woman, standing with upstretched arms among her fruit trees as though she were a tree herself, growing out of the long grass, with arms stretched up like branches. It grew darker and darker; still she worked on, methodically stripping the quivering taut boughs one after the other.”
Laura finds herself drawn to the countryside of Buckinghamshire, and the tiny village of Great Mop. Her family are both horrified and astonished at Laura’s announcement, and at first they don’t take her quite seriously. On finding her brother has mismanaged her money; Laura can only afford to rent a couple of rooms in the cottage of Mrs Leek. Here in two small rooms and roaming free in the countryside that surrounds the cottage, Aunt Lolly becomes Laura again, her happiness is complete, and she finds within herself the woman she should always have been. There appear to be unusual forces around the village of Great Mop and the nearby countryside, forces with which Laura is at one. Here the story does get a little odd – but I knew that before I started – the reader has to suspend belief a bit, that’s all. When Titus turns up to stay with his good old Aunt Lolly; his presence upsets the delicately balanced atmosphere of the area, and unleashes forces, that finally bring Laura to an understanding of who she really is.
Published three years before Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Lolly Willowes is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s assertion that all single women should have their own liberty and lives of their own not dictated for them by others.