Sylvia Townsend Warner is better known today than she was a few years ago when I first came across her, and most of her novels are now available from either New York Review Books Classics or Virago Modern Classics, but she still doesn’t get the attention she deserves. She was the author of seven novels, including Lolly Willowes (1926), Mr. Fortune’s Maggot (1927), The True Heart (1929), Summer Will Show (1936), After the Death of Don Juan (1938), The Corner That Held Them (1948), and The Flint Anchor (1954). She was also widely known in her lifetime for her short fiction, much of which originally appeared in The New Yorker and most of which remains out of print today.
Warner has garnered some interest in recent years because of her 40-year lesbian “marriage” to Valentine Ackland, a prominent British poet. Their letters to one another, along with a connecting narrative by Warner—which she wrote before her death along with instructions to publish the letters once those mentioned in them were dead—appeared as I’ll Stand by You in 1999.
Since Lolly Willowes, as I already mentioned in my introductory post, is not only my favorite novel, but also the novel that initiated my researches into lesser-known writers, I figured it was only right that it should be the first novel discussed on this blog.
I have to make the disclaimer, however, that I first wrote about this novel when I was still laboring vainly in academia, and my original writing about it was a bit theoretical. But apart from the fact that I’m not even sure myself what I meant by some of the gibberish I wrote at the time, I can’t seem to get away from thinking about the same three possible interpretations that I wrote about then, and I still find it interesting to try to balance all three of them in discussing the book.
In a nutshell, Lolly Willowes is about Laura Willowes, insistently called Lolly by her family—a name that began with a child’s inability to pronounce her correct name and then stuck, perhaps becoming symbolic of her status as a spinster hanger-on in the family, without her own identity. Laura doesn’t care to marry and lives with her father on his country estate until his death when she is 28. She then resides with a brother and sister-in-law in London until she reaches middle age, at which point she suddenly rebels, moves to a small country village by herself, becomes a witch, and sells her soul to the devil in exchange for peace, solitude, and a nonsocial existence, unencumbered by family or civilization.
Same old same old, right?
The novel became a surprise bestseller on both sides of the
Atlantic when it was published in 1926 (it was the inaugural selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club). This might in part have been because there were so many unmarried women in the post-World War I years—“women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded”—who could relate to the character’s situation and savor her fantastic refusal of the role of demure, helpful, but largely invisible spinsterhood (a refusal, without doubt, that was—and still is—considerably harder to pull off in reality). In fact, another highly entertaining novel about a woman similarly resisting repressive social norms (though not by selling her soul), Rose Macaulay’s Crewe Train, appeared the same year.
On the surface, then, the novel is a hugely entertaining fantasy, and this is all I asked of it when I read it the first couple of times. The prose is gorgeous and endlessly entertaining, the world it presents is magical and liberatory, and Warner constantly and eloquently subverts the assumptions of male society throughout. It frequently made me laugh out loud, not so much with hilarity as with sheer delight, and I identified completely with Laura’s escape from familial drudgery and invisibility. For example, here is Warner’s description of the death of Laura’s mother:
During the last few years of her life Mrs. Willowes grew continually more skilled in evading responsibilities, and her death seemed but the final perfected expression of this skill. It was as if she had said, yawning a delicate cat’s yawn, ‘I think I will go to my grave now,’ and had left the room, her white shawl trailing behind her.
And here is a description of Laura’s domestic activities while living with her brother:
Such things as arranging flowers or cleaning the canary-cage were done with a kind of precautious routine which made them seem alike solemn and illicit.
Laura sells her soul to a surprisingly comforting and cheerful Satan and lives happily ever after as a witch. This is summed up in Laura's highly uncharacteristic, beautiful, hilarious, and heartbreaking 3-page rant about the position of unmarried women, culminating with:
But they are like trees towards the end of summer, heavy and dusty, and nobody finds their leaves surprising, or notices them till they fall off. If they could be passive and unnoticed, it wouldn't matter. But they must be active, and still not noticed. Doing, doing, doing, till mere habit scolds at them like a housewife, and rouses them up—when they might sit in their doorways and think—to be doing still!
Laura compares the treatment of her family with how Satan treats her, and it strikes me as a powerful statement about overprotection vs. freedom:
They say: ‘Dear Lolly! What shall we give her for her birthday this year? Perhaps a hot-water bottle. Or what about a nice black lace scarf? Or a new workbox? Her old one is nearly worn out.’ But you say: ‘Come here, my bird! I will give you the dangerous black night to stretch your wings in, and poisonous berries to feed on, and a nest of bones and thorns, perched high up in danger where no one can climb to it.’ That’s why we become witches: to show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure.
There are so many gorgeous and brilliant passages, and my copy of the book is so spotted with x’s in the margins next to memorable prose, that I could end up posting most of the novel here, but I’ll let you find out some of the wonders for yourself.
Anyway, it wasn’t until about my third reading of the book (I’m up to eight or nine by now) that I began to wonder about the “reality” of the novel. I happened to have just been reading Henry James’s classic ghost story “The Turn of the Screw,” in which a young governess with two young wards on an isolated country estate, may—depending on how you read the story (and, no doubt, depending on your own biases and inclinations as well)—either be fending off actual ghosts determined to harm or traumatize the two children, OR be hallucinating ghosts as projections of her own sexual repressions and anxieties, in the process of which she may be traumatizing the two children herself.
And suddenly, I found myself wondering if Warner could be doing something similar in Lolly Willowes. Could Laura be interpreting perfectly ordinary occurrences in supernatural ways, or could she even be having hallucinations?
I didn’t like the idea at first, because I loved and related to Laura so much as a character and didn’t want to be diagnosing her as “neurotic” or “delusional” in her rebellion against society. But when I started reading with this possibility in mind, I did start finding clues. Warner repeatedly presents Laura—long before she actually moves to the country and sells her soul to Satan—as having increasingly vivid fantasies, and perhaps finding it harder and harder to return to reality. When doing needlework, “She had actually a sensation that she was stitching herself into a piece of embroidery with a good deal of background.” And later on, Laura is hilariously faced with a potential suitor:
Mr. Arbuthnot certainly was not prepared for her response to his statement that February was a dangerous month. “It is,” answered Laura with almost violent agreement. “If you are a were-wolf, and very likely you may be, for lots of people are without knowing, February, of all months, is the month when you are most likely to go out on a dark windy night and worry sheep.”
Mr. Arbuthnot said: “How very interesting! But I really don’t think I am likely to do such a thing.” Laura made no answer. She did not think so either. But she was amusing herself with a surprisingly vivid and terrible picture of Mr. Arbuthnot cloaked in a shaggy hide and going with heavy devouring swiftness upon all-fours with a lamb dangling from his mouth.
These early fantasies are harmless enough, but as Laura gets older, the fantasies seem to become more vivid. In a scene in a grocery shop just before her departure for the country, Laura has a vision of a woman raising the fruits and vegetables:
She forgot that she was in
London, she forgot the whole of her life. She seemed to be standing alone in a darkening orchard, her feet in the grass, her arms stretched up to the pattern of leaves and fruit, her fingers seeking the rounded ovals of the fruit among the pointed ovals of the leaves. … No sound, except sometimes the soft thud of a ripe plum falling into the grass, to lie there a compact shadow among shadows. The back of her neck ached a little with the strain of holding up her arms. Her fingers searched among the leaves. London
She started as the man of the shop came up to her and asked her what she wished for. Her eyes blinked, she looked with surprise at the gloves upon her hands.
It’s a little difficult to see how these clues fit into the novel except to suggest that Laura’s grasp on reality may not be as strong as it might be. So, unlikely as it seems from the cheerfulness of its surface story, I started thinking that Lolly Willowes might have something in common with that all-time classic of the madness brought on by women’s claustrophobic domestic lives, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s early feminist story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (though the former is certainly a million times more fun to read!). Laura might be simply having a clever and comforting fantasy—similar, even, to the escapist fantasy experienced by us, the readers of the novel—except that, in the end, Laura may no longer recognize it as fantasy.
When I returned to the novel a year or so later for a fourth (or was it fifth?) reading, I started imagining that a third possibility might exist (and this is where it may have gotten a little academic and egg-headed, but I still wonder about it, so I’ll share it here regardless). I started wondering if Warner was really doing something pretty postmodern—if she might be intentionally leaving the “reality” of the novel in doubt in order to focus instead on the whole idea of fantasy itself—of (in this case) a woman’s fantasy of escaping from a rigidly-controlled and ultimately male-dominated culture in which her only value could be as a wife and mother or as a permanent babysitter and domestic servant. Maybe she was questioning the politics of this escapism (Warner herself sympathized with Marxism and might well have been suggesting that fantasizing doesn’t make the world a better place)? Or maybe she was questioning if it was even possible to escape in any meaningful way from the culture we live in?
After all, whether Laura is dreaming comforting dreams or whether she really becomes a witch, it strikes me that the life Laura chooses for herself is really, when you think about it, only a sort of lonely, wide-open prison instead of a socially enforced, tightly constraining one. When her nephew Titus becomes engaged to be married, Laura thinks of the engagement as a business transaction, an engagement between the country estate Titus already owns and the woman he is about to own. She has no understanding of—or, perhaps more accurately, no trust in—romantic love—or, for that matter, much of any other kind of social interaction. Laura's escape from society and social oppression has been a (surely somewhat bittersweet) escape from any meaningful human interaction whatsoever!
Not only that, but, late in the novel, when Laura wonders why being a witch seems so normal to her, Satan—her newly chosen master—tells her:
That is because you are in my power. No servant of mine can feel remorse, or doubt, or surprise. You may be quite easy, Laura: you will never escape me, for you can never wish to.
(By the way, I don’t think I’ve mentioned the name of the village to which Laura retreats. One might wonder about a triumphant escape from domestic drudgery—to a village called Great Mop…)
I readily admit that when I re-read the novel now, it’s absolutely for the plot—for the wonderful, liberating story of a powerless woman who gains power and happiness and freedom. And I love Laura for her rebellion, her subversive thoughts, and her joyful liberation. Her rant, which I quoted from earlier, goes on:
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 you by others, charitable refuse of their thoughts, so many ounces of stale bread of life a day, the workhouse dietary is scientifically calculated to support life.
Once she gets going, what Laura has to say about the place of women—especially the “superfluous” unmarried women of her time—is brilliant and inspiring regardless of how you interpret the book.
But I also don’t doubt that the other meanings are there, or that Warner put them there intentionally. Moreover, I’ve come to believe that—for me, at least—those other meanings ultimately enrich the novel. Without the lingering doubt about Laura’s complete sanity, without the questioning of what a “liberating” fantasy (or, for that matter, a “liberated” reality) would actually look like, Lolly Willowes might not have remained my favorite novel and weathered so many rereadings.
But if you need one more bit of proof that Warner intended to call Laura’s delightful escape into question? Well, what about that title? “Lolly” is, after all, the name forced on Laura by her family ties, by her defined role as a spinster in a repressive society. Warner never once uses the name in her narrative except when a character uses it in dialogue. Once Laura escapes to the countryside, she remains exclusively “Laura” until Titus comes to visit her and reinstates the old name. And yet... That repressive, unchosen, unwanted name—which Laura interprets explicitly as a threat to her liberation—that identity that Laura is trying so determinedly and cleverly to resist, is right there in big letters in the title Warner chose for the novel.
It kind of makes you think.