Sylvia Townsend Warner: Lolly Willowes (1926)

Lolly Willowes is a twenty-eight-year-old spinster when her adored father dies, leaving her dependent upon her brothers and their wives. After twenty years of self-effacement as a maiden aunt, she decides to break free and moves to a small Bedfordshire village. Here, happy and unfettered, she enjoys her new existence nagged only by the sense of a secret she has yet to discover. Finally that secret will set Lolly Willowes free.

Danielle (A Work in Progress) has an interesting series called Lost in the Stacks in which she introduces us to authors who have been forgotten or are not read much anymore. One of these authors was Sylvia Townsend Warner as you can read here: Lost in the Stacks – Sylvia Townsend Warner. Danielle mentioned that some of her novels are re-issued by NYRB or Virago and one of the titles Lolly Willowes looked especially interesting. And what a find it was. Not only does the novel tell the story of a unique and independent character but it is a lovely and very feminist book.

Until not too long ago the spinster was a character which could frequently be found in novels. I’ve read more than one novel containing either a spinster or which was about a spinster. They were mostly tragic and often infuriating. The way society treated these unmarried women who were clearly seen as a failure was not only condescending but very often exploitive. As Sarah Waters says in her excellent introduction to the Virago edition of Lolly Willowes, we can see the book to some extent as a re-write of older “spinster novels” like W.B. Maxwell’s The Spinster of this Parish (1922) and F.M. Mayor’s The Rector’s Daughter (1924). As the title of Townsend Warner’s book indicates, the topic has undergone a great change in her novel. The spinster has a name, she is no longer a helpless, independent appendage. Apart from being one woman’s story, the book contains also a subtle reflection on the times, just before and after WWI. The role of the spinster changed considerably after WWI. With so many young men gone, these unmarried elderly women were now seen even more as a useless burden.

Laura, called Lolly, Willowes lives with her father until the age of 28. When he dies her family assumes she will be better off living with her married brother and his family in London instead of staying in the country on her own. The loss of her father is a great tragedy for Lolly. She who lost her mother at an early age, loved living with her father and being relatively independent. She  was never interested in men or getting married. A quiet, introspective life, dedicated to her hobbies, botany and brewery, was all she ever wished for.

She disliked going out, she seldom attended any but those formal parties at which the attendance of Miss Willowes of Lady Place was an obligatory civility; and she found there little reason for animation. Being without coquetry she did not feel herself bound to feign a degree of entertainment which she had not experienced, and the same deficiency made her insensible to the duty of every marriageable young woman to be charming, whether her charm be directed towards one special object or, in default of that, universally distributed through a disinterested love of humanity.

Still she doesn’t make a fuss and follows her brother and his wife and stays with them for several decades. She doesn’t like it there, her sister-in-law is too well-organized, too strict, in other words too boring. She relies completely on her husband, never contradicts him and never seems to spend time on her own. In these surroundings Lolly undergoes a transformation which starts to alarm her more and more over the years.

Or rather, she had become two persons, each different. One was Aunt Lolly, a middle-aging lady, light-footed upon stairs, and indispensable for christmas Eve and birthday preparations. The other was Miss Willowes , ‘my sister-in-law Miss Willowes’, whom Caroline would introduce, and abandon to a feeling of being neither light-footed nor indispensable.

Before WWI breaks out, the Willowes spend all their summer months in the country. Lolly loves these stays and the memory of the beauty of the country side and her reception for everything related to the senses – scents, colors, aromas – open a door in her soul and offer an escape route. She often sits in front of the fire in London and dreams of being in the country on her own. This character trait gives the author the opportunity to include beautiful and evocative descriptions like this one.

At certain seasons a fresh resinous smell would haunt the house like some rustic spirit. It was Mrs Bonnet making the traditional beeswax polish that alone could be trusted to give the proper lustre to the elegantly bulging fronts of tallboys and cabinets. The grey days of early February were tinged with tropical odours by great-great aunt Salome’s recipe for marmalade; and on the afternoon of Good Friday, if it were fine, the stuffed foxes and otters were taken out of their cases, brushed and set to sweeten on the lawn.

After WWI, the society has undergone serious changes. Lolly feels restless. The children of her brother do not really need her anymore and she wants to leave. Finally she wants what her heart has been desiring since years; live in the country on her own. Her relatives are shocked. Her brother has to confess that he has lost a lot of her money due to reckless investments and she cannot afford the house she wanted. Nevertheless, nothing can hold Lolly back, she leaves anyway.

The second half of the novel is dedicated to Lolly’s life in the country. The village she has picked is very mysterious and slowly Lolly undergoes a transformation and becomes a witch. It may sound as if we were entering the realm of the fantastic here and to some extent we do, but the Satan we meet in this book, has more in common with Bulgakov’s Satan than with some fantasy figure.

I’m glad I discovered this wonderful novel. It has freshness and vivacity, is clever and witty and the descriptions are detailed and atmospheric, the portraits of the society and the people are true to life and Lolly is a very endearing character, an illustration of the importance of “a room of one’s own” and the right of women to live an independent life, even outside of society and without a man. It’s certainly one of the rare novels in which a being considered to be a useless burden on society shows that she doesn’t need society in order to live a truly happy and  fulfilled life.

Have you read this or any other of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novels?

34 thoughts on “Sylvia Townsend Warner: Lolly Willowes (1926)

  1. I love the idea of a “Lost in the Stacks” post… a lot of books do fall through the cracks and get lost and forgotten about. This one looks like quite a find!

    • Yes, it’s a great idea. She brings them hme from the library in which she works and that’s how they can also remain in the collection. Many excellent books would be discarded otherwise.
      This was a total find. I loved it.

  2. This looks like a beautiful book, Caroline. Thanks for writing about it. I love the main character for keeping her dreams alive and for having the courage to pursue them inspite of opposition. This must have been a nearly impossible thing to do in the post WW1 era. This book must have been an inspiration for readers of that age. I will add this to my wish list.

    • You’re welcome. I hope you will enjoy it as well, should you read iz.
      It’s a great book and Sylvia Townsend Warner was a lot like Lolly Willowes herself, she really didn’t care much about society and lived the life she wanted to life.
      I found this amazingly perceptive and inspiring and there would have been so many more quotes.

  3. I love finding long forgotten things so I think that reading neglected authors is a great idea.

    Another thing that sounds appealing about this one is that it sounds as if it begins as a traditional and stuffy story like so many from this period, and takes a wild and whimsical turn. It seems very refreshing.

    • Exactly. A bit like cleaning out a closest.
      She had such a boring and unfree life at first until she just didn’t take it any longer.
      I’m sure I will read her again.

  4. This is a great idea. So many authors, who deserve more attention, get pushed to the side. I haven’t read any of her works, but she has one on my 1001 list. I can’t remember the whole title (I haven’t had my tea yet so I’m pretty useless) but it was something about summer. I’ll keep a lookout for her at the library.

    • It’s an neat idea. 🙂
      There is one called The Summer Will Show.
      I’m pleased that authos who are far less known nowadays still are on the 1001 list.
      I’m looking forward to your review, should you get to her.

      • I think that’s the one! Wouldn’t it be fun if I was still reviewing books 50 years from now. I really hope so since I enjoy it so much. By the way, I’ve been in and out of town and haven’t been the best follower. Are you hosting any reading events in the near future?

        • It would be amazing, wouldn’t it.
          You haven’t missed anything but I’ll annouce and event this Friday- with a giveaway and the book is on your 1001 list.
          To find out the details you have to wait for Friday though. 🙂

  5. I also love the idea of a “Lost in the Stacks” series.
    This sounds marvellous, although I’m not sure about the witch and devil twist.

    For an excellent book about a great spirited spinster who takes her life into her hands; Miss McKenzie.

  6. Caroline: I have this on my shelf along with Summer Will Show. haven’t read either, but I bought them as they are NYRB titles and they usually are titles I’m interested in.

    • I think it’quite a special book for many reasons. I might get Summer Will Show as well.
      I find it interesting that NYRB and Virago publish her. I’m usully fond of Virago titles and those NYRB books I have all seem great as well.

        • I really agree. Like Persephone as well and some others.
          I really like Virago. I think some of my first books in English were Viragos. I always have small pile of unread ones, just in case.

  7. oh how I would love to read this book as it is so close to my life.
    People keep telling me to find a husband or asking when are you going to get married?? And I am so tired of replying I am happy as I am now, stop asking me that question.

  8. I love the idea of finding hidden gems when it comes to books. This one sounds delightful, Caroline.
    The word “spinster” sets my teeth on edge. 🙂 I guess “bachelorette” is a slight improvement!

    • Yes, it’s great to discover them. I can really recommend it. It’s so well written.
      Spinster is awful, the word, the concept, all of it. Bachelor doesn’t have this negative meaning.
      Bachelorette is somewhat better.

  9. That’s so kind of you to mention my lost in the stacks project. Work has been a little too hectic of late for me to think about spending much time in the stacks, but I want to get back to it after I get back from vacation. It’s cool you’ve given the book yet another ‘life’ by writing about it here. Now that I see Sarah Waters wrote the intro to the NYRB edition I’m going to have to buy a copy myself!

    • You are welcome. It’s a geat idea. You see from the commnets that people really like it.
      I might have been unclear, Sarah Waters wrote the intro to the Virago edition. It’s the one I have but I couldn’t find a picture of it that was bigger than a stamp.
      You would really like her writing.

    • Really? This is is amazing, yes. I agree, it’s often similar, I think even the topics which we are interested in at a particular time are often similar. I’m very keen on Les Adieux à la reine as well. It sesms a bit on the dry side but I like that in a historical novel. I don’t like them too sentimental. But Bel-Ami comes first.

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