Wednesday, November 18, 2009

NYRB Challenge Book #10: Lolly Willowes. . .

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner is a very unusual, delightful and completely original novel, and in many ways was the perfect follow-up read to In Parenthesis.

Originally published in 1926, the novel deals with one of the main after effects of the First World War - the superfluous spinster. Laura Willowes is the typical maiden aunt who has stayed at home to look after her aging father. When he dies, her brother Henry decides that "Aunt Lolly" will live with him and his wife in their London home and help with the children. She spends the next twenty years of her life bored, lonely and unfulfilled and desperately missing the beauties of the countryside where she grew up. Finally, following an unexpected experience in a florist's, Lolly - fed-up at 47 - announces to her astonished family that she's moving to Great Mop, a tiny village in the Chilterns. The second half of the book follows her rural adventures, including some very odd nocturnal outings that turn supernatural. Lolly quickly realizes that there's something very strange about her neighbours and that she too is changing. A chance meeting with Satan offers her even more life choices.

There's a thematic switch in the latter half of the novel but it's not a jarring one - the reader just naturally - almost matter-of-factly - follows Lolly as she escapes from one type of society into a coven of a very different nature. And while the war is only obliquely referred to, this novel seems almost a direct - and feminist - response to its carnage and the subsequent upheaval of British society. Its effects have not gone away. A neighbour and friend of Lolly's is Mr. Saunter, a war veteran, who has chosen poultry farming over his previous job working in a bank. The countryside is seen as a place of healing even if the devil does walk its hills, "a little jaded moreover by the success of his latest organized Flanders battue". And this dangerous tinge to the quiet yet vivid natural world, beautifully evoked by Townsend Warner's descriptive writing, is presented as a completely viable, even desirable alternative for women. As Lolly tells Satan, "we have more need of you. Women have such vivid imaginations, and lead such dull lives. Their pleasure in life is so soon over; they are so dependent upon others, and their dependence so soon becomes a nuisance."

I love a book that is unclassifiable (Lolly Willowes is not quite Cold Comfort Farm, not exactly a jazz age novel, not A Month in the Country), and that really stands out from others written at the same time. NYRB has published other books by this author - I'm sure that Summer Will Show for example, will pop up later on in this challenge and I think I have some old Viragos of hers on my shelves at home. Sylvia Townsend Warner is definitely a writer I want to read more of - and about.

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