Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1979, c1926.
This was a strange little book I picked up on holidays this summer, and read it not knowing what to expect. This very stark cover would have given me a little bit of a clue if I'd paid close attention to it before beginning...it's a satirical look at women's roles in the years after WWI, when there were suddenly so very many widows and spinsters in England.
Laura is a spinster, a dutiful daughter who runs her father's house capably until one day, the inevitable happens and he dies. Then her brothers and their families are put to the question of what to do with her. Obviously, she has to live with someone -- she can't possibly be left on her own.
She is taken in by her brother's family, with her capable sister-in-law Caroline using her as domestic help and live-in babysitter. Of course it's just because they all depend on her so much, because she is so needed. She is so much an appendage to their family that her name is even changed to Lolly, when a young niece can't say "Laura" -- she is not asked whether or not she likes this.
She lives in this way for many years, until one day she just can't any more. Shopping, she sees a vision of the countryside:
“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.”
”As Laura stood waiting she felt a great longing. It weighed upon her like the load of ripened fruit upon a tree. She forgot the shop, the other customers, her own errand. She forgot the winter air outside, the people going by on the wet pavements. She forgot that she was in London, she forgot the whole of her London 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. The air about her was cool and moist. There was no sound, for the birds had left off singing and the owls had not yet begun to hoot. 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.”
So she heads off to the village of Great Mop to live in a little house with a landlady, all on her own. She loves it. But then her nephew, who needs her, lands in Great Mop too. And she must find a way to say no to his needs and to do what she wants to do, without feeling guilty for wanting "a room of her own". So she joins the local coven and makes a pact with the devil.
Right, what was that? Yes, she becomes a devotee of an admittedly suave Satan, so that she has every excuse to refuse acting in the ways that society demands of a maiden aunt. She can't do it on her own authority, she needs a higher one. Since the quiet and devout society she has spent most of her life in tells her she must be selfless and devote all her energies to those around her, she rejects all of it in one go. She is now a witch, with a sweet little kitten as her familiar. All these old ladies and their cats in small country towns.......it's not as innocent as it looks!
Actually, I thought that the idea of the book was fascinating. The stifling life that Laura lived, which was upheld by all the married women around her, was tedious to the extreme. She had small goals, just some time to herself to rest and think and read, and just NOT to be needed constantly. When the book goes into the oddity of Laura resting and chatting with the devil on a hillside, and showing up at a village-wide witchy bonfire, the reader isn't sure whether she's imagining things or if any of these events are actually supposed to be occurring. This fantastic element suddenly appears, and it's not expected. But it does make sense for Laura to decide that she is now a witch -- it gives her an out from society's demands. It seems sad to me that such a extreme reaction was needed, when those looking at her life might have thought she was quite comfortable, what more could she desire? As Laura says about her seemingly inevitable witchhood:
“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.”
This is an odd, interesting read that reveals the focus on women's lives and self-agency at a time when there were many writers thinking about this issue. It was well done and just odd enough that it sticks in the mind. To read a lengthy and thorough review of many possible interpretations of Lolly Willowes, check out this great blog post at Furrowed Middlebrow.
|Sylvia Townsend Warner|
Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, published just a year or two later, is often compared to this book -- not for style, but for the very similar focus on the idea of a life determined by a woman herself, not just one arranged around the needs of others.
Crewe Train, by Rose Macauley, was published the same year as Lolly Willowes and has a different take on a young woman who resists the social expectations pushed on her as she returns to English society as an outsider.
And if you'd like to know more about Sylvia Townsend Warner, check out the STW Society online, or the STW Archive.