‘Lolly Willowes’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner – The Transformation of Laura

 

‘Lolly Willowes’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner   (1926) – 222 pages

 

‘Lolly Willowes’ is what I would call a serious comedy about a single woman who finds a very unusual, definitely bizarre, and highly effective way to achieve her goal. And what is Laura’s goal? To keep her other family members and anyone else from interfering in her single life.

Her father being dead, they took it for granted that she should be absorbed into the household of one brother or the other. And Laura, feeling rather as if she were a piece of property forgotten in the will, was ready to be disposed of as they should think best.”

Laura likes to wander the hills and valleys looking for herbs, flowers, weeds, and other plants to boil into concoctions. In this, she shows herself to be the true heir of her ancestors who created a brewery where beer is distilled from various plants and grains. However she will be given no chance to operate the brewery, since her brothers were designated to run the operation.

World War I was even more brutal than World War II in terms of the large number of soldiers who were severely injured or killed. After the war, there was a large surplus of women to men in England and other places. Thus many women remained unmarried.

Instead of having a place or a life of their own, these middle-aged English single women, then called spinsters, would live with their close relatives’ families as somewhat of a fifth wheel on a four-wheel car. Her nieces and nephews do not call her Laura; they call her Aunt Lolly.

There was no question of forgiving them. She had not, in any case, a forgiving nature, and the injury they had done her was not done by them. If she were to start forgiving she must needs forgive Society, the Law, the Church, the history of Europe, the Old Testament, great-great-aunt Salome and her prayer-book, the Bank of England, prostitution, the architect of Apsley Terrace, and half a dozen other props of civilization.”

After many years, Laura finally escapes the clutches of her extended family and goes to live in rural Great Mop which is in the Chiltern Hills. Here she has the best time of her life wandering the hills and valleys, picking flowers and herbs, and visiting with her neighbors. It was “lovely to live at your own sweet will” and she was “pleased to be left to herself”. She is just beginning to enjoy herself, when her nephew Titus shows up. Titus is the one relative who is the closest in attitude and avocation to Laura, but she still resents his intrusion into her new life.

When she was with him she came to heel and resumed her old employment of being Aunt Lolly. There is no way out.”

However Laura does indeed find a way out, as I said before, in a highly unorthodox manner.

Towards the end of ‘Lolly Willowes’, Laura gives a long impassioned speech (to Satan) on the plight not just of single women but of all women. If you get a chance, read it carefully. It still rings true.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

10 responses to this post.

  1. Hi Tony! This is one of my favorite novels, so it’s nice to see that you enjoyed it as well. I discovered the novel by chance, when I was a college student browsing in a not-very-good second hand bookstore. Never having heard of Warner, I expected very little from the book; imagine my surprise when I was rewarded with a life-time favorite. I’ve now read it three or four times and it just gets better & better; I discover some new nuance every time. The novel seems whimisical and light hearted on the surface, but, as you point out, it has a lot to say about the options open to women. (tangentially related — have you seen the fairly recent movie “The Witch”? Although its emotional tone was totally, totally different, the substance of it, i.e., the suggestion that women can find freedom only in one way, I found surprisingly similar).
    I was delighted to discover, years after my acquisition of Lolly, Warner’s other novels and short stories, which I continue to explore (I’m rationing them out). If you’re interested, I’ve written about how I became addicted to Warner’s work. https://youmightaswellread.com/2020/07/03/sylvia-townsend-warners-the-corner-that-held-them-or-how-i-became-an-stw-addict/

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    • Hi JanaKay,
      I think one of the problems has been that the title ‘Lolly Willowes’ somehow sounds so deliberately old-fashioned that a lot of readers just pass it by. It is unfortunate, because it does deal with the problems of being a single woman and not having “a room of one’s own” in a light way but makes some deep points.
      I have not seen and have not heard much about ‘The Witch’. i will look into it.
      ‘The Corner That Held Them’ will probably be my next Sylvia Townsend-Warner if only to compare it with the very fine ‘The Matrix’ by Lauren Groff which is also about convent life in the Middle Ages.

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      • I loved The Corner That Held Them but it’s tough to imagine a book that’s more different from Lolly. I suppose you could say, however, that in a broad sense they both deal with the options available to women of their time/place. Corner reminds me of something akin to a documentary firm; it almost seems like you’re reading the actual history of a medieval convent, with the convent, rather than the individuals residing there, as the main character. Warner is a tremendously erudite writer and it shows, but, as with Lolly, she wears her learning very lightly. I think she’s also very difficult to categorize as a writer, as each of the novels I’ve read has been very, very different.
        For some reason, I keep putting off Matrix. I like the writer and I’m fine with the subject (I’ve studied Medieval history/literature with great enjoyment) but . . . I think at bottom I see Groff as a writer of contemporary subjects. Also, I shy away from historical fiction these days.

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        • A documentary about life in a convent in the Middle Ages, that does sound sort of fascinating. That was probably about the only other option open to single women besides living with a relative. I must look in to ‘The Corner That Held Them’ at some point. It would be part of my own research into how various people live and have lived. That is one of the things I go to literature for.

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  2. I rather enjoyed this, strange as it is. I’ve already bought The Corner That Held Them so like you that will be my next one.

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  3. I’ve read this twice, it’s a fantastic novel. I enjoyed how light it is on the surface and yet there’s so much going on beneath. Brilliantly whimsical with strong feminist themes.

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    • Hi HeavenAli,
      Yes, it gave me a lot of insight into how things were in those days. I didn’t fully realize how limited the opportunities were for single women.

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  4. Warner is one of those ‘names’ that I heard during my teenage years, but I’ve never got round to reading her. FWIW Summer Will Show is listed in 1001 Books You Must Read but Lolly Willowes sounds more interesting…

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