Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Lolly Willowes – the debut novel of the English writer Sylvia Townsend Warner – was an instant success on its publication in 1926. Now regarded as something of an early feminist classic, it tells the story of Laura (Lolly) Willowes, an unmarried woman of semi-independent means who struggles to break free from her conservative family to carve out a life of her own in the lush and seductive countryside of Bucks. While the story starts out in fairly conventional territory, about halfway through it morphs into something more magical, subverting the reader’s expectations with elements of fantasy and wonder. It’s an excellent book, one of the most surprising and unexpected delights of my reading year to date.

From a young age, Laura Willowes has always loved the country, growing up in a quiet, traditional family in the heart of Somerset where she seems at one with nature and everything it has to offer. As an unmarried woman and youngest child in the family, Laura keeps house for her widowed father with consummate ease. She feels contented and at home in this environment with its simple ways and traditions. Moreover, it is clear that Mr Willowes loves his daughter very dearly, to the extent that he secretly hopes she will remain at home to take care of him even though he knows her future happiness may suffer as a result. In reality, marriage holds little appeal for Laura, and she remains relatively satisfied with her position in life.

When Mr Willowes dies of pneumonia in 1902, everything changes for Laura (now aged twenty-eight) as her familiar world is swept away. It is automatically assumed by the remaining members of the family that Laura will leave her home and everything she loves to go and live with her older brother, Henry and his wife, Caroline, in their central London abode. Although Laura has inherited a decent income of her own, there is no question of her choosing to live independently. Her other brother, James, and his wife, Sibyl, are to move into Lady Place (the Somerset home), while Laura herself must be content with the smaller of the two spare rooms in Henry and Caroline’s house.

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. (p. 10)

Going along with the family’s decision, Laura tries to make the best of things of London, helping Caroline with her children and other domestic duties. While she proves herself to be a reliable and trustworthy companion, Laura is often left feeling somewhat inadequate and taken for granted. Caroline, for her part, is pleasant enough to Laura, but she is also orderly, dull and unromantic, bowing to Henry’s better judgement on most things – an action which feeds her husband’s high opinion of himself.

In short, Laura feels her loss of identity very deeply. She is no longer Laura, but good old Aunt Lolly, someone who can be relied on to assist with the children – either that or simply ‘Caroline’s sister-in-law’, something of an appendage to the principal members of the household.

At first, Henry and Caroline try to introduce Laura to respectable, unmarried men in the hope that she might find a suitable husband – but Laura is having none of this, and she discourages any further matchmaking efforts with her somewhat eccentric remarks.

One by one, the years pass by, and before she knows it, Laura finds herself in her late forties, still unmarried and living a dull, unfulfilling life in London. By now, we are in the 1920s where it is becoming a little easier for women to branch out and gain some independence for themselves. There are signs that Laura is feeling somewhat restless and frustrated with her life, longing as she does to reconnect with the countryside in some way.

Then, one day while out shopping in the city, Laura experiences a sort of epiphany in the midst of a flower shop. Surrounded by flora and country produce, she imagines herself in an orchard, communing with nature in all its glory.

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. (p. 80)

As a result of this experience, Laura decides that she is going to move to Great Mop, a tiny village in the midst of Buckinghamshire, where she intends to live modestly on her own. As Laura surveys her family at dinner that evening, it is as if she has awoken from a dream; now she can see how devoid of excitement their regimented lives appear to be.       

During dinner Laura looked at her relations. She felt as though she had awoken, unchanged, from a twenty-years slumber, to find them almost unrecognizable. She surveyed them, one after the other. Even Henry and Caroline, whom she saw every day, were half hidden under their accumulations—accumulations of prosperity, authority, daily experience. They were carpeted with experience. No new event could set jarring feet on them but they would absorb and muffle the impact. (p. 84)

At first, Laura’s family think her quite mad for wanting to go and live in the country. Henry, in particular, is both astonished and upset by his sister’s outburst, fearing that he and Caroline have failed in their duty to make her feel welcome and part of the household. Nevertheless, Laura is determined to go in spite of the moral and financial pressures Henry tries to bring into play. Not only has Henry taken Laura’s goodwill for granted for so many years, but he has also managed to be careless with her capital, effectively reducing her inheritance by half.

So, reduced circumstances and all, Laura heads off to Great Mop where she must now take rooms in a cottage run by a somewhat idiosyncratic landlady, Mrs Leak. It is here in the unfettered realm of the countryside that Laura is able to rediscover herself, finding freedom and independence in the most unexpected of sources. Without wishing to give too much away, the village holds a secret, one that enables Laura to unleash an element of her psyche that has been lying dormant for years just waiting to be released.

Lolly Willowes is a lovely story of a woman’s need for independence, to carve out a life of her own without the interference of those who think they know better. (Interestingly, it predates Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own by three years.) I couldn’t help but root for Laura in her quest for fulfilment and pleasure, all the more so given her resilient personality.

The fantastical elements in the last third of the book are nicely done, encouraging the reader to go with the flow at the appropriate moments – and there are some beautiful passages of descriptive writing too, especially in the author’s portrayal of the natural world.

The slope before her was dotted with close-fitting juniper bushes, and presently she saw a rabbit steal out from one of these, twitch its ears, and scamper off. The cloud which covered the sky was no longer a solid thing. It was rising, and breaking up into swirls of vapor that yielded to the wind. The growing day washed them with silver. (p. 184)

The book is not without its touches of humour here and there, particularly in the scenes between Laura and her family when she makes her intentions clear – an element which adds to the enjoyment of Laura’s transformation.

So, all in all, another very satisfying read for me. Highly recommended if you’re willing to embrace a little magic and mischief.

My edition of Lolly Willowes was published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

38 thoughts on “Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, there’s some wonderful writing here. I thought she captured Caroline’s exacting character to a T. How difficult it must have been for Laura to live alongside her, especially given the circumstances.

      Reply
  1. Brian Joseph

    The story sounds like it breaks the mild of so many other books. Many other writers might have Laura living with her family and unhappy but few would have her branch out on own. I can see why folks call it a feminist classic. I have not read Warner but I would like to give her a try.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think it was probably quite a radical premise in that day and age, an unmarried woman branching out in such a way against the better judgement of her family. I couldn’t help but cheer her on.

      As far as SWT is concerned, I’ve heard that her novels are all quite different from one another, which makes her an interesting proposition but somewhat tricky to categorise. (Not that we should be putting authors into very fixed boxes, but a degree of categorisation can be useful for potential readers if they’re looking to try someone new.) I tried reading another of her novels (Summer Will Show) a couple of years ago, but I didn’t get on with it terribly well. This one, however, was another matter altogether. I pretty much loved it from the word go!

      Reply
  2. heavenali

    I am so delighted that you loved this, I adore Sylvia Townsend Warner and am ekeing her books out. I have actually read this book twice as my book group picked it last year. I loved how the beginning is so conventional but then becomes less and less conventional and as you say surprising.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, I think you were one of the readers who encouraged me to give this a go! Along with Claire (Maudie) Stokes who tweeted about it a couple if months ago. I love the fact that you start off thinking you’re reading one type of book, only to discover at the halfway point that you’re actually reading something very different altogether.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes. And I like the fact that she can still break free from her family at the age of forty-something. It just shows that it’s never too late for someone to change their life in a meaningful way.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s interesting to see that it actually came out before Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. While I haven’t read the Woolf, I understand that it taps into a similar theme – a woman’s need to establish some kind of a meaningful life for herself without the interference or dominance of others. I’m glad you like the sound of it.

      Reply
  3. bookbii

    Lovely review. I adore this book, it has a lovely blend of lightness and seriousness and it has that multi-dimension that’s so hard to pull off. On the one hand you could skim the surface and just find it a whimsical story, but look just a little beneath and there’s the feminine condition laid bare and it becomes a hard-hitting, very serious book. Much easier to label ‘Aunt Lolly’ than see the living, breathing, stifled woman burning to get free. I must read it again. Such a glorious book. Thank you for the reminder.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda, for such a lovely comment, and for encouraging me to read the book – I do recall your enthusiasm for it from a previous discussion.

      I didn’t quite have enough space to include the following quote as my review was already getting very long. Nevertheless, it’s something you might appreciate especially given your ‘Aunt Lolly’ comment. I think it sums her up.

      “But when Laura went to London she left Laura behind, and entered into a state of Aunt Lolly. She had quitted so much of herself in quitting Somerset that it seemed natural to relinquish her name also. Divested of her easily-worn honors as mistress of the household, shorn of her long meandering country days, sleeping in a smart brass bedstead instead of her old and rather pompous four-poster, wearing unaccustomed clothes and performing unaccustomed duties, she seemed to herself to have become a different person. 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. But Laura was put away.”

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! As someone who gave up a steady, well-paid job for the flexibility (aka uncertainty) of freelancing, I can definitely recommend the mid-life gear change as a route to a better quality of life. Seriously though, I think you’d love this book. It’s actually very liberating in a fresh and imaginative way!

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review Jacqui. i’ve only read Mr. Fortune’s Maggot and some of her short stories, but these were all exceptional – such a good writer! I do have this one and must pull it off the shelves. I love it when an older women strikes back…. ;)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, indeed. Hooray for the over-40s – it’s never too late to make a fresh start in life.

      I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed this author’s stories. My first encounter with SWT (summer Will Show) didn’t turn out very well, but Lolly was a different matter altogether. I think you’d like it a lot – you just need to be willing to suspend disbelief when the story changes tack.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Juliana. Yes, it’s surprisingly humorous at times, isn’t it? Quite a subversive little novel in many respects. I’m really glad you enjoyed it, too!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Grier! I’m not usually a fan of fantasy either, but this story really captured my imagination. I think it helped that I was so invested in Laura’s future well-being and happiness by the time the weird and wonderful elements kicked in. So glad to hear that you enjoyed it too!

      Reply
  5. Scott W.

    I’ve seen this title listed in the back of half the NYRB editions I’ve read and have always vaguely wondered what it was. Now I have an idea. It’s been so long since I’ve made it out of the city that I’m afraid reading this book might well jolt me into throwing all that up and heading for the woods.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! It may well prompt you to do just that. Interestingly, the person who runs the NYRB Classics feed just tweeted me to say that Lolly Willowes has the honour of being the very first choice in their Book of the Month Club selection. How fitting is that?

      Changing topic completely, I saw a film that might interest you at the London Film Festival today: Happy as Lazzaro, directed by Alice Rohrwacher. It’s a thoughtful fable about the exploitation of downtrodden workers in rural Italy. Quite dreamlike in parts with some nice humour running throughout. Plus it wears its social commentary quite lightly, successfully avoiding the temptation to be too blunt or preachy. I think you’d like it a lot. There’s a link to The Guardian’s review here if it’s of interest:

      https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/may/14/happy-as-lazzaro-review-cannes-alice-rohrwacher-wonders-tobacco-sharecroppers

      Reply
  6. Simon T

    Great review! And well done for not giving too much away ;) I’ve read this so many times, and wrote a chapter of my DPhil on it – her writing is so beautiful and thoughtful. I find the ending a lot less triumphant than some readers have done, which made it fun to argue about in my thesis :D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you!

      Oh, wow! You have me intrigued by those comments on your impressions of the ending. Can you say a little more about that or would we be getting into spoiler territory there?

      Reply
  7. lonesomereadereric

    So interesting to hear about this debut book after having read my first book by Warner earlier this year – especially nice to hear how it predates A Room of One’s Own. She’s such a curious writer in her unexpected take and surprising observations. Good to hear her first novel stands up so I’ll be keen to read it some time.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it does feel as if there was something a little eccentric about Sylvia Townsend Warner, maybe in terms of her powers of imagination and creative skills. It made me wonder if Angela Carter had ever read her – or more specifically this book. Anyway, it’s a terrific example of early feminist literature whichever way you look at it. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one, Eric!

      Reply
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