It is a mystery to me how Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner made it onto my list. I think I may have read somewhere about this great, unrecognised female writer; about a book in the spirit of Virginia Woolf, fiery and free, before its time. After the joy of The Power, I was open to reading perhaps its precursor, something that set the way for Naomi Alderman and every other woman in the 21st Century who is using this year to share a rallying cry. But, however, Lolly Willowes was not this book for me.
Laura “Lolly” Willowes is unmarried and twenty-something when her father dies. Responsibility for providing for her moves to one of her older, married brothers and she seamlessly transitions to the role of spinster auntie. From life in the country with her beloved father to living in London with her brother and religious but not-too-bothersome-about-it-but-generally-quite-controlling sister-in-law, we track Lolly’s fairly uncontroversial life. Her defiance, her self-actualisation comes quite far into the book, when Lolly decides quite simply, quite madly according to those around her, to reach for something more, and goes to live by herself in a small country hamlet.
It takes two-thirds of the book to get to this bit, the interesting bit. It seems that there is more to both Lolly and her adopted village that meets the eye. Her bid for personal freedom reaches far further than anyone could have expected. And here there is a gleeful subversion of every theme it touches on: gender, age, social expectation, familial love. The book suddenly becomes far more gleeful and enjoyable to read.
And there is some beautiful expression in the book. Warner is a wonderful writer, it’s just that most of the story was not interesting to me. This dawning moment of realisation of Lolly’s in a London florist is stunning:
“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 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.”
But Lolly’s move to the oddly-named Great Mop is where the real meat of the story lies. It emerges as a satirical comedy of manners, with touches of fantasy. This transition to straightlaced life, straightlaced story, to utter subversion is one of joy.
Watching Lolly find freedom is wonderful, but in this book it just comes too late. After so much investment and time spent before Lolly’s self-actualisation and bonkers new independence, we do appreciate how momentous it is but it doesn’t quite forgive the dullness of the story up until that point. I appreciate an understanding of what life was for a single older woman, but its dreariness infects the reader.
The story told in Lolly Willowes is an important one for the 20th Century, and there are truly enjoyable parts, but for me the drudgery of two-thirds of this book to get to this point is not worth the pay off. I love the subversion, I love the glee, and it is madly wonderful how her life just erupts, but it was not quite enough.