26 June 2013

Sylvia Townsend Warner: Lolly Willowes (1926)

This is a far from conventional spinster novel: it is deeply subversive, it screams anti-convention. Towards the end of the book the narrator suggests that protagonist Laura Willowes' nephew Titus is a 'proxy wooer', marrying Pandora when in fact the 'real match' is between Pandora and Lady Place, Titus's inherited home.

The word 'proxy' goes a long way towards an understanding of this work, because the unmarried Laura lives much of her life through others: after the death of her mother she's housekeeper to her father, and then after he dies it's taken for granted that she can probably have no life of her own (although she's still under thirty) and she goes to London to live with her brother Harry, his wife Caroline and her two nieces, one of whom accidentally causes the re-branding of Laura to 'Lolly'.

Early in her stay in London Harry and Caroline had nevertheless hoped to find a match for her among Harry's acquaintances in the legal profession, although Laura didn't tell them that she thinks '[t]heir jaws [are] like so many mouse-traps, baited with commonplaces'. However, they are surprised that she gets on well with Mr Arbuthnot, although marriage is far removed from Laura's ideas: she merely finds Mr Arbuthnot a little more human than the others because of his stammer. And then, after Mr Arbuthnot refers to February as a dangerous month Laura agrees, adding:

'If you are a were-wolf, and very likely you may be, for lots of people are without knowing, February, of all months, is the month when you are most likely to go out on a dark windy night and worry sheep.'

This is England in 1902 and we are in prim and proper upper-middle-class society, so the effect of such a frivolous – and slightly crazy – remark can be imagined. Some years later, in her late forties, Laura disturbs the family universe by deciding to leave her brother and family to live in the hamlet of Great Mop – a fictional creation, of course – in the Chilterns. There, in spite of the unwelcome and confused Titus briefly joining her, she finds a physical and a mental room of her own. A world of her own, in fact, because she makes a pact with the devil and becomes a witch:

'One doesn't become a witch to run round being harmful, or to run round being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It's to escape all that – to have a life of one's own, not to have an existence doled out to you by others, charitable refuse of their thoughts, so many ounces of stale bread of life a day'.

This was Sylvia Townsend Warner's first novel, and it clearly heralded a fresh new voice in interwar fiction. It's not difficult either to see the demonic symbolism, that essential coding of difference, as a prototype of the coding used by other homosexual writers such as Rhys Davies, John Hampson, or Frank Sargeson.

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