Saturday, 14 February 2009
Sylvia Townsend Warner
One of the books I mentioned the other day was Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, which I'm using for my domestic-space-and-fantasy dissertation. STW is one of those writers whose been in my peripheral vision, as it were - ever since I bought British Women Writers 1900-1950 ed. Harold Bloom - but I hadn't made the move to buying or reading any of her work until Lolly Willowes. Which Hermione Lee mentioned in her introduction to The Love Child by Edith Olivier (and now, to go full circle, she is my supervisor for these two books and more).
Enough background. Lolly Willowes is the story of a woman who sells her soul to the devil. Like Lethe, who commented on the post about these books, I approached this rather warily - but it actually only comes into the narrative quite late, and doesn't seem to me to be the central focus of the novel. The central character, Laura Willowes (the narrative never actually refers to her as Lolly, that's just the name others give to her) moves in with her married brother when her father dies - she is one of those spinsters of the period who were shunted from pillar to post because they had the audacity not to marry. She puts off her suitors, one by indulging in the imaginative and positing one as a were-wolf. She decides, spontaneously, to move to a village called Great Mop (well, you would, wouldn't you?) and set up a life for herself there. This does later involve selling her soul to the devil, unfortunately, but before it gets to that point I found Lolly Willowes a really interesting and sympathetic novel about the entrapment of families and houses and the freedom of Nature... that sounds very hippie, whereas I actually love family houses, but for Laura it is an escape from being trammeled down. And celebrates open spaces, beautiful villages and Nature.
As usual, the quality I appreciated most was the writing - and that's impossible to define. STW writes beautifully, but not in the way of Virginia Woolf and those for whom the writing is central and the focus - more like an experienced story-teller, who knows the best patterns of words to evoke character and pathos.
I've been on a Sylvia Townsend Warner library spree, with The True Heart, Summer Will Show and Mr. Fortune's Maggot (which must be one of the least attractive title of which I've ever heard - apparently a maggot is 'a whimsical or perverse fancy') - anyone read these? Or any others by STW? I'm going to try and get through at least one of these next week - those in the know have told me that none match up to Lolly Willowes, but that was so very good that a second best could be enjoyable too.