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 se
lls 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.


  1. As I was reading your post I kept thinking that maybe it's not so bad to sell your soul to the devil if it means you get to move to a town with a wild name and set up a life of your own -- I mean, really, staying put with the disapproving relatives doesn't sound like an option.

    Thanks for this very interesting review -- it makes me want to read her!

  2. I've not read her either, though I did read a review by another reader about Lolly Willowes, which sort of put me off. For some reason I thought she was a Victorian writer, or maybe I'm just messing everything entirely up. I do have The True Heart, though. If the writing is good, though, maybe the subject doesn't really matter.

  3. Interesting review. Lolly Willowes is one of my all-time favorite books. I view the book very differently. (as apparently does blogily, per her comment). Lolly Willowes was a woman who had no independent (financial) means, and who, very bravely, decided that, in spite of that, she would not bow to the demands of society (and her family) to live in a traditional way. Rather, she would live independently, no matter the cost. I don't believe she sold her soul to the devil at all--quite to the contrary.

  4. I have never read this, or anything else by STW, but you have made me want to. And lucky you being supervised by H Lee -- I admire her so much.

  5. @Linda:
    Like you, I love Lolly Willowes. I applauded Laura's decision to have a life of her own and I loved it when she became a witch. But when Satan was introduced I was disappointed because I thought STW had made the classic mistake of equating witches with devil-worshipers. The subtitle The Loving Huntsman could have prepared me for that, but I didn't know then that that is one of the devil's monikers.

    Of those three titles I have only read Mr Fortune's Maggot, and as it is her second novel after LW it seems like a good place to continue. I only remember I liked it a lot, but not as much as LW. (Time for a re-read, and as I discovered recently that my public library has several of her novels hidden away in the closed stacks I've got a nice summer project cut out for me.)
    I have also read Kingdoms of Elfin, a collection of stories about elves and fairies written late in her life, which I really enjoyed but I'm not sure would be your cup of tea. I can, however, wholeheartedly recommend her Letters (ed. William Maxwell). They are simply wonderful!

  6. This was one of my favourite reads of the last couple of years (reminds me that I have my thoughts on it written and never posted). I thought it interesting to compare with other writers on the same topic - Woolf, of course, and Vita Sackville West, but also later writers like Monica Dickens (Wind of Heaven) and Richmal Crompton.

  7. Have just reserved this at my library. And do say more about your "domestic-space-and-fantasy dissertation" -- I'm completely fascinated!

  8. I loved Lolly Willowes. I loved STW's The Corner That Held Them even more. I just finished The True Heart and don't exactly know what to say about it. Perhaps you will write about it soon and provide some insight.


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