“My Own Way”: Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes

“Say you won’t leave us, Lolly.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

“But Lolly, what you want is absurd.”

“It’s only my own way, Henry.”

In many ways, Lolly Willowes is a familiar book. Like Villette or The Odd Women or The Crowded Street, it is the story of a woman whose life does not conform to the expected story of love, courtship, and marriage. Single women were both a social and a fictional (and thus a formal) problem from at least the mid-19th century on into the 20th. The statistical overabundance of women in the earlier period led to articles with titles like “Why Women are Redundant” and “What Shall We Do With Our Old Maids”; the terrible losses of World War I created a similar feeling of crisis, at least among those who saw marriage as the only natural and desirable aim for women’s lives. That was never everybody, of course, especially not all women, but it was an assumption that one way or another affected the horizon of expectation for most people.

Stylistically and tonally, Lolly Willowes is most like The Crowded Street, which makes sense, I suppose, as they are close together chronologically: Holtby’s novel was published in 1924, Townsend Warner’s in 1926. The world they depict is quite similar: for their heroines, it is one of stultifying limitations, well-meaning but hampering advice and attention, and near-debilitating mental suffocation. Lolly Willowes is brisker, though, and (for want of a better term) quirkier: Holtby plods along realistically with Muriel until finally she makes a little space for herself in the world — at last, most readers are likely to exclaim! — because the vicarious experience of her life is really very depressing.

Lolly Willowes feints in that realist direction. In fact, for most of the book you wouldn’t necessarily know it’s going to take a turn into the weird and wonderful unless you knew it already and so were watching (as I was) for signs — Lolly’s interest in herbs and potions, for instance, and the faintly uncanny way she has of not being altogether present in her immediate place and time. What’s so important and subversive about her story is that her cry for liberation — her demand to have her own way — arises from the most ordinary circumstances of her life. Nobody is intentionally cruel to her; she’s not abused or harassed or tormented … except by being an unmarried woman expected to find sufficient meaning for her life in being an accessory to other people’s plans and purposes. The complaint, in other words, is explicitly not personal but political, not individual but systemic: it’s an indictment of normalcy.

Once Lolly has removed herself from the benevolent tyranny of her family, establishing herself in the wonderfully-named town of Great Mop, she reflects on their disapproval:

There was no question of forgiving them. She had not, in any case, a forgiving nature; and the injury they had done her was not done by them. If she were to start forgiving she must needs forgive Society, the Law, the Church, the History of Europe, the Old Testament, great-great-aunt Salome and her prayerbook, the Bank of England, Prostitution, the Architect of Apsley Terrace, and half a dozen other useful props of civilization. All she could do was to go on forgetting them.

Lolly does find contentment when she has thrown off and (mostly) forgotten these “props of civilization,” but it turns out to be harder to shake them off than she’d hoped. I loved that it was her nephew Titus who followed her to Great Mop: again, precisely because he’s the one she likes best, the one who seems least threatening, the threat he does represent turns out to be most revealing. “Where are you off to, Aunt Lolly?” he cries cheerfully as she passes him; ” Wait a minute, and I’ll come too.” But Lolly doesn’t want him to come along; she doesn’t want him anywhere near her new life:

She walked up and down in despair and rebellion. She walked slowly, for she felt the weight of her chains. Once more they had been fastened upon her. She had worn them for many years, acquiescently, scarcely feeling their weight. Now she felt it. And, with their weight, she felt all their familiarity, and the familiarity was worst of all.

Happily for her, that familiarity turns eventually into a familiar, and Lolly is able to draw on forces outside “civilization” to break those chains once and for all. The turn is sly and mischievous and almost disturbingly gratifying: things turn against Titus (milk curdles, bees swarm) until he’s driven safely away. Lolly never seems overtly in control of these events: even as she feels a new power, her disperses. She’s certainly not innocent, though, as she openly and unrepentantly allies herself with Satan.

Lolly’s final dialogue with Satan (winningly in the guise of a common gardener) is the pay-off for the somewhat slow burn of the first two thirds or so of the novel. In fact, it’s mostly a monologue, in which Lolly makes a compelling case for Satan’s intervention. “It’s like this,” she explains:

When I think of witches, I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded. . . . Well, there they were, there they are, child-rearing, house-keeping, hanging washed dishcloths on currant bushes; and for diversion each other’s silly conversation, and listening to men talking together in the way that men talk and women listen. Quite different to the way women talk, and men listen, if they listen at all. And all the time being thrust further down into dullness when the one thing all women hate is to be thought dull.

“Some may get religion,” she concedes, after more bitter musing about women’s wasted potential, “and then they’re all right, I expect. But for the others, for so many, what can there be but witchcraft?” It’s not about exercising malevolent power, or benevolent either, for that matter:

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 an existence doled out to you by others . . .

It’s the mordant genius of Lolly Willowes that this conclusion makes such perfect sense, in context–that Sylvia Townsend Warner has done such a good job bringing out the menace of the everyday that Lolly’s escape from it by such morally equivocal means is itself unequivocally something to celebrate, rather than fear or judge. She’s only trying to go her own way, after all: that should not be too much to ask.

“This extraordinary colloquy”: Sylvia Townsend Warner, Summer Will Show

warnerI picked up Summer Will Show on my trip to Boston a couple of years ago. It caught my eye then because not long before we had run a good essay on Sylvia Townsend Warner in Open Letters. I’ve read most of the books from that trip but until now, not Summer Will Show. I think I put it off because I was expecting (its being historical fiction and all) something both dense and intense, like A Place of Greater Safety, say, or The Children’s Book (though obviously it’s much shorter — which should have been a clue). I was prompted to get to it at long last by notice that Anne Fernald was giving a talk about it at the New York Public Library.

I wanted to attend the talk even before I read Summer Will Show, because I know Anne to be someone well worth listening to (see, for instance, her essays and reviews for Open Letters). Now that I’ve read the novel, I wish even more that I could have been there, because the novel seemed so strange to me that I could tell I needed some tips, some guidance about how it works, how it makes sense on its own terms. I actually enjoy that feeling of interpretive disorientation provided the book causing it feels interestingly confusing, not just blundering or messy. Vera Brittain’s The Dark Tide, for example, or anything I’ve read by Margaret Kennedy, would fall into that first category — and I wonder if it’s not coincidental that Summer Will Show is roughly contemporary with these novels and shares with them the property of being (for want of any other literary-historical label) “not modernist.” Not that I’m any kind of expert on reading modernism, but as far as I know there isn’t a handy set of terms or frameworks for making sense of the more miscellaneous fiction from the early decades of the 20th century. I read a number of very interesting books on topics like The Feminine Middlebrow Novel for the Somerville seminar, but Warner isn’t someone who came up — though her absence from my notes doesn’t mean that she isn’t actually mentioned in those sources, just that I wasn’t interested in her in that context. So even there I got no particular help. It may be best read along with other political fiction from the time (Orwell, maybe?), but I don’t know much about that context. All I can really offer, then, are some provisional first impressions.

My strongest initial impression is that Summer Will Show (again like The Dark Tide) is not an especially good novel, but that it’s bad in interesting ways. Duly acknowledging that “but is it any good?” is a fraught question, I’ll point out as weaknesses that neither of the main characters seemed quite three-dimensional to me: both were the literary equivalents of vivid but jerky puppets going through the motions of a story designed to lead to encounters and crises that, in their turn, were designed to bring about a conclusion more intellectual and ideological than human and dramatic. The story itself is at once simple and unexpected: aristocratic Sophia Willoughby travels to Paris in 1848 after the death of her children determined to find her straying husband and get pregnant again to make up for her loss; she finds him, as she intends, but instead of staking her claim, she falls in love with his theatrical Jewish mistress, Minna Lemuel, and as a result of their relationship is drawn into revolutionary fervor and ends up literally fighting on the barricades.

Sophia is a supremely unappealing character — not just at the start (when her haughty prejudices are at their most dominant and unrepentant) but throughout. What Minna ever sees in her was one of my major stumbling blocks, while what she sees in Minna was another: their relationship comes from nothing and is never explained or described in any way that really motivates it. There’s another of the problems I had with the novel: it is jumpy and episodic, skipping over transitions where exposition would have been welcome and then becoming fulsome in contexts where great detail seemed gratuitous and digressive.

And yet the section of the novel that I found most compelling could be seen as a digression: Minna is a storyteller by profession, and our (and Sophia’s) first introduction to her is her gripping account of surviving a pogrom in her childhood:

I was just coming across the yard from the outhouse, where I had gone to carry our goats their feed, when I heard footsteps, a man running and staggering along the frozen path. The running man was my father. He had torn off his mittens as though their weight would encumber him, I saw his red hands flapping against the dusky white of the snow. His mouth was open, he fetched his breath with groaning. He fell down on the icy track, and was up again, and came running on with his face bloodied. He did not see me where I stood motionless in the dusk of the yard, but ran past me and burst open the house door and staggered in. Before he had spoken I heard my mother cry out, a wild despairing cry that yet seemed to have a note of exultation in it, as though it were recognizing and embracing some terror long foreseen. I went in after him, very slowly and quietly, as though in this sweep of terror I must move as noiselessly as possible. He was leaning over the table, his hands clenching it, and trembling. He trembled, his back heaved up and down with his struggles for breath, with every gasp he groaned with the anguish of breathing. Mixed in with his groans were words. Always the same words. “They’re coming!” he said. “They’re coming!”

The breathless rhythm of the sentences, the vivid tactile details, the repetitions, all add to the combination of urgency and predictability that makes the story so chilling: this is a catastrophe that has been long expected, even as its coming is painfully, hopelessly sudden. “No need, at this last door, to cry that the Christians were coming,” Minna says of her own frantic attempts to notify their neighbors.

Summer Will Show earned my interest precisely because the writing is, generally, that good: I was captivated and impressed by Warner’s style even as the structure of the book frustrated me and the characterization disappointed. A book this well written can’t be simply careless, it isn’t inept: the awkwardness and the didacticism both felt purposeful. But what might that purpose be? According to the publicity notice, Anne’s talk focused on the novel as an exploration of “what might make a middle-aged person change her mind and her life–the very problem at the heart of politics. . . .what it might take to transform an imperious aristocratic wife into a communist.”  In that context, I can see that Minna’s storytelling is important, not just because it sets up her individual identity, but because it draws our attention to the importance of the stories we tell about our experiences and those of others: changing your mind means changing your story, perhaps accepting someone else’s or incorporating it to create a more complex, multi-faceted narrative. I thought Sophia’s conversion from conservative to radical was too abrupt, and too idiosyncratically motivated by her passion for Minna, to be much of a model, but maybe it’s not her initial move into Minna’s life that really counts so much as her transformation at the very end of the novel, when her own experience of violent confrontation and its bloody consequences prompts a much deeper change. Certainly her speech before the firing squad is utterly and convincingly unlike anything the Sophia of the first chapters could ever say — and the Sophia who reflects with such pride on her meeting with the Duke of Wellington as the novel begins hardly seems the same person who concludes the novel reading The Communist Manifesto.

But that’s where my dissatisfaction with the novel as a novel makes trouble for me again: the ending is a bit too pat. It felt as if the elements of the novel had been manipulated to ensure we ended up there, with the specter haunting Europe, rather than discovering the need for Marx as we read. Elizabeth Gaskell is a much more politically conservative thinker than Warner, but Mary Barton explains a lot more about socialism as a response to economic conditions than Summer Will Show — and no wonder, of course, since she was observing Manchester in the 1840s just as Engels was when he wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England.