On one of the few occasions when I met the late Ursula K. LeGuin, I asked if she would recommend me a book to read. She suggested Lolly Willowes: Or the Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner, published in 1926. Though I bought a copy of the book fairly soon after, it was soon buried under books I was reading for review, and has been languishing on my TBR shelf for a number of years.
I am here to tell you that this was a splendid recommendation. Despite knowing many people who love Sylvia Townsend Warner’s work, I had never read any of her novels or stories before this, but I’m glad I’ve done so now.
Lolly Willowes is the story of Laura Willowes, a single Englishwoman who upon the death of her father in 1902 leaves her beloved country home behind and goes to live with her eldest brother and his wife in London, where she becomes a very useful maiden aunt, called “Lolly,” who is very much taken for granted. When she goes to live with them, she’s twenty-eight; when she finally decides to move to the country, alone, she is forty-seven and it’s 1921. Both World War One and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic are covered briefly but intensely at the end of part one.
She continued to do up parcels until the eleventh day of November 1918 [the Armistice]. Then, when she heard the noise of cheering and the sounding of hooters, she left her work and went home. The house was empty. Everyone had gone out to rejoice. She went up to her room and sat down on her bed. She felt cold and sick, she trembled from head to foot as she once had done after witnessing a dog fight…On the mantelpiece was a photograph of [her nephew] Titus. ‘Well,’ she said to it, ‘You’ve escaped killing, anyhow.’
Immediately after World War One, the number of single young women in England was very high, because many of their husbands or potential husbands had been killed. (Think of Miss Climpson and her agency in Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels.) Many of the jobs women had held during the war were taken from them once the surviving soldiers came home; women were expected to quietly return to the domestic sphere, though many no longer had that option because they had lost the financial support of their job or husband. Laura is from a landowning class, so her immediate needs are met. The passive oppression by Laura’s family, however, confines her emotionally if not physically. They think they are doing the right thing by giving her a home and an occupation; at first, they assume she will marry, but don’t seem to do much to help her towards that goal (which she doesn’t share).
At the beginning of part two, we learn Laura suffers from what seems to be seasonal depression in the autumn. She “dreaded it” and felt “restless and tormented.” She begins to daydream of being in the country, alone, in the dark; eventually, she chooses a location and tells her family she is moving there. They do not take her seriously. She finds her brother has poorly invested her money, but stands up for herself for the first time in order to recover some of her funds in order to move. Once living in the isolated town of Great Mop, Laura needs time to find her feet, but she soon finds joy in solitude, makes a female friend, and begins to be curious about the strange goings-on in the village…which might or might not be supernatural.
I know spoilers aren’t really a thing for a book published in 1926, but I’ll stop there so far as plot details; just know towards the end this novel might become fantasy, or it might not; it’s impossible to tell (though I lean towards the fantastical element being real). What I loved about this book, aside from the wry, engaging prose which swept me along, is how much I recognized myself in Laura, or rather a person I might have been in other circumstances or at another time. (I definitely have never experienced a guaranteed income!) I’m an unmarried aunt, and I felt trapped and frustrated before I was able to live on my own and support myself and make my own way. Laura finds that freedom in her own unique fashion. There aren’t enough stories about that, I feel; not enough stories about how family can love us but not really see us, can keep us static with unacknowledged selfish intentions.