I would in any case have loved Sylvia Townsend Warner’s decidedly subversive first novel of dawning feminist consciousness and witchcraft, Lolly Willowes. But just at present, I love it even more for its steadfast refusal to bother with any of the ‘rules’ of narrative that hover around writers like a swarm of angry bees these days, making free and easy movement decidedly risky.
Back in 1926 when this was published, the world was not a better place, but at least writers could write a story any way they pleased. Townsend Warner meanders through the tale of Laura Willowes’ life at the speed she chooses, she does not make it plain ‘what is at stake’ for the characters from the opening dozen pages, she embraces the adverb and loves sentences constructed from the sort of complex syntax that feels like the satisfactory scratching of an itch, and the novel is made of two quite different stories brought into charming juxtaposition. If you like, this doesn’t ‘work’ to create a seamless narrative, but the very flaw makes for a far more interesting book. Rising over and above all this structural mayhem, striking as a red flag, is Townsend Warner’s brilliant voice – witty, clever, sensuous, intricate, profound. I just adored the voice.
Laura Willowes has been brought up in the country by a family whose traditions stretch back through the years like a chain – the kind with manacles on the end, ready to politely cuff the next generation.
Moderation, civil speaking, leisure of the mind and a handsome simplicity were canons of behaviour imposed upon them by the example of their ancestors. Observing those canons no member of the Willowes family had risen to much eminence.’
There’s nothing unpleasant about Laura’s family; in fact they are all good, sensible people, driven by a mania for routine in order to ensure that nothing ever affects them. But for Laura, who does not admit as much to herself openly for a long time, this admirable resilence is also a negation of the unruly, the wild, the unregulated and the real for which she suffers a distinct pang of longing.
They were carpeted with experience. No new event could set jarring foot on them but they would absorb and muffle the impact. If the boiler burst, if a policeman climbed in at the window waving a sword, Henry and Caroline would bring the situation to heel by their massive experience of normal boilers and normal policemen.’
Laura grows up happily enough with her doting father and two elder brothers. When her father dies, the family home passes to one brother and she accepts shelter with the other and his family in London. Here she lives life in her gilded cage as dear Auntie Lolly, loved and accepted, unseen, unnecessary to anyone and far removed from a radiant inner life:
She had once formed an indistinct project of observing limpets. But for all her observations she discovered little save that if you sit very still for a long time the limpet will begin to move sideways, and that it is almost impossible to sit still for a very long time and keep your attention fixed on such a small object as a limpet without feeling slightly hypnotised and slightly sick.
For almost twenty years, Laura submits to the equivalent of watching limpets fail to move, troubled by strange, unnameable desires in the autumn but otherwise hypnotised by the monotonous rhythm of her days. Then a chance encounter with some particularly lovely chrysanthemums in a shop lead her to a radical bid for freedom. She decides on impulse to move out of London to the village of Great Mop in the Chilterns, despite the protestations of her family (mostly from her brother Henry, who turns out to have invested her money badly and reduced her income by half). Undeterred, Laura begins a new life and revels in the delicious pleasures of autonomy, able for once to do exactly as she pleases without need to give account of herself. Then as her newfound peace is threatened by the arrival of her nephew and the threat he brings of returning her to her old identity, Laura finally sells her soul to the Devil and becomes a witch, in exchange for the perfect freedom she finds she can no longer do without.
So yes, that’s quite a surprising move, although the carefully set up story of the village of Great Mop manages to plant all sorts of anticipatory signposts in the reader’s mind. This second half of the book manages to merge the comedy of the first with strange and fantastic elements of the supernatural, no mean feat. And it’s clear to understand and sympathise with Laura’s ecstatic delight in her freedom to be herself. It reminded me, however, that back in 1926, freedom for women could only be conceived of in slightly fantastic terms, and in partnering herself with Satan, Laura can still only find her place within the framework of a relationship to a powerful male, belonging to the group that dances in the woods at night, rather than the one that arranges flowers by daylight in the chapel. But these were interesting thoughts for me, not reasons to criticise the novel for its inability to foresee the future. And in any case, that glorious narrative voice provides uninterrupted pleasure from one end of the book to the other, so funny and so astute. More Sylvia Townsend Warner, please.