Friday, March 13, 2015

Review: Lolly Willowes; Or, The Loving Huntsman

 Lolly Willowes: Or, The Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner

First -- lookit!  My banner fits my template now!  Thanks goes to @snipped on Ello for the help, since my brain won't do that kind of thing anymore.

Second -- I forget exactly when this book landed on Mount TBR, but it recently fell into my hands and I started reading.  Now I'm trying to think exactly what my reaction to it is.

The first thought I had as I reached the end of the book was "Damn, once again the only solution for a woman to have freedom is to become a witch, just like in The Master and Margarita."  That book was actually written after Lolly Willowes was published, and wasn't published until decades later.  Lolly Willowes isn't political satire, but it is cultural satire, so maybe that's the echo I hear.

I find I can't talk about my reaction to the book unless I talk about the book, so if you haven't read this 90 year old book, I guess I'm going to spoil things for you.  Laura Willowes is born into the heavy quilted traditions of the Willowes family, in late Victorian England.  She's a self contained child, a quiet young woman, content with her relative freedom to wander the countryside, maintain the fixed patterns of her home in Lady Place, and look after her elderly father.  She has no interest in balls or parties, in flirting or dancing, in having a home, a husband, or children of her own.  Upon her father's death, she loses her freedom and is chivvied, without much resistance because she isn't the fighting sort, into the mold of the spinster aunt.  She lives with her older brother and his wife, and she dwindles into what they imagine her to be -- quiet, unassuming, acquiescent, ignorable.  They can give her the thoughts they want, attribute to her the feelings and motives they think best. She becomes Aunt Lolly, not Laura Willowes, and for 20 years that is who she is.

When she has her awakening and decides to become Laura Willowes, her brother and sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews all try to keep her in the niche they think she should fit.  She doesn't so much break free as slide out from beneath their collective thumbs.  She retreats to an odd little village in the country and settles back to a self-directed, quiet life, making her own little patterns.  When her family try to recapture her in the person of her self-centered nephew Titus, who comes to her little village to live and make her into Aunt Lolly again, Laura enters into a mysterious compact with a very different version of the Devil and becomes a witch. She discovers the odd little village is full of witches.  Being a witch is, at least in this book, just a way for one to be quietly self directed, allowed to be the shape one wants to be, to defy the heavy hands of social expectations.

Of course the book has just loads of symbolic meaning and interpretable material.  It's such a quiet, calm, matter of fact little story, just like its main character, only the facts in this matter are tinged with otherworldliness and oddness.  Still, they are facts and they are accepted with perhaps a little pop of surprise before being swallowed up as just part of the pattern.  That's how I reacted to the book.  It's soft, whispered pattern had little pops of surprise that settled into the whole as I read.  The surprises were subtle and seemed so small until after I had read them and digested them.  Once they were over and part of the whole, they grew and got more important.  Now they whizz around my head and unfold.  The things Warner is making fun of, the things she satires, are just a relevant now as in 1926, because the desire to make others fit into the niches we allow them (we being a cultural or a societal we) still exists.  The means by which people slide away from the expectations of others are often just as small and whispered, although we tend to give more attention to those who blast their way free, who try to destroy with flashes and bangs what fetters them rather than becoming misty and faint and just drifting out.

Yes, there's a proper metaphor.  This is a drifty, misty book, a book about a woman deciding what she does and does not like, and then setting about making her world into what she likes while repelling what she does not.  That's not the whole book, of course.  That's my bit of it.

No comments: