If one digs down further, one may discover little treasures. Just like this barely known classic by Sylvia Townsend Warner (Vita Sackville-West, you're next!). There was much women authors trying to break out in the literary world around early twentieth century, telling not just mere idyllic stories of pastoral landscapes but of reflective opinion and claiming of right.
Lolly Willowes is one good representation of the feminine voice. As a forty-something spinster, Laura is trying to break away from the constraints of her family, away from just being the indispensable 'Aunt Lolly'. Seeking her independence amidst objections, she moved alone to the country air of Buckinghamshire in a little village of Great Mop. In the wild beauty of primeval woods, she connected to nature and its people in ordinary and strange ways.
Published three years before Woolf's A Room with a View, Warner had spoken first of women's need to have a life of their own, to escape the conventional trappings placed to them by society (in this case Laura having the "Aunt Lolly" figure attached to her). In that a woman who does not settle into a certain role expected of her is, in the view of the conventional society, a kind of witch.
In the beginning, the book shows us how women could be conveniently seen as a property, with Laura being passed to her brother's custody after their father's death without any stipulation on her choice. From there, something simmers along the surface. I sensed it both in Laura and throughout the book. Before it ends, it was bound to explode.
The prose may have been a little dry to my taste (I kept putting it down) but there would be times when its substantial yet subtle message and images draw me in the way Laura and the beauty of the countryside enthralled each other; like a delicious thrill up my spine or a glittering somberness in one's eyes. Warner has true affection in understanding the woods and the gardens like a pure essence untainted by loud affectation.
I loved how non-conformist Laura was, in drawing room manners and polite society and yet she carves a quiet figure you'd barely notice her. What remained in me is the thought that we still get chances to sort of jump on the train to begin life elsewhere no matter how older we are in the eyes of others. Where we discover who we are away from the confines merely doled out for us.
In Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner tells of an aging spinster's struggle to break way from her controlling family—a classic story that she treats with cool feminist intelligence, while adding a dimension of the supernatural and strange.
Title: Lolly Willowes
Author: Sylvia Townsend Warner
Genre: Classic, British Literature, Feminism
Published: 1999 (first published 1926)
Publisher: NYRB Classics
Rating: ♨♨♨♨ (4 cups - A little classic book for women masquerading as a witch story.)