Twitter is a good place for writers, if you know to mute or block accounts that will needlessly rile you when a long day alone at the computer stretches ahead of you (why follow Piers Morgan if you don’t have to? Why?) I have found a lovely community on Twitter by curating my timeline so that I see mainly tweets from people who like talking about good books and in particular books by women, which was how the great Lissa Evans came to recommend Lolly Willowes to me.
Two facts: there are more women writers published today than men, and more women buy and read books than men, yet there is still a huge imbalance in the reception and influence of books by women. (Ask the man next to you at dinner who knows everything about modern literature if he’s read Anne Tyler.) The books we write need to be boxed into a genre, filed neatly away. Historical fiction. Romantic fiction. Chicklit. And this packaging is now being applied restrospectively to authors like Nancy Mitford and Dodie Smith. It means books like Lolly Willowes will be rediscovered, but in a cosy ‘vintage’ way, and not given the attention that is their due.
All this is to say that Lolly Willowes is to my mind one of the great English novels of the 20th century and it is shameful that its reputation hasn’t endured. My copy is a gorgeous new edition from Virago with a brilliant illustration which you see here of a cat and an English village (and a top-notch introduction from Sarah Waters). But I think the type is a shade too fluffy for how complex a book it is. Still, it gets across the very great enjoyment to be had from this story of female emancipation, witchcraft, family and mansplaining. (Yes, it really is about all those things!)
It is the story of Laura Willowes who in 1902, upon the death of her beloved father for whom she has been keeping house in Somerset, moves in with her brother and sister-in-law in London to assume the role of devoted unmarried sister and helpmeet. Time moves on (it is one of Townsend Warner’s many skills as a novelist that the rapid passage of time is dealt with so gracefully) until after the Great War when Laura, buying a bunch of perfect chrysanthemums in a Bayswater grocer’s one evening, is suddenly overcome with the absolute conviction that she must live where they came from.
‘They smelt of woods, of dark rustling woods like the wood to whose edge she came so often in the autumn of her country imagination. She stood very still to make quite sure of her sensations. Then: "Where do they come from?" she asked.
"From near Chenies, ma’am, in Buckinghamshire."'
One of the joys of the novel is how certain the quiet, dreamy Laura is of what she wants in life and how tough and deep is her intelligence (during the war she helps by doing up parcels at the Post Office four times a week. ‘She did them up so well that no-one thought of offering her a change of work’ – the experience of millions like her.) After establishing in one of the novel’s most enjoyable scenes that her brother has mishandled her inheritance so that she has no means of living independently, she demands quite briskly that he reinvest in something that pays a tiny dividend and moves to Deep Mop, a village in the Chilterns where all is not quite what it seems…
I am going to be bold and not say what happens when Laura moves to Deep Mop, other than that it is wonderful, wild and really weird. Townsend Warner is in total control of her material throughout and that gives one a dizzying sense of excitement as the plot hurtles forwards. There is a delicious depth of detail to the writing (‘A hot ginny churchyard smell’ is one of many descriptions of the English countryside perfect in its evocation of place.) The Mitfordian English social commentary is spot-on and the knowledge of what is to come makes rereading it an absolute hoot. But, also, it gets across its graceful point about the worth and inner life of British womanhood in the last century devastatingly well. I would not trust someone who didn’t love this book. It’s a good test. Please, I beg you, if you haven’t read it, try Lolly Willowes.
Lolly Willowes is published by Virago.