Book club

Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978), Lolly Willowes

This post introduces the first book in our Emotions Book Club, on the theme of ‘Fearless Women’. Our first novel is Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. And don’t worry, there are no spoilers!

Sylvia-Townsend-Warner
Sylvia Townsend Warner by Howard Coster, 10 x 8 inch film negative, 1934, NPG x3371 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Born in 1893 Sylvia Townsend Warner spent most of her childhood in London, although from her thirties onwards lived in rural Dorset. She trained initially in classical music and composition and worked over many years for the Tudor Music Project, collating and editing church music from the Tudor era. She turned to writing in her twenties and went on to become a reasonably prolific writer in her lifetime, certainly earning enough to support herself as an author. Warner spent much of her life in a passionate and life-long love affair with the poet Valentine Ackland. After meeting in 1930 the two women lived together, primarily in rural Dorset, through to Ackland’s death in 1969.

First published in 1926, Lolly Willowes was Warner’s first novel and it continues to be the one she is best known for. Without giving away too much of the story, it reveals how Lolly Willowes, an unmarried, middle-aged English woman, or as described in press reviews at the time: an ‘old maid’ or ‘bored spinster’, seeks to break away from her family, and their expectations of her. It was written at a time when, while women were increasingly entering the professions, their opportunities beyond domestic life and marriage were still very limited when compared to those of men. Warner’s take on this in Lolly Willowes is implied and satirical and like much of her later work it is rooted in the English countryside.

The novel was extremely well received by critics at the time and was even shortlisted for the French literary award, Prix Femina. The Aberdeen Press and Journal described it as ‘a very clever, exquisitely written book’ with a ‘thin vein of underlying criticism.’[1] The Graphic, a London newspaper, refers to the book’s ‘beautiful prose style.’[2] However, despite the praise, as the biographer Claire Harman notes, many reviewers missed the point of the novel, failing to see it as a commentary on the place of women in modern British society.[3] The Aberdeen Press and Journal, for example, referred to it as ‘quaintly absurd’.

Cat
New edition by the Spanish publisher Siruela (2016)

Later critics have continued to sing the novel’s praises while also recognising its wider significance. In her Introduction to Virago’s recent version of Lolly Willowes, writer Sarah Waters admires the book for its commentary on the social and political landscape of post-war Europe and particularly for its attention to the limited opportunities for women. In 2014, The Guardian awarded Lolly Willowes 52nd place in its survey of the 100 top novels of all time, describing Warner as a ‘proto-feminist’ and the novel as a ‘major minor classic.’

Warner went on to publish several novels after Lolly Willowes, including works of historical fiction. Much of her work tackled the lives of those living on the periphery of society: The Corner that Held Them (1948) focused on life in a convent in the fourteenth century. And Summer Will Show (1936) explores the lives of two women during the French Revolution and can also be seen as a lesbian love story. Warner also wrote a vast number of short stories, many of which were published in the New Yorker. She also published poetry, including Whether a Dove or a Seagull, which was a joint publication of more than a hundred poems by herself and her life partner, Valentine Ackland, exploring their physical love and emotional intimacy.

We hope you will enjoy reading Lolly Willowes, and will be publishing another blog post next week with some suggested questions and areas for discussion, followed by a post at the end of the month reflecting on the reception of the book.

You might also be interested in the following articles on Warner and Ackland:

Claire Harman, Warner’s biographer, writing in The Guardian:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/mar/29/featuresreviews.guardianreview35

Frances Bingham, Ackland’s biographer, writing in The Guardian:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/may/20/featuresreviews.guardianreview26

You can find more information about Warner, and her work, from the Sylvia Townsend Warner Society:

https://www.townsendwarner.com/

Happy reading!

 

[1] Aberdeen Press and Journal, 8 February 1926.

[2] The Graphic, 20 February 1926.

[3] Claire Harman, Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography (London, 1989), 65.

4 comments on “Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978), Lolly Willowes

  1. I’ve heard of Sylvia Townsend Warner before, I’ve tried to find a copy of the poetry she wrote with Valentine Ackland but never found an affordable copy! I’d never looked for her novels though so it’s nice to have an excuse to finally try one.

    I started reading this evening and 50 pages in I’m definitely enjoying it.

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  2. Glad Laura finally built up the confidence to go her own way. I was getting frustrated with her dislike of her situation, but apparent inability to do anything positive about it.

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  3. I’m still reeling at the idea of being an ‘old maid’ at such a tender age!

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  4. Started reading LW late in February so a bit of a time lag responding. Her lack of agency was so well described – being overruled, not having her opinions heard, feelings of isolation and her “autumnal fevers” – until she made the break for freedom. I loved the droll descriptions of relatives and family conservatism. James’s silent grief after the death of their mother “he concealed his feelings too closely, becoming by a hyperbole of reticence, reserved even about his reserve”. I was totally unprepared for Satan turning up – that was intriguing – and Laura’s closing “women are dynamite” speech I found moving. Enjoyed the book a lot!

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