Sylvia Townsend Warner, London, 1920s
When we meet Laura Willowes in the opening pages of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s first novel, Lolly Willowes
(pub. 1926), her sister-in-law Caroline is distractedly offering for Laura to live in London with herself and Laura’s brother Henry, following the death of Laura’s father:“Caroline spoke affectionately, but her thoughts were elsewhere. They had already journeyed back to London to buy an eiderdown for the bed in the small spare-room. If the washstand were moved towards the door, would it be possible to fit in a writing-table between it and the fire-place? Perhaps a bureau would be better, because of the extra drawers? Yes, that was it. Lolly could bring the little walnut bureau with the false handles on one side and the top that jumped up when you touched the spring by the ink-well. It had belonged to Lolly’s mother, and Lolly had always used it, so Sibyl could not raise any objections. Sibyl had no claim to it whatever, really. She had only been married to James for two years, and if the bureau had marked the morning-room wall-paper, she could easily put something else in its place. A stand with ferns and potted plants would look very nice.”
With this opening, Townsend Warner establishes some key concerns: the disposition of single women as if they were furniture, the strong convention that single women needed to live under the care of a male guardian, and the conviction that this convention subsumed the wishes of any individual woman. Townsend Warner’s approach to exploring these themes is extraordinary, and therein lies the power of the novel. She structures Laura’s story to carry her readers along with Laura’s awakening to her own desires and powers. She does so with a deep understanding of the power of social conventions, a wry sense of humor, and the ability to express is beautiful, wild prose the powers of nature and Laura’s relationship to the land on a deep, almost primeval level. I emerged from this novel with a new favorite literary character, and a deep appreciation of Townsend Warner’s considerable skills as a writer and a social critic.
Townsend Warner clearly establishes the Willowes as a conservative family. Their beliefs and preferences were not the only ones present in England in 1902, but they were strongly held, and not only by the Willowes. And Laura, brought up in these traditions, is at first passive in the face of them: “Even in 1902 there were some forward spirits who wondered why that Miss Willowes, who was quite well off, and not likely to marry, did not make a home for herself and take up something artistic or emancipated. Such possibilities did not occur to any of Laura’s relations. Her father being dead, they took it for granted that she should be absorbed into the household of one brother or the other. And Laura, feeling rather as if she were a piece of property forgotten in the will, was ready to be disposed of as they should think best.
“The point of view was old-fashioned, but the Willoweses were a conservative family and kept to old-fashioned ways. Preference, not prejudice, made them faithful to their past. They slept in beds and sat upon chairs whose comfort insensibly persuaded them into respect for the good sense of their forbears. Finding that well-chosen wood and well-chosen wine improved with keeping, they believed that the same law applied to well-chosen ways. Moderation, civil speaking, leisure of the mind and a handsome simplicity were canons of behavior imposed upon them by the example of their ancestors.”
Laura’s individuality is absorbed by her family. Even her name is changed to Lolly when one of her nieces cannot pronounce “Laura,” after which no one in her family calls her Laura again. Townsend Warner presents Laura as satisfied with her life with her father, where she takes on the role of housekeeper after her mother’s death. She carries out her life to the rhythm of family traditions and the customs of the village. And she even follows her own version of her father’s trade in brewing: “Botany and brewery she now combined into one pursuit, for at the spur of Nannie’s rhyme she turned her attention into the forsaken green byways of the rural pharmacopeia. From Everard [her father] she got a little still, from the family recipe-books much information and good advice; and where these failed her, Nicholas Culpepper or old Goody Andrews, who might have been Nicholas’s crony by the respect she had for the moon, were ready to help her out. She roved the countryside for herbs and simples, and many were the washes and decoctions that she made from sweet-gale, water purslane, cowslips, and the roots of succory, while her salads gathered in fields and hedges were eaten by Everard, at first in hope and trust, and afterwards with flattering appetite. Encouraged by him, she even wrote a little book called “Health by the Wayside” commending the use of old-fashioned simples and healing herbs. It was published anonymously at the local press, and fell quite flat.”
After her father’s death, Laura’s caretaker role is shifted from dutiful daughter to irreplaceable aunt. Townsend Warner depicts her as much loved, but greatly constrained in her life in London. Once it becomes clear to Caroline and Henry that Laura will never marry, Caroline resigns herself to sitting with Laura by her side for the rest of her life:“Caroline resigned herself to spending the rest of her evenings with Laura beside her. The perpetual company of a sister-in-law was rather more than she had bargained for. Still, there she was, and Henry was right—they had been the proper people to make a home for Laura when her father died, and she was too old now to begin living by herself. It was not as if she had had any experience of life; she had passed from one guardianship to another: it was impossible to imagine Laura fending for herself. A kind of pity for the unused virgin beside her spread through Caroline’s thoughts. She did not attach an inordinate value to her wifehood and maternity; they were her duties, rather than her glories. But for all that she felt emotionally plumper than Laura. It was well to be loved, to be necessary to other people. But Laura too was loved, and Laura was necessary. Caroline did not know what the children would do without their Aunt Lolly.”
Although Laura is filling an established social role, she grows more and more dissatisfied with her position. Townsend Warner captures this growing sense of longing masterfully -- and by couching them in terms of landscape and nature, she provides a strong counterpoint to Laura’s domesticated life in front of her brother’s fireplace:“At these times she was subject to a peculiar kind of day-dreaming, so vivid as to be almost a hallucination: that she was in the country, at dusk, and alone, and strangely at peace. She did not recall the places which she had visited in holiday-time, these reproached her like opportunities neglected. But while her body sat before the first fires and was cosy with Henry and Caroline, her mind walked by lonely seaboards, in marshes and fens, or came at nightfall to the edge of a wood. She never imagined herself in these places by daylight. She never thought of them as being in any way beautiful. It was not beauty at all that she wanted, or, depressed though she was, she would have bought a ticket to somewhere or other upon the Metropolitan railway and gone out to see the recumbent autumnal graces of the countryside. Her mind was groping after something that eluded her experience, a something that was shadowy and menacing, and yet in some way congenial; a something that lurked in waste places, that was hinted at by the sound of water gurgling through deep channels and by the voices of birds of ill-omen. Loneliness, dreariness, aptness for arousing a sense of fear, a kind of ungodly hallowedness—these were the things that called her thoughts away from the comfortable fireside.”
The sole outlet for Laura’s desires remains the flowers she buys, even in the winter, to fill up her room, a habit in which she persists although Caroline quietly views it as a terrible extravagance. One day, when running an errand, Laura is drawn to a display of preserves from the county and chrysanthemums. As she looks at them, she falls into a revery that seems both to point to her country past and to look ahead to a future in a solitary orchard:“Laura looked at the bottled fruits, the sliced pears in syrup, the glistening red plums, the greengages. She thought of the woman who had filled those jars and fastened on the bladders. Perhaps the greengrocer’s mother lived in the country. A solitary old woman picking fruit in a darkening orchard, rubbing her rough fingertips over the smooth-skinned plums, a lean wiry old woman, standing with upstretched arms among her fruit trees as though she were a tree herself, growing out of the long grass, with arms stretched up like branches. It grew darker and darker; still she worked on, methodically stripping the quivering taut boughs one after the other.
"As Laura stood waiting she felt a great longing. It weighed upon her like the load of ripened fruit upon a tree. She forgot the shop, the other customers, her own errand. She forgot the winter air outside, the people going by on the wet pavements. She forgot that she was in London, she forgot the whole of her London life. She seemed to be standing alone in a darkening orchard, her feet in the grass, her arms stretched up to the pattern of leaves and fruit, her fingers seeking the rounded ovals of the fruit among the pointed ovals of the leaves. The air about her was cool and moist. There was no sound, for the birds had left off singing and the owls had not yet begun to hoot. No sound, except sometimes the soft thud of a ripe plum falling into the grass, to lie there a compact shadow among shadows. The back of her neck ached a little with the strain of holding up her arms. Her fingers searched among the leaves.”
Laura learns from the shopkeeper that the mums and preserves came from Buckinghamshire. This leads her to purchase a guidebook for The Chilterns, where she first learns of the existence of the village of Great Mop. Its walking paths, Norman church, and nearby windmill capture Laura’s imagination, so she decides to move there, to her family’s shock and strong disapproval. Throughout this section, there remains a sense of something unseen and mystical driving Laura on to a future she had not articulated earlier, even to herself. Autumn, The Chilterns
Throughout the rest of the novel, Townsend Warner evokes the wild majesty of the land surrounding Great Mop. As Laura goes on long solitary walks through the lanes, fields, and forests, she opens up more and more to the wilderness around her, and in doing so, taps into a piece of herself that had remained buried until then. Laura also becomes aware of a darker power surrounding her. Autumn, The Ridgeway, The Chilterns“All one day the wind had risen, and late in the evening it called her out. She went up to the top of Cubbey Ridge, past the ruined windmill that clattered with its torn sails. When she had come to the top of the Ridge she stopped, with difficulty holding herself upright. She felt the wind swoop down close to the earth. The moon was out hunting overhead, her pack of black and white hounds ranged over the sky. Moon and wind and clouds hunted an invisible quarry. The wind routed through the woods. Laura from the hill-top heard the different voices. The spent gusts left the beech-hangers throbbing like sea caverns through which the wave had passed; the fir plantation seemed to chant some never-ending rune.
"Listening to these voices, another voice came to her ear—the far-off pulsation of a goods train laboring up a steep cutting. It was scarcely audible, more perceptible as feeling than as sound, but by its regularity it dominated all the other voices. It seemed to come nearer and nearer, to inform her like the drumming of blood in her ears. She began to feel defenseless, exposed to the possibility of an overwhelming terror. She listened intently, trying not to think. Though the noise came from an ordinary goods train, no amount of reasoning could stave off this terror. She must yield herself, yield up all her attention, if she would escape. It was a wicked sound. It expressed something eternally outcast and reprobated by man, stealthily trafficking by night, unseen in the dark clefts of the hills. Loud, separate, and abrupt, each pant of the engine trampled down her wits. The wind and the moon and the ranging cloud pack were not the only hunters abroad that night: something else was hunting among the hills, hunting slowly, deliberately, sure of its quarry.” Autumn, The Chilterns
Townsend Warner’s depiction of Laura’s slow transformation is masterful. Her prose is beautiful and dangerous and wild. The reader pieces together hints and whispers of the secrets of the power held in the trees and fields of The Chilterns. I will leave it up to you to discover these secrets along with Laura. In the end, if you follow where Townsend Warner is leading you, you will explore themes related to power and autonomy, the deep connections possible between a place and a person who is open to undomesticated beauty, and the life possible for a woman who refuses to be constrained by convention and tradition, but who looks inside herself to determine how to live. Sylvia Townsend Warner