Monday, 27 October 2008

Lolly Willowes - Sylvia Townsend Warner

It is not often you pick up a book you have never read before and fall in love with it. For me, Lolly Willowes is one of those books. I knew of the author because of her excellent Kingdoms of Elfin, but for some strange reason I have never read anything else by her. Until now. Which just goes to show what an idiot I am.

This is a beautifully written book. The structure is simple, the narrative flows like a dream (literally and metaphorically), and whilst Warner has an assured and unique voice, it never intrudes. Even the impassioned polemic toward the end is so very much in character, that its universal appeal is also entirely personal to Laura herself.

Laura Willowes is the central character of the book. A self-effacing, maiden aunt whose life has been quiet and disregarded, she decides at the age of forty-eight to escape from her extended family in London and live alone in a small village. There, she gives herself up to the Devil in order to protect her freedom.

From my own perspective, the ‘Devil’ of the book is much closer to a primeval Myrddin figure, who is guardian of the land. For the purpose of the book, it is an interesting twist. Women who seek independence, who wish to be regarded as human beings in their own right, have long been regarded as ‘wicked’. Warner plays on this and subverts the idea. It will be interesting to discover whether this is developed in her later books.

The tale is told with a gentle, tender wit. Warner clearly loves Laura and applauds her independence. I could only wish that I had discovered this book (and her others) much earlier. I am pleased that I can look forward to reading them for the first time.