Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lolly Willowes

I've been fairly preoccupied with the subject of witchcraft (in all its forms and fakery) for this past year and a half or so. With that in mind, my friend Deirdre lent me her copy of Lolly Willowes, a novel by Sylvia Townsend Warner published in 1926.

The novel is beautifully written, and I was completely engrossed for the first two chapters. The natural imagery is wonderfully vivid—a "thick roof of lime trees" in a churchyard, or
[She] only cried when alone in the potting shed, where a pair of old gardening gloves repeated to her the shape of her mother's hands.
At first, Lolly Willowes reminded me, in very general terms, of Kate Chopin's The Awakening, except our protagonist is a maiden aunt who finds satisfaction in nature (she fills her tiny bedroom with exotic flowers, gathers plants to make herbal remedies, and goes for all-day walks in the forest) rather than illicit romance. Laura—called Lolly by her nieces and nephew—doesn't break free of her stultifying London life under her brother's thumb until halfway through the book, but I'm not one of those readers who gets annoyed with the writer when "not much happens" (so long as the prose is good).

I loved the way this novel began, and I wanted to love it all the way through. But...

I'd better back up and read you a few lines off the back cover:
After twenty years of self-effacement as a maiden aunt, she decides to break free and moves to a small Bedfordshire village. Here, happy and unfettered, she enjoys her new existence nagged only by the sense of a secret she has yet to discover. That secret—and her vocation—is witchcraft, and with her cat and a pact with the Devil, Lolly Willowes is finally free.
Here's the problem. There's absolutely no hint of supernatural activity until page 165 (out of 247 pages)—so that when she finds a strange kitten inside her (previously locked) parlor, the kitten bites her, and she 'realizes' she's entered into a pact with the Devil, I had to wonder if the promise of witchcraft on the back cover was nothing more than a delusion on Laura's part. It would have made sense if her pact with the Devil were something she had imagined to make her life more interesting, but it's not. It's real, and most of the other villagers have made the same bargain. But for a few pages there, until she goes to a midnight Sabbath attended by all the rest of the village, I was convinced that Lolly is mentally ill.

As a writer, I'm very conscious of this basic principle of consistency. The writer makes a sort of contract with the reader on the very first page, the very first line even. You might not have any idea yet where this story is going to go, but you ought to know what sort of world the characters inhabit. So to begin a story in an all-too-realistic situation and end it with a conversation with Satan (who is posing as an easygoing gardener) is, in a sense, pulling a fast one on the reader. It feels cheap. I'm not saying an imp should have jumped out of a hole and cried "tee hee, I'm the Devil's minion!" before the first paragraph was out; but however it's done, the reader should proceed with the distinct impression that there is a supernatural layer to this story, a dark secret to which she'll eventually be made privy.

When I finished the novel, I googled in search of some discussion on Lolly Willowes that might validate my feelings of disappointment. The novel is considered, by feminist readers especially, to be an unjustly forgotten classic, but virtually none of the blogs or other websites I visited mentioned the inconsistency that had partially spoiled the story for me.

I had lent the book to my mother to read while I finished Hogfather over the holidays, and I wasn't fazed when she told me she hadn't cared for it much—our literary tastes don't always overlap. But when I finished the novel, I realized she'd had the very same reaction that I had. "It just doesn't work," she said. So it wasn't just me.

Despite the consistency issue, Lolly Willowes is still worth a read for all its fine descriptive passages and classic feminist message. I just wish I could recommend it with a whole heart.

1 comment:

Kate said...

A. I love how you have "witchery" label.
B. I have to say I don't think well-written passages are going to entice me to read a book that both you and Ma felt didn't work.