Reviewed in the United States on February 22, 2010
I wish I could write in such a way as to convey the rhythms and flavor of Lolly Willowes, which is only one of the things I fell in love with while reading this book. There was always a tendency to get so caught up in the prose that I forgot to follow along in the action and had to go back and reread passages (a "good" thing in this case).
I've tried to find a representative passage short enough to reproduce here so readers don't imagine that I'm making things up but I can't so I'll just throw in two entirely random quotes and hope you can see what I mean, however faintly: "Mr. Arbuthnot certainly was not prepared for her response to his statement that February was a dangerous month. `It is,' answered Laura with almost violent agreement. `If you are a were-wolf, and very likely you may be, for lots of people are without knowing, February, of all months, is the month when you are most likely to go out on a dark windy night and worry sheep.'"
"Laura's hair was black as ever, but it was not so thick. She had grown paler from living in London. Her forehead had not a wrinkle, but two downward lines prolonged the drooping corners of her mouth. Her face was beginning to stiffen. It had lost its power of expressiveness and was more and more dominated by the hook nose and the sharp chin. When Laura was ten years older she would be nut-crackerish."
The story is about Laura "Lolly" Willowes, the youngest daughter (b. 1874) of Everard Willowes, who spends the first half of her life living in the shadow of others before breaking free from her family to undergo an extraordinary transformation and "finding herself" when she moves to Great Mop and makes a pact with Satan (or does she?).
The book is divided into three parts. Part I sets up the situation against which Lolly rebels by narrating the events in her life that bring her to live with her eldest brother, Henry; his wife, Caroline; and their two daughters, Fancy and Marion, in London. The Willowes are an upper middle class family that has made their money in breweries and (like most of the non-noble gentry of that era) aspired to live like the nobility - landed estates, proper marriages, the stifling conformity of late Victorian England, and all that. Like Ivy Compton-Burnett (whose virtues I've praised elsewhere), Warner evinces little liking for this society but her chidings are less acerbic, more gentle, and her heroine (at least in this, her first novel that I've read) successfully leaves it behind, unlike Compton-Burnett's, who usually wind up as trapped in the end as at the beginning: "But on the following summer the sandbags had rotted and burst and the barbed-wire had been absorbed into the farmer's fences. So, Laura thought, such warlike phenomena as Mr. Wolf-Saunders, Fancy's second husband, and Jemima and Rosalind, Fancy's two daughters, might well disappear off the family landscape. Mr. Wolf-Saunders recumbent on the beach was indeed much like a sandbag, and no more arresting to the eye. Jemima and Rosalind were more obtrusive. Here was a new generation to call her Aunt Lolly and find her as indispensable as did the last."
"They condoned this extravagance, yet they mistrusted it. Time justified them in their mistrust. Like many stupid people, they possessed acute instincts. `He that is unfaithful in little things...' Caroline would say when the children forgot to wind up their watches. Their instinct told them that the same truth applies to extravagance in little things. They were wiser than they knew. When Laura's extravagance in great things came it staggered them so completely that they forgot how judiciously they had suspected it beforehand."
In Part II, Lolly breaks with her family to move to the village of Great Mop, in the Chilterns. I'm not familiar enough with on-the-ground English geography to have a good grasp of where this is (I had to go to Wikipedia and look it up) but Warner manages to bring it alive with her descriptions of Lolly's wanderings around the district as she explores her new home. As in Part I, Warner carefully lays the groundwork for Lolly's encounter with the Prince of Darkness with hints that things aren't quite what they seem in Great Mop. For example, why does everyone seem to stay up so late at night?
Part II ends when Lolly's enjoyment of her new freedom is threatened by her nephew Titus' announced plans to move to Great Mop because he's entranced by its bucolic ways. Titus is the son of Lolly's deceased second brother John. She likes him well enough, and would welcome visits, but his intention to follow her into the "wilderness" leaves her feeling as confined, stifled and miserable as she was in London with Henry and clan: "Laura hated him for daring to love it so. She hated him for daring to love it at all. Most of all she hated him for imposing his kind of love on her. Since he had come to Great Mop she had not been allowed to love in her own way. Commenting, pointing out, appreciating, Titus tweaked her senses one after another as if they were so many bell-ropes.... Day by day the spirit of the place withdrew itself further from her.... Presently she would not know it any more. For her too Great Mop would be a place like any other place, a pastoral landscape where an aunt walked out with her nephew."
One day, walking in the woods around Great Mop, Lolly enters an unfamiliar area. Her mind is in turmoil and she imagines she senses a presence in the wood, to which she offers herself body and soul if only she can get rid of Titus. She immediately realizes that she's made a pact with the Devil and hurries home. There she finds a kitten has snuck into her cottage, and when he bites her, understands that it's her familiar sent by Satan to aid her.
Or is that what happened? One of Warner's better tricks is that you can't really be sure if she's introduced a supernatural element or not. Everything that happens subsequently can be explained without resorting to infernal pacts. Everything can be explained as a rationalization of Lolly's rebellion.
In the final scene of the novel, Lolly encounters the Devil in person (or not - he could be just a man she encounters or even a figment of her imagination) and explains herself: "It's like this. When I think of witches, I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded. I see them, wives and sisters of respectable men, chapel members, and blacksmiths, and small farmers, and Puritans.... Well, there they were, there they are, child-rearing, house-keeping, hanging washed dishcloths on currant bushes; and for diversion each other's silly conversation, and listening to men talking together in the way that men talk and women listen. Quite different to the way women talk, and men listen, if they listen at all.... Nothing for them except subjection and plaiting their hair.... Anyhow, even if it isn't true of dynamite, it's true of women.... Some may get religion, then they're all right, I expect. But for the others, for so many, what can there be but witchcraft? That strikes them real. Even if other people still find them quite safe and usual, and go on poking with them, they know in their hearts how dangerous, how incalculable, how extraordinary they are.... Her soul - when no one else would give a look at her body even!... But you say: `Come here, my bird! I will give you the dangerous black night to stretch your wings in, and poisonous berries to feed on, and a nest of bones and thorns, perched high up in danger where no one can climb to it.' That's why we become witches: to show our scorn of pretending life's a safe business to satisfy our passion for adventure.... One doesn't become a witch to run around being helpful either.... It's to escape all that - to have a life of one's own, not an existence doled out to you by others, charitable refuse of their thoughts, so many ounces of stale bread of life a day...."
The first thing I read of Warner was her collection of fairy stories, Kingdoms of Elfin, and that's because I kept coming across references to her work in compendia of fantastic places. I enjoyed her stories and writing style, and always meant to get around to reading more of her stuff. It took a glowing review of a reprint of Summer Will Show in The Nation magazine to make me take the plunge and I'm glad I did. Highly recommended to anyone following these reviews.