My MA dissertation will be all about the very glorious Sylvia Townsend Warner and animals, or the way in which her lyrical, beautiful writing manipulates our idea of the inhuman in order to throw back at us a very accurate rendition of humanity.
Sylvia Nora Townsend Warner was born in 1893 to a house-master at Harrow School for boys. As a kid, Sylvia enjoyed a very classic childhood split between the education and refinements of London and the wild South West of England. An only child, Townsend Warner was close to her father and subsequently devastated by his early death as she entered adulthood.
Although Townsend Warner grew to be known for her work with Tudor Church music at the close of the century’s first decade, and was involved with in a passionate relationship with the (married) music teacher at her father’s school, at the outbreak of the first World War she moved to London and took up a post at a munitions factory. Although Townsend Warner would later associate with some of the literati of her day, she kept to herself and subsequently her first novel was an electric success suspected by no one…
Townsend Warner wrote constantly until her death in ’78, and is perhaps best remembered as a regular, witty contributor to the New Yorker, for whom she published over TWO HUNDRED STORIES throughout her lifetime. She wrote about turtles and convents. Historical and Romance novels. She wrote guidebooks and adventure books. She adopted tens of cats and dogs (and one goat). She lived an openly committed lesbian life with her lover, Valentine Ackland. She was a talented diarist.
She is unlimited by genre.
Her beautiful poems, her haunting, funny books and her history of service in the Spanish Civil War remain largely unremembered.
Though this incredible woman deserves more than merely an obsequious blog post and a surely over-reaching MA dissertation, this post will not attempt at her biography.
Instead, this post, however, will be a review of a very unique little critter, even amid the clamouringly odd-and-varied Townsend Warner ouevre: her very first novel, ‘Lolly Willows or The Loving Huntsman’ (published in 1926).
Lolly Willowes, in brief, follows the life of a spinster. With incisive humour, Townsend Warner cuts into the notion of the spinster as the superfluous and dependant freak.
The eponymous heroine, Lolly, begins her life as the doted-upon daughter of a landed gentleman with two other sons also. A the traumatic death of her father (sound familiar?) the family begins, over many years to rearrange itself, with Lolly finding herself pushed and stifled to the outside. Lolly enters for many years a dreamy state of indifference and resignation to her role, until, at the close of WWI, she awakes as if from a coma and leaves her family behind. Lolly Willowes tears away to the wild countryside and finds within herself a devilry which shocks, amuses and unhinges her readers.
I won’t give any more away.
I’m sure there will be more posts of the lovely and indisputably underappreciated Townsend Warner in the coming months. I’m begining to feel as though I know her, in part because I’m spending so much time buried in her diaries and her unpublished letters. The Dorset County Library has been so generous and let me ransack the archive for material.
It’s so comforting to know that you are appreciating the work of an author with whom you feel as though you would really ‘get on’. I suspect that Virginia Woolf wouldn’t think much of me, or that Hemmingway wouldn’t consider me at all for example.
(Charles Bukowski, the subject of my BA dissertation may try to get on with me, but that might not be such a good thing. I digress.)
Lolly Willowes or the Loving Huntsman is a magnificent story: a subtle yarn which weaves together spinsters, modernism, upper-class apathy, pacts with the Devil, witchcraft, countryside and kittens.
The more people that read this magical book, the better.
Pinterest mood board for Lolly Willowes can be seen here: