Despite having had a good proportion of Sylvia Townsend Warner's books on my shelves since pre blogging days, and a lot of enthusiasm, especially for 'Lolly Willowes', from people who I normally find my reading preferences aligned with it took Helen to really make me read her.
It was Helen's blog where I first saw Warner's fairy tales mentioned, which in turn made me curious about them when they were re published by Handheld Press. They are one of the best things I've ever found, and I'm now quietly in the process of bestowing them on friends I think might be suitably deserving/appreciative.
For last years Sylvia Townsend Warner reading week I tried Mr. Fortune's Maggot which was a beautiful, melancholy, profound book which has stuck with me. For this year I wanted to try' Lolly Willowes' again. I started, and failed to finish this maybe as much as 15 years ago. I don't know why I didn't get on with it better at the time. It sounded like very much my sort of book, but it didn't spark any enthusiasm in me at all, and I totally failed to see any of the humour that runs through it.
It might be that it was around the time that I was reading a lot of books about surplus women and the weird element of 'Lolly Willowes' jarred with that. If I was comparing her to F. M. Mayor (The Rector's Daughter, The Squire's Daughter, The Third Miss Symons"), which I might have been I can see why I might have struggled.
The start of 'Lolly Willowes' feels conventional enough at first glance - a shy young woman who not only fails to make a social success but fails to worry about it, from a genteel background, who goes from father to brothers house. When she settles with her brother the family give over the small spare bedroom to her (which is a wrench because it means having to wash the double sized sheets for stray single visitors) and she dwindles into a useful aunt passively joining in with all the family's activity and routines.
When Mayor takes a similar character in 'The Rector's Daughter' she makes the most of a similarly empty life in a way that I felt defied the reader to pity it's central character. Warner has Laura Willowes make a pact with the devil and become a witch. Had I read to the end first time I would have better understood 'Lolly Willowes' in that surplus woman tradition. It's touched on in the last few pages in a way that also recalls Virginia Woolf's 'A Room Of One's Own' albeit with a playfulness and humour that I do not associate with Woolf.
It's also a book that has a particular resonance at this stage of my (extended) lockdown. Laura's feelings about life in London compared to the country very much echo mine right now when the limitations of the city have never been more frustrating, even if in other ways it has been a gift for getting the sort of peace that Laura desires.
What I really can't understand though is how I missed the humour and sharpness of this book last time around when it's the first thing that hit me this time. It doesn't much matter because I got here in the end, which feels like the greatest good luck.
I'm really beginning to wonder if Sylvia Townsend Warner might be the most under rated writer though, and why that should be. It looks like she might be getting the Penguin Modern Classic treatment next year so that might help a little, and I wish I had something more intelligent to say about her beyond the very sound advice to read her books, but until I've actually taken that advice myself the next best thing I can tell you is to read what Helen has to say about her. She has read Warner widely, and her reviews are both insightful and accessible. Helen Macdonald, Harriet Devine, and Simon Thomas at Stuck in a Book are all also great places to start reading around her.