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Blue girl

Lolly Willowes

My fifth book for the R.I.P. X challenge is Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner.

Laura, known as 'Lolly', Willowes is a young woman utterly devoted to her father. Unmarried with two older brothers to whom she is not particularly close, Laura and her father have been inseparable since the death of her mother. When he too suddenly dies it is decided for her that she should go to live with her older brother, Henry, and his wife and two children in London. Laura acquiesces without too much of a fight though she's not sure if it's what she really wants.

For the next twenty years Laura's life is that of the maiden dependent aunt. Her brother's family are not unkind but they take for granted that she will be an unpaid child minder and housekeeper. She adapts to London life quite well even though her preferance is very much for a quiet life in the country. But there is no returning to that as her other brother, James, and his wife now inhabit her childhood home.

Then one day Laura stops to buy some chrysanthemums in a florist shop. Questioning the shop owner she discovers the flowers have been grown in the Chiltern hills in Buckinghamshire. Straightaway she visits a bookshop and picks up a guidebook to the county. She studies it carefully and decides to leave her brother's house to go and live in a village she likes the sound of, Great Mop. There is some resistance to her plan, naturally, but Laura is determined and takes up lodgings with a Mrs. Leak.

The village is an odd one. It is undoubtedly very beautiful and exceedlingly peaceful, set amongst rolling hills and wooded valleys. But the people are not terribly friendly... nor are they precisely hostile... they're just rather indifferent. They go about their business and that business never includes Laura. Which suits Laura down to the ground because, after twenty years of being at everyone's beck and call, what she really wants is to be quiet, alone, to go unnoticed.

And so it goes for quite a while until her nephew, Titus, announces that he plans to write a book and in order to do so is going to come and live with Laura in Great Mop. Laura's rural idyll is shattered. Titus is popular in the village, a 'character'. He likes to acompany her on her walks and gets her to help with writing up his book and so on. Laura is once again at the mercy of 'family'. What can she do to solve this problem?

This might not seem like an obvious choice for the RIP challenge but the last third of the book proves that it very much is, albeit in a much more subtle, satirical manner than your more obvious 'in your face' horror story. The countryside is the star of the show here, and what may or may not go on in the woods and fields that ordinary mortals have no knowledge of. It reminded me strongly of supernatural stories Algernon Blackwood wrote about the Canadian backwoods, all beautiful descriptions of wooded valleys but with an underlying sense of the mystical and unknown. Very clever.

Of course reality is never far away. Laura knows this because she's had to live the 'real' life of a dependant relative for twenty years and can never quite get rid of the feeling that it will catch up with her eventually, which of course it does. It's not that her family are cruel, in fact quite the reverse, the problem is that Laura's life is not her own. She's living it according to her family's expectations of what a maiden aunt should be. It was an extremely common story just after World War One when this story was set. So many men were killed that there was a surplas of single women, and for women of Laura's class a career, 'earning your own living', was out of the question. You went to live with relatives and said relatives thought that you ought to think yourself lucky. I thoroughly enjoyed reading a tale of a woman who decides to break the mould and in such an unusual way to boot.

In my library book copy the introduction is written by author, Sarah Waters. I read that after I'd finished the book, as I often do, and found that an interesting and informative read. Sylvia Townsend Warner was clearly a fascinating woman, breaking the mould herself by living with a female partner for forty years until her partner's death. Not only would I like to read more of the author's fiction, I'd also like to read more about her life... I believe there are diaries available and so forth. Always a good thing to discover yet another reading tangent to go off on: you just never know where it will lead in my experience.


Oh, I like the sound of this alot - and having a quick google, I see it was number 52 in the Grauniad's list of 100 best novels! I've never heard of it before, so thanks very much - new books and tangents ahoy! *g*
Hee. ;-) Glad to be of service. The writing is so good, and it's kind of darkly amusing and irreverant, but also charming. Reminded me a *little* bit of Angela Thirkell's books.
I first heard of this when I was in my late teens, when one of the librarians where I worked who was laving the country said wistfully that if I ever came across a copy...

Many years later I came across a reference and checked at the Queens NY library who had what I think must have been an original printing, very old.

Glad to see it's available now. One more for the list!

I'd heard of the author but never considered reading anything by her until I happened to spot this book somehow on Goodreads. (Brilliant place for book recs.) I had to reserve it as I think Devon only has one or two copies, none of them in Tiverton naturally. Well worth it though. And someone on my Blogspot blog has said that her diaries are well worth reading.
Sounds like a book I'd definitely enjoy, although the Single Female Relative's lot is something that would get right under the skin of most women today... because so many of us would be chafing at the constraints of convention that were just a social norm in those days.
I find it really quite hard reading these books that feature the constraints placed upon women years ago. It was all so unjustified and really just about men wanting to have and keep control over 'everything' including women. This is a gentle book but if you read it carefully there is tragedy here.
One of my favourite books - and not just because I'm an aberrant maiden aunt whose best friends are also maiden aunts. :D There's something about Warner's style that spoke to me immediately and I've found it in everything else she wrote.
I'm not surprised this is one of your favourite books. As you say, her style speaks to you and I found Lolly's predicament very affecting 'because' the writing is so darn good. What else by her would you recommend?
The Kingdoms of Elfin, Mr Fortune's Maggot, The Corner That Held Them.
Thank you! I shall search those out.