Day 1122: Lolly Willowes

Cover for Lolly WillowesThe two novels I’ve read by Sylvia Townsend Warner are as different as they can be. The True Heart is a historical novel about a woman who lives through great troubles to be with the man she loves. Lolly Willowes is a feminist novel about a spinster who tires of her life dedicated to her family.

The Willowes family doesn’t go in much for change. They have lived in the same house for years, and even after they move, they bring all their possessions, which are never moved from their set positions. Lolly Willowes grows up loving the countryside around her home, and she is so comfortable with her family that she never considers marriage. When her mother dies, she takes over running the house, and neither she nor her father want her to go.

But when her father dies, her wishes are not consulted. Her older brother Henry is more willing to have her in London than her younger brother at the family home. So, she moves to London to be of service to her family.

Twenty years later, she’s had enough. Without seeing it first, she decides to move to a rural village named Great Mop. Her family is very much against this plan, and it is only then that she finds out her brother has mishandled her money and there is very little left. She can’t have the house and donkey she planned on, but she plans to move, and move she will.

It is after Lolly moves that the novel takes a decidedly eccentric turn. Some readers will appreciate it more than others, and I’m not sure how much I do. I’m also not going to tell you what happens. But the message of the novel, though playfully told, is that women are not just adjuncts to their families, to have their lives plotted out for them just because they’re single. There were plenty of women in Lolly’s position in the 1920’s, when this novel was written, and that is probably the reason that the novel became an unexpected best seller in its time.

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Day 943: The True Heart

Cover for The True HeartThe True Heart is the book chosen for my Classics Club spin on Monday. I’m reviewing it this week because I have Literary Wives on the same day. It is the first book I’ve read by Sylvia Townsend Warner, and it is an interesting mix.

On the surface, it is a simple tale about the efforts of a naive young woman to win her love. But it has allegorical overtones and Warner admitted that it is her retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Let me just say that stories of women who labor long and hard to prove their love for men (and, actually, the other way around) have never been my favorite.

Sukey Bond, straight out of an orphanage school, is sent to work on a farm as a servant girl. Her escort part of the way is Mrs. Seabourn, a clergyman’s wife, and even though Sukey is afraid of the unknown, she is sure that Mrs. Seabourn would not take her anywhere bad.

On the Noman’s farm, she meets Eric, who appears to be another farm worker, but no one seems to mind if he doesn’t work. Sukey is very naive and inexperienced, and she is surprised when Eric seems to like her. She doesn’t notice how he is different than the other workers. They begin meeting each other away from the farm and decide they are in love.

But one day Eric has an epileptic fit after he sees Sukey kill a chicken. It is not until then that Sukey learns Eric is considered an “idiot.” (He is odd, certainly, but doesn’t really seem mentally lacking┬áso much as on another plane of existence.) It is also not until then that Sukey learns Eric is Mrs. Seabourn’s son. This puts him well above her in social station, but she thinks Mrs. Seabourn would be happy that Eric has her to take care of him. So, when Mrs. Seabourn comes to take Eric away, Sukey quits her job and follows.

But Mrs. Seabourn is not the person Sukey thinks she is. She is ashamed of Eric and horrified and angry when Sukey presents herself. She sends Sukey away, and the girl is penniless and friendless until she finds work at another farm.

At the home of her new employer, she hears a garbled account of Mrs. Seabourn being snubbed by a “princess” at some event. She decides that if she were to go to Queen Victoria and get Mrs. Seabourn a bible from her, Mrs. Seabourn might be grateful and relent. So, she quits her job again and is off to London.

I hardly know what to think about this novel. On the one hand, it seems unlikely that events, which could go so horribly for Sukey, depend on her constantly receiving help from unexpected people. Too, it was difficult for me to imagine a person could be so simple-minded and naive. (Of course, I assumed she was a little older than she actually was until they told her age at the end.) On the other hand, I don’t think we’re supposed to take this apparently simple tale at face value.

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