Friday, April 2, 2010

Lolly Willowes finished; The Time Machine started

I’ve just finished Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes, the first of these books that I’d not heard of before the list. I was a bit skeptical going in, as I often am with books I’ve never heard of. I’m glad to say that it exceeded expectations. The story slips easily between reality and surreal fantasy without excuse or apology. I can easily see Warner's style as an influence of Jeanette Winterson.

More than anything, I found myself relating to the main character – Laura Willowes, called Lolly by her nephew and nieces in that way that children tend to rename a person completely – and felt that in her situation, I would have made the same choices. Laura is a child in the late Victorian era in England, comes of age in the Edwardian period, and suddenly finds herself a middle-aged spinster in London in the 1920s. She lives with her brother and sister-in-law, who take her in after her father dies, and she is stuck in a humdrum life of being the helper to the lady of the household in a house that is not her own. After so many years of womanly silence, she decides she will take what finances are hers and move to the countryside, so that her life can be her own again. In the countryside, she becomes a witch.

And why not? Her new life permits her the liberty to forgo British manners, to dress as she likes, to come and go as she pleases. She is free from the expectations of a gentlewoman, and yet as a witch she has an identity that is uniquely feminine.

In her position, I could easily do the same thing. Uninterested in men, manners, and proper society, I would prefer the label of witch for the freedom it comes with (either that, or I’d have to find the world of Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet and live in it). Laura enters into witchcraft with an unshakable will; she learns that her country town is full of witches, and she is taken to a midnight pagan Sabbath to celebrate her initiation. It turns into a mildly Dionysian revelry that she finds just as unsatisfying as the boring dance socials she used to attend in London. When a young masked man who acts as a proxy for the devil in their celebration welcomes her with an erotic gesture, Laura has quite enough of their ridiculousness, and storms off to find her own devil in the simplicity of nature. She literally does find him. Satan appears to her in the aspect of a simple woodsman, a relatively harmless demon who purchases her soul in exchange for the opportunity to “show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business.” The sin that gives Laura’s soul over to Satan is the sin of rejecting the expectations of a respectable woman.

She sells her soul willingly, and finds no shame in her new life. She even loses her brief concern that the other witches in her community won’t have her after she stormed out of their Sabbath – the good thing about living with witches is that she is among “people who prefer their thoughts to yours.”
Next up is The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. It's one of two Wells novels on the list, and I believe these are the only novels on the list that are considered major influences of the steampunk sub-genre of science fiction (unless you count Frankenstein, which is arguable). Mostly that makes me wish that Jules Verne were also on the list.

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