A Month of Reading – July 2020

July 2020 was another excellent reading month. I managed to read seven books all of which were very good. My favourites were Earth and High Heaven, Look At Me and The Weather in the Streets.

Here is a round-up of the seven books with links provided for those I have reviewed in detail separately.

Earth and High Heaven – Gwethalyn Graham

Earth and High Heaven is a wonderfully absorbing novel the focal point of which is a love affair between a Gentile woman and a Jewish man portrayed against a backdrop of racial prejudice.

The novel is set in the city of Montreal in Canada in the early 1940s when the war was still raging in Europe. The implication of racial prejudice is a big theme of the novel, particularly the danger of making sweeping generalisations.

Erica Drake, an English Canadian born to a wealthy family, falls in love with Marc Reiser, a Jewish man with origins in Austria. Erica’s parents are highly opposed to this relationship because of their deep-seated prejudices against the Jews and they refuse to cast them aside and see Marc as an individual. Will the couple surmount all odds and eventually marry?

Earth and High Heaven is a brilliantly immersive novel. Graham’s writing is sensitive and intelligent and many of the discussions and arguments between Erica and her parents and Erica and Marc are tense but riveting.

Look At Me – Anita Brookner

At a little under 200 pages, Look At Me is a compelling and searing portrait of loneliness and wanting to belong.

By day, our narrator, Frances Hinton works in a medical library and in the evenings spends time in solitude in her large flat, writing. However, one day the charismatic doctor Nick Fraser and his equally dynamic wife Alix appear on the scene and Frances finds herself in their company thoroughly enjoying herself. Until something terribly goes wrong and Frances finds that the Frasers are no longer interested in her.

Look At Me then is quite a fascinating but heartbreaking account of a lonely woman who can never really belong to the social circle she wants to be a part of, having to contend with the role of an outsider.

Brookner’s writing is brilliant. Her sentences are precise and exquisitely crafted and she captures perfectly Frances’ mental state as she is drawn towards the allure of the Frasers and then cruelly cast aside. 

The Invitation to the Waltz – Rosamond Lehmann

Invitation to the Waltz is the first of the Olivia Curtis novels. When the book opens, Olivia has turned seventeen and there is a family gathering to celebrate and present her with gifts. The novel charts the emotions of a young girl on the cusp of womanhood – the anxiety as well as the excitement of making a good impression at the dance, hopes for a schedule full of dance partners alternating with the fear of being left alone.

Lehmann’s prose is lush and beautiful and I was immediately struck by her impressionistic writing style. Set in the 1930s, she also subtly brings to the fore the class differences prevalent in the society at the time.

The Weather in the Streets – Rosamond Lehmann

Set ten years after Invitation to the Waltz, The Weather in the Streets revolves round the doomed love affair between Olivia Curtis and the married Rollo Spencer who is first introduced to readers in the final few pages of the first novel.

Olivia is the narrator and she is now residing in London, in cramped quarters with her cousin Etty and is leading a bohemian lifestyle with her artist set of friends. While on a trip to the countryside to meet her family, particularly her father who is down with pneumonia, she starts talking to Rollo Spencer on the train and they hit it off.

From thereon Olivia and Rollo embark on a passionate affair that is played out behind closed doors and shrouded in a veil of secrecy.

Lehmann brilliantly captures the stages of the affair as it pans out from Olivia’s point of view – the first heady days of the affair gradually when the world is seen through rose-tinted glasses, and then followed by moments of desperation as Olivia endlessly waits for Rollo’s call.  

Lehmann manages to turn the ‘done-to-death’ tale of an extra-marital affair into something entirely new, and her sensitive portrayal of Olivia’s plight is truly heartbreaking and evokes the sympathy of the reader.

The Hours Before Dawn – Celia Fremlin

“I’d give anything – anything – for a night’s sleep.”

Thus begins Celia Fremlin’s wonderful novel The Hours Before Dawn. The protagonist Louise Henderson is an utterly exhausted housewife. Her newborn son Michael insistently wails every night at an odd hour thereby disrupting her sleep. So as to not disturb her husband Mark and her daughters Margery and Harriet, Louise often takes Michael to the scullery to calm him down as soon as he starts crying in the dead of the night.

The lack of sleep is debilitating for Louise because for a larger part of the day she is trying to complete the household chores in a dazed state leaving her very tired. The day is busy as she has to juggle her daughters’ school activities, meals for the family and keeping the house clean, all of which begin to take a toll on her physically and mentally.

Louise has to do it all single-handedly. Her husband Mark is not much of a support. Michael’s night crying annoys him. And his meager attempts to show concern for her only ends up stressing Louise more.

Moreover, the neighbours are of no help either. They are judgmental, they consistently complain about the noise the children make, and Louise finds herself apologizing all the time. Louise is also wracked with guilt and inadequacy as she struggles with all the multi-tasking expected of her.

Into this household, comes a new lodger to stay – Vera Brandon. When Louise shows Vera the room, she accepts it without asking any questions which surprises Louise but doesn’t particularly distress her at the time since the family needs the extra income with a new baby born.

Things begin to get sinister when a friend of Louise’s, Beatrice, makes a chance remark that Vera had approached her husband Humphrey to enquire about the Hendersons. This unsettles Louise since she is under the impression that Vera had responded to the Hendersons’ advertisement in the newspapers.

As Louise’s suspicions about Vera grow, so do her exhaustion levels so much so that there are times when her dreams begin to merge with reality.

This is a wonderful novel, which besides having shades of a psychological thriller, also has moments of black comedy thrown in. In a world where it is taken for granted that motherhood is only full of joys, Fremlin provides a realistic portrayal of how challenging being a mother can be and how society is not always kind in understanding this.  

Who Among Us? – Mario Benedetti (tr. Nick Caistor)

This is a story of an unusual love triangle where the reader gets to see the perspective of all the three participants.

Miguel and Alicia fall in love when they are teenagers and their relationship proceeds simply until the charismatic Lucas turns up on the scene. Miguel sees the spark grow between Alicia and Lucas as they have passionate discussions on various topics, and he assumes that he and Alicia have no future. And yet, Alicia chooses to marry Miguel, and Lucas fades away. After eleven years of marriage (and two kids), Miguel somehow comes to see their union as a mistake. Thus, he persuades Alicia to meet Lucas whence a chance for a trip to Buenos Aires turns up.

Miguel’s perspective on the events is in the form of undated notebook entries as he analyses in deep detail the nature of the relations between the three of them. Through his entries, it becomes apparent that Miguel is a passive man who considers himself second-rate. We see Alicia’s perspective in the form of a letter she writes to Miguel which casts a different light on what we have read in Miguel’s account. Alicia loved Miguel but acknowledges that their marriage has deteriorated and largely blames him for it. Lucas’ viewpoints are displayed to us in the form of a short story, including footnotes, which explains the text and how it relates to the reality of what happened.

At less than 100 pages, Who Among Us? is an absorbing novella that explores the themes of love, missed opportunities and misunderstandings.

Solea – Jean-Claude Izzo (tr. Howard Curtis)

I had read the first two books in Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy – Total Chaos and Chourmo – a few years back. Billed as Mediterranean noir, these books featured the cynical, beaten-down cop Fabio Montale and his attempts to solve the crimes surrounding his best friends Manu and Ugi killed by the Mafia and cops respectively.

What also stood out in these books is the vivid evocation of Marseilles, its sights and smells, various mouth-watering descriptions of food and drink. It also highlighted the uglier side of the city – the poverty, crime, racism towards immigrants and the crippling corruption.

Both of them were very atmospheric books but for some reason I completely forgot about the third installment in this trilogy – Solea.

In Solea, Montale’s former lover and investigative journalist Babette is on the run from the Mafia as she is about to publish some shocking details about the organization. The Mafia wants Montale to find her for them. To show that they are dead serious about it, two people very close to Montale are murdered.

That’s the basic premise of the plot and I won’t reveal more. But Solea is also suffused with Montale ruminating a lot about his past and the level of growing corruption and extremism in Marseilles and on a larger scale in France. In that sense, the novel is quite cynical and bleak.  While Solea is a solid book, I somehow felt that it was not on the same level as either Total Chaos or Chourmo.

That’s it for July.

I intend to devote August entirely to Women in Translation (WIT Month), and have begun my reading with Olga Tukarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and Eileen Chang’s collection of novellas Love in A Fallen City, both of which I am enjoying.

Invitation to the Waltz & The Weather in the Streets – Rosamond Lehmann

Lately, I have been drawn a lot towards the writing of 20th century female authors, a lot of them I had not heard of previously. I have made some wonderful discoveries – the novels of Elizabeth Taylor, Muriel Spark, Barbara Pym, Barbara Comyns to name a few. Then I came across Rosamond Lehmann. After seeing a lot of love for her on Twitter, I picked out two of her 1930s novels which garnered considerable acclaim during her time – Invitation to the Waltz and The Weather in the Streets – both focusing on the protagonist Olivia Curtis. And, with these two books, Lehmann has turned out to be another wonderful discovery.

So here are my brief thoughts on both the novels…

Invitation to the Waltz

Invitation to the Waltz is the first of the Olivia Curtis novels. When the book opens, Olivia has turned seventeen and there is a family gathering to celebrate her birthday and present her with gifts. We are introduced to Olivia’s parents, her elder sister Kate, her younger brother James and their uncle Oswald. Olivia’s parents gift her a material of flaming red which gives Olivia considerable joy. She can now get a dress stitched for her very first social event – a ball at the residence of the wealthy Spencers.

Nowadays a peculiar emotion accompanies the moment of looking in the mirror: fitfully, rarely a stranger might emerge: a new self.

It had happened two or three times already, beginning with a day last summer, the languid close of a burning afternoon; coming from the burdened garden into the silent, darkened house: melancholy, solitary, restless, keyed up expectantly-for what?

She looked in the glass and saw herself…Well, what was it? She knew what she looked like, had for some years thought the reflection interesting, because it was her own; though disappointing, unreliable, subject twenty times a day to blottings-out and blurrings, as if a lamp were guttering or extinguished: in any case irremediably imperfect. But this was something else. This was a mysterious face; both dark and glowing; hair tumbling down, pushed back and upwards, as if in currents of fierce energy.

The novel charts the emotions of a young girl on the cusp of womanhood – the anxiety as well as the excitement of making a good impression at the ball, Olivia’s hopes for a thriving schedule of dances, which alternate with the fear of being left alone.

The novel is divided into three sections – the first two portray Kate and Olivia’s anticipation and preparations for the dance, while the last section is entirely devoted to the ball.

The ball itself is beautifully presented with vivid details as Olivia manages to get her share of dancing partners while at the same time is also let down by one or two. The dialogues between Olivia and her various dance partners sparkle and through them we are given a brief sketch of various characters.

Lehmann’s prose is lush and beautiful and I was immediately struck by her impressionistic writing style. Set in the 1930s, she also subtly brings to the fore the class differences prevalent in the society at the time.

The Weather in the Streets

Set ten years after Invitation to the Waltz, The Weather in the Streets revolves round the doomed love affair between Olivia Curtis and the married Rollo Spencer who is first introduced to readers in the final few pages of the first novel.

Olivia is the narrator and she is now residing in London, in cramped quarters with her cousin Etty and is leading a bohemian lifestyle with her artist set of friends. The Curtis sisters could not have turned out more different. Kate, who in the first novel, gives the impression of being sassier of the two, eventually ends up taking the traditional path of marriage, children and settling in the countryside. It’s Olivia who shifts to the big city choosing to lead an independent life with a failed marriage behind her.

While on a trip to the countryside to meet her family, particularly her father who is down with pneumonia, she starts talking to Rollo Spencer on the train and they hit it off.

An invitation to a family gathering of the Spencers follows. And from thereon Olivia and Rollo embark on a passionate affair, snatched moments played out behind closed doors – in wretched hotels, stuffy cars and Olivia’s tiny rooms interspersed with a couple of getaways, all of it shrouded by a veil of secrecy.

It was then the time began when there wasn’t any time. The journey was in the dark, going on without end or beginning, without landmarks, bearings lost: asleep?…waking…Time whirled, throwing up in paradoxical slow motion a sign, a scene, sharp, startling, lingering as a blow over the heart. A look flared, urgently meaning something, stamping itself for ever ever, ever…Gone, flashed away, a face in the train passing, not ever to be recovered.

There was this inward double living under amorphous impacts of dark and light mixed: that was when we were together…Not being together was a vacuum. It was an unborn place in the shadow of the time before and the time to come. It was remembering and looking forward, drawn out painfully both ways, taut like a bit of elastic…Wearing…

Lehmann brilliantly captures the stages of the affair as it pans out from Olivia’s point of view – the first heady days of the affair when the world is seen through rose-tinted glasses, and then gradually followed by moments of desperation as Olivia endlessly waits for Rollo’s calls. Olivia begins to fall in love with Rollo even though it is evident right from the start that their affair has no future.

Besides the two of them coming from different social backgrounds, one of the main obstacles to the affair ever blossoming is the strict moral codes of the time. Status and social standing is critical as is keeping up appearances. There is simply no room for divorce.

Lehmann’s prose in this novel is incredible turning the ‘done-to-death’ tale of an extra-marital affair into something entirely new. Her sensitive portrayal of Olivia’s plight is truly heartbreaking and evokes the sympathy of the reader. One striking aspect of Lehman’s writing style is the shift in narration from the first person to the third in the space of a few paragraphs. Indeed, it feels that at one point we are inside Olivia’s head as she experiences the turmoil and the anguish of the affair, and at the same time we are the observers watching Olivia’s fate from a distance. This instantly reminded me of Damon Galgut’s wonderful novel  In A Strange Room where Galgut effortlessly switches from the first person to the third in a single paragraph and pulls it off with aplomb.

While Olivia and Rollo are the focal point of the novel, it is also peppered with some wonderful set pieces that paint a picture of Olivia’s bohemian and vibrant friend circle.

In the afterword of my Virago Classics edition, Elizabeth Day highlights how the novel was quite ahead of its time, more so because certain developments described were perhaps shocking for audiences in the 1930s. However, Lehmann stood her ground and ensured that the novel was published the way it was intended to be.

The Weather in the Streets was one of my favourites last month and easily one of the highlights of my reading in the year so far.

Earth and High Heaven – Gwethalyn Graham

I have a very small Persephone Books collection. But what I have read from their catalogue so far has been simply great. Earlier this year, in March, I really liked Isobel English’s Every Eye, and followed it up with Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven this month. What a lovely novel it turned out to be.

Earth and High Heaven is a wonderfully absorbing novel the focal point of which is a love affair between a Gentile woman and a Jewish man portrayed against a backdrop of racial prejudice.

The novel is set in the city of Montreal in Canada in the early 1940s when the war was still raging in Europe. The opening lines pretty much sets the tone for what is to follow…

One of the questions they were sometimes asked was where and how they had met, for Marc Reiser was a Jew, originally from a small town in northern Ontario, and from 1933 until he went overseas in September 1942, a junior partner in the law firm of Maresch and Aaranson in Montreal, and Erica Drake was Gentile, one of the Westmount Drakes. Montreal society is divided roughly into three categories labeled ‘French, ‘English’, and ‘Jewish’, and there is not much coming and going between them, particularly between the Jews and either of the two groups, for although, as a last resort, French and English can be united under the heading ‘Gentile’, such an alliance merely serves to isolate the Jews more than ever.

We know from this that Erika Drake and Marc Reiser fall in love with each other but we are also made aware of how the couple are going to have a long struggle ahead given the backgrounds they come from. Racial tension was rampant in Montreal at the time, but Graham points out that the Jews weren’t necessarily singled out although they bore most of the brunt. There were nuances in discrimination within various strata of Montreal society.

Hampered by racial-religious distinctions to start with, relations between the French, English and Jews of Montreal are still further complicated by the fact that all three groups suffer from an inferiority complex – the French because they are a minority in Canada, the English because they are a minority in Quebec, and the Jews because they are a minority everywhere.

Erica is an English Canadian born in the affluent Drake family. Her father Charles Drake is the President of the Drake Importing Company and the family resides in a sumptuous home in Westmount. Erica has two siblings – an elder brother Anthony and a younger sister Miriam. Both Anthony and Miriam marry partners against Charles Drake’s wishes, but ultimately it doesn’t matter much because he is not close to either of them and does not care greatly for their opinion.

But Charles shares a special bond with Erica. They get along very well and Charles respects her in a way he does not respect his other two children.

Marc Reiser is Jewish, his parents having migrated to Canada from Austria several years earlier. Leopold Reiser, Marc’s father owns a small planning mill in Manchester, Ontario. Marc has an elder brother David who is a doctor in a remote, rural region of the country.

The book opens right in the midst of a big dinner party held at the Drake residence. Marc Reiser is brought to the gathering by an acquaintance of the Drakes’ – the French Canadian Rene de Sevigny whose sister has married Anthony Drake. Marc Reiser knows no one at the party and soon Rene abandons him leaving Marc to fend for himself. Eventually Erica and Mark meet and strike up a conversation. They immediately hit it off. When it’s time to say goodbye, Erica offers to introduce Marc to her father but Charles looks through Marc and completely ignores him.

Erica is offended by Charles’ rudeness. Attempts to make him understand this are futile because Charles is set in his ways and refuses to budge from his deep-seated prejudices against the Jews.

Charles behaviour does not deter Erica from seeing Marc. Quite the contrary. Soon the relationship between the two blossoms and starts getting serious. And Erica’s parents are aware of this.

A significant chunk of the novel then revolves around the discussions that Erica has with her parents regarding Marc as she tries to make them come around to her point of view. Erica, thankfully, is not entirely on her own. Her sister Miriam supports her and immediately likes Marc when she is introduced to him for the first time. Their parents, however, think differently and judge Marc without even meeting him. Continuous quarrels with her parents finally begin to take a toll on Erica and her health.

Will Erica succeed? Will she and Marc eventually surmount all odds so that they can marry?

Erica Drake is an interesting creation. Her upbringing means that she grows up with the same set of prejudices but she is discerning enough to be ashamed of them and change her way of thinking.

She had met a good many Jews before Marc, but in some way which already seemed to her inexplicable she had neglected to relate the general situation with any one individual. Evidently some small and yet vital part of the machinery of her thought had failed to work until this moment, or worse still, she might even have defeated its efforts to function by taking refuge in the comfortable delusion that even if these prejudices and restrictions were actually in effective operation, they would only be applied against – well, against what is usually designated as ‘the more undesirable type of Jew’. In other words, against people who more or less deserved it.

Now she saw for the first time that it was the label, not the man, that mattered.

Indeed, by working as a reporter at the Post, she has no qualms coming down the society ladder a bit or two even among her own set.

When she was twenty-one, her fiancé had been killed in a motor accident two weeks before she was to be married; not long after, she awoke to the realization that her father’s income had greatly shrunk as a result of the depression and that it would probably be a long time before she would fall in love again. She got a job as a reporter on the society page of the Montreal Post and dropped, overnight, from the class which is written about to the class which does the writing,. It took people quite a while to get used to the change.

Marc loves Erica enough to keep meeting her till regimental duty beckons him, but at the same time he is bogged down by the seemingly insurmountable odds against them. He has a fatal sense of the relationship not surviving even though Erica thinks otherwise.

The implication of racial prejudice, then, is a big theme of the novel, particularly the danger of making sweeping generalisations. Erica tries hard to make Charles see Marc as an individual and appreciate his many qualities rather than being dead set against him because of general racism towards Jews. Every individual is different and it is important to understand these nuances as against taking a collective approach and putting everyone on the same boat.

The other theme Graham looks at is the power play between men and women. This is displayed in details, such as Erica’s irritation when Rene orders lunch for her at a restaurant without consulting her and also explored a bit deeper when Charles tries to persuade Erica to leave her job at the Post and join the family business instead.

…as a woman you can just go so far and then you’re stuck in a job where you depend your life taking orders from some fathead with half your brains, whose only advantage over you is the fact that he happens to wear trousers.

Earth and High Heaven then is a brilliantly immersive novel. Graham’s writing is sensitive and intelligent and many of the discussions and arguments between Erica and her parents and Erica and Marc are tense but riveting. The characters are wonderfully fleshed out. Plus, Graham has a deep understanding of the various facets of 1940s Montreal society and this is superbly articulated in various dialogues between the characters.

Highly recommended!

Look At Me – Anita Brookner

Until now I had never read any Anita Brookner but she has been getting a lot of love on Book Twitter. So I decided to jump on the Brookner bandwagon with the novel that had been garnering rave reviews – Look At Me. I can safely say that the book is every bit as good as everyone says it is.

At a little under 200 pages, Look At Me is a compelling and searing portrait of loneliness and wanting to belong.

The novel opens with a bang.

Once a thing is known it can never be unknown. It can only be forgotten. And, in a way that bends time, so long as it is remembered, it will indicate the future. It is wiser, in every circumstance, to forget, to cultivate the art of forgetting. To remember is to face the enemy. The truth lies in remembering.

Our narrator is a young woman Frances Hinton who works at the library of a medical research institute studying mental illnesses. Frances has a set and very predictable life. The only people she meets at work are her colleague and friend Olivia and the regular visitors Mrs Halloran and Dr Simek. When not at work, Frances spends time in her large flat left to her by her parents who are no more. Their long-time housekeeper Nancy is the only one who resides with her.

So deeply set in her current way of life is she that Frances shows no inclination to make drastic changes. The antique and heavy pieces of furniture present since her parents’ time are left as they are. Even Nancy prepares the same boring meal everyday.

Frances, however, has a flair for writing and spends her evenings in solitude in her flat as she composes what she hopes to be her first novel. For this she takes inspiration from real life for creating her characters. For Frances, writing is her way of wanting the world to notice her.

Sometimes I wish it were different. I wish I were beautiful and lazy and spoiled and not to be trusted. I wish, in short, that I had it easier. Sometimes I find myself lying awake in bed, after one of these silent evenings, wondering if this is to be my lot, if this solitude is to last for the rest of my days. Such thoughts sweep me to the edge of panic. For I want more and I even think I deserve it…

…I feel quite deeply, I think. If I am not very careful, I shall grow into the most awful old battle-axe. That is why I write, and why I have to, when I feel swamped in my solitude and hidden by it, physically obscured by it, rendered invisible, in fact, writing is my way of piping up. Of reminding people that I am here.

Not much action takes place at the library on most days, but occasionally the charismatic and charming doctor Nick Fraser drops in and creates quite a stir. When Frances is introduced to his equally dynamic wife Alix, Frances finds herself enthralled by the couple.

And just like that Frances becomes part of the Fraser circle and is delighted although both Nick and Alix are critical and prone to bouts of cruelty when it comes to her routines and way of living. Alix is clearly dominant of the two, expects to be entertained all the time, and gets what she wants. Frances often ponders why they put up with her given her dull existence. But she is fascinated by their vibrant personalities and lifestyles. And yet, Frances can’t help but notice that many a time Nick and Alix flaunt their relationship as a spectacle for the public infusing it with an element of cheapness.  

Things coast along until Frances begins interacting with James Antsey, Nick’s colleague, who has also become part of the Frasers’ social life. Frances and James become close although the relationship remains ‘innocent.’

It’s a golden period in Frances’ life as she enjoys the company of the Frasers as well as her budding relationship with James all of which inspires her to look forward to new beginnings. Until it all goes wrong.

Since Frances is the narrator, the book in a way is primarily a character study of her. And she comes across as a complex woman full of contradictions. Her highly analytical and forensic way of explaining things gives the impression that she is self-aware and yet she fails to really understand the Frasers and the vindictive rules by which they operate.

Frances also keeps oscillating between her craving for a dynamic social life as well her need for solitude. For instance when Alix offers Frances a spare room in their flat, Frances is almost tempted to take up the offer. After all, it’s the perfect opportunity to shed her old lifestyle which she is beginning to abhor and embrace the new. And yet she hesitates because she knows that she will lose forever her moments of solitude which are crucial for her writing.

Look At Me then is quite a fascinating but heartbreaking account of a lonely woman who can never really belong to the social circle she wants to be a part of, having to contend with the role of an outsider.

Brookner’s writing is brilliant. Her sentences are precise and exquisitely crafted and she captures perfectly Frances’ mental state as she is drawn towards the allure of the Frasers and then cruelly cast aside. The penultimate chapter is frightening as Frances in a fit of despair walks the cold, dark streets of London alone, her shock leaving her oblivious to possible dangers lurking around.

I will be reading more Brookner.

Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner

Lolly Willowes was the first book I read by Sylvia Townsend Warner and it was a joy. I read it last month but am writing about it now because I have been struggling in general to write. Luckily, my reading has been progressing steadily and that’s a big plus in these trying times.

Lolly Willowes is wonderful tale of a single woman looking to lead an independent life by breaking away from the controlling clutches of her family.

Till her late twenties, Lolly is shown to lead a pretty sheltered life in the country where her father has a brewing business and an estate called Lady Place. While Lolly has two elder brothers Henry and James, it is quite clear from the start that Mr Willowes is attached to his daughter. The eldest son Henry shows no aptitude for running the family business, preferring to practice law in London instead. He soon moves to the city, marries Caroline, establishes a home, and starts a family.

James, though, is interested in brewery and begins to learn the ropes. Eventually, he marries too and along with his wife Sibyl settles down at Lady Place.

Meanwhile, Mrs Willowes passes away, and the running of the household falls on Lolly’s shoulders, which she accepts as a matter of course. However, Lolly shows no interest in marriage whatsoever. On one hand, her father feels guilty that he is not doing his duty in finding a suitable match for her, but he does not want to lose her company either.

With the death of Mr Willowes, Lolly’s idyllic life in the countryside comes to an end. Henry and Caroline decide that she is to come to London and stay with them. A spare room in the house is converted into a bedroom for Lolly and soon she is neck deep in the day to day household chores along with Caroline, shopping and looking after the children.

It is during that phase in her life that a sense of restlessness and foreboding begins to creep into Lolly. A London existence with its grinding routine increasingly depresses her.

She was subject to a peculiar kind of day-dreaming, so vivid as to be almost a hallucination: that she was in the country, at dusk, and alone, and strangely at peace. While her body sat before the first fires and was cosy with Henry and Caroline, her mind walked by lonely seaboards, in marshes and fens, or came at nightfall to the edge of a wood.

Her mind was groping after something that eluded her experience, a something that was shadowy and menacing, and yet in some way congenial; a something that lurked in waste places, that was hinted at by the sound of water gurgling through deep channels and by the voices of birds of ill omen. Loneliness, dreariness, aptness for arousing a sense of fear, a kind of ungodly hallowedness – these were the things that called her thoughts away from the comfortable fireside.

Lolly is now in her mid-forties, feels trapped and stultified, and longs for a change. During one of her shopping trips, she chances upon a flower shop and learns of a village in the Chilterns called the Great Mop. Soon she begins poring over books and maps on the place. It’s a region that tickles her fancy and on a whim she decides to establish herself there and live independently.

The first half of Lolly Willowes proceeds conventionally as Lolly sinks into domestic routines both at Lady Place and in London, her role in both these houses being taken for granted. It’s in the second half that the novel slips into a bit of whimsy and magic as ‘witches’ comes into play, but it’s all quite charming and more importantly Sylvia Townsend Warner pulls it off.

One doesn’t become a witch to run round being harmful, or to run round being helpful either…It’s to escape all that-to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others…

The one big theme in Lolly Willowes is the position of women in society. This novel was first published in 1926 and at the time a woman living by herself was probably unheard of. In the novel, it is expected that when the mother died, Lolly has to manage the household duties and when both the parents are no more, it is assumed that she is now the responsibility of the elder brother Henry. So much so that when she expresses her desire to carve a life for herself on her own in the country, Henry takes it as a personal affront. In those days, the concept of a woman leading an independent life was not the norm – if she was not married, she was expected to stay under her family’s wing.

Lolly refreshingly chooses to eventually defy these conventional societal roles. It’s a statement that even in the mid or late forties, it is never too late for a woman to entirely change her course of life if she really wants to.

I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded…There they are, child-rearing, house-keeping…And all the time being thrust down into dullness…I tell you that sort of thing settles down on one, like a fine dust…

There is a dreadful kind of dreary immortality about being settled down on by one day after another…They (women) are like the trees towards the end of summer, heavy and dusty, and nobody finds their leaves surprising, or notices them till they fall off. If they could be passive and unnoticed, it wouldn’t matter. But they must be active, and still not noticed.

The other interesting fact about the novel is that it was published around three years before Virginia Woolf released one of her famous books – A Room of One’s Own.

In this regard, Alison Lurie in my NYRB Classics edition very aptly states:

Woolf was to make much the same point, saying that if a woman is to be more than a convenient household appliance, if she is to have a life of her own, and especially if she wants to be a writer, she must have freedom and privacy and “a room of one’s own.” She spoke, we know now, for thousands of women then and in years to come. But Sylvia Townsend Warner had spoken for them first.