Book Review: LOLLY WILLOWES by Sylvia Townsend Warner

lolly-willowes-warner-nyrb-editionWarner’s prose sparkles and snaps like a gin and tonic in an elegant cut glass tumbler, her humor the slice of lime contributing the essential dash of sharp acidity. Warner proves to be a most devious hostess, however: seemingly invited to a pleasantly amusing afternoon garden party, it’s only as the sun begins to set that it suddenly begins to dawn—this is actually a Witch’s Sabbath! What a marvelously devious sleight of hand.

And perhaps more than ever 2017 is the time for stories about waking up from the drowsiness of lives cocooned by social expectations and respectability politics and be pointed toward modes of being that are idiosyncratically imagined and intentionally pursued. Part 1 is all charming, “quintessentially” English eccentricities—a broad assortment of kooky extended family members, whimsical family heirlooms hoarded in drawing rooms, teatime and other daily rituals, and the like; this is the life of one Laura Willowes, quietly sloughed into a life of genteel spinsterhood, and cloistered in the tiny spare room in a brother’s family home in London. She slowly transforms into docile “Aunt Lolly” after being christened as such by a baby niece—her identity is so nondescript that even she doesn’t quite register her very name is no longer her own.

NPG P183; Sylvia Townsend Warner by Cecil Beaton

Sylvia Townsend Warner by Cecil Beaton, 1930 (via National Portrait Gallery)

This all changes when an otherwise inauspicious guide book makes its way into Laura’s possession. Suddenly Part 2 sets off in an unforeseen direction as Laura announces she will be moving to the isolated rural village that is the subject of her book. Her family attempts all means at their disposal—including emotional blackmail and financial threats—to undermine her resolve; Laura nevertheless persists and promptly lets a room of her own, ready to begin a new life distinctly, if somewhat tentatively, her own.

If this was the story of Lolly Willowes, it would still be of note as a showcase for Warner’s remarkable facility with language and sinuous approach to syntax; it’s additionally exceptional as an early feminist fable making a persuasive and poignant case for female agency (Warner’s novel predates Woolf’s landmark A Room of One’s Own by several years). But the author envisions much, much more for her text and hurtles headlong into the utterly startling Part 3. While I suspect most readers will know, as I did, the general trajectory of the narrative, I think the less known the better so will leave it at that. What a lovely defense of demanding and then enacting a life lived fully and deliciously and—take the term in whatever sense you prefer—queerly too.

“Laura had brought her sensitive conscience into the country with her, just as she had brought her umbrella, though so far she had not remembered to use either.”

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What’s Here/Queer/Modernist: Weekly Reads #1

Several of the blogs I regularly read present a weekly–or at least occasional–list of items of interest on the web, and I thought I’d follow suit. Also, I thought this would be a good place to include information on events that aren’t specifically or solely related to queer modernism, but would be of interest to anybody in And if you have any leads on material of interest, please let me know in the comments section!

So here’s what here/queer/modernist out in the world [wide web]:

The Quill Cover - Clara TiceBand of Thebes reminded me that I missed Lincoln Kirstein’s birthday last week, on May 4. Shame on me, but luckily he was there with a celebratory post.

Bookplate Junkie shares a flea market discovery: an October 1919 copy of The QuillA Magazine of Greenwich Village. The issue is dedicated to illustrator Clara Tice, who has a wonderful Beardsley-meets-Djuna Barnes quality. True to form, he also includes some bookplate examples of Tice’s work.

“A bio represents a selection of facts. But, as Nancy Mitford argues, ‘It should not be a mere collection of facts.'” Sketchbook reviews the new Carl Van Vechten biography by Edward White over at Goodreads, and he is not particularly impressed with it (and that’s more than a bit of an understatement).

“As a lesbian writer, even as one who has known many interesting people, I have very little in common with [Edmund] White.”  A skeptical Janet Mason takes on–and is ultimately won over by–White’s latest, Inside a Pearl, My Years in Paris.

In “how did I miss this?!” news, here in San Francisco there was a commemoration of the centennial of the publication of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, which also promoted the release of Tender Buttons: The Corrected Centennial Edition, published by the iconic City Lights Books. Happily, audio of the event has been made available for those of us who missed it.

Speaking of Stein, Poets.org has shared some archival footage of the great iconoclast.

I don’t think that Susan Sontag was a great film critic; to hear her tell it, she wasn’t really a critic at all. But it’s still hard to overestimate her importance as an American writer in relation to movies.” Jonathan Rosenbaum has posted his remembrance of Sontag written after her passing in 2005.

The Ezra Pound Society has announced that they have a new virtual home.

EVENTS OF INTEREST

blast-at-100 event posterJust another reminder that the H.D., Jean Epstein, and Queer Modernism, Spectatorship, and The Specimen lecture(s) are coming up this Friday (05/16/14) at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, New York. I wrote up the event here, and the actual event page can be found here.

Trinity College is hosting a “Blast at 100” this summer to commemorate the Vorticist literary magazine, and just announced their plenary speakers for the event. Details and registration can be found here.

 

 

IotD: Pavel Tchelitchew by Cecil Beaton

tchelitchew by beaton

Russian neo-romantic painter Pavel Tchelitchew photographed with characteristic elegance by Cecil Beaton. The superimposed elements over the portrait not only makes for a lovely visual effect, but also cleverly evokes the neo-romantic impulse to synthesize realist and surrealist modes of artistic representation.

Tchelitchew was the partner of Charles Henri Ford, and as such I have inevitably been learning quite a bit about him through my thesis research process. Their partnership spanned from the early 1930’s until the Russian painter’s death in 1957.

I have been unable to get a pinpoint an exact date or provenance of this portrait, but judging from other photographs I have seen of Tchelitchew, I’d guess this was taken sometime during the 1930’s. If I find more information I will update this post.