The heroine of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novel, Lolly Willowes, rebels against society’s expectations. It’s a common enough theme, except that her rebellion takes an unconventional turn. Laura Willowes’s father dies when she’s twenty-eight, and the family council decides, against her wishes, that she should leave the country estate where she grew up and move to London. Treated as “a piece of family property forgotten in the will,” she becomes attached to her older brother’s household, where she’s expected either to marry or be useful as Aunt Lolly. She steadfastly refuses to do the former, and eventually she shocks her relatives by announcing that she will live on her own in a village called Great Mop. To safeguard her freedom, she becomes a witch.
Townsend Warner paints Laura’s transformation from Aunt Lolly to her own self through a series of events, most of which involve small sensory pleasures, out of which “she had contrived for herself a sort of mental fur coat.” They include second-hand bookshops, soaps, roasted chestnuts eaten in bed and cut flowers. Her relatives look down upon such frivolous–in their eyes–expenses, but for Laura they become an antidote to her dull, senseless life and catalysts for her awakening.
One dramatic scene takes place in a field of cowslips near Great Mop.
“She knelt down among them and laid her face close to their fragrance. The weight of all her unhappy years seemed for a moment to weigh her bosom down to the earth; she trembled, understanding for the first time how miserable she had been; and in another moment she was released. It was all gone, it could never be again, and never had been. Tears of thankfulness ran down her face. With every breath she drew, the scent of the cowslips flowed in and absolved her.” (p. 123)
Lolly Willowes is my first novel by Townsend Warner, and it’s a great introduction. She’s a marvelous stylist, a sharp social observer and critic. Before Virginia Woolf’s plea for a room of one’s own, Townsend Warner defended a woman’s right to make her own decisions and define herself on her own terms. Laura’s rebellion is Townsend Warner’s own–she eschewed marriage and had a long, passionate relationship with the poet Valentine Ackland–and an element of fantasy spices up the plot.
My olfactory parallel to Lolly Willowes is Le Temps d’une Fête. Parfums de Nicolaï is a striking collection, especially since its founder, Patricia Nicolaï, eschews both the grand parfum style of her Guerlain ancestors and the naive style of the niche. She captures nature–the scents of flowers, green leaves, gardens at different seasons–but she does so according to her own vision. (Refreshingly, she also rejects the aspirational, i.e. insanely inflated, pricing that has become the niche trademark, and instead focuses on quality.)
Le Temps d’une Fête with its leitmotif of jasmine, hyacinth and dazzling green notes is a perfume of happiness and effervescence. I remember smelling it for the first time almost ten years ago and feeling transported to a sunlit garden of my childhood. The grey, characterless town where I was living at the time vanished to be replaced by vistas of blooming cherry trees and craggy old acacias. A phrase Townsend Warner uses to describe Laura’s epiphany would have been applicable in my case. “She stood very still to make quite sure of her sensations.” I can experience a jolt of emotion whenever I open my bottle of Le Temps d’une Fête. Such little joys can offer comfort, and that’s no small thing in the midst of daily routine.
Justifying such private pleasures can be as difficult for women as securing their private space. Only this week one can witness this in the appalling invasion of privacy and sexist “unmasking” of Elena Ferrante by an Italian paparazzo. Or visit the comment sections under popular beauty columns and find them swarming with puritans who insist that caring for one’s appearance is a sign of low IQ and questionable morals. Laura, with her witchcraft skills, would set a swarm of bees on them. Or tell them to go to hell.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin
Sylvia Townsend Warner. Lolly Willowes or the Loving Huntsman. London: Virago, 2012 edition (originally published in 1926).
Any other fans of Sylvia Townsend Warner out there–or of Parfums de Nicolaï, for that matter?