Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"An Existence Doled Out": Passive Resistance as a Dead End in Sylvia Townsend Warner's 'Lolly Willowes.'

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"An Existence Doled Out": Passive Resistance as a Dead End in Sylvia Townsend Warner's 'Lolly Willowes.'

Article excerpt

Sylvia Townsend Warner begins with her first novel, Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman, written in 1926, to break down the dualism between aggressiveness and passivity. This dualism is couched in terms of a masculine versus a feminine approach to life, neither of which Townsend Warner accepts, because the masculine/feminine opposition in the novel is a creation of patriarchal society. J. Lawrence Mitchell notes, "As a group, men do not fare very well in Lolly Willowes" (54), and neither do any masculine values. Townsend Warner extends this duality to the prevailing social structure of London in and around the time of World War I. London society is centered on the masculine ideal, which is portrayed as an aggressive, destructive force. Such an arrangement allows only a passive role for the female characters of the novel. Townsend Warner does not accept this as the only possible social organization, and through Laura Willowes, her protagonist, she works out a solution which is neither a feminine passivity nor a masculine aggressiveness, but an assertiveness that falls between the two extremes. This is Townsend Warner's own feminist response. In the context of Lolly Willowes it leads to the formation of a new dialectic, of which the outcome is separatism.

Laura's response to her environment is certainly not aggressive, but neither can it be described as merely passive resistance. She does assert herself at certain key points in the novel. She leaves the safe but stifling environment of her family, against all their attempts to persuade her to stay, and later she must make the same choice to withdraw from her adopted family in the town of Great Mop, where she has chosen to live after leaving London. These choices place Lolly Willowes outside the mainstream of traditional plotting, although feminist authors have long resisted such "traditional" methods with varying degrees of subtlety and success.

In his Reading for the Plot Peter Brooks traces the evolution of plots from "the picaro's scheming to stay alive" to "a more elaborated and socially defined form . . . [of] ambition" (39). He further discusses this evolution from ambition to the satisfaction of desire, where desire becomes a driving force, as in a motor or engine. But his study stops short of any detailed discussion of more recent developments in feminist literature. Any "scheming to stay alive," as well as any standard form of ambition and desire, especially desire metaphorically described as engine-like, is out of place in Lolly Willowes. The essential aspect of the plot is Laura's development from a passive-resistant "feminine" character to one of assertiveness. Without this development she cannot achieve her goal of an autonomous existence.

Lolly Willowes is comprised of three sections. As a child at Lady Place, the ancestral home of the Willowes family in Somerset, Laura learns what is expected of a girl, but also learns to remain passive in the face of those rituals of childhood which would teach her to be subordinate. As an adult at Apsley Terrace, her eldest brother's flat in London, she meets strong pressure to conform, and must assert her own need for independence. Finally, in her later years at Great Mop, she achieves success, but only after overcoming the most subtle forces of social conformity she has yet faced. All three geographical locations play a part in developing Laura's character, and all three present her with obstacles.

Laura begins her life in the climate of her conservative family at Lady Place as the youngest of three children to Everard Willowes. Her two siblings are older brothers, Henry and James.(1) Laura's mother is weakened by her birth and never fully recovers. As a result, she plays little part in Laura's development, and Laura grows up in a household dominated by her father and brothers.

Unlike Laura, her brothers are both educated and eventually assume professional careers. But from her anonymous beginnings Laura learns only the feminine social skills that society requires. …

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