Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Laura Was Not Thinking": Cognitive Minimalism in Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Laura Was Not Thinking": Cognitive Minimalism in Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes

Article excerpt

Sylvia Townsend Warner is one of the most curious literary figures to rise to prominence in England in the 1920s. A prolific writer, Warner wrote seven novels, hundreds of short stories, thousands of letters, and kept an extensive diary for most of her adult life. Lolly Willowes (1926), her first novel, became a bestseller and the first selection of the "Book-of-the-Month" Club. (1) She remains, nonetheless, a peripheral figure for literary studies of the period, which tend to focus on more easily recognizable modernist formal experiments. For Gillian Beer, Warner "abuts the Modernist" by virtue of her use of "surreal appositions, nonsense, narrative fractures, and shifting scales" (77). The most significant "surreal apposition" of Lolly Willowes is that the first half reads much like a realist novel concerned with a timely issue. Laura Willowes, upon the death of her father, is taken in by her brother and his family whom she lives with as a spinster (aunt "Lolly") for many years. The novel explores the familial and societal forces that prevent Laura from determining the course of her life, a social problem of particular concern at the time of its writing, when the Great War left a decimated male population imbalanced by the number of unmarried or widowed women. But the latter half of Lolly Willowes has more in common with the "fantasy" novel that enjoyed a surge of popularity in the 1920s. (2) Decades later, during middle age, Laura decides abruptly to move to a remote village in the country. She realizes that she is a witch and makes a pact with Satan, who makes a number of appearances within the novel.

But as Jane Marcus observes, albeit ironically, "everything that happens in Lolly Willowes can be explained naturally, if the mind is so inclined" (157). While critics have uniformly seen the apparent generic shift as the most noticeable feature of Lolly Willowes, there has been little consensus about whether to call the novel literal or fantastic, realist or modernist. (3) I want to turn away from the generic shift for a while and suggest another route by which we can approach Warner's position among the categories of literary comprehensibility. In what follows, I will argue that one of the most experimental yet underexplored features of Lolly Willowes is that the protagonist frequently and markedly does not think. (4) The plot of the novel hinges on the mental actions of Laura's deciding to move and realizing she is a witch. Yet in passages describing her mental life, Laura often has a blank mind, minimal sensation, or only an occasional word or phrase in her head. The peculiarly "thoughtless" Laura stands apart from the murky inwardness so frequently attributed to the modernist protagonist. The "critical orthodoxy" surrounding modernist fiction, Patricia Waugh has recently written, sees it "almost exclusively identified with the defensive and deceptive, the unreliable and darkly inconceivable, the introspective plumbing of unconscious depths, the probing of self-deceptions, desires and obscure drives and the self dramatizations that hide characters from themselves and their best-laid plans" (85). But emerging approaches under the umbrella term of "cognitive literary studies" are beginning to rethink the reliance on such tropes for understanding literary minds, even minds at their least transparent. (5) As Waugh suggests, "we need a better account of the modernist mind" (85).

Reading Lolly Willowes for its depiction of thinking provides not just a new vantage on Warner's novel but also a connection to the modernist experimentation from which she might otherwise seem to stand apart. Rather than abutting the traditionally modernist, Lolly Willowes provides a new way of understanding modernism's "inwardness" starting at the lowest thresholds of cognition--thinking in a narrow band of time. The novel's cognitive minimalism forms the basis of an account of the modernist mind informed by the cognitive sciences and centered on literary renderings of simple mental functions, rather than obscure recesses. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.