Lolly Willowes or The Loving Huntsman, by Sylvia Townsend Warner.
Another from the NYRB Classics list. First of all, there is something about that subtitle that intrigues me right off the bat.
Sylvia Townsend Warner was a contemporary of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group. Warner and her lesbian lover, poet Valentine Ackland, lived together for decades, joined the Communist Party and went to Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Warner has found her way back onto the LGBT reading lists, so she may not be so underappreciated now as she once was.
Lolly Willowes was Warner’s first novel (published in 1926). The title character is Laura (nicknamed Lolly), the pampered only daughter of a well-to-do Edwardian family living in London during World War 1 and its aftermath. Too docile to take the cause of women's suffrage, too conventional to be an artist and live in a garret, she chooses instead to live with her eldest brother's family and become the overlooked maiden aunt: useful to have around when you have a package to be tied or an errand to be run, and disappearing into the wallpaper when you don't need her. Suddenly in mid-life she rebels and to her family's shocked disapproval, she demands that her brother turn over to her what's left of her inheritance, and she goes off to let a room at a boarding house in the isolated country village of Great Mop. Perhaps there she can finally "have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others, charitable refuse of their thoughts, so many ounces of stale bread of life a day..."
Once she gets away from her family, she begins to undergo a change. She takes walks and falls asleep in a pile of dead leaves, and spends weeks puzzling over the other inhabitants of the village. Then she stops puzzling over them. “She admitted that there was something about them which she could not fathom, but she was content to remain outside the secret, whatever it was. She had not come to Great Mop to concern herself with the hearts of men.”
But her hard-won peace is almost lost when her nephew Titus arrives uninvited for a visit and then decides to stay and make his home in Great Mop, too. Lolly is beyond dismayed. “ In vain she tried to escape; transient and delusive had been her ecstasies of relief. She had thrown away twenty years of her life like a handful of old rags, but the wind had blown them back again, and dressed her in the old uniform…And she was the same old Aunt Lolly, so useful and obliging and negligible.”
Now this is where the story takes an unexpected turn, and a supernatural element is introduced into the plot, but it’s so deftly handled that it does nothing to jar or distract the reader. I hesitate to reveal too much, but I will say that Lolly makes a pact with the devil in order to secure her independence. This development can be accepted on its face or not, as you choose. It works either way, because Warner writes so beautifully.
Since the 1970's Warner has been considered a significant writer in the gay and lesbian community, but I don't see any real lesbian coding or subtext in her work. Not unless you think that the notion of women bonding with other women and maybe even preferring that situation to a male-female bond, is a "lesbian" notion. I don't see it that way and I'm a straight woman. But perhaps I'm naive.
I've read several other books by Warner after having first encountered Lolly Willowes, including "Summer Will Show" and "Mr. Fortune's Maggot", but Lolly Willowes is still my favorite.