BOOK REVIEW: Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner


BOOK REVIEW: Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend WarnerTitle: Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, Alison Lurie
Published by New York Review Books Classics
Published: January 1st 1970
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 222
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased

In Lolly Willowes, an ageing spinster rebels against her role as the universal aunt, at everybody's beck and call. How she escapes all that "—to have a life of one's own, not an existence doled out to you by others", is the theme of this story.

 “One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It’s to escape all that – to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to by others.”

I don’t remember how I came across this book. I probably came across it in one of my Goodreads TBR adding phases when I look through lists and recommendations and add things. Published by the NYRB, Lolly Willowes follows the story of a young unmarried woman’s life before the Great War until she is older. She’s a spinster who never really wants for more because for so much of her young life she harbors a duty to her father even after his death. It isn’t until many years later that she even attempts to overcome this duty to her father and duty to what she should be like as an unmarried woman in that upper class British society, and even when she does attempt to be herself, she’s still held back for the longest time because in some way, she finds that failing in her sense of duty is somehow failing herself.  She finds freedom, eventually, in a small country town in which she becomes a witch and is befriended by a black cat.

Lolly thinks, late in her life, how important it is to have a room of one’s own in which to be oneself, an idea that comes several years before Virginia Woolf’s famous book. In Lolly Willowes, the idea of witches and paganism are not only a dive into the supernatural but a rebelling against the white, heterosexual, Christian British aristocracy. It was a way in which Lolly could figure herself out without the caging shackles of her old life (as it’s seen when family of Lolly’s come to visit and she’s feeling cagey, even in her old age and even after being free for many years). Lolly’s exploration into witchcraft and the varying levels of it goes against the status quo.

Lolly’s singleness and the singleness of many other women after the Great Wars is due to the fact that there was a shortage of men after World War I. It’s a gruesome thought to realize that so many young, able-bodied men died in a catastrophic war and were a rare sight afterwards. What was society to do with such a surplus of eligible women? Many of these women simply had no place to neatly fit into society because jobs were limited for single women, and not many families could afford to keep those surplus women in their households. So what could one do? Lolly organized her own life, fought for the remainder of her inheritance that her uncle recklessly invested without consent, and sought out a new life for herself among other surplus people (including the elderly, the insinuated homosexual men and women, widows, widowers, and other single people).

lolly willowes - sylvia townsend warner (ph: fairy.bookmother @ instagram)

The novel spoke to me so deeply because I identified so much with Lolly in her growing up years, and the novel has become a reminder to me that I’m not the only one who’s felt this way and that I’ve got it in me to be myself. I’m thankful for an education and supportive people to help me realize that my sense of duty is only to myself (because no one else is responsible for me but me) much earlier than Lolly realizes. We’re sort of raised to believe that women should be wives and mothers and have no other higher aspirations because that “should be” the highest aspiration, but the women who do otherwise are thought of differently.

It’s not to say that there is anything wrong with a sense of duty. A sense of duty is what drives most of us to do what we do, no matter what it is. It is, however, a good idea to examine every now and then where that sense of duty comes from and what it means in conjunction with your own happiness. Lolly Willowes made me think about it more, and I hope, if you’re interested in feminist literature, it might do the same for you.

BOOK REVIEW: Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin


BOOK REVIEW: Giovanni’s Room, by James BaldwinTitle: Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
Published by Penguin Books
Published: 1956
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pages: 150
Format: Mass Market
Source: Purchased

Baldwin's haunting and controversial second novel is his most sustained treatment of sexuality, and a classic of gay literature. In a 1950s Paris swarming with expatriates and characterized by dangerous liaisons and hidden violence, an American finds himself unable to repress his impulses, despite his determination to live the conventional life he envisions for himself. After meeting and proposing to a young woman, he falls into a lengthy affair with an Italian bartender and is confounded and tortured by his sexual identity as he oscillates between the two.
Examining the mystery of love and passion in an intensely imagined narrative, Baldwin creates a moving and complex story of death and desire that is revelatory in its insight.

 People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen forget.

Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin, follows a brief episode of David, an American living in Paris who is desperately trying to figure out who he is, to himself and to the world. David meets Giovanni through an old man’s acquaintance, and he goes home with Giovanni. In poetic, lyrical language, Baldwin explores the nature of love juxtaposed with David’s idea of love. David’s idea of love clashes with his expression and exploration of love, which eventually culminates in an emotionally heart-wrenching separation.

I’ve often seen this book on lists of best gay novels, but this novel goes beyond a stark black-and-white view of homosexuality. Baldwin explores bisexuality in both David and Giovanni and how each of the two men come to terms with their emotions. David is presented as rather cool and logical, succumbing to his emotions but logically pilfering through them after. Giovanni’s behavior appears to be purely emotional and irrational at times, contrasting against David’s eventual cool behavior to Giovanni. Giovanni is that character who wants to live life to its fullest, no matter the cost to himself or anyone else. David is the sort of character that will risk it, but not too much, because David, in the end, is one who preserves himself above all else, even if it means giving up love.

David, unlike Giovanni, has a plan, knows his role back home in American society, and cannot deal with something so “extra” as a male lover. His fiancée Hella is off traveling in Spain, presumably with her own lovers, and her return to David is his savior on the horizon, a means by which he can escape back into a comfortable, unquestioning existence.

This novel not only about gay/bisexual love, but about the complexities of the emotion all together.

This short novel is heartbreakingly beautiful and tragic and should be on your reading list if you’ve not yet read it.

BOOK REVIEW: The Sign of Four, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle


BOOK REVIEW: The Sign of Four, by Sir Arthur Conan DoyleTitle: The Sign of Four (Sherlock Holmes, #2) by Arthur Conan Doyle
Series: Sherlock Holmes #2
Published by Penguin Books
Published: March 6th 2008
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pages: 153
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased

A dense yellow miasma swirls in the streets of London as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson accompany a beautiful young woman to a sinister assignation.
For Mary Marston has received several large pearls – one a year for the last six years – and now a mystery letter telling her she is a wronged woman. If she would seek justice she is to meet her unknown benefactor, bringing with her two companions.
But unbeknownst to them all, others stalk London’s fog-enshrouded streets: a one-legged ruffian with revenge on his mind – and his companion, who places no value on human life...

 ‘The division seems rather unfair,’ I remarked. ‘You have done all the work in this business. I get a wife out of it, Jones gets the credit, pray what remains for you?’

‘For me,’ said Sherlock Holmes, ‘there still remains the cocaine-bottle.’ And he stretched his long white hand up for it.

I’m making an effort to read every one of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories because (gasp) I haven’t yet. A Study in Scarlet is a strange miasma of events, traversing from foggy, gaslit London to the wild American west that disconnected me as a reader. The Sign of Four reminded me much more of the traditional Sherlock Holmes story. I do think Conan Doyle’s strength as a writer is the short story, but this novella is an engaging read through Victorian London.

In The Sign of Four, Mary Morstan has received one large pearl a year for the last six years until she receives a mysterious letter revealing that she is a wronged woman. She visits Holmes and Watson to get to the root of the mystery. Watson falls in love with Morstan over the course of the narrative (nearly instantaneously, I might add), and Holmes finds the greatest pleasure in keeping his mind active, away from boredom. The blatant racism and misogyny (however authentic to the time in which it was written) is difficult to read in today’s times and that certainly takes away from some of the enjoyment of the story for me.

However, the appeal of Sherlock Holmes still remains. Watson’s a sharp narrator who is consistently challenged by Holmes’s charming arrogance. With enough action to keep you glued to the page as the narrative propels itself forward, it’s always a pleasure to see how Doyle manages to bring it all together, however messily or neatly.

FIRST CHAPTER, FIRST PARAGRAPH: Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin


First Chapter, First Paragraph Tuesday is hosted by Bibliophile By the Sea!

James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room is part of the classics challenge I am doing this year (and spectacularly failing at, but I still have time to catch up). The edition I have is part of Penguin’s Great Loves series that contains twenty volumes of love. The back cover of this says “Love can be dishonest.” In Giovanni’s Room, when David meets the sensual Giovanni in a bohemian bar, he is swept into a passionate love affair. But his girlfriend’s return to Paris destroys everything. Unable to admit to the truth, David pretends the liaison never happened – while Giovanni’s life descends into tragedy.

I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life. I have a drink in my hands, there is a bottle at my elbow. I watch my reflection in the darkening gleam of the window pane. My reflection is tall, perhaps rather like an arrow, my blond hair gleams. My face is like a face you have seen many times. My ancestors conquered a continent, pushing across death-laden plains, until they came to an ocean which faced away from Europe into a darker past.

Have you read this? What did you think?

BOOK REVIEW: Tales from the Dead of Night, edited by Cecily Gayford


BOOK REVIEW: Tales from the Dead of Night, edited by Cecily GayfordTitle: Tales from the Dead of Night: Thirteen Classic Ghost Stories by Cecily Gayford
Published by Profile Books
Published: November 25th 2014
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 288
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased

"These classic chillers will certainly make you look under the bed at night."—Daily Mail
From rural England to colonial India, in murky haunted mansions and under modern electric lighting, these master storytellers—some of the best writers in the English language—unfold spine-tinglers that pull back the veil of everyday life to reveal the nightmares that lurk just out of sight.
Contains ghost stories by Ruth Rendell, M. R. James, Rudyard Kipling, Edith Wharton, E. F. Benson, E. Nesbit, Saki, W. W. Jacobs, W. F. Harvey, Hugh Walpole, Chico Kidd, and LP Hartley.

 Two travellers sat alone in a train carriage.

‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ asked one, by way of conversation.

‘Yes,’ said the other, and vanished.

Tales From the Dead of Night: Thirteen Classic Ghost Stories is a collection of ghost stories by still-known and lesser-known authors. Over half of the names I didn’t recognize, and those unknown half to me had the more mediocre stories in the collection. My favorites of the collection are “The Shadow,” by E. Nesbit, “The Cotillon,” by L.P. Hartley, “Pomegranate Seed,” by Edith Wharton, and “The Black Veil,” by A.F. Kidd.

I will admit that I purchased this title mostly because the cover is absolutely gorgeous. I’ve held on to the book for several years because I kept putting off reading it, but during October, I made an effort to read more ghost stories and more “Halloween” things, and this was at the top of my list. I love reading Gothic fiction and older ghost stories written and set in times before the advancement of technology because things seem a bit more eerie then, but this collection to me failed to be a cohesive collection. A few stories gave me the shivers, but the rest plodded on and didn’t entice me in the slightest, even while taking into account the styles and techniques of Victorian and Gothic literature.

Below are the stories in this collection I think are worth reading and thinking about in the context of society and in the context of literary ghost stories:

Edith Wharton’s “Pomegranate Seed” focuses on a haunting of an upper class marriage in New York City and examines a woman’s fear.

L.P. Hartley’s “The Cotillon” explores an extra guest at an extravagant party.

E. Nesbit’s “The Shadow” uses a frame story to tell the ghost story (and honestly the frame story is more exciting than the story inside the story).

A.F. Kidd’s “The Black Veil” is probably one of the scariest stories I’ve ever read.

tales from the dead of night, posted on fairy.bookmother on IG