Several words throughout the pages of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes resonated with me; however, none so much as these: “Even Laura, introduced as a sort of extra wheel, soon found herself part of the mechanism, and interworking with the other wheels, went round as busily as they” (44). These words both delighted me and made me incredibly sad. In Part 1 of Lolly Willowes, Laura Willowes is presented as a woman without a home struggling to define herself. Being forced to leave her family home and succumb to being passed between family members, Laura shows that she is merely that extra person who must be accommodated as she is defined by her place in the family. She doesn’t fight against the definitions her family assigns to her and accepts what they tell her she will or won’t like based on the notion of family tradition.
Being defined by one’s station in life is not fulfilling as we can see in the case of Laura/Lolly Willowes. There seem to be many opportunities for Laura to choose to define herself through her interest of botany and flowers as well as her enjoyment of running her father’s household; however, the only time she takes charge of her life is when she makes the decision to move to Great Mop. It is only when she announces her decision to Henry and is told there is no money to fund such an “impractical” (95) expenditure that will only serve to make her ill when Laura decides to stands up for herself. Laura’s spine seems to have grown overnight to buck the family tradition.
Once Laura moves there, she becomes yet another “extra wheel” in the workings of the small town. Though Laura feels a sense of escape of being an aunt and newness in Great Mop, but soon she develops her routines and life is similar to that of London. She walks, she looks at flowers, she reads her guidebook. Though this makes her happy for a time, she cannot link the wheels of her previous life with those of her new life as is shown by the great upset Titus causes when he moves to Great Mop. One cannot leave behind the person one was in an effort to become an entirely new being. A residue of the former life will always remain to keep pulling the memory backward. Because she never made peace with her role as Aunt Lolly, Laura couldn’t seem to let that go. She even seems to forget the person she has tried to become in coming to Great Mop when she is tending chickens with Mr. Saunter and “[forgets] where and who she was, so completely had she merged her personality in to the henwife’s” (134).
I feel there is a part of Laura who is happy having slightly less agency and without knowing definitively who she is, where she’s going, or who exactly is in charge of her. When she speaks to Satan in the guise of the gamekeeper and he states “I hope you will stay here, Miss Willowes” (186), her response is “full of doubts” (186) making her proclamation of the pleasantry of being in the country seem forced. It isn’t until the Devil “takes matters into his own hands” that Laura feels “assured” of her place (192). It almost seems as though she cannot be happy without someone being in charge of her fate other than herself. Though the Devil gives the illusion that Laura is in charge, the question remains, is she really? When she states “I’m sure I shall never wish to escape you” (210), she is handing over what is left of her agency to yet another male figure for an illusion of belonging and happiness.
The illusion of Laura’s happiness in her roles throughout Lolly Willowes reminds me of Chris Baldry’s happiness as discussed by Kitty and Jenny in the beginning of Return of the Soldier. Both of those ladies assumed Chris was happy until he returned and they discovered perhaps he wasn’t as happy as he appeared to be. In her role as Laura at her father’s house, Laura appeared happy to her father and brothers. In her role as Aunt Lolly, she appeared happy to her nieces and nephew, her sister in law and brother. In her role as Laura of Great Mop, she is inconsequential. No one either cared to ask if she was genuinely happy, they simply assumed that she was happy or they didn’t care, she simply acclimated herself into each mechanism she joined. Once an “extra wheel” in the mechanism, always an “extra wheel” in the mechanism.