Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner

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As I have mentioned before, I got my second year reading list a few weeks ago. And so, with due resignation, I signed on to Amazon, and ordered nearly forty novels, that comprises the entirety of the second year of university. My novels arrived and I was rather pleasantly surprised to find Lolly Willowes on my reading list. Unlike many of the novels for the upcoming year, it is rather short, and in comparatively simple prose. It isn’t overtly dense with meaning, because superficially it seems as though it is just a story about a sheltered woman, living in a tiny village, who becomes a witch.

However, I was asleep one night, and I ended up dreaming about the novel, imagining Lolly as a witch. The novel explores not just the parameters of the family unit, but also looks into ideas about marriage and the stigma of spinsterhood. Spinsterhood remains stigmatised even today, whoever was a much more obvious issue at the time of writing, 1926. The novel also discusses the idea of feminism in a rather oblique fashion. By empowering Lolly to go out into the world, alone, Sylvia Townsend Warner created a novel that supported Woolf’s rather more explicit literature, that also empowered women to go out into the world. The novel is significant in its own right, because of the subliminal message of strength it puts across. However it transcends into a network of early twentieth century literature, becoming a part of a literary network that also included Woolf, Mansfield, and other great female modernist writers.

The novel is not a modernist text in terms of linguistic style. It is written in the form of the Victorian novel, following a traditional structure in terms of time constraints, and character construction. This can be related to the fact that the novel itself is set in the patriarchal society of Victorian England. Lolly’s life, up until her move to Great Mop, is controlled by her brother, who represents the height of patriarchal control within England. Lolly is often considered as being passed around, almost as a package of no consequence. By moving along, and reclaiming herself, she becomes a woman in her own right, outside the control of her brother.

Conversely however, Lolly does fall under the influence of another male persona; Satan himself, disguised as a friend. By her assumption of his control over her, something that is never quite clarified for the reader, we see a necessity of patriarchy that structures all of Lolly’s actions. Whilst she is free, and has come under the influence of Satan somewhat willingly, there is still an echo of patriarchal society underpinning her world view.

The power dynamic that exists between Lolly and Satan is extremely interesting, because he is a kind of optional and yet inevitable patriarchal influence. There is a degree of resignation throughout the last couple of chapters in the novel, resigning Lolly to Satan’s eternal influence. To this extent, we can question the feminist tone that flows throughout the novel, and the extent to which it is effective.

If anything however, Lolly Willowes is very entertaining!

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(1) http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Books/Pix/covers/2012/3/12/1331563702226/Lolly-Willowes-Virago-Modern.jpg

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Good Afternoon, Dr. Freud

Now, I’ve always been something of a sceptic when it comes to psychoanalysis. I don’t really buy into brain-dwellers, and I think that ferreting around in the subconscious is sometimes like digging around a landmine; sometimes, things are buried for a reason. However, our American cousins seem to have a lot of faith in the practice, and since I have to revise the subject anyway, I thought I’d embrace it and see what all the fuss is about.

Freudian psychoanalysis is a method of literary interpretation that places heavy emphasis on the nature of the mind, and how the unconscious influences of the super-ego, ego and id affect the way we conduct our literary and everyday lives. Freud wrote a number of important essays on various topics of literary interpretation. These include his thoughts on narcissism, the short comings of the pleasure principle, the issues surrounding proposed infantile sexuality, and the importance of dream analysis.

A Formidable Man… (1)

Psychoanalysis as a discipline focusses on the talking cure as a way of establishing and tackling the root behind one’s neuroses. This approach can be applied to literature in so far as one searches for one’s neuroses hidden behind imagery that can be found in a text. Freud suggests that everything we do is the result of impulses and therefore to look for these impulses can be conducive to providing a literary analysis of the subject.

All of Freud’s literature is based around the concept of the unconscious, which is deemed as having three levels. The first is the super-ego, which represents the expectations of society and is widely considered as being the voice of morality. The ego represents desires, and attempts to mediate between the id and the superego, whilst the id represents the base human instincts; it is something that is inaccessible.

Freud’s theory of dreams tends to relate back to the content of the id, and the process of establishing the dream-work is perhaps the most important in terms of psychoanalysis. Latent content is the fundamental basis of analysis, made all the more obscure by way of the fact that it is hidden deep inside the content of the dream.

Condensation is the Freudian understanding that one object in a dream represents a number of complex ideas, therefore the content of the dream is deceptively small. Alongside condensation is the concept of displacement, where the dream object’s emotional significance is separated from it’s real object or content and attached to an entirely different one, in order to not arouse the suspicions of the dreamer. Dreams are never simple and represent a huge amount of latent content.

The pleasure principle is something that is always sublimated to something else; the human psyche is more complex than simply the pursuit of pleasure. Other pursuits, such as repeating a certain action, are repeated in order to fulfil the unfulfilled wish. The converse principle, or the reality principle, counters the pleasure principle, when people choose to defer fulfilling a certain desire on the basis that circumstantial reality is opposed to this desire. Society therefore intervenes, creating the reality principle. Freud defines maturity as an ability to tolerate continual deferred pleasure, in favour of conforming with social expectations and understanding. Therefore the ego has become reasonable, and obeys the reality principle in favour of understanding only the pleasure principle. The reality principle does also seek to fulfil desires; however it does so whilst taking into account the problems of circumstantial reality.

This concludes my elementary understanding of Freudian theory, and also proved a very useful revision task.

Thank you for reading!

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(1) http://specularimage.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/freud12.jpg?w=640

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Humanity, 1910

Virginia Woolf is famously quoted to have said:

“On or about December 1910, human character changed.”

This infamous quote is perhaps one of the best summaries of the modernist period; a period in which nothing was entirely certain, and a period which changed the future of English literature permanently. The catalyst for this cataclysmic change can be considered to be any number of things; from Nietzsche’s revelation that “God is dead”, to the emergence of Darwinism. One of the most important facets of this change however is perhaps the First World War, a topic that I have previously discussed, in relation to Wilfred Owen. The nature of this war was destruction, in return for precious little result; indeed it can be argued that the First World War served as a kind of epilogue to the destruction that was to follow, merely twenty years later. Nevertheless however, the First World War altered our perception of mankind, and of ourselves, permanently.

The aftermath of the war was that society had changed in dynamic due to the horrific death toll; hardly a woman in Europe was left with both husband and son. Men were either too old to have fought, or too young to remember. These children however, began shaping the future of literature in a dynamic way; the canon of war poetry was not shaped by its creators, but it’s critics.

This can be said for all forms of literature, however in this case, it is particularly important, especially when one considers society’s revulsion towards those who had been left behind. Society seemed to abandon the injured, favouring instead to embrace the period of extravagance that followed in the 1920s, before the wrath of the great depression. These factors culminate to a society that was somewhat frivolous towards its criticism of war poetry, especially in England; patriotism was far more popular than the shocking realities that the poems of Sassoon, Owen and their counterparts represented. No nation ever really wants to remember its blackest hour, or relive the memories of it.

However, the idea of the changing human character resonates in one’s ear; that society could change so completely in such a short space of time is shocking. Victorian reserve was abandoned, and staunch Christianity was deeply questioned. Of course, who could possibly blame them for wanting to disband the society that had created the war that killed millions?

However, Woolf explicitly states that this change began to occur before the war began; a mere four years before, but indeed it was before. This early change was perhaps less marked at the time it occurred, and we are all familiar with the power of hindsight in relation to history. Everyone has wondered, “what if I could go back, and tell myself this?”; this is the futile nature of humanity’s retrospect, however.

It is, to my mind at least, completely fascinating that these changes and discoveries across the board colluded to make such a vital, almost fatal, change. The poets, artists, and novelists of the modernist period were unsure how to approach the new attitudes towards society and humanity itself, and this is represented in the deeply experimental nature of their literature, and art. Poetry was no longer of a solid rhyming persuasion; it was chaotic, changing in form, and almost a form of anarchy, reacting to what they saw outside.

Trying to make sense of this anarchy then, was the only way for these poets to progress; they no longer had the certainty that had existed not twenty years before; they no longer had the factual basis that so many great writers before them had, to act as a template. Within this evolving society, they too had to evolve with it; there was no place for the old ways, when they represented so much fear and anxiety. They were forced to push forwards, off the edge of the world, if you like. They had to jump, to find an ocean to which they belonged.

I think it was rather courageous.

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*I was going to find some modernist art, but my image up-loader seems to be affected! I’ll try to edit it tomorrow (:.

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A Blogging Hiatus

Dear Reader,

I return to my little blog today, feeling somewhat repentant, for being so completely neglectful of you lately. Unfortunately, I’ve suffered two main impediments to recent blogging. The first one being searching for a house, in which to reside next year.Working out the demands of both rent and bills are fundamental, and unfortunately, I’m not mathematically or financially blessed as yet. My job search has been as productive as using Dairy Milk as a fireplace, and the demands of adulthood seem to have overridden my aspirations within my life as a student. But no matter; we have resolved the crisis now, and hopefully, someone will one day employ me. At this juncture however, jokes about the employability of English Literature graduates can be made, but that’s another post…

My second impediment however was more serious, at least in my eyes, because, I lost my inspiration to a chronic case of writer’s block that seems to have lasted at least two weeks. It’s rare for me to be completely unable to write for this long; usually a day, maybe three; not usually weeks. I couldn’t even seem to manage a small poem, not even something crude, adolescent and unsophisticated.

I stood in the mirror one morning and said “I have nothing in my head to say. About anything at all.” This was strange, because we studied The Tempest last week, and I adore Shakespeare. We also studied James Joyce, a man I have a love-hate relationship with. Usually, I could have written a lengthy explanation for this feeling of repulsion and adoration that follows Joyce, but this week, I couldn’t do it. It seemed too hard to put fingertips to keypad, and make something coherent, even amusing. But today, it seems much easier, and I think I shall be tackling Joyce, Robert Louis Stevenson, and finishing my T.S Eliot series at least sometime in the near future.

So, dear Reader, I apologise for my lengthy absence; but I promise, I shall be back tomorrow, writing about literary type things, instead of rambling on about why I couldn’t write about them at all.

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Up the Mountain of Literature

There are many lists on the Internet and in the great works of people such as F.R Leavis that detail the best novels in the world; the ‘classics’. However, I tend to greet these lists with a degree of scepticism. I find myself debating with my friends and family the merit of Pride and Prejudice, and find myself vilifying it repeatedly. When discussing feminism in philosophy recently,  I somehow managed to spark a rather heated debate on Austen’s merit as a feminist writer and on her position as a ‘great’ author. In hindsight, this was not the wisest of topics to broach at that particular moment. Nonetheless, I defended my position and maintain it today in relation to that particular novel.

Let us for a minute consider Time’s list of the top ten novels; which can be found here.  The list is of American origin, and includes novels such as The Great Gatsby, alongside Hamlet, and even Marcel Proust’s masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. It is not rare for Proust to appear on the top ten lists; despite being rather inaccessible, and being one of the longest texts ever conceived in the world. Time’s list is a rather complex one and is also rather multinational, ranging from America, to Russia, to France, to England. I do however wonder what criteria leads to the formation of this list; the top one hundred novels in Time Magazine also provides the beginning of a very lengthy literary debate, I think.

On listverse, also an American website, we see many similarities in their list of the top ten novels of all time; Lolita is also included. The nature of this novel is rather controversial, and as a result it often appears as one of the great novels. American lists on the whole tend to include more Russian novels, a form of literature that is perhaps neglected in English universities. Undoubtedly however they are stylistically fascinating, and are another particular interest of mine.

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In the English lists, there is an abundance of European texts, strewn among the classics of English literature. A seemingly omnipotent Middlemarch is included in most of these lists. An interesting and rather comprehensive collection is The Telegraph’s. Some lists, such as F.R Leavis’s have extremely strict criteria for selecting ‘the best’; at the beginning of the rise of critical theory was the simultaneous beginning of a systematic categorisation of the novel in general: what is the best, most profound, and most influential? These questions were all necessary to be considered when attempting to classify “great” ideas.

From a wholly liberal perspective, the best, and the most influential is a very subjective idea. Influential events are not the same for every person, and may be the most minute things; a person never wakes and realises that this day will be the most extraordinary of their existence; in the same way, the best novels could not be considered the greatest by everyone, a prime example being my aversion to Pride and Prejudice. My opinion on the novel is very rarely shared. This does infer however that an opinion on a novel is always different; in an academic environment a novel is put on a syllabus, and even though there is the scope to decide one’s own opinion, it is always slightly guided. An engaging lecturer can always lead the mind down a different path, and encourage a person to consider interpretation beyond their own psyche. This is one of the highlights of university, at least for me.

The great literature of the world can be explored by anyone who wishes to delve in, whether they are a banker, a builder, an electrician, an academic, or a child. The greatness of literature can be explored by everyone, and their own greats may diverge hugely from the culturally accepted, however this does not make them any less valid. I’m curious to know what we all consider to be our greats, for instance the writers who shaped our own ambitions to be writers, or who inspired us to be something.

Who’re your greats? Suggestions welcome!

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(1) http://timeentertainment.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/top-10-books-lev-grossman-v.jpg?w=240&h=360&crop=1