We asked Francesca Wade, TOAST contributor and Senior Editor at The White Review, to take part in our book sharing campaign, Enrichment of Other. Below she describes the book she left and the one she chose to take away...
At the back of the tranquil TOAST shop on the King’s Road stands a neat shelf packed tight with books. Inside each one is tucked a hand written note from its bestower, explaining how the book has enriched them, and why others might enjoy it too. Flicking through, I’m intrigued by these tantalising glimpses into someone else’s world, and find myself enticed by books I’d never have thought of reading otherwise. Some notes linger on the quality of the book — the luminosity of Eimear McBride’s prose in A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, the scope and sensuality of Sarah Hall’s A Wolf Border. Others are more personal, relics of books read at just the right moment for their effect to be deeply felt: the history of tango which inspired a reader to take up dance herself, the cookery book which embodied memories of family dinners, now the source of a new generation’s favourites, the poetry memorised in childhood and still returned to for consolation.
Deciding which book to share myself was difficult. I might have taken a copy of My Brilliant Friend, the first in Elena Ferrante’s electrifying Neapolitan series, which is the book I’ve discussed most often and passionately with friends, but my copy of the first instalment was dog-eared from several readings, and the second one is missing from my shelves — lent already to an avid reader finished with the first and impatient for more. Instead, I’ve brought along Sylvia Townsend Warner’s entrancing Lolly Willowes, written in 1926, of which I’d found a second copy languishing on a shelf — I’m perpetually unable to resist a vintage Virago Modern Classics edition with their green spines and glorious cover art, and this one features a beautiful vase of flowers painted by Vanessa Bell. Laura Willowes, a spinster who has dedicated herself to caring for her elderly father, is dispatched after his death to live with her irritable brother and his family, like ‘a piece of family property forgotten in the will’. In their house Laura ceases to be Laura and becomes simply Aunt Lolly — until she decides to swap this existence of propriety and drudgery for a new and solitary life in Great Mop, a secluded village in the Chilterns. There, invigorated by the peace of her own domain, Laura finally realises the vocation her previous dependency had denied her — she becomes a witch. It’s a call for women’s independence as striking as that in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: ‘When I think of witches,’ says Laura, ‘I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded.’
Eventually I select the book I’ll take away, and slot Lolly Willowes in its place: Kilvert’s Diaries, edited by William Plomer. The Reverend Francis Kilvert kept a diary from January 1870 until March 1879, recording a quiet portrait of mid-Victorian country life which has been compared to Dorothy Wordsworth, Thomas Hardy and Gerald Manley Hopkins. Skimming through, I’ve found evocative descriptions of the English landscape, of country customs and dances, a visiting soldier’s remembrances of the wolves he encountered while fighting in Spain, a parishioner’s story of curing deafness by pouring hot eel oil into his ear, and a sense of peace and contentment amid the myriad small trials of everyday village life. The reader who left this book in the TOAST shop had moved to Kilvert’s village one hundred and fifty years after the diaries were written; he found Kilvert’s writing fascinating, he says, ‘partly because of how little has changed’. Kilvert’s experience of the countryside is no doubt very different from that of Lolly Willowes — there is far less devil-worship and more genteel Vicarage dinners — but both books are joyful meditations on the human condition, lodged in unforgettable landscapes. I hope that whoever finds Lolly Willowes garners as much unexpected pleasure from it as I’ve had already from Kilvert.
Words by Francesca Wade
Read more on how to join in the book sharing.