The U.S. Book of the Month Club is an influential company
that has singlehandedly skyrocketed novels and authors from obscurity to
historical stardom ever since its creation in 1929. The very first book of the
month, chosen on this day in 1929, was Lolly
Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Although the book title has become
iconic, the lesbian communist author behind it has been forgotten by history…for
maybe not so suspicious reasons.
Sylvia Townsend Warner’s most widely read novel, Lolly Willowes, was first published in 1926 (x).
Sylvia Townsend Warner was born at Harrow on the Hill,
Middlesex on December 3, 1893. Her father was a prestigious historian and she
enjoyed a happy childhood until his death in 1916. Sylvia then moved to London
to work in a munitions factory, where she would remain throughout the first
World War. While living in London, Sylvia became close friends with the “Bright
Young Things” – a group of starving artists/gay bohemians who
bopped around London throughout the 1920s. It was during this post-WWI era when
Sylvia also met the love of her life, Valentine Ackland. Sylvia was a novelist,
Valentine was a poet, and together the two were a literary power couple. In
response to the rapidly growing popularity of fascism across Europe in the
1930s, both Sylvia and Valentine became members of the Communist Party. It wasn’t
until after Valentine’s death that Sylvia would become disenchanted with the
Party. Sylvia herself died on May 1, 1978 at the age of 84.
Sylvia is seen sporting her signature look of bobbed hair and bottle-eyed glasses; the only thing missing would be a cigarette dangling from her fingers or one of her beloved cats by her side (x).
Although Lolly Willowes
was hardly Sylvia’s first shot at writing a book (she had been writing since
she was a little girl), it was undeniably her biggest success. The book tells
the story of an unmarried middle aged woman – known as a spinster in the early
twentieth century, probably known as a lesbian in 2017 – and how she escapes to
the countryside, stops contacting her family, and starts practicing witchcraft.
For a book that was recommended by the Book of the Month Club to the entirety
of the American people, Lolly Willowes
is quite the queer satire, openly mocking gender roles and marriage mores of
the early 1900s.