The Dark Lantern
THE DARK LANTERN
(Volume 1, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight)
|First edition, Macdonald, 1951|
First published Macdonald, 1951 (12s 6d)
Panther, paperback, 1962
Reprinted Macdonald, 1984 (£9.95)
Sutton Publishing, paperback, 1994
Currently available at Faber Finds
The first volume of this astonishing series of novels is set in southeast London (Lewisham) at the end of the nineteenth century. It opens in 1893 with an evocation of a warm summer night on the Hill of a time now long disappeared but perfectly captured for eternity in this scene. The Hill is in real life Hilly Fields, at that time an open glebe-land area of grass and trees, which still exists today in Brockley. (‘Glebe-land’ refers to land originally owned by the Church.) The Hill plays an important symbolic role in the novels, almost as if it were an actual character: it is confidante and comforter to Richard Maddison, the central character of this volume, and in due course, to young Phillip Maddison, the actual central character.
The opening scene of The Dark Lantern (and so of the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight as a whole) is a superb evocation of time and atmosphere and place. It is as a great painting in the style of Constable, Turner, or Whistler: that is, a great painting in words in the traditional English style. But not only can one see the scene, one is immediately inside it, participating in the events that unfold. The opening sentence:
Over the Hill at night shone the stars of heaven . . .
has an extraordinary – and without doubt deliberate – resonance to the opening sentence of his earlier masterpiece, Tarka the Otter, which reads:
Twilight over meadow and water, the eve-star shining above the hill.
Richard Maddison, a bank clerk in the City of London and living in lodgings, is a young man in the throes, as we learn, of a difficult love affair. His great interest in life – his solace for the hours shut up in an office – is natural history, and we see him going out onto the nearby Hill at night to collect moths with the aid of a ‘dark lantern’ (a lantern shaded to avoid disturbing the moths). Just as he thinks he has caught a great rarity, not a moth but a large and beautiful butterfly called a Camberwell Beauty, he is set upon by ruffians whom he surprisingly tackles with some courage and sends packing; but meanwhile the butterfly has vanished.
This whole scene, apart from being a superb atmospheric description, is an allegory for Richard’s eventual marriage. His bride-to-be, Hetty Turney (under the complete domination of her father), is sent to the south of France for a holiday in order to forget this unsuitable and impecunious young man. While there she gains another suitor, Roland Tofield, heir to a baronetcy. She rejects him out of love for Richard, but the Tofields play an increasingly important role as the novels progress. As she travels home, Hetty buys a dress in Paris, which replicates (most fortuitously!) the Camberwell Beauty butterfly’s rich colours of purple with a yellow-gold edging. Hetty had been born in Camberwell (as was Henry Williamson’s own mother, Gertrude, on whom Hetty is based). Richard sees her as his ‘Camberwell Beauty’ – a prized possession (shades of Soames Forsyte here!). But Hetty does not wear this symbolic dress for their secret wedding (which is supported by her mother) as he had hoped – and after the briefest of honeymoons snatched while her father is away on holiday, she returns to the family home and continues to live the life of an unmarried daughter. Like the rare butterfly that he loses, his bride is lost to Richard from the start. He never recovers from the humiliations of the subterfuge. Thus the scene is set for a marriage beset with difficulties and emotional baggage. The effect of this is part of HW’s overall theme.
Pasted in the front of HW's own copy of The Dark Lantern is this charming sketch made by his son Richard
at the time that the first edition was published.
Richard Maddison is based upon Henry Williamson’s own father, William Leopold Williamson, and as far as can be ascertained is, with a few elaborations and diversions, a fairly true and accurate portrait.
William Leopold Williamson was a bank clerk by profession, who in May 1893 married Gertrude Eliza Leaver, encouraged by her mother, in Greenwich Registry Office in a ceremony kept secret from her father, exactly as happens in the novel. The reason for this extraordinary procedure is unclear: the two were of age, William being twenty-seven years old and Gertrude twenty-five. One has to presume (as in the novel) that Thomas Leaver disapproved of the Williamson family because William Leopold's father was considered to be a bit of a bounder! It is known now that the two families, Williamson and Leaver, lived next door to each other in the borough of Sutton, and so obviously there was considerable interaction between them in real life.
William Leopold and Gertrude (Gertie), parents of HW, on whom
Richard and Hetty Maddison are based
But there is no hint that they were real-life neighbours in the novel! The author arranges his fictional tale very cleverly. Richard Maddison and Hetty Turney (HW used the surname of his mother’s mother here) do not know each other prior to a chance meeting on the Hill as Richard is returning home from his mother’s funeral (at the family’s home in the West Country). They are then introduced properly by Richard’s sister Theodora (Dora), who is a friend of the Turneys, when she asks her brother to join their little musical group, which includes Hetty’s brother Hugh, who is in love with Dora – but has tragically contracted syphilis.
Theodora is based upon William Leopold’s real sister, Henry’s aunt, Mary Leopoldina Williamson. This lady was very intelligent and wrote two quite extraordinarily visionary short books published in 1910 (reprinted in HWSJ 31, and HWSJ 37). She was a great influence on Henry Williamson, and encouraged him in every way. As Theodora Maddison she is a major character throughout the Chronicle. In this opening volume she is seen as a very kind and sensitive clever young lady, sympathetic and intuitive, attractive and gay – yet shy and serious. It is a masterly portrait in words, and the development of her character as the Chronicle progresses is somewhat tragic.
Richard and Hetty are the main characters of this first volume. The story revolves and evolves around their complicated courtship and marriage. But several other members of both families are established, who are to weave in and out of the tale as it progresses. The well-to-do Turney family live in Cross Aulton (Carshalton, a stone’s throw from the real family home at Sutton in real life). One of the great lyrical passages in the novel is the description of the herb fields (lavendar etc) that used to grow in the Sutton/Carshalton area. Hetty’s parents, Thomas and Sarah Turney, are very firmly based on HW’s mother’s parents, Thomas Leaver and his wife Henrietta (née Turney).
We learn that the Maddison family home is a small farming estate at Rookhurst in the ‘West Country’ but that it is very run down due to the decline in agriculture. (Agriculture is a major theme throughout the series.) Throughout, Richard Maddison is presented as a countryman manqué, yearning always for the country life of his childhood, a major reason for his discontent. Richard’s mother, Adele von Föhre (based on HW’s German grandmother, Adela von Lühn) dies and his father, Captain William Maddison, also presently dies after an accident, leaving the estate to his eldest son, John. But Richard Maddison is now due to inherit his share of a family Trust, which in due course enables him to purchase a new property being built next to his beloved ‘Hill’ (as was the case in real life).
John Maddison and his wife Jenny appear as minor characters here. But John and Jenny (who although already dead exercises a major influence), were main characters of HW’s earliest series of four books called The Flax of Dream, where it is Richard Maddison who has only a cameo part. Very unusually for Henry Williamson, John has no counterpart in real life, for William Leopold was the eldest son, and so the fictional Richard and John Maddison were in real life actually one and the same person – both based on HW’s father. Jenny, a most extraordinarily sweet person, is entirely imaginary. I suspect she is based on William Leopold’s younger sister, Effie, who died at an early age and who is described in family notes as a sweet and happy girl. In the early Flax of Dream series Jenny dies in childbirth as the first book opens, although her dead presence is felt throughout. But the Chronicle opens at an earlier date when she is still alive. The story is complicated by the fact that it is she with whom Richard is really in love, and he frequently compares Hetty unfavourably to her in his mind.
When Thomas Turney eventually discovers, on the night of Hetty’s twenty-fifth birthday, after a grand family dinner party, that his daughter is pregnant, but even worse, married to ‘that son of a filthy blackguard’, he loses his temper and hits her, causing her to have a fit. The next day Richard collects her from her family home and under these difficult circumstances they are at last together at Richard’s lodgings. Soon after, they take a lease on Comfort House, in Comfort Road, where they set up their first home.
The real central character of the whole Chronicle does not appear until nearly the end of this first volume, when Hetty gives birth with some difficulty to a son, Phillip. Because she is ill after the birth, the baby does not immediately thrive and is fed with donkey milk, and so the local children call him ‘donkey baby’.
The little family are invited to go for a holiday, together with John and Jenny, by Theodora, to Lynmouth
on the north Devon coast, where she had taken a cottage for a month’s holiday before leaving for an extended stay in Italy and Greece, ostensibly to escape from her disastrous love for a married man within the Turney family. Mary Leopoldina certainly spent time in Greece at this point in her life, seeing for herself all those ancient places so beloved of the great Romantic poets. So this first volume ends with a lyrical description of an idyllic holiday, the two brothers happily fishing together in the river Lyn. Most extraordinarily, this sets the scene for the appalling contrast of the storm and flood at Lynmouth at the end of the final volume. However, HW wrote this first scene in 1949/50 – some time before that devastating flood of August 1952. That is extraordinary and almost uncanny.
And as this first book of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight ends, so Jenny shyly tells her husband that she is pregnant. But, of course, we already know from the earlier Flax of Dream series that this is to end in tragedy.
The radical change in Britain post Second World War is to some extent reflected in the amount and quality of book reviews. At this time books are not given the attention that they had received before the war. The mind of the populace is on more basic things. With regard to HW in particular, he had become rather an unknown quantity: this new volume appears to have puzzled people. He had been given the overall label of ‘nature writer’ and this new series was unknown territory. He had of course kept his London roots well hidden. Most reviewers seem to have been a little puzzled; the Carshalton Times passed no opinion, other than noting its local setting:
The Spectator (Tangye Lean), 16 November 1951:
Among novelists who might announce their intention of tracing the fortune of a family from the late Victorian period to the Second World War, few would surprise us more than Mr. Henry Williamson. London in the Nineties? Suburban clerks, City merchants, and the complex of relations between families? Nothing less than these from the subject matter of The Dark Lantern, in which Mr. Williamson introduces us to his project. . . . but there is a great deal more, and it is here that his peculiar talents show themselves. Masterly in the establishment of atmosphere he does not shirk the world of London Bridge, where the rulers of an empire feel the first tremors of decline. His hero is a bank clerk, who lives only a few miles outside, but those few miles are enough – and perhaps only Mr. Williamson would have realised it so clearly – to surround him with the moths, birds, insects and country sights which it is his especial joy to study.
Daily Dispatch (Nigel Nicholson), 28 December 1951:
Ever since 1919 Mr. Henry Williamson has nurtured an ambition to write a saga of English family life in several volumes. . . . Mr. Williamson has allowed himself plenty of room and time in which to settle down to his great task . . . He does not overcrowd his canvas . . . yet he knows where he is going. His landscapes are excellent, whether of the low hills south of London . . . or the City itself. . . .
I shall read the sequels with interest and pleasure. But I put in a plea . . . [that Mr. Williamson should] . . . weave his pattern with slightly more intricacy and verve.
Tribune (Philip Parrish), 11 January 1952. Having already rather dismissed in this article L. P. Hartley’s My Fellow Devils (as absurd rather than true) and Wyndham Lewis’s Rotting Hill (grouchy and boring) the reviewer continues:
Mr. Henry Williamson’s The Dark Lantern is an astonishing affair, It is promised as the first of a sequence of novels that will pack the last seventy years into a family chronicle. There is, I suppose, room for a post-Forsyte Saga; Dr. C.P. Snow’s eleven-decker, now under construction, is only slightly concerned with the flow of decades and fashion. But Mr. Williamson does not re-create the past; he transfixes it. Surely the merit of looking backwards in fiction as in historical writing, is to discern some pattern and purpose in events? Mr. Williamson’s sole stock-in-trade is nostalgia . . . but his characters and plot are uniformly grey. . . . Perhaps Mr. Williamson has sowed some seed here that will flourish in later volumes. Perhaps it is too soon to judge. Certainly I must forebear from lowering his spirits still further.
The Sunday Times (L. P. Hartley), 9 December 1951:
“The Dark Lantern” is a period piece, the period being the last decade of the nineteenth century. Mr. Henry Williamson has been almost uncannily successful in his evocation. London, where Richard Maddison works, and the suburb in Surrey where he lives, are presented to the mind and senses in another idiom of time, and even the country, where his home was, wears a different aspect. . . . As to the story, it is almost as slow-moving as the transport. . . . This very individual story, in which Nature, as might be expected, is lovingly observed, will appeal to readers who would rather travel hopefully than arrive.
Illustrated London News (unsigned), 29 December 1951. An opening paragraph decries the ‘family chronicle’ as ‘fiction at its least gay’ and continues:
“The Dark Lantern” by Henry Williamson is the beginning of a family chronicle. And it is very definitely past. And it is full of grief. And far from struggling with these conditions, it embraces them; as a result, it has achieved a rich and melancholy beauty in a very slender frame of event.
The scene itself, the fringe of London in the ‘nineties, is about to pass, and has the sad enchantment of the doomed. And Richard Maddison is drawn to it, as to a fellow-sufferer. For his existence has depreciated in the same way; he is a country boy, living nostalgically in his country childhood, but condemned to labour as a bank clerk. And hopelessly condemned, as he has no resilience. He is strict, sensitive, devitalised, a born worrier. But he is conscious of a great need, a need for Hetty Turney and her tenderness. Hetty would bring him peace, would be his mother, and his childhood, and his lost home. But courting her is perpetual torment.
Her father almost literally throws him out – for Thomas Turney is a rich man, a symbol of the urban juggernaut, and a domestic bully. They can’t elope for Richard would lose his job; he has not reached the salary [necessary by bank rules] for marriage. And after all, when they have braved the storm and anguish, there is no haven. . . . His wife, the sentimentalist . . . learns to shrink at his returning step.
It is a story built up like a pageant, scene after scene, under the shining landmark of the Crystal Palace: a scroll of country walks and drives, of stolen rendezvous, of evenings on Richard’s Hill, of domestic loneliness and dread encounters with the terrible and helpless poor. . . . Into the bargain, there are flashes of submerged fun. And every evocation has a large and mellow, yet exact beauty.
The Scotsman (unsigned), 13 December 1951:
The Dark Lantern is the first of a series . . . Although in itself a long novel it clearly covers only the first phase of the story . . . There are hints of the scale of the drama which will later be reached, but even the overtures in this volume hold much that is moving. . . .
Oxford Mail (S. P. B. Mais), 29 November 1951:
This long, ambitious and poignantly moving novel is the first . . . [there is an outline of the plot] . . . Mr. Williamson paints in loving, meticulous detail all the rich and varied Victorian scene. . . . Equally detailed are the many exquisite descriptions of birds and butterflies, the streets of London and the beauty of the outer suburbs. The nature writing betrays fine poetic sensitivity and all the many characters are vitally alive . . .
Mr. Williamson reveals the perplexities and intimacies of their domestic life with candour, tenderness, and a deep insight into the complex emotions that sway the human heart. Infused throughout by a passionate sincerity this novel has all the quality of greatness in it, and as an interpretation of life rings true in every line.
Shields Gazette (F.S.), 8 March 1952:
One has admired the writings of Mr. Henry Williamson for many years . . . he is one of the most interesting writers of our age. . . . [analysis of plot & descriptions] The Dark Lantern is not in the style of the turgid modern novel which leaves us bruised, bemused and often bewildered. That in itself is high recommendation these days.
Daily Telegraph (John Betjeman), 16 November 1951:
By now “magic” is almost as dud a word as “brilliant” when it is used in criticism. Yet there is magic in Henry Williamson’s novel . . . Here are more than four hundred closely written pages and it is not the story that sustains one’s interest. . . . And yet there is a magic which raises it right out of the family saga class.
The magic is of the steam train age of South London which is so lovingly described. . . .
For years Henry Williamson has been an accomplished nature writer. This expedition into a late Victorian suburb and merchant materialism is unexpected. And it is as genuine and affectionate as it is accomplished. . . .
It is easy for a book of this reminiscing sort to be merely an accurate catalogue. Only magic can turn it out of the museum into life; Mr. Williamson has the magic and has done it.
North Devon Herald (D.W.), 6 December 1951:
Those of us who are self-confessed admirers of the translucent prose of the author have not been disappointed. . . . There is no need to point the fact that Henry Williamson’s place as the fore-most prose writer of the day remains largely unchallenged. . . . [analysis of plot] . . .
Perhaps the most satisfying feature is the emergence of the old Williamson sincerity that characterised so much of his [earlier] writings.
Punch (B.E.S.), 23 January 1952:
Since his publishers refer to it as “the first of a sequence of novels” Mr. Henry Williamson’s book The Dark Lantern may prove to be the foundation stone of an imposing edifice . . . [there follows a somewhat satiric outline of plot/characters] . . . His late Victorian scene is sometimes lurid, sometimes dark, but he introduces us to many interesting people, which is good augury for the rest of the sequence.
Several shorter foreign reviews praise but with reserve: the nature scenes are superb, the human less so.
South Africa (unnamed):
Nevertheless it is a novel which is not in the ordinary run. One looks forward with mixed feelings of hope and apprehension to the remainder of the saga.
Sydney Herald (Australia):
Henry Williamson is a sincere and valuable writer and it is a relief to see him tackling a major task again. We should call “The Dark Lantern” a promise for the future.
Calcutta Statesman (India), 10 February 1952:
If the other volumes are up to the present standard, we have something to look forward to. “The Dark Lantern” establishes its family in surrey and north-western Kent during the last decade of the 19th century and describes the troubled courtship and marriage of its hero. Mr. Williamson’s descriptions of London and the countryside are memorable and, though his story is no thriller, the drama is tense and absorbing.
East African Standard (Nairobi), 4 January 1951:
In a writing career of some 25 years Mr. Williamson has tried his hand at a great variety of work, with no less varying degrees of success. The world in which he was brought up fell in ruins in the 1914-18 war and he appeared on the literary scene as the sensitive and rebellious young man in whom a feeling for beauty and a bad temper were inextricably mixed. . . . It is a pity that he should have chosen such a [slow] framework [as the present book] because he is still at his best when writing of nature.
The dust wrapper of the first edition, Macdonald, 1951, designed by James Broom Lynne:
|Panther, paperback, 1962; and back cover|
|Panther, paperback, 1970||Zenith, paperback, 1984|
|Macdonald, hardback, 1984||Sutton, paperback, 1994|