It Was The Nightingale - Critical reception



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Critical reception:



The file of reviews for It was the Nightingale is devoid of ‘mainstream’ items. HW’s diary reveals that he was very worried by a lack of reviews in the Sunday national newspapers.

Home and Gardens (Celia Dale), date unreadable but probably January 1963:

A Sense of Communion


In ‘It Was the Nightingale’ (Macdonald, 18s.) Henry Williamson pursues the life of his troubled hero, Phillip Maddison, through his poignantly happy, pathetically brief first marriage to his second, less rapturous but promising equal riches.


Phillip is a writer, and throughout his encounters with family, friends and lovers, this is what forms the essential nature of the man; this and the eternal, harrowing awareness of the dead – his young wife, his loved cousin Willie and, always, the soldiers of the first war. The sense of inescapable obligation which haunts Mr. Williamson’s chronicle of a man of that period is impressive. It does not depress, for it is not so much an awareness of ghosts as a sense of oneness with the dead who have been loved, a sense of communion as well as loss.


. . . in this season when Book Tokens are apt to be lying about in tempting invitation it might be no bad thing to use one or two of them to catch up on a literary series [A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight] whose full stature is, I think, perceived cumulatively, not by the reading of a single volume.


Northern Echo (Darlington) (W.J.N.), 28 September 1962; reviews briefly William Faulkner, The Reivers; Ian Brook, The Black List; HW, It Was The Nightingale; Henry Cecil, Unlawful Occasions:


Henry Williamson continues his ‘Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight’: . . . [three-phrase précis] . . . The Devon voices come through the total recall particularly well.


Bridlington Free Press, 2 November 1962:


Readers of this author’s animal saga “Tarka the Otter” will welcome from Mr. Williamson’s pen another novel, the tenth . . . in which, again, an otter has an important role.


. . . Phillip’s dedicated search [for the lost otter] becomes, almost, symbolic of his search for the happiness he has lost.

This is a mature and faithful portrait in the novel form, evocative in mood and manner of country lore and believable people in the fading era of the 1920s.


Evening Times Glasgow, 5 November 1962; includes reviews of Paul Brickhill, The Decline and Nicholas Monsarrat, The White Rajah – neither rated very highly:


It Was the Nightingale . . . tenth . . . takes up the story of budding author Phillip Maddison as he returns from the First World War and marries his beloved Barley. Their idyllic life is shattered when Barley dies in childbirth and Phillip has to struggle to come to terms with his grief, his future, and his baby son.


Vanity Fair, November 1962; twelve 4-line reviews, HW heading the list of a rather mundane selection, half of which were to do with antiques and cookery:


. . . the story of how a young widower, hunting for the pet otter which belonged to his wife, finds courage and the hope of a new life. Set in the West Country, the animal theme is handled with mastery.


Books of the Month, November 1962; a short and mundane review:


Phillip is left . . . and a life that has lost all joy, meaning and purpose. . . . his life is dedicated to a continual search for the [lost otter]. . . .


Countryman, (Ronald Blythe), Winter 1962; Blythe is the well-known Suffolk writer who became famous for Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village (Allen Lane, 1969). Blythe shows here a sensitive percipience into HW’s purpose.


The unique poignancy of World War One can never be entirely felt by those who were not involved in that still incredible tragedy, but now and then some hint of the solitude experienced by those young men who found themselves still alive in 1919 reaches us, cutting through all the rodomontade of peace. [The word means bragging or boastful.] The hero of IT WAS THE NIGHTINGALE revisits the Somme in 1924 and sees the leaves and flowers massing to hide the lacerated fields, the wire and rust, and the rough hummocks of the dead. It is a hushed decade for Phillip Maddison, alias Henry Williamson, for eight million youthful tongues have been silenced. Contemplatively he leaves France for Devon, marriage, Tarka – here called Lutra – and the beginning of his literary career. The vocation of time and place is remarkable, occasionally almost unbearable. How subtly different was life in Devon only thirty years ago!


In 1963 Blythe published The Age of Illusion, a social history of England between the two world wars – so he would have been particularly aware of the import of HW’s novel.


Irish Times (Rivers Carew), 3 November 1962; two thirds of this column is devoted to a novel about St Francis of Assisi by Nikos Kazantzakis – himself apparently a St Francis-type figure. HW gets most of the remaining third, with an added brief mention of Henry Cecil, Unlawful Occasions, and a scathing comment on Pearl Buck’s new novel – who had ‘won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. Alas poor Pearl’. The reviewer confesses that he had not known that:


Henry Williamson wrote anything but nature stories. . . . [plot outline] . . . The book has no sensational qualities, but for all that it holds the attention in no uncertain manner, and the handling of the narrative is unobtrusively excellent.


North Devon Journal & Herald (Alfred E. Blackwell), 18 November 1962:



Williamson adds to his saga


Mr. Williamson’s heart is in North Devon which, of course, figures largely in his writings . . . [mention of Tarka the Otter, The Pathway and the setting of the latter, and the background to Willie, leading on to his cousin Phillip] . . . with whom so many admirers of this great West Country writer have become acquainted in the books which form the ‘Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight’.


In ‘It Was the Nightingale’ (how many readers will recognise, at first hearing, the quotation from Romeo and Juliet?) Mr. Williamson covers the post (first) war period. . . . [synopsis of plot – dwelling on the otter aspect] . . . Here speaks the true Henry Williamson with his capacity for giving such scenes their true perspective in a novel dealing with so many aspects of human and animal life.


Especially telling are the emotions conjured up by description of the hero’s visits to the battlefields for the first world war, the sense of change which he finds to have overtaken great areas of northern France [and its battlefields].


The fine prose powers which characterise the author’s writings are as evident and vibrant here as in any of his works.


Express & Echo (a West Country newspaper), 28 September 1962; ‘Westcountry Bookshelf’, which covers several local books including two by E. W. Martin, ‘the Devon social historian’ (and friend of HW), and a new love-story from R. F. Delderfield. The whole column is headed:




Although several new books by West Country authors on subjects of particular interest to local readers have been published this month, there is little doubt which is the most important and the most rewarding, writes BOOKMAN.


With the appearance of “It Was The Nightingale” Henry Williamson has now published ten volumes in his Phillip Maddison odyssey: a great work in conception and in achievement.


This new novel is set mostly in Devon, the county whence Henry Williamson himself migrated over 40 years ago after his unforgettable experiences on the battlefields of France.


The previous volume, “The Innocent Moon”, concluded with Phillip Maddison’s marriage to Barley at the beginning of 1924. His happiness with his young bride ends a year later when she dies after giving birth to a baby boy. Phillip’s subsequent search for her pet otter among the rivers and moors of Devon and his pilgrimage to the battlefields of his youth provide some memorable writing. The book ends with the promise of new happiness with his second marriage to Lucy Coplestone.


Several new characters enter the story and many reappear who are already familiar to readers of earlier novels in the sequence. They range from London literary folk to Devon villagers and in Lucy’s father and three brothers we have one of the most delightful families I have ever come across in the pages of fiction.


The Phillip Maddison story, as I have mentioned before in reviewing an earlier volume, is partly biographical – to a degree only the author himself knows.


It is a work which I believe will stand the test of time and be regarded as one of the important literary efforts of our age.


This was accompanied by a photograph:

nightingale review





The 1965 Panther paperback edition got considerable coverage, although only as short mentions within lists of other current paperbacks; but several managed to give the ‘flavour’ of the book. To quote a selection:


Northern Dispatch, 29 October 1965:


A very much alive story of a man’s search for love among the ghosts of tragedy and war.


Rochdale Observer; Blackley Guardian; Rossendale Free Press (syndicated), 29 October 1965:


A masterly evocation of the disillusionment of the 1920s.


The Observer, 31 October 1965:


Ex-officer Phillip Massinger [sic] searches for love and security after the emotional crises of the Great War and the loss of his adored young wife. Gently written, image-laden evocative of a restless age.


Express and Echo (West Country), 25 November 1965:


Another stage is reached in Henry Williamson’s vast series . . .


Yorkshire Evening Post, 30 December 1965:


A paperback edition of a popular novel by Henry Williamson.


This list also has a few words about Le Feu, by Henri Barbusse:


A classic by a Frenchman about trench warfare in the 1914-18 war. It won the Prix de Goncourt.


Sheffield Telegraph, 2 October 1965:

. . . weaves a brittle period tapestry of post Great War desolation round a man trying to re-establish his life in an alien world.


Eastern Daily Press (G.R.), 11 October 1965; coming after a note on a biography of Stirling Moss, it continues thus:


Not without its own share of danger is Siegfried Sassoon’s classic MEMOIRS OF AN INFANTRY OFFICER with its burden of disenchantment from the first world war.


Henry Williamson’s Novel


In fiction, one of the Phillip Maddison books by Henry Williamson (formerly of Stiffkey) also shares the bitterness of the Kaiser’s war. IT WAS A NIGHTINGALE is set in the early twenties when everyone seemed bent on forgetting the unforgettable.



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