The Story of a Norfolk Farm - Critical reception



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Critical reception:


The Story of a Norfolk Farm attracted a large number of reviews; samples are given below.


Publishers’ Circle, 25 January 1941:


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Eastern Evening News, 29 January 1941:


When Henry Williamson uprooted himself from the West Country and came into North Norfolk to the new adventure of farming, he was no doubt aware that he had many difficulties before him. . . . Yet he is able to end with consciousness of a hard and often bitterly discouraging task surmounted, farm land put into good heart again, and a great deal learned in three uphill years.


Birmingham Post, 28 January 1941:


In this semi-autobiographical work Mr. Williamson pictures himself as a man who started farming without any practical knowledge. . . . The pose makes a useful background for a fascinating story of personal achievement. Coke, also of Norfolk [stated men can improve soil with hard work]. Many farmers have forgotten the lesson of Coke; Mr. Williamson has demonstrated . . . all the time he continued to drive his attractive pen as well as his tractor plough.


Here is an attractive book . . . a lively and illuminating searchlight on farming conditions in East Anglia. . . . and an urgent plea for reform. Mr. Williamson wants to see farming regenerated . . . [can only be achieved by discarding the old system].


Eastern Daily Press (Lilias Rider Haggard), 28 January 1941 (12½-inch column):


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This review was reprinted in Norfolk News & Weekly Press, 1 February 1941.


Catholic Herald (Peter Thompson), 28 January 1941 (the 4-column review is divided into two sets of two, so that they are legible when resized):


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Cavalcade, 1 February 1941 (15-inch column); it opens:


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[and continues:] . . . Told in the distinctive Williamson style, vigorously yet with sensitive feeling . . . Author Williamson makes an eloquent appeal for the land and its people. . . .


[But] in his emotional extravagance on the grandeur of life on the land he quite overlooks the fact that . . . he could not have become a successful farmer had he not been able to turn to the B.B.C. and the book market to wipe out the overdrafts and debts. [But surely he does make that clear?]


News Chronicle (Robert Lynd), 3 February 1941 (8½ inches of total 18-inch column covering 5 books):


Mr. Henry Williamson writer of the country with a fine energy of the imagination . . . that of a restless spirit. . . . Mr. Williamson loves the land and is its passionate advocate . . . There are opinions expressed in the book with which many will disagree . . . This hot enthusiasm which makes him wish to indulge in vehement controversy, is one of the qualities which increase his stature as a writer. This autobiography of an initiate farmer is a piece at once sensitive and of heroic literature.


Western Mail (Harold M. Dowling), 4 February 1941:


[Some preliminary waffle] . . . Here the subject matter is obviously of first-rate topical interest. Agriculture is not only in the news: it is getting into the minds of people. .. . Well, all of it is here, absorbingly interesting even to the townsman, because of the splendid way in which it has been told.


News Review, 6 February 1941 (20-inch column):


[Mostly this is a slightly mocking review of HW’s life: Tarka the Otter is ‘the life of a fascinating animal half-way between seal and weasel which plays up and down the rivers of England and lives on salmon and trout.’ The contents of The Story of a Norfolk Farm are similarly treated:]


The whole of British agriculture was suffering because money was being drained from the land, reinvested in competing countries, where labour was cheaper and the scale of living lower. As protest Williamson wrote audacious articles [e.g. against Argentinian beef] . . . indignation thrust the Nature-lover into politics, . . . he runs a passage by Fascist Sir Oswald Mosley on his title page and hopes to publish his missing chapter in ‘happier times. . .’


[The photograph of HW and dead Gilbert is reproduced and captioned:]




Norfolk Chronicle (‘H.J.M.’ ‒ H.J. Massingham, the well-known natural history writer), 7 or 8 February 1941 (16½-inch column):


[The reviewer, who styles himself a ‘Norfolk Dumpling’ was initially worried by the long preamble about HW’s Silver Eagle & in-laws, but when the book actually turns to farming, it:]


. . .truly recreates the atmosphere of life in that corner of Norfolk. [The Story of a Norfolk Farm] is a strong indictment of our farmers and farming system . . . Mr Williamson’s condemnation is based on facts which are well-known to all who have come into contact with agriculture. [and a paragraph is given to tithes]. The Story of a Norfolk Farm is the story of a courageous venture . . . with fine illustrations, [e.g.] ‘The Death of an Old Horse’ . . . The book is worthy of a place on any bookshelf.


Country Life (‘W.G.’), 8 February 1941 (21-inch column):





There is a vast and growing number of people resolved that the new structure of England shall rest on the foundation of a prosperous and contented countryside, knowing well that only thus can it be secure. [Covers the plight of agriculture over many years: ‘in 1870 the best farm-land in the world’. . .]


Mr. Henry Williamson [in the book] has thought upon all these things and written of them . . . [and acted upon them].


[The reviewer discusses various points within the book (finding too much that is not actual farming) admitting he does not know any other of HW’s books.]


What makes the book worth the writing and the reading, is the undoubted sincerity of its appeal for a restored countryside. We need all possible aid to realise these ideals; as he says ‘a nation neglecting its soil neglects its soul: its people will perish.’


Observer (Sir William Beach Thomas), 9 February 1941 (12-inch column):


[A long chatty lead-in paragraph on why HW ‘meditated a migration from Devon to Norfolk’. There is a great deal of padding in the review: the last (3-inch) paragraph gets down to the meat:]


The records of the purchase of the farm is interspersed with a good deal of autobiographical experiences of an earlier date; but happily those that refer to mental reactions during and after the last war . . . he has few inhibitions. . . .


[On a copy of this HW has written: ‘Badly written review, it tells reader little or nothing.']


East Anglian Daily Times, 10 February 1941 (5½-inch column):


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East Anglian Daily Times, 10 February 1941 (in the column ‘The Book Lounge’ by Lounger):


[When HW went to live in Stiffkey, East Anglians looked forward to an illumination on farming life in the tradition already lit by Doreen Wallace, Adrian Bell, and H. W. Freeman.]


They will not be disappointed. . . . [gives a succinct precis of salient background of HW’s struggles] . . . The Story, illustrated with unusual photographs, is told with gusto and with amusing sidelights on the author’s good-natured but feckless ‘in-laws’ the Cobbolds and on farming alarums and excursions in Norwich. And of course there is much about wild life in this stimulating book.


The Lady (Edith Shackleton), 13 February 1941 (10½-inch column):


How rare, how exhilarating, is the writer who can communicate his own excitement as Mr. Henry Williamson does . . . in practised and biting English . . . Mr. Williamson shouts, as Cobbold and Jefferies did before him, for a more complete English life, for the treatment of English soil as essential to that life. . . .


[Relates the dream-vision HW had ‘by a fire in the Barbarian club on the day he bought the farm’ and that a lot of this came true but by ‘what work and hardship, disappointment and discomfort!’]


However: we do put down this book with the conviction that to be a farmer is perhaps a lot more fun than being a farmer’s wife.


Punch, 12 February 1941 (Of course gets it all into a nutshell!):


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The Spectator (A. G. Street ‒ farmer turned author), 14 February 1941 (9 x 3½-inch column):


This is the story of an established writer who, of his own free will, chose to become a farmer. . . . [The author never trusted anyone and every incident is tainted with ill-temper.] The only people to come out of this with any credit are Mr. Williamson’s farm employees. . . . [Mr. Williamson should have listened to those who knew about farming but] Mr. Williamson preferred to take his own line. . . .


But [in spite of everything] the end of this book finds the Norfolk farm in much better shape . . . That in itself is no small achievement, and the manner of the accomplishment makes interesting reading. In consequence there is little doubt that town readers will look upon this book as a useful treatise on how to become a farmer, and no doubt at all that country ones will consider it a volume of detailed instructions on how not to accomplish the very same thing.


HW has written alongside the above review words to the effect that the reviewer seems jealous of someone else writing about ‘his’ subject! There is no doubt something in HW’s comment: for Street had rather been pipped at the post. Three weeks later his own book, Wessex Wins (Faber & Faber, 8s.6d), was reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement (6 March 1941):


Following upon the heels of Mr. Williamson’s story of the author turns farmer comes Mr. Street’s account of precisely the reverse process, and it is not unamusing to compare their methods of approach . . . This book tells the background and success of Farmer’s Glory and Strawberry Roan – and so Street delegated his farming to others and broadcast, televised, gave talks to group meetings of the Conservative Party (who were tolerant) and Baldwin (who wasn’t). He went on a lecture tour of Canada but on returning home had a nervous breakdown (his next book being his 13th – i.e. he was superstitious to extreme!). War broke out – and he realised he was in fact what he was condemning – an absentee farmer. So he returned to farming – his reward being:  ‘during the summer of 1940 Ditchampton Farm was placed in Class A. Thus Wessex wins.’


(I will repeat here that HW’s Norfolk Farm also achieved ‘A' status – and possibly under far more difficult conditions than Street encountered at that time.)


The Times Literary Supplement, 15 February 1941 (15½-inch column plus photograph); unsigned, as were all TLS reviews, but surely the same reviewer as Street’s book the previous week?





Mr. Henry Williamson, well known as author . . . found himself a few years ago impelled to become a farmer. It was the reaction of a generous minded man, who had fought in the last war . . . against the sense of aimlessness and frustration that has pervaded English life for the twenty years since the hollow peace had been declared.


[The reviewer likens (in elegantly amusing prose) HW’s purchase of the farm to falling in love with a seemingly totally unsuitable lady.]


Mr. Williamson makes a vivid story of getting the almost derelict farm into order, nothing is hidden, and nothing is set down in malice. . . .


The account of the first year of trial and error makes sorrowful reading from a technical point of view: what is in evidence is the writer’s buoyancy and determination. There is something typically English about the whole enterprise: Mr. Williamson entered upon it from pure romanticism, the gleam of a great purpose had been vouchsafed to him.


[Then a paragraph about ‘white bread’ – which HW denigrated, but the reviewer points out people buy by choice! But HW’s ‘emotional approach’ led him into politics: the slump in barley prices led to farmers’ meetings and a march on London.]


But as he tells us, politics have been excised from his book in deference to the present situation, we may guess that they would have been full-flavoured and out for direct action. These are the qualities that give the charm to his book . . . he makes us share in his delight in the changing seasons, in the humanity of his helpers and in the response of the land to his efforts. [Quotes from the epigraph chapter.] . . .


Determined, dared, and done.


Liverpool Daily Post (‘A.M.A.’), 1 February 1941:


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Public Opinion, 21 February 1941 (whole page, unsigned):


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[Then quotes the walk around the farm with the valuer.]


Mr. Williamson’s book certainly shows ‘something attempted, something done’ . . . readers will be delighted that the farm does pay its way.


New Statesman & Nation (Geoffrey Trease), 22 February 1941 (17-inch column):


Mr. Williamson possesses the two qualities, not over-frequent in combination, of high sensitivity and courage. The former was immediately revealed in his earliest writings: the latter is displayed on almost every page of this new book, from the Oswald Mosley quotation beneath the title, with which he defiantly nails his colours to the mast, to the declaration of faith on the final page. [Quotes end paragraph.] The intervening four hundred pages tell why, and how, he turned to the plow in the first instance. . . .


[He could have remained the writer of fine prose about wild-life but] . . .


Like his friend, T. E. Lawrence, Mr. Williamson feels he is unusual and craves desperately . . . to achieve normality. . . . So, heroically he becomes a farmer. . . .


The book tells how he discovered the farm, neglected and fit for nothing but shooting . . . today [he] can show a prosperous farm . . . [but he gives too much detail of accounts and legal matters – and a pity the publishers cut out any controversy].


His style is plainer than usual . . . There is the usual intense sincerity . . . and always the abiding impression of courage – the courage of a man who realized that a living artist must never doze in the niche of fame which he has carved . . .


Irish Independent (‘T.O.H.’), 26 February 1941; the review title is a nod perhaps to Richard Jefferies’ The Amateur Poacher?




[There have been a spate of ‘ploughshare narratives in recent years’ . . .]


The Story of a Norfolk Farm . . . is the story of a struggle and a success against depressing odds. A passionate lover of the land and the lost glories and customs of the English countryside . . .


Western Daily Press (‘Man O’Mendip’), 27 February 1941 (about 32-inch column)




[Written in fairly boisterous style – jollying his readers along: the first 8 inches are fairly amusing nonsense (but establish his credentials to write on farming) – ending:]


. . .read Henry Williamson’s latest and get an idea of the work involved.


[The reviewer has fellow-feeling for HW:]


Apart from the absorbing descriptions of farming routine the book is full of sound thought . . . tells with a pleasing frankness of many of his difficulties and with zest how he overcame them. . . . I think it would have pleased Coke of Holkham and Turnip Townsend who lived in the neighbourhood.


[The reviewer agrees with HW about the total folly of lack of investment in agriculture by the nation (government).]


Hampstead News (Fred Hyman), date unreadable:




Another aspect of the home front, the life and struggle of the country people: . . . the author fought in the last war and became a professional writer . . . tiring of city life [?!] he bought a derelict Norfolk Farm . . . One of the most absorbing passages in the book is his attempt to get into politics during the slump of 1938. His description of the countryman’s struggle to keep his head above water against the competition of cheap foreign grain is bitterly Satyrical.


[An interesting take on ‘satirical’.]


Church Times, 28 February 1941 (13-inch column); interestingly perceptive:


This story is the record of a sudden conversion . . . [from writer to farmer] . . . [and of hard work].


Bulking large among the fundamental causes was without question the desire to do something to convert the national outlook on agriculture. . . . In a sense it is the story of Tarka and Salar over again and is written with equal perception, sensitiveness, imagination, and simplicity. [But not an otter or a salmon ‒] they are a man who would be a farmer.


Montrose Review, 28 February 1941 (6½-inch column):


. . . Mr Williamson farmed by day and wrote by night, and almost inevitably became mixed up with politics . . . [and ends by quoting the last passages of the book] . . .


It is an important book, alike for the literary value as for the record of a notable experiment.


Current Literature (‘Tragos’), February 1941 (10-inch column):


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Books of Today (‘Mark’), March 1941 (14½ x 3¼-inch column); an extraordinarily enthusiastic yet erudite piece:


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British Weekly, 6 March 1941; the review is signed ‘A.R.T.’, against which HW has written: ‘Thank you, dear A. (Rosebud) T.’ ‒ i.e. Ann Thomas. Recollect the problems between these two at that time:


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The Weekly Review (Lord Lymington), 6 March 1941 (10½ x 3½-inch column – but largish font size); a rather pedantic, semi-psychological review. Lymington was very right-wing and heavily involved in the Organic Movement:


This book is a not ignoble record of struggle which fairly demonstrates the schizophrenia under which our civilization labours.


[The reviewer finds the author is often irritatingly naive and subjective – but:]


. . . this is a book to be marked and learned . . . There are many excellent incidental things: [pen portrait of Bob, the steward] – a passionate love of the countryside – a moving but irrelevant memory of the Christmas Truce and in the end – ‘expressed in the English way’.


The Scotsman, 8 March 1941 (8-inch column); a fairly standard review and synopsis; the last paragraph reads:


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John O’London (H. E. Bates), 7 March 1941 (14-inch column):


(H. E. Bates, 1906-74, was a prolific writer of popular books, many dramatised for TV, notably Fair Stood the Wind for France (1944), The Jacaranda Tree (1949), and The Darling Buds of May (1958). His review here is very grudging and denigrating. HW has written against a copy: ‘This is a very queer review by a country writer of note who seems to be angry with a possible “rival”. He thus couples Bates with the earlier note written against the review by A. G. Street.) The review is headed:


Henry Williamson – Farmer


[The last paragraph sums up the whole:]


In this way The Story of a Norfolk Farm succeeds in being a markedly contradictory affair: energetic but slipshod, well-intentioned but ill-tempered, argumentative but irrational, racy but lazy, readable but skippable. And the hero is, of course, not the farm, or agriculture, or England old and new, but Mr. Williamson itself.


Oxford Mail, 10 March 1941:


. . . written in that vivid prose his admirers know so well and in a fever of indignation against the present system of ‘price-cutting (etc.)’ the book is an absorbing and inspiring chronicle.


Apart from the political aspect on which Mr. Williamson feels and writes so strongly and with so much common sense . . . this is a book which will appeal to all who love the land. . . .


East Anglian Daily Times, 12 March 1941:


Not a review of the book, but ‘Notes About’, in this case the Spring Issue of The Countryman which had printed contributions to a symposium on ‘The Rural School – ‘rural education needs a rural basis’ – including pieces from Adrian Bell, H. W. Freeman, S. L. Bensusan, and HW – all well-known local authors. An interesting side-light on authorial activity! Unfortunately no copy of the original item is in the archive.


The Listener, 13 March 1941 (5½-inch column):


A fairly straightforward appraisal which ends noting that the stated omitted material ‘would have taken the form of support for Sir Oswald Mosley’.


Nature (E. J. Russell), 22 March 1941 (14 x 3-inch column); the reviewer is Sir John Russell, 1872-1965, distinguished agricultural scientist, and much involved in the ‘Organic Movement’ – for whose book English Farming HW had written an Introduction:


. . . All this [the buying of a derelict farm in Norfolk and its problems] and much more is set out vividly by Mr. Williamson. From the outset he was under no illusions as to the magnitude of the task he had undertaken . . . Much of the book is autobiographical . . . He gives sufficient technical detail for the agriculturalist without tiring the general reader. He has much to say about the barley crop of 1938, one of the best of our time . . . but the price nearly the worst . . .


The book will be read with interest by all who think they would like a farmer’s life . . . it shows the trials the beginner encounters and the satisfaction in overcoming them.


Time and Tide (Paul Bloomfield), 22 March 1941 (14-inch column):


Men and Books — Blood and Land


[‘Blood’ being Temperate Zone by Nancy Johnstone (Faber & Faber, 7s. 6d.); Land’ being The Story of a Norfolk Farm . . . 12 of the 14 inches are devoted to ‘Blood’ comparing Temperate Zone to D. H. Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent in a clever intellectual argument. The remaining 2 inches are given to HW:]


It is an interesting realistic book giving many details of the author’s experiment.


[But Mr Bloomfield is still busy with his clever intellectualism, and one of the two inches quotes four lines of a French poem (not attributed, but it reads like one of Paul Verlaine’s – or maybe Leconte de Lisle) about nature nourishing hunger and thirst. HW wrote a rude word next to this: I’m afraid for once I have broken my cardinal rule – and tippexed it out!]


The Bookseller (John Hadfield), 3 April 1941 (a total of 2 pages):


In the spring a reader’s fancy . . .

From a broadcast talk in the series ‘What I am Reading Now’


[Hadfield saunters in his chatty confiding manner through spring days in general and the books brought to mind – The Story of a Norfolk Farm among them. He doesn’t say anything new but he does sum the whole concept up rather nicely:]


I dare say you remember his Tarka the Otter and Salar the Salmon. This new book of his tells how an author, knowing precious little about farming, bought a weed-ridden, neglected farm in Norfolk, and in three years, by sheer hard work and determination, put the heart back into the land and made the farm prosper. Henry Williamson is a queer card – he says so himself. But he doesn’t lack imagination and he doesn’t lack courage.






Let’s end with a wider look at the literary world of war-torn 1941:


The Scotsman, 27 March1941:


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