Sewell

 

 

Other essays and reviews by Fr Brocard Sewell:

 

Facing the Spectres of the Mind (review, 1960)

 

Henry Williamson (1961)

 

The Power of the Dead (review, 1963)

 

Some Thoughts on The Flax of Dream (1965)

 

For further information about Fr Brocard Sewell, The Aylesford Review and Henry Williamson, see Anne Williamson's consideration of In the Woods (St Albert's Press, 1960).

 

 

Some Memories of H.W.

 

 

Fr Brocard Sewell, O. Carm.

 

 

In September 1957 the editor of The Aylesford Review, a literary and theological quarterly published by the Carmelite Order, invited Henry Williamson to contribute to a forthcoming issue of the magazine which was to contain articles on Williamson and his writings. In his reply, dated 15 September, he said: 'I think I could do an article as you wish: on the theme, which underlies my writing now, that God is love is honour is duty and self-sacrifice: and lovelessness is the lack of those invisible and spiritual motivations of life. In my new novel I hoped people would see that war, massed lovelessness, was of less importance to the individual than the search for that which man must have if he is not to perish.' In the late autumn the Henry Williamson number of The Aylesford Review appeared,1 with articles by William Gore Allen, Malcolm Elwin, and John Middleton Murray, together with Williamson's 'Some Notes on The Flax of Dream and A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight'. At that time the Review was being printed at St Albert's Press, the private press of the Carmelite Fathers at Aylesford; but in 1959 the press was moved to Llandeilo, in Camarthenshire, where the Order then had a house of studies. That summer Henry paid a short visit to the Carmelites at Llandeilo, and while he was staying there he read to them one evening his lecture on Some Nature Writers and Civilization,2 which earlier in the year he had given, as the Wedmore Memorial Lecture, to the Royal Society of Literature. The audience on that occasion had been deeply moved by the speaker's concluding words. I find them no less moving today as I read them in the quiet of my friar's cell, and recall the lecturer's gentle voice. They seem to express the essence of Henry's faith in the possibility of a better life for men and women after the horrors and sufferings of two world wars.

 

I write these words after our North Devon Festival week, and particularly a night spent among boys and girls listening to and living joyfully in the rhythms of Humphrey Lyttleton's band in the Queen's Hall at Barnstaple. There was a shimmer of life in the hall; hundreds of happy faces below the platform, eagerly watching, happily listening, gently swaying; and there was tenderness, too, among the young people, as pony-tailed heads were gently stroked within protecting arms of teen-age boys. I thought of linnets among the gorse in bloom upon the Sussex Downs, almost dreamily uttering their gentle notes in the south wind; I thought, too, that one of the alternative titles of Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover was Tenderness. And it seemed to me with my own memories of such poverty seen among less fortunate people in my boyhood and early youth – of young children with almost old faces prematurely set to misery – the faces which Jefferies had seen in the slums of Swindon – it seemed to me that now the age of so-called 'idleness', or leisure to relax, was a possibility: and that possibility was in part due to two wars after which, despite all, the slums had begun to die. And that the 'near-madness' of the fully articulate of one age can sometimes be sanity and clear-sightedness to the next.

 

But we must not condemn those who do not perceive so quickly as the visionaries, for it is only a question of time; and in the words of Jefferies, 'Now is eternity; now is the immortal life.'

 

Williamson became a generous contributor to The Aylesford Review, for which he wrote articles and book reviews, always refusing payment. A number of letters from him appeared in the magazine's correspondence columns. Some of these contributions were signed simply with the initials H.W.; one book review, a full length article, appeared over the pseudonym 'Green Jacket'.3 The reason for the pseudonym will be clear to anyone who reads the article. The Aylesford Review's circulation never exceeded five hundred copies, and was usually below that figure. By 1960 it was in financial difficulties because of a heavy increase in printing costs. To help it, Henry generously offered to allow St Albert's Press to print and publish in a limited edition a chapter from his unpublished autobiographical writings. The result was a small book, In the Woods, which was issued in an edition of one thousand numbered copies, of which fifty were printed on special paper and signed by the author. All profits from the book's sale went to The Aylesford Review, the author forgoing royalties. This was typical of Henry's generosity. (The episode recorded in In the Woods will be found treated in fictionalized form in his novel Lucifer Before Sunrise.)

 

In 1961 the magazine was again being published from Aylesford. Henry then became a frequent visitor to the priory, where he met a number of the younger Aylesford Review writers and artists, who often spent weekends at the priory guesthouse. Henry fitted into this group like a kind of elder brother. It included Frances Horovitz, actress and poet; Jane Percival, a painter from the Royal College of Art; Nicola Wood, an RCA-trained textiles designer; Michael Hastings, playwright and novelist; Michael Horovitz, poet and translator; Oswald Jones, photographer; and Penelope Shuttle, who had just published her first novel, An Excusable Vengeance. A Little later Henry introduced to the group Ann Quin, whose first novel, Berg, had been causing something of a sensation. Henry had recognized her talent, though it was quite alien to his own. In a letter of May 1964 he says: 'Berg I regard as an innocent allegory or moral tale sprung from an impulse similar to that which impelled Hardy's phrase, "If way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst." . . . At the end of this morality play, decorated by the familiar and nowadays fairly innocent four-letter words (as indeed used now and again in private living), it all begins over again: the characters are as they were. Grace had not yet come . . . Superficially, Berg is a sordid story. But it more than repays study. Beneath the "illusion" of its reality one perceives a talent of rarity and grace.'

 

These weekends among his friends at Aylesford were happy times for Henry. In July 1963 he sent this message, on a postcard from Cefalù, in Sicily:

 

I did enjoy my visit to Aylesford last Sunday, among the friends.

 

Here, too, a holy building is being restored,4 part of the modern European Renaissance. Building, building, everywhere, from Palermo to the Costa Brava. The Aylesford Review is part of that renaissance – the widening of life can only widen, & clarify, the essential Truth, which is conveyed by poetic images, symbols, and creative work. Lux fiat.

 

Many thanks,

 

Henry

 

Soon after Henry's death a writer in the correspondence columns of a Sunday newspaper said that Henry was jealous of younger writers, and never helped them; and that he never acknowledged the help that he received himself when a young and struggling writer. This writer showed little knowledge either of Henry Williamson or his writings. Henry was not without human faults and failings; he could be touchy; sometimes over quite imaginary, or certainly unintended, slights. A number of his friendships ended sadly because of this over-sensitivity. But to the young he was invariably helpful and encouraging, often in very practical ways. If he saw talent, he was quick to advance it. In the late 1940s, when he was editing The Adelphi, which he had taken over from Middleton Murry, he published work by a number of unknown, or as yet little known, writers: among them Charles Causley, James Farrar, and Ruth Tomalin. In 1960 he helped to find a publisher for the war letters of Lance Corporal Robson,5 who was killed in North Africa in 1945. In his introduction to this book he said that he believed that Letters from a Soldier would take its place among the very best of the hundreds of war books that he had on his shelves. He was no less generous to his own contemporaries, and never tired of affirming the excellence of two novels of the first world war: Wilfrid Ewart's Way of Revelation and Victor Yeates's Winged Victory. In Williamson's autobiographical writings there are many grateful references to the men who helped and encouraged him when he was young: Edward Garnett, Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, J. D. Beresford, Beverley Baxter – who published his early nature articles in the Daily Express – and Constant Huntington (of Putnam's).

 

In June 1964 The Aylesford Review held a literary conference at Spode House, the Dominican retreat house and conference centre in the grounds of Hawkesyard Priory, in Staffordshire. About fifty people came, and Henry spoke on Richard Jefferies and W. H. Hudson. Other speakers were Colin Wilson, Laura Del Rivo (a young writer who had just published an elegantly written first novel, The Furnished Room), and Alan Neame, a fellow-contributor with Henry to The European,6 who spoke on problems of biblical translation. This was a very successful weekend, not least from a social point of view. In a postscript to a letter written on June 20 Henry said: 'I loved Spode visit. It was a jolly fine party, the best literary one I've ever attended.' This was the first of a series of such Whitsuntide meetings at Spode House, and Henry came to a number of them.

 

In May 1965 he presented to the University of Exeter a large selection of the manuscripts of his books and other writings. The question of the ultimate destination of these manuscripts had been worrying him for some time. They were of considerable value, and could have been sold for a very large sum to the Humanities Research Centre at Austin, Texas, or to some other American university foundation. In the end he decided to give them to Exeter University, so as to keep them in the country where they had been written, which was the setting for many of his tales and novels. The presentation took place on the afternoon of Friday May 14 in the lecture hall of the university's Washington Singer Laboratories. At the beginning, a slightly incongruous note, which Henry seemed to enjoy, was struck by the late arrival of the Vice--Chancellor, who said, after apologising for the delay, that as a man of science he was not well versed in literary matters, and did not know a great deal about Henry Williamson. There followed three twenty-minute talks on Henry Williamson and his work,7 and then came the formal presentation of the manuscripts, and their acceptance by the Vice-Chancellor on behalf of the University. After the presentation the guests attended a sherry party given by the Vice-Chancellor in honour of the occasion. It was a crowded affair, for in addition to Henry's family and friends, and members of the University, there was present a large contingent of members of the West Country Writers' Association, who were in Exeter for their annual reunion. Originally Henry had expected about 150 people, but in the event there were nearer three hundred. In the evening he gave a dinner party at the Royal Clarence Hotel for his family, friends, and some senior members of the University, in all about sixty people.

 

At Whitsun 1968 Henry attended a conference on 'The Restoration' at Spode House. A lecture by Mr Donald Bruce on Thomas Shadwell, the 'Orange Laureate', was followed by a reading of Shadwell's comedy The Sullen Lovers. Henry had been offered any part that he might care to take. Modestly, he chose the minor role of A Country Gentleman ('A Grave ill-bred Coxcombe, that never speaks without a Proverb').

 

1969 was the year of the publication of The Gale of the World, the fifteenth and last novel in Henry's Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, and it had been decided that this event should be celebrated at Spode House in some appropriate way. On the last evening of the conference, which had heard papers on the life and work of Pope Felix V, Frederick William Rolfe, Father Ignatius of Llanthony, and Eric Gill, Mr Dennis McWilliams spoke on 'The Works of Henry Williamson', after which there followed a short recorded talk on Williamson by one of his former secretaries, Kerstin Hegarty, who was unable to be present herself. Mr Trevor Hold then read his poem 'Ancient Sunlight'.

 

ANCIENT SUNLIGHT

for Henry Williamson

 

(NOTE: the hay which was used to build up the funeral effigy of Henry VII after his death in 1509 was analysed a few years ago and found to contain, besides straw, the dried remains of common vetch, hairy tare, lesser knapweed, selfheal, broad-leaved dock, buttercup, cow parsnip and three types of grass.)

 

Through the glass of Time, discoloured with

The dust of centuries, the sun still shines,

Preserved within this dead king's effigy.

It's fire has gone: it is no longer bright

But parchment-ochre, cracked with age,

Yet it illuminates, like specks in its shaft,

Fields as beautiful with their flowers and grasses

Thrusting upwards to the ancient sunlight

In all the eagerness of that year's spring,

As those in which I walk today.

 

Finally, at about 10 p.m., Henry was presented with a cake bearing fifteen lighted candles, and his health was drunk with acclamation.

 

Lecturing in front of Henry Williamson could be an ordeal. He was not good at concealing boredom, and sometimes he could not resist the temptation to enliven the proceedings for those sitting near him – he rarely sat near the front – with humorous sotto voce comments. Or, pen in hand, he would compose ribald verses, with farcical illustrations, which made it very difficult for those sitting near him to contain their amusement. He had a kind of friendly mocking humour that was peculiarly his own. In 1966 The Aylesford Review published a special Aubrey Beardsley number, to coincide with the Aubrey Beardsley Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. There were two articles on the exhibition, one on Beardsley and the Savoy magazine, and one on 'The 1890s and after in France'. There were several illustrations, from drawings by Aubrey Beardsley. Henry sent this comment, on a postcard dated 14 October:

 

An excellent number, the Autumn Review. Aubrey Beardsley by Robert Booth most interesting and 'full of meat'. And dear Jane Percival's Notes on the Exhibition follows, to complement it. What a love that girl is. And a new writer, hitherto unknown to me, 'Brock' Sewell, the well-known badger-digger (an actor, I'm told, the original 'Man in Black' at Tinsley's Old Music Hall in 1889, father of Marie Lloyd), is a good new art critic. The drawings by Osgood J. Jones are really wonderful pastiche, exactly reproducing the period of the decadent nineties. But we want to know more about the Savoy Hotel. Mr. McClellan's article takes away the taste nicely.

 

The last conference that Henry attended at Spode House was in May 1970. He always enjoyed these occasions, and his presence was looked forward to and much appreciated. On the Sunday afternoon he would usually take three or four friends with him and drive over to Cannock Chase for an hour or two's walk. His companions on these excursions benefited from his keen observation and minute knowledge of the countryside and all its plants, birds, insects, and animals. After three years' absence, he had hoped to come again in 1974, for the celebration of G. K. Chesterton's centenary, and in 1975, to speak on Francis Thompson. But when the time came, he was unable to be there. He had always seemed to be immune from the restrictions of age, but quite suddenly they caught up with him. Long journeys by road or rail were no longer possible; they had become too tiring. As early as 1972 he seems to have sensed that his life was drawing to a close. In a letter written in May of that year he said:

 

. . . I think of Belloc – and of Chesterton – with both of whom I had an acquaintance, in the grand days of my youth – being recognised, and accepted, is a serious and delightful and aweful thing in youth. Can this they praise, be me? Verily, the consort of God's genes in a man can make him feel small, and humble . . . and aware of the truth of Creation – indeed, one would dare to say, of the Creator—. It is the eve of June, and I sit here in a summer eve of yellow, and muse; because the evening is quiet, light. And I feel I must write to you . . . Those lovely times at Aylesford – and at Spode – and there was magic there – a glimpse of the Magic – and then we must go, and enter a penumbral shade, if not a little darkness: for once again, after the immortal moments, we are but creatures leaving behind us a memory of the soul of a gathering of men and women made gentle under the kindly eyes of those who had seen God . . .

 

Enough of me. Sincerely I grieve, in the twilit room, for absent and lost friends, some in death's dateless night – the Pragger-Wagger has just passed over, HRH the Prince of Wales.8  He was such a dear boy, and man. I heard from a connexion of mine, Sir Frank Colyer, who was a jaw specialist, and attended George V. This is my only connexion with Royalty; but not the only connexion with Loyalty . . .

 

Loyalty was one of Henry's most conspicuous virtues. It is eminently a soldier's virtue, and Henry was an old soldier. Loyalty is always to be admired, even if is felt to be misplaced. Those who voted to deny Henry Williamson the academic recognition that should have been his ought to have remembered that. In a letter of September 1974 Henry said: 'I know my own peers – Masefield O.M. who said to me "You have written more classics than any man alive." Galsworthy O.M. concurred.' The man who had been honoured with such praise was not much disturbed by the impercipience of Academe.

 

Henry was often depressed, but usually the source of depression was near-exhaustion. Perfectionist that he was, the writing of each new book was a kind of agonizing battle, that often had to be fought through several times. Tarka the Otter was rewritten no less than seventeen times. The Gale of the World, his last major book, was almost completely rewritten after it had reached the galley-proof stage. And after that, the first three hundred printed and bound copies were pulped, so as to allow of further corrections and revisions. Henry was fortunate indeed in the publishers, Macdonald and Co. Ltd, who backed the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight when other firms had not the courage. He would often speak with admiring affection of Eric Harvey, the managing director of Purnell's, Macdonald's controlling company: 'A grand chap, a superb organiser of that £15 million group starting with £50 sergeant's gratuity (his father) at Taunton in 1919.'

 

His constant journeys to and from Bristol and London, for BBC radio and television programmes and other affairs, family problems, worries over the filming of Tarka, and numerous other demands on his time and energies, added to Henry's growing fatigue. At home, the hard work that he put in at the Field, keeping everything tidy, and tending his vegetable garden and small orchard, kept him fit; but the ever-pressing burden of his correspondence and his business affairs, on top of the strain of constant writing and rewriting, was another matter. In a letter of March 1969 he wrote: 'So here one is back at paper paper paper – letters, letters . . . I am overworked and have 2000 letters unanswered . . .9 The Chronicle is finished, It has left one empty and ALONE. And devastated. I am 73 and weary.' These moods would pass; and he was always happy among friends.

 

Henry was sustained in his life's work, against all failures, disappointments, mistakes, and misunderstandings, by his faith: faith that one day men would live peaceably together, 'under the fostering hand of the Creator', seeing clearly, in Richard Jefferies's 'ancient sunlight', that all are God's children and must live together in harmony. His novels were written to help us to see how wrong thought distorts the whole of human life, and sets us at variance with each other. Change thought and you change the world. Christ saw all things clearly, and we must learn from him to do the same. Henry's belief was more intuitive than dogmatic. He was not a great churchgoer. But he had a deep attachment to and respect for his own church, the Church of England. This can be seen in some of his Devon tales, and in his early novel The Pathway, in which the hero, the ex-officer Willie Maddison, gives vent to blistering denunciations of the hypocrisy of church-people, but is on good terms with the vicar, Mr Garside, who is sympathetically portrayed.

 

An intriguing figure in A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight is Father Aloysius, an ex-Army chaplain who belongs to an order of 'Laurentian' friars, of whch he appears to be the only member. He is an admirable man, and seems to be modelled in part on a chaplain (possibly more than one chaplain) who Henry had encountered in the first war. Could he have met in the trenches Father Benedict Williamson, who had refounded the extinct male branch of the Brigittine Order, but remained himself the only member since he never succeeded in keeping any of the novices who came to him? In an essay on 'Reality in War Literature'10 Henry praises 'Happy Days' in France and Flanders, the war memoirs of Benedict Williamson, whom he describes as 'a popular and beloved padre'. This sounds rather as if these two Williamsons, who as far as I know were not related to each other, had met.

 

In a long article which he contributed to The Aylesford Review in 196911 Mr Georger D. Painter said that 'The basic truth of the Church has rarely been expressed more beautifully, or more acceptably to those who remain outside the Church, than by the words of Father Aloysius, in The Golden Virgin, to Lieutenant Maddison discovered wounded on the Somme: "The Virgin and the Child is not a symbol of what should be, but of what is, Phillip".' In a letter of May 1959 Henry said that he intended to ask the BBC if he could give a radio talk on 'Father Aloysius'; but nothing seems to have come of this.

 

Williamson had many Catholic friends. Probably the closest of them was the historian and satirist Dominic Bevan Wyndham Lewis. Another was J. B. Morton, Wyndham Lewis's sucessor as 'Beachcomber' in the Daily Express. Henry's admiration for the poet Francis Thompson is well known. As a young man, in the early 1920s, Henry paid some visits to the Meynell family, at Greatham, in Sussex; he was proud to have known Wilfrid Meynell, who 'discovered' Francis Thompson when he was a down-and-out on the Thames Embankment, and was the first to publish his poems. In A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight Phillip Maddison's mother, Hetty, uses Catholic prayers in moments of stress, and has a devotion to the Blessed Virgin. She is not a Roman Catholic, but has learned these things at her convent school in Belgium. Some of Henry's letters of 1968, written at the time of the 'Humanae Vitae' crisis in the Roman Church, contain references to the Pope (Paul VI) which show a marked respect for his person and office, and an understanding of the difficulties of his position. In the monastic ambience of the Carmelite and Dominican priories at Aylesford and Hawkesyard Henry was always at home.

 

Henry Williamson is buried at Ham St George (Georgeham) in a grave close to the hedge a few yards to the west of the church tower. In his books of tales Life in a Devon Village he has described the consecration of the new burial ground in Georgeham, an event which ended the five-year-old controversy recorded in Tales of a Devon Village. This new cemetery was consecrated by the then Bishop of Crediton. I would like to end these memories of Henry Williamson by quoting from his account of the Bishop's address, as the words seem to express so well his own simple belief.

 

The Bishop, who bore the name of Trefusis, was preparing to speak.

 

'We are come together with one heart and soul to dedicate this ground to God: for we are giving it to God this day. You are called to present to God what has been provided after many difficulties and trials. There are always difficulties in this mortal world, my children: nevertheless, while you are here on earth you must always remember that you have duties to perform to your neighbours. No man can live for himself only, and be a happy man; for man is so made that he attains serenity and strength by working with and for others.'

 

The Bishop spoke in a throaty voice, for he was very old; but there was sweetness in his face and gestures. His words fell slowly in the wan sunlight among the trees.

 

'I, who am old, and soon to die, have seen the graves of those I have buried pass away in time, forgotten or lost, until nothing is left but grass, and a lessening mound. Such is God's intention for all living things: to be, to bloom, to mingle in earth and air, in the hope and faith of resurrection in radience beyond the hills of our mortal mornings gray. All of us have the journey down into darkness, even as the lonely hero of all, the Man among men, our blessed Jesus, whom we call the Christ.'

 

So the wise and gentle words ceased, and the white head was bowed in prayer; and in the moment of silence following, while our thoughts prayed for us, we were glad that we had listened.

 

 

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NOTES

 

 1. The Aylesford Review, vol. ii, no. 2, Winter 1957–'58. 
 2. Printed in Essays by Divers Hands (Proceedings of the Royal Society of Literature), vol. xxx, 1960.
 3. 'Lucifer or Eosphoros', in The Aylesford Review, vol. ix, no. 1, Autumn 1967.
 4. In 1963 the restoration of the medieval buildings at Aylesford Priory was still in progress.
 5. Letters from a Soldier by Walter Robson, with an introduction by Henry Williamson: Faber and Faber, 1960.
 6. The European, a review of politics, literature, and the arts, edited by Diana Mosley.
 7. The talks were given by Ted Hughes, E. W. Martin, and Brocard Sewell.
 8. The Prince of Wales: later HM King Edward VIII.
 9. It seemed to Williamson like two thousand letters (about the same number that he received every year); but the actual number was much less.
10. In The Linhay on the Downs: Faber and Faber, 1934.
11. George D. Painter, 'The Two Maddisons' (review of Love and the Loveless by Henry Williamson), in The Aylesford Review, vol. ii, no. 6, Spring 1959.

 

 

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(First published in Henry Williamson: The Man, The Writings: A Symposium (edited by Fr Brocard Sewell, Tabb House, Padstow, 1980). © 2000 Estate of Brocard Sewell. It is reprinted here by kind permission of the British Province of the Carmelite Order.)

 

 

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Other essays and reviews by Fr Brocard Sewell:

 

Facing the Spectres of the Mind (review, 1960)

 

Henry Williamson (1961)

 

The Power of the Dead (review, 1963)

 

Some Thoughts on The Flax of Dream (1965)

 

For further information about Fr Brocard Sewell, The Aylesford Review and Henry Williamson, see Anne Williamson's consideration of In the Woods (St Albert's Press, 1960).

 

 

 

 

Other essays and reviews by Fr Brocard Sewell:

 

Facing the Spectres of the Mind (review, 1960)

 

Henry Williamson (1961)

 

Some Thoughts on The Flax of Dream (1965)

 

Some Memories of H.W. (1980)

 

For further information about Fr Brocard Sewell, The Aylesford Review and Henry Williamson, see Anne Williamson's consideration of In the Woods (St Albert's Press, 1960).

 

 

The Power of the Dead

 

 

Fr Brocard Sewell, O. Carm.

 

 

THE POWER OF THE DEAD by Henry Williamson (Macdonald: 18s.)

 

At the back of this book, the eleventh in Henry Williamson's series of novels A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, the publishers print two pages of selected quotations from reviews of the previous novels in the series. These are headed by a long quotation from the article on Henry Williamson by the late John Middleton Murry which appeared in The Aylesford Review four years ago. Murry lived to read only half the series of novels; but those which have been published since his death justify his forecast that 'This will be in its entirety one of the most remarkable English novels of our time.' (I would be inclined to say myself the most remarkable.) For some time after its beginnings Mr Williamson's master work had a somewhat grudging reception from most of the critics. So much so that Mr George D. Painter, writing of this period, asked: 'Where were the critics? Perhaps they were where Moses was when the light went out.' Since then there has been a change; and the re-appearance of the first five of the novels in paperback form seems to confirm the existence of 'that underground army of unknown readers' (again Mr Painter's words) who have all along seen what the critics – with honourable exceptions – failed to see or preferred not to see.

 

Readers of The Aylesford Review from 1957 onwards will be familiar with the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight. But for the benefit of those of our newest readers who may not know it I can best quote another dictum of Middleton Murry's: 'I believe it is time we awoke to the splendour and scope of his effort and achievement in A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight. Begin with The Dark Lantern and read on: you will be the richer for it.' (Each novel may be read by itself, but few who have read one will not want to read them all.)

 

At the end of It Was The Nightingale Phillip Maddison, the aspiring writer and ex-officer of 1914–18, whose young wife Barley had tragically died, has just got married again, to Lucy Copleston. The Power of the Dead sees Phillip learning to farm on the ancestral lands held by his uncle Sir Hilary Maddison, who intends to make Phillip his heir. Phillip has a sudden success with his writing and is awarded the Grasmere Prize for his nature book The Water Wanderer, and is at last able to begin writing his war novel, The Phoenix (it is published in 1928 and we suspect this to be one with the author's The Pathway). These are 'Donkin's' spiritual truths which came to him through the sufferings of the war: truths which Phillip's 'dead cousin Willie Maddison' had perceived and had wanted to proclaim in his intended book The Policy of Reconstruction. (Mr Williamson has said that the two sides of his own character are projected into the two Maddison cousins.) The arduous demands of his farming apprenticeship, which links Phillip in loyalty to his uncle, stand between him and the realisation of his ambition, which is to re-create, in a series of novels, the causes and effects of the Great War. There is tension and misunderstanding between Phillip and Sir Hilary, but in the end uncle and nephew achieve the clear vision and the humility needed to resolve the dilemma, and Phillip, in 'a breaking moment', finds himself free: and immediately haunted by a sense of failure, almost betrayal, of his heritage.

 

After the quieter tones of The Innocent Moon and It Was The Nightingale, the strong 'dominant' of the earlier books rises again in The Power of the Dead, and the series is obviously destined to close – after how many more volumes? – in a work of predestined stature which will carry the story through the second European war.

 

For Phillip has not yet found the wholeness which every man seeks. The power of the dead – his comrades of the battle-fields of 1914–18 – urges him forward. (The extracts from his book The Phoenix which we are given are as vivid as anything in the war volumes of the Chronicle: How Dear is Life, A Fox Under My Cloak, The Golden VirginLove and the Loveless, and A Test to Destruction.) And yet it holds him back. Phillip is searching for his dead wife Barley all the time. His second marriage seems to hold the seeds of disintegration, and a girl whom he meets in London, Felicity Ancroft, seems destined to be the occasion of much suffering for all three. Both Lucy and Felicity are beautifully drawn women, and one feels anxious for them, as well as for Phillip himself.

 

In The Power of the Dead Henry Williamson has recreated 'from the compost of the past' not only the war years of 1914–18, once again, but also the literary world of London in the late nineteen-twenties. The country and farming scenes are all that one would expect from the author of Tarka the Otter and The Story of a Norfolk Farm. Phillip's old fellow-officer, the 'Mad Major', Bill Kidd, last seen as a commissionaire outside a London cinema, and since then believed to have been shot after the burning of Cork by the Sinn Fein, turns out to be very much alive and as fantastic as ever. Phillip's Uncle John, Willie's father, dies. His own father, Richard, appears briefly in this book; he is now about to retire, and the old division between father and son seems to be healing itself.

 

Having delayed for twenty years the writing of this Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, Henry Williamson is now fully immersed in his task and in his spiritual work. All his characters are essentially good people, but lacking spiritual integrity they reflect, in their various personalities, the conditions of us all, and their creator sees them all with compassion. Phillip is the only one who has understanding, really. Father Aloysius and others from whom he learned so much are dead in Flanders, but something of their power is now his. Yet he is still divided in his own spirit; and his mistake is that he still hopes that by telling others the things that he sees clearly and they do not he will change their ideas. But wholeness can only come from grace, and this he is now beginning to see.

 

 

 

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(First published in The Aylesford Review, Vol. V, No. 4, Autumn 1963. © 2000 Estate of Brocard Sewell. It is reprinted here by kind permission of the British Province of the Carmelite Order.)

 

 

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Other essays and reviews by Fr Brocard Sewell:

 

Facing the Spectres of the Mind (review, 1960)

 

Henry Williamson (1961)

 

Some Thoughts on The Flax of Dream (1965)

 

Some Memories of H.W. (1980)

 

For further information about Fr Brocard Sewell, The Aylesford Review and Henry Williamson, see Anne Williamson's consideration of In the Woods (St Albert's Press, 1960).

 

 

 

 

 

Other essays and reviews by Fr Brocard Sewell:

 

Henry Williamson (1961)

 

The Power of the Dead (review, 1963)

 

Some Thoughts on The Flax of Dream (1965)

 

Some Memories of H.W. (1980)

 

For further information about Fr Brocard Sewell, The Aylesford Review and Henry Williamson, see Anne Williamson's consideration of In the Woods (St Albert's Press, 1960).

 

 

Facing the Spectres of the Mind

 

Henry Williamson's A Test to Destruction

 

 

Fr Brocard Sewell, O. Carm.

 

 

In 1929, after revisiting the battlefields of Flanders where he had fought during the years 1914 to1918, Henry Williamson wrote a book called The Wet Flanders Plain. In the personal 'Apologia' with which he prefaced that book he spoke of the feelings of the ex-soldiers with regard to those who had betrayed them, both before the war and after, with high-sounding talk of patriotism and heroism. He spoke also of the poisoning of the minds of the next generation: the children who were already, in the cinemas, frantically cheering the 'British heroes' and booing the 'German cowards'. 'The children, I know,' the writer said, 'are but the distorting mirrors of a grown-up mental attitude; but surely, after the bitter agony and waste of the lost generation of Europe, it is time that people should know what they do.' The author strove to tear the Truth out of the past, so that men should see plainly. In this endeavour he wrote his tetralogy The Flax of Dream, dedicated, in the one-volume edition of 1936, to 'All who fought for freedom in the World War, and are still fighting'.

 

The Flax of Dream was not a 'war book'. It aimed to lay bare the underlying causes of the European conflict, which the author saw as stemming from generations of wrong thinking and wrong living, the divided continent reflecting Europe's divided nations and divided families, and the cloven psyches of its sons and daughters. The battles of 1914–18, through which the book's hero, Willie Maddison, had lived, were not described. The author stood too near to those devastating experiences; not for a long time to come would he be able to 'face the spectres of the mind' and lay them.

 

The Flax was 'a subjective or romantic treatment of the theme of redemption'; almost from the start it was Williamson's intention to complement the story of Willie Maddison, the country boy, with the story of his London cousin Phillip, to be written on the classic or objective pattern.

 

But it was not until 1951 that the first of these London novels – to comprise, in their entirety, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, appeared. The Dark Lantern, set in a world of late Victorian London suburbia and merchant materialism, decribes the courtship of Richard Maddison, employee in the Moon Fire Office, Haybundle Street, and Hetty, the enchanting younger daughter of Thomas Turney, partner in the firm of Mallard, Carter and Turney, printers and manufacturing stationers of Sparhawk Street, High Holborn. At the end of the book Richard's and Hetty's little boy Phillip is born, and it is his story that we follow in the succeeding volumes. Donkey Boy and Young Phillip Maddison describe Phillip's childhood and schooldays; with How Dear Is Life we reach the last summer of the old world, and the coming war. A Fox Under My Cloak, The Golden Virgin, and Love and the Loveless record Phillip's life as a soldier – at Loos, the Somme, and Passchendaele – and the wartime life of his parents and sisters in the London-Kentish suburb of Wakenham.

 

The story of Phillip Maddison's escapades (he had first gone to France in 1914, when under seventeen years old), his fears, and his quest for courage and wholeness is now continued in A Test to Destruction (Macdonald, 18s.), a novel of the Fifth Army in France during 1918, and of the first year of peace. The author's powers of recreative and interpretive memory, of poetic insight and vivid story-telling, are as strong as in the earlier volumes, but here reach to an even tenser pitch. The war-scenes are magnificently done; old soldiers of World War II will recognise their truth, even before they are corroborated, as they will be, by those who, like Henry Williamson, were there. With the opening paragraphs of clear taut prose the reader's attention is engaged; he cannot choose but hear:

 

In the winter of 1917–18 the Great War for Civilization – as it was generally accepted among the elderly and non-combatant of the Christian nations still engaged: Great Britain, France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Austria and the United States of America – was about to enter its penultimate phase on the Western Front.

 

This battlefield, upon which there had been continuous fighting for three and a half years, could be seen at night from aircraft as a great livid wound stretching from the North Sea, or German Ocean, to the Alps: a wound never ceasing to weep from wan dusk to gangrenous dawn, from sunrise to sunset of Europe in division. . . . This is a story of the last year of the Great War, and of the year following the first silence upon the battlefield.

 

These war scenes of 1918 are the record of a terrific period of action in retreat, under the final desperate effort of the German armies, before the tide turned. Among the main characters there stand out Phillip's old friend 'Spectre' West, now a General, and the amazing 'Mad Major', Bill Kidd, a fantastic compound of phoney and true hero – who is finally encountered, after the war, as commissionaire of a Leicester Square cinema, 'dressed as an Arab sheik, sunburn paste, sword and all, but wearing his own extravagant moustaches'. Skilfully portrayed are the commanders in the field – two of them amply vindicated from the slurs and slanders of Lloyd George and the Whitehall politicians – Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, General Sir Hubert Gough, and General Monash. 'The finest General in the War was an Australian Jew called Monash', Phillip tells his father, who secretly thinks that Phillip's faults of character derive from the supposed Jewish blood of the Turneys.

 

With the Armistice comes the climax – Phillip's real Test to Destruction. (The phrase is Winston Churchill's.) Lieutenant Phillip Maddison (acting Lieutenant-Colonel and D.S.O.), now aged twenty-two, is still encumbered with the guilt-feelings of a thwarted childhood, aggravated by the belief (erroneous) that he is indirectly responsible for the death by drowning of his great friend 'Spectre' West when their returning hospital ship was mined. The initial period of peace is the harder to bear in that since the war all comradeship is gone, and the fighting seems to have been in vain. So the real test is spiritual. Covering up for a drunken escapade of his old 'amigo-enemy' Tom Ching (discharged with a pension as a result of faked shell-shock), Phillip is arrested on a charge of arson and sentenced to imprisonment. After this fall he gets up again, seeing with clearer eyes . . . 'The train went under the bridge, and he turned back, feeling a sense of power with which to face the future, because now he understood what had not always been clear in the past. No man could be destroyed once he had discovered poetry, the spirit of life.'

 

From The Dark Lantern to A Test to Destruction a dominant figure is that of Thomas Turney, the coarse, hot-tempered old man of business, a tyrant in his household, descendant of a long line of yeoman farmers dating back to the Wars of the Roses. In The Dark Lantern we first meet Thomas Turney in a chapter entitled 'A Walk Through the City', as memorable and evocative as the London Bridge and City passages in Eliot's The Waste Land. In this episode we see old Turney at his worst, betrayed by his own inner feelings of insecurity into cruel and vindictive treatment of the poor fellow who had asked to carry his bag. But in Donkey Boy, at a party at Grandpa's, we see the true Thomas Turney, who reads to the family gathering (Richard, Hetty, Phillip, Hughie his favourite son – doomed, for all his quips and ragging – the divine Theodora, sister to Richard, and the Cakebread in-laws and cousins) from his beloved Shakespeare the speech of King Harry on St Crispin's Day.

 

Tom Turney laid down the book, and relit the other candle at the flame of its fellow. 'Well, my children,' he said, 'that is William Shakespeare. And it is true to-day as it was in the time of which he wrote.' . . . Richard was thinking, not of the scene Mr Turney had read, but of the hypocrisy of the old man: that he could not, being what he was, possibly understand the passage. He was bogus, a sentimentalist, enjoying the sound of his own voice, and extracting the feelings of Shakespeare as though they were his own. Even so, he could not spoil the beauty of the phrases, which were a revelation. . . .

 

Years later, towards the end of 1918, Thomas Turney is sitting in his two-hundred-year-old yew-wood chair, with ghosts walking in his mind – Hughie is dead (is Phillip his grandson to become a second Hughie?), his estranged son Charley's boy Tommy dead, Gerry Cakebread dead, Dorrie dead of Spanish 'flu . . .

 

Thomas Turney did not want to read. He was gone beyond it, he thought with a dead feeling. Until his illness, in the eightieth year of his age, life had been sustained in part by the companionship of books. For more than two decades he had seen himself as a sinner, and lived much in remorse; yet he had found comfort in the reassurance that he was as other men, as revealed in the pages of Dickens, Hardy, Fielding, Carlyle, and the Brontës: but his chief prop had been Shakespeare. More fortunate that Lear! Wolsey! Richard the Third! Aye, and Richard the Second. He knew that broken king's lament by heart. . . .

 

He sat by his fireside, on the mid-September afternoon, in a wooden chair which looked too frail to carry him. The arms and legs, and the back shaped like a bullock's shoe, set with arrow-thin spokes, were slender. The chair weighed only a few pounds, but it was strong; except for the seat, which was of elm, the framework was of yew – straight-grained and cleft, not turned – and the design of the frame was such that the pressures or weights that each part bore were carried, by tension, to the four legs and so to the ground. Thomas Turney used to say that the chair was built like a cathedral, which owed its strength to stresses and strains defying the force of gravity. All life could be illustrated from that chair, he would say: the fundamental forces of life in eternal opposition could be used by men for happiness and goodness, or for wretchedness and evil. They were there; and each man was free to choose how he used them in his own life. . . .

 

He stirred on the chair; spoke sharply of himself to himself as Hugh rose in his mind: instantaneously changing from grey-haired cripple groaning into death with tertiary syphilis to disdainful dark-haired undergraduate, to nervous half-laughing, half-frightened child glimpsed in ancient sunlight. Hughie, Hughie, he groaned . . . had he but shown more understanding, more sympathy, particularly to the children's mother! Too late, too late! . . .

 

'God, who knoweth the hearts of all men,' he muttered; and wiped his eyes with his red silk handkerchief. Then, blowing his nose, he felt more cheerful, and went to the sideboard for the schnapps bottle. . . . The fiery spirit warming his belly he reflected upon the scarce-believable fact that he had, very swiftly and in some unaccountable way, entered upon his ninth decade. He must live for the moment always – no corroding regrets. Why, bless his soul, he felt younger and clearer in spirit already!

 

Before his death, which is not long delayed, Thomas Turney launches his now-civilian grandson into the world of journalism, his personal introduction to the paper-manufacturer and former Lord Mayor Sir Timothy Vanlayitt Sterneau obtaining a post for Phillip at the offices of Lord Castleton's newspaper in Foundry Square.

 

There we leave Phillip Maddison for the moment, his test to destruction endured and passed. Yet it is now, in a sense, that the real test begins for him. The war had been, as it were, a ready-made system into which he could fit, however arduous its ordeals. Now, all's to do again. Phillip has found himself; but what will he become?

 

In his diary, à propos of the novel that he is writing, Phillip Maddison says: 'It is detail which makes a book last, true detail'. By that token this book, A Test to Destruction, and the Chronicle of which it is part, will endure. In these novels of Henry Williamson's we have history as it ought to be written: 'a real history of our times; a work also of poetry and imagination, and therefore a work of true philosophy'.

 

 

 

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(First published in The Aylesford Review, Vol. IV, No. 1, Winter 1960–61. © 2000 Estate of Brocard Sewell. It is reprinted here by kind permission of the British Province of the Carmelite Order.)

 

 

*************************

 

 

Other essays and reviews by Fr Brocard Sewell:

 

Henry Williamson (1961)

 

The Power of the Dead (review, 1963)

 

Some Thoughts on The Flax of Dream (1965)

 

Some Memories of H.W. (1980)

 

For further information about Fr Brocard Sewell, The Aylesford Review and Henry Williamson, see Anne Williamson's consideration of In the Woods (St Albert's Press, 1960).

 

 

 

 

 

Other essays and reviews by Fr Brocard Sewell:

 

Facing the Spectres of the Mind (review, 1960)

 

Henry Williamson (1961)

 

The Power of the Dead (review, 1963)

 

Some Memories of H.W. (1980)

 

For further information about Fr Brocard Sewell, The Aylesford Review and Henry Williamson, see Anne Williamson's consideration of In the Woods (St Albert's Press, 1960).

 

 

Some Thoughts on The Flax of Dream

 

 

Fr Brocard Sewell, O. Carm.

 

 

[An address given at the University of Exeter on May 14th 1965 on the occasion of the presentation by Henry Williamson of manuscripts of his books to the University.]

 

 

Henry Williamson's earlier series of novels, The Flax of Dream, consists of the four books The Beautiful Years, Dandelion Days, The Dream of Fair Women, and The Pathway. I have been asked to speak to you about this tetralogy. Why a Carmelite friar should have been chosen for this task is not clear. Perhaps the explanation is to be found in Henry Williamson's 'Some Notes on The Flax of Dream' which were published in a little magazine a few years ago. There Williamson said: 'What, I am asked, is the basic feeling or faith, of my authorship? What impels one to sit, hour after hour, week after week, from autumn to spring, in a hilltop hut in Devon, in the dark days, before a wood fire, and live, sometimes glowingly, in the scenes which arise before one? . . . Shall I confess what I believe deeply within myself? That life is a Spirit; that the artist is but a medium of the Spirit of life; that many, if not all, of his "imaginative" thoughts and impulses towards magnanimity are as it were signals . . . Speaking for myself as a writer, I do not think I could write outside the belief that the purpose of life is to create beauty, "under the fostering hand of the Creator". Everyone has his bad or off moments; but there is no happiness or serenity without the voidance of self, thus making way for the spirit by which alone the artist can live and have his being.'

 

'Voidance of self', riddance of the 'little ego', in order that the true Self may be discovered and that its light may shine in the darkness. This is the point from which all mystics, of whatever faith, begin; and by none is it taught more clearly than by our Carmelite mystic St John of the Cross. And this is one of the underlying themes of Henry Williamson's writings.

 

For the encouragement of any younger and aspiring writers who may be here it will perhaps be of interest to look first at the early publishing history of the four novels which comprise the Flax of Dream series. The details are given by the late Waveney Girvan in his A Bibliography and a Critical Survey of the Works of Henry Williamson published in an edition of 420 copies by The Alcuin Press in 1931.

 

The first book of the series, The Beautiful Years (Williamson's first published work) was issued by the firm of Collins in 1921, when the author was twenty-four. He had been at work on it since he was nineteen. The edition consisted of 750 copies, and a proportion of it was remaindered by the publishers at 10d a copy.

 

In 1922 its sequel, Dandelion Days, was published. Significantly, only 600 copies were printed, and of these a number were remaindered at 11d a copy. In Girvan's Bibliography the 'authentic bibliographical annotations by ANOTHER HAND' record that 'Inscribed copies were sent to the late A. B. Walkley [a leading critic of the day] and the late Sir Edmund Gosse, but it is not known whether they ever arrived.'

 

The third book, The Dream of Fair Women, was published in 1924 in an edition of 750 copies, of which none were remaindered.

 

The concluding volume, The Pathway, was published – by another firm, Jonathan Cape – in 1929 – in an edition of 2000 copies.

 

In 1929 the Flax of Dream series was taken over by the firm of Faber and Faber, after the text of the first three books had been extensively rewritten by the author. In these new editions 2580 copies were printed of The Beautiful Years (1929); 2500 copies of Dandelion Days (1930); and of The Dream of Fair Women (1931) 3500 copies.

 

Waveney Girvan's Bibliography ending in 1931, there are no figures available for the Faber reprint of The Pathway. But eventually it sold over 30,000 copies. (A one-volume edition of the tetralogy was published in 1939.) [Fr Brocard is mistaken here; it was published in 1936.]

 

On its first publication in 1928 The Pathway was hailed by a well-known critic as 'almost a great novel'. Presumably he was judging by the highest standards, which was a compliment to the author. It is difficult to be entirely objective in these matters, but for me The Pathway is a great novel; not one of the greatest, obviously, and not one without flaws, but a great novel all the same.

 

My test – an unfashionable one today I know – is that propounded by Arthur Machen (whom Henry Williamson used to meet in his Fleet Street days in the old Daily News office) in his book Hieroglyphics. Thus I take it that great literature is not a matter of keen observation expressed with skilled artifice (as in such admirable writers as Thackeray and Anthony Trollope). Great literature I take to be writing which has that quality, that note, which Machen sums up in the one word Ecstasy. As Machen puts it: 'Fine literature is simply the expression of the eternal things that are in man, that it is beauty clothed in words, that it is always ecstasy, that it always draws itself away, and goes into lonely places, far from the common course of life.' Thus, Pickwick is literature; and so is Thomas Hardy's Two on a Tower; whereas Meredith, George Eliot, and Jane Austen are not. Ecstasy, to use Machen's term, is the expression, whether in prose or verse, of the poetic vision, or if you will, of the mystic's intuition. If a book has this quality, then, to quote Machen's metaphor, 'The statue is gold; . . . and we need not fear that it will turn into lead if we find that the graving and carving is poor enough.'

 

But I should not like those who may hold other theories of criticism to conclude that The Flax of Dream can only be adjudged a great work on these premisses, and that therefore it is not for them. I have heard of young readers, addicted to the works of Samuel Beckett and William Burroughs, who have begun The Flax of Dream and after a few chapters have not continued because they have found its romanticism, and its prose style too, 'old-fashioned'. Had they read on they would have found, I believe, that The Flax of Dream is an extremely moving book, and its reading an important experience.

 

But by whatever standards one judges, The Flax of Dream must be recognised, I think, as one of the major novel-sequences of our times. It was mainly The Flax of Dream that caused so fine a critic as Mr George D. Painter to rank Henry Williamson with John Cowper Powys as one of the two finest novelists of the first quarter of this century. But not all have been so percipient. A fascinating thesis could be written on the reactions of the critics to the work of Henry Williamson. Mr Painter has written of the 'treason' of most of the critics during a long period when Williamson's writings were recognised for what they are only by 'an underground army of unknown readers'. That era is happily over. But it is interesting to find, for example, that the 1957 edition of The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature (first edition 1941) makes no mention of Henry Williamson at all. The 1958 Everyman's Dictionary of Literary Biography accords him a substantial entry, but makes no mention of his second great series of novels, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, five volumes of which had by then appeared.

 

But in 1959 there was published, with a Foreword by T. S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield and Other Literary Studies by John Middleton Murry, which contained an essay of sixty-five pages on 'The Novels of Henry Williamson'. Since his death Murry's status as a critic has been impugned from certain quarters; but it will survive. In his Foreword to this book Eliot distinguished between writers whose criticism is a by-product of their creative activity and those whose criticism is itself their creative act. For Eliot, Murry in his lifetime enjoyed a 'solitary eminence' in this latter kind of critical writing.

 

Murry's verdict on A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight – as far as it had been published before his death – was that 'it is the work of a truly gifted artist, come at last, after much inward travail, to a mastery of his own self-disturbing powers, and working on the grand scale'. Concerning the Flax, Murry says that the first three novels of this series had shown great promise, and that The Pathway had shown the promise coming to realisation. The Pathway, he says, deserved its success. 'More than any other member of the tetralogy, it stands securely as a separate novel . . .; and it is obviously the work of an original sensibility.' For myself, I would put it a good deal higher than that.

 

The Flax of Dream was written as the result of a twofold experience of conversion. (The use of this word, with its psychological and religious connotations, is inevitable.) Williamson has written of how 'On Christmas Day 1914 the author [of The Flax of Dream] had a conversation with a young soldier of the 133rd Saxon Regiment in no-man's-land . . . Although he did not fully realize it at the time, that experience altered his entire conception of the world. During that truce the seed-idea of The Flax of Dream was loosed upon the frozen ground of the battlefield. During the years that followed it lay dormant, to quicken, suddenly, three months after the Armistice, on reading an old copy of Richard Jefferies's Story of My Heart in a second-hand bookshop in Folkestone.'

 

The name of Richard Jefferies reminds us that Henry Williamson follows Jefferies in the great line of English nature writers. But Jefferies was also a mystic, and for Williamson The Story of My Heart was a 'revelation of total truth'. Jefferies's mysticism is usually labelled 'pantheist'; he could not find nourishment in the religious thought-patterns on which he had been nurtured. It has been said that he 'reached a doctrine of the "nobility of the soul" which is akin to that of Eckhart and Sankara.' 'There is an existence', he says, 'a something higher than soul – higher, better, and more perfect than deity . . . With the whole force of my existence, with the whole force of my thought, mind, and soul, I pray to this Highest Soul, this greater than deity, this better than god. Give me to live the deepest soul-life now and always with this Soul.'

 

Yet as he was dying Jefferies asked his wife to read him a chapter from the New Testament, and when she had finished he whispered, 'It is true, it is true.' Jefferies's burning hope and the purpose of all his work was the creaion of 'a better, truer, more sunlit world of men'. This, no less, has been the purpose behind all the writing of Henry Williamson; and it is the leitmotif of The Flax of Dream.

 

The novels of the Flax of Dream series tell the story of a boy, Willie Maddison, from his childhood and schooldays until, a demobilised officer of the 1914–18 war, he meets his Shelley-like death by drowning in Bideford Bay when, in a hopeless endeavour to attract attention, he burns the manuscript of his allegorical book The Star-born, with which, together with his other book, The Policy of Reconstruction, he hoped to revolutionise men's thought.

 

How far is Williamson to be identified with Maddison? The author tells us that The Flax is 'neither wholly fiction, nor . . . autobiography', and suggests that it may be 'autopsychical'. The message of Williamson-Maddison may be summarised is a passage from Williamson's other book The Wet Flanders Plain (1929), an objective account of some of his experiences in the first world war. He says:

 

I must return to my old comrades of the Great War – to the brown, the treeless, the flat and grave-set plain of Flanders – to the rolling, heat-miraged downlands of the Somme – for I am dead with them, and they live in me again. There in the beautiful desolation of rush and willow in the forsaken tracts I will renew the truths which have quickened out of their deaths: that human virtues are superior to those of national idolatry, which do not arise from the Spirit: that the sun is universal, and that men are brothers, made for laughter one with another: that we must free the child from all things which maintain the ideals of a commercial nationalism, the ideals which inspired and generated the barrages in which ten million men, their laughter corrupted, perished.

 

I have a little boy now, an innocent who with his friends in the village street laughs in the sunshine; he sings and smiles when he hears the bells on the wind. Must he, too, traverse a waste place of the earth: must the blood and sweat of his generation drip in agony, until the sun darken and fall down the sky, and rise no more upon his world?

 

We know the answer to that question now. The message of The Pathway, that 'unless there were mental change – true life or awareness coming to the white-sepulchral minds of "public opinion", the same war would rise again', was not heard. The Pathway failed of its effect partly because the work the young writer had set himself to do was greater than he could then accomplish. It is significant that nothing is said in The Pathway, nor in its wartime predecessor The Dream of Fair Women, about Maddison's experiences in the battlefields of Flanders. The writer was still too close to these experiences to be able to write of them, save very briefly in The Wet Flanders Plain and The Patriot's Progress. This task was to be accomplished later in A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, Williamson's great work still in progress, which tells the story of Willie Maddison's cousin Phillip, and which was not begun until 1950. But with The Flax of Dream Williamson drove a furrow in many minds, and the seed sown there is still flowering.

 

Writing of The Flax Mr Anthony Gower, a writer whom Williamson discovered when he was editing The Adelphi, has said that 'What The Flax of Dream perhaps gave me above all else was belief: if I had doubts before about my intuitive whisperings they were now dissolved. War was always wrong; so was cruelty, intolerance, hate, and the bending of child minds. Ah yes, cries the unthinking critic, we all know that these things are wrong; and my reply is: Ah yes, but have you spent your whole life, some fifty working years, trying to redress these wrongs? Henry Williamson has.'

 

The bending of child minds – through the ignorance of parents and wrong methods of education. The first two books of The Flax illustrate this theme in the story of Willie Maddison's childhood and schooldays. Presumably when he wrote these books the author did not yet see The Flax in its entirety, and the result is, as Middleton Murry points out, that they are unable to carry the weight of social indictment that they should. The satire on Colham School, for example, is extremely funny, but is very gentle. The Headmaster, Mr Rore, with his gospel of work, is really a very sympathetic character.

 

The great thing, boys, is this, Make the most of now. No failure is entirely wasted if its significance is apprehended! What boys agree? All of you. Good. I am glad that you are wise, even after the event! Let bygones be bygones. To the failures I say: Don't let it happen again. The only thing of value in this world is work. Hard at it, hard at it! What should be, shall be! As you are now, so you will be out in the world. Take the example of the savage. The savage cannot benefit by experience. He is content – smug. He has not advanced because he is content to lie on his back in the sun all day and let ripe bananas drop into his mouth. Overcome that banana inclination!

 

There is a great deal of humorous writing in The Flax, especially in the first two books. Anthologists of English comic writing do not seem to have realised yet what a mine they have in the writings of Henry Williamson; especially, perhaps, in his Life in a Devon Village and Tales of a Devon Village.

 

Many who have read Tarka the Otter, Salar the Salmon, and the earlier nature books have read neither The Flax of Dream nor A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight. The loss is theirs, for in their own special field they will find plenty to enjoy in these novels.

 

At the end of The Pathway Captain Maddison MC leaves the home of his friend Mary Ogilvie, to whose mother and other relatives he feels he has been a cause of trouble, and decides that he will cross over to Appledore in a boat on the running tide at midnight. Not knowing that the salmon fishing has ended, he waits on a sand barrier and is overtaken by the tide and drowned. Early next morning his body is recovered, and is placed by a fire on the dry loose sand of the estuary beyond the Saunton Burrows. Mary Ogilvie, Willie's cousin Phillip, and other friends and relatives go down to the beach, and while they are standing by the fire each reproaches himself for some lack of sympathy and understanding which has led to the disaster.

 

'If we had understood him better' [says Phillip], 'he would not have needed to go away at all.'

 

Mary heard, and said wildly: 'Yes, that is the truth! I failed him!'

 

. . . 'Nobody failed anybody', said Howard. 'Nothing you or anybody else could have said or done would have made any difference. He would never have changed . . .'

 

'He did not need to change', cried Mary, slipping her arm out of Howard's; 'it is we who must change', and she ran down to Phillip by the edge of the sea, weeping, thinking of the darkness of men's minds, pierced in vain by the shining light of Kristos, and of the agony of Christ, at the end of the Pathway.

 

I would like to end by quoting a passage which occurs at the close of Henry Williamson's 1959 lecture on Richard Jefferies and W. H. Hudson (Some Nature Writers and Civilization). These words constitute, unconsciously on the author's part, Henry Williamson's Apologia pro Vita Sua.

 

I write these words [he says] after our North Devon Festival week, and particularly a night spent among boys and girls listening to and living joyfully in the rhythms of Humphrey Lyttleton's band in the Queen's Hall at Barnstaple. There was a shimmer of life in the hall; hundreds of happy faces below the platform, eagerly watching, happily listening, gently swaying; and there was tenderness, too, among the young people, as pony-tailed heads were gently stroked within protecting arms of teen-age boys. I thought of linnets among the gorse in bloom upon the Sussex Downs, almost dreamily uttering their gentle notes in the south wind; I thought, too, that one of the alternative titles of Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover was Tenderness. And it seemed to me with my own memories of such poverty seen among less fortunate people in my boyhood and early youth – of young children with almost old faces prematurely set to misery – the faces which Jefferies had seen in the slums of Swindon – it seemed to me that now the age of so-called 'idleness', or leisure to relax, was a possibility: and that possibility was in part due to two wars after which, despite all, the slums had begun to die. And that the 'near-madness' of the fully articulate of one age can sometimes be sanity and clear-sightedness to the next.

 

But we must not condemn those who do not perceive so quickly as the visionaries, for it is only a question of time; and in the words of Jefferies, 'Now is eternity; now is the immortal life.'

 

 

 

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(First published in The Aylesford Review, Vol. VII, No. 2, Summer 1965. © 2000 Estate of Brocard Sewell. It is reprinted here by kind permission of the British Province of the Carmelite Order.)

 

 

John Middleton Murry's essay 'The Novels of Henry Williamson'  has been reprinted as an e-book by the Henry Williamson Society.

 

 

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Other essays and reviews by Fr Brocard Sewell:

 

Facing the Spectres of the Mind (review, 1960)

 

Henry Williamson (1961)

 

The Power of the Dead (review, 1963)

 

Some Memories of H.W. (1980)

 

For further information about Fr Brocard Sewell, The Aylesford Review and Henry Williamson, see Anne Williamson's consideration of In the Woods (St Albert's Press, 1960).

 

 

 

 

 

Other essays and reviews by Fr Brocard Sewell:

 

Facing the Spectres of the Mind (review, 1960)

 

The Power of the Dead (review, 1963)

 

Some Thoughts on The Flax of Dream (1965)

 

Some Memories of H.W. (1980)


For further information about Fr Brocard Sewell, The Aylesford Review and Henry Williamson, see Anne Williamson's consideration of In the Woods (St Albert's Press, 1960).

 

 

Henry Williamson

 

 

Fr Brocard Sewell, O. Carm.

 

 

Henry Williamson’s first book, The Beautiful Years, was published 40 years ago, in 1921. Over this long period, he has maintained a steady and prolific output of novels, nature writings, essays, and works of autobiography. The Beautiful Years, a novel of childhood, was begun during the last year of the Great War, through the whole of which the young author had served on the battlefields of France and Flanders. It was well reviewed, and sold 520 copies. Its sequel Dandelion Days (1922) was less well received and was soon remaindered. In its later, revised edition Dandelion Days is a serious, yet immensely entertaining, story of boyhood and schooldays. The truth and humour of the classroom scenes are balanced by passages which presage Williamson’s later fame as a nature writer.

 

The story of Willie Maddison, the hero of these early novels, is completed in The Dream of Fair Women and The Pathway (1928). The narrative, reflecting in part the author’s own experiences, now takes on a graver note. The Dream of Fair Women describes Maddison’s rootless life after the demobilisation of 1918 and his disillusionment with the post-war world. The Pathway, a story of unhappy love ending with the hero’s tragic death by drowning, reveals Williamson’s gifts as an observer and interpreter of West Country life and character, to be developed later in his Tales of a Devon Village.

 

The Pathway, which closes the series of four novels known collectively as The Flax of Dream, was immediately recognised as the work of a potentially great writer, and was praised by John Middleton Murry and Edward Garnett for its truthfulness and sensibility.

 

The Flax of Dream was a subjective or romantic treatment of the theme of redemption. Its underlying motif derives in part from a central event in the life of the writer. References to this experience abound in Williamson’s works, but the fullest description, of which we can quote only an extract, occurs in his later book The Story of a Norfolk Farm (1939):

 

On Christmas Eve of 1914 we were in the support line, about two hundred yards inside Plugstreet Wood. It was freezing. Our overcoats were stiff as boards, our boots were too hard to remove, but we rejoiced. The mud was hard too! Also, happy thought, we would be able to sleep that night. Then came a message from brigade headquarters. Wiring parties were required in no man’s land all night. And there would be a moon. We would have to work only fifty yards from the German machine-guns in the White House opposite the eastern edge of the wood . . .

 

For an hour we worked in silence, in a mysterious soundlessness. What had happened? We began to talk naturally as we drove in stakes and pulled out concertinas of prepared wire. There was no rifle-firing either up or down the line . . . At midnight we were laughing as we worked. We heard singing from the German lines – carols the tunes of which we knew. I noticed a very bright light on a tall pole, raised in their lines. Down opposite the East Lancs trench, in front of the convent, a Christmas tree, with lighted candles, was set on their parapet. The unreal moonlight life went on, happily. Cries of ‘Come over, Tommy!  We won’t fire at you!'

 

A dark figure approached me, hesitatingly. A trap? I walked towards it, with bumping heart. ‘Merry Christmas, English friend!’ We shook hands, tremulously. Then I saw that the light on the pole was the Morning Star, the Star in the East. It was Christmas Morning.

 

After the war of 1914-18 Henry Williamson obtained a post in Fleet Street on The Evening News [Fr Brocard is mistaken here; it was The Weekly Dispatch]. In the offices of that paper he met Arthur Machen, who was employed as the paper’s star reporter. Machen’s books, The Hill of Dreams and other works of near-genius, were not widely read, and their author regarded his career as a journalist as a kind of slavery. Out of the bitterness of his own experience Machen strongly advised Williamson not to try to be a writer, but to ‘go and keep pigs’.

 

In Fleet Street, Williamson, whose hobby as a boy had been natural history, soon began to make a reputation for himself by his articles on wild life, some of which were later collected in his books The Lone Swallows and The Peregrine’s Saga.

 

In 1928, the year of The Pathway, came his first great success with the publication of Tarka the Otter. This was at once recognised as a great piece of nature writing, in the tradition of Richard Jefferies and W. H. Hudson but with its own note of originality. Tarka was awarded the Hawthornden Prize and was acclaimed as a masterpiece by John Galsworthy.

 

After his early Fleet Street days, Williamson had left London and settled in a tiny cottage in North Devon. There he acquired a strange family of cats, dogs, gulls, buzzards and magpies: and also a tame otter cub. After being caught in a trap the otter cub was lost. Afterwards, when out with the Hunt, Williamson always dreaded seeing his own otter killed; and so, as Elinor Graham says in her introduction to the Puffin edition of Tarka, ‘he entered the otter’s world for a time and it became more real to him than the world of men.’

 

Tarka was followed, in 1935, by Salar the Salmon, available today, with Tunnicliffe’s illustrations, in Faber’s paperbacked editions. This book, put off month after month, proved an agony to write but was eventually completed quickly. ‘The style,’ the author says, ‘is that of one self-compelled to complete a work before the subject could be seen in detachment, one result of being confined to a narrow valley for several years, and dominated by ambition to bring the sight of water, tree, fish, sky, and other life upon paper.’ Salar has proved scarcely less popular than Tarka.

 

With the general public it is on Salar and Tarka that Williamson’s fame chiefly rests. The public like an author to stick on the whole to one vein of work, so that Henry Williamson is usually thought of as a nature writer who has written some novels as a sideline. This is an ill-balanced concept which reminds one of how Baron von Hügel, when acclaimed by The Times as ‘the greatest living apologist for the Roman Church’, replied that having hoped to do well in the dog class he was much discouraged at being first prize among cats! Henry Williamson, understandably, feels much the same when he is asked: ‘Why don’t you write something else like Tarka?’

 

It had always been Williamson’s intention to follow The Flax of Dream with the story of Willie Maddison’s London cousin Phillip, who appears here and there in the book. This complementary series of novels was intended to present the same underlying theme, but to be written on the classic or objective pattern. ‘Twenty years were to pass before the first sentence of the new series of novels was written. And during those twenty years the proverb of William Blake was chronically before my mind: “He who desires but acts not breeds pestilence”.’

 

At last, in 1951, Macdonald and Company published The Dark Lantern, the first volume of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, which will probably comprise thirteen books in all. Eight have appeared so far; the ninth The Innocent Moon is ready for publication, the tenth nearly so.

 

The Dark Lantern recreates in loving detail the lost world of late Victorian London suburbia and mercantile materialism, and describes the courtship of Richard Maddison and Hetty Turney, ending with the birth of their little boy Phillip. Donkey Boy and Young Phillip Maddison are the story of Phillip’s schooldays; with How Dear Is Life we reach the last summer of the pre-1914 world. A Fox Under My Cloak, The Golden Virgin, and Love and the Loveless are the record of Phillip’s soldiering life: at Loos, the Somme, and Passchendaele. In A Test To Destruction (1960), Phillip is with the Fifth Army in France during the terrible battles of 1918, after which we leave him, demobilised, about to try to earn his living in Fleet Street. The whole series is planned to end on the eve of the war of 1939-1945.

 

So far the saga has made its way slowly; but among critics who have recognised its rare merits are outstanding names such as those of Middleton Murry and George D. Painter. There are signs that the tide is turning. With the publication of A Test To Destruction last autumn many of the reviews took on a new tone, and readers were given, for the first time, some idea of the scale and importance of the work on which Williamson is now engaged.

 

‘What, I am asked,’ says Henry Williamson in Some Notes on The Flax of Dream, ‘is the basic feeling, or faith, of my authorship? . . . Shall I confess what I believe deeply within myself? That life is a Spirit; that the artist is but a medium of the Spirit of life.’

 

Henry Williamson is not usually thought of as a religious writer; but such, in the truest sense of the word, I believe him to be. He is a man who has lived from Christmas Eve 1914 until today haunted by the darkness of men’s minds, yet knowing that light shines in the darkness, and that the darkness cannot extinguish it. In saluting this ‘giant writer’, as Maurice Wiggin has recently styled him, on the fortieth anniversary of the publication of his first book, I feel I cannot do better than to quote from the concluding paragraphs of his Wedmore Memorial Lecture of 1959 on Some Nature Writers and Civilisation:

 

It seemed to me that now the age of so-called ‘idleness’, or leisure to relax, was a possibility: and that possibility was in part due to wars after which, despite all, the slums had begun to die. And that the ‘near-madness’ of the fully-articulate of one age can sometimes be sanity and clear-sightedness of the next.

 

But we must not condemn those who do not see so quickly as the visionaries, for it is only a question of time: and in the words of Richard Jefferies, ‘Now is eternity; now is the immortal life’.

 

 

 

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(First published in John O' London's Weekly on 21 September 1961. © 2000 Estate of Brocard Sewell. It is reprinted here by kind permission of the British Province of the Carmelite Order.)

 

 

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Other essays and reviews by Fr Brocard Sewell:

 

Facing the Spectres of the Mind (review, 1960)

 

The Power of the Dead (review, 1963)

 

Some Thoughts on The Flax of Dream (1965)

 

Some Memories of H.W. (1980)

 

For further information about Fr Brocard Sewell, The Aylesford Review and Henry Williamson, see Anne Williamson's consideration of In the Woods (St Albert's Press, 1960).

 

 

 

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