Henry Williamson

 

 

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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