The Power of the Dead: Review

 

 

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).

 

 

 

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