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Critical reception:


The book got a great deal of attention, being hailed as a masterpiece in the genre of war writing.


Smith’s Trade News, 5 November 1955, ‘Book Gossip’:


One of the most considerable of the English novelists in the field of the large-scale saga is unquestionably Henry Williamson. . . . In his latest book he goes back in time to the outbreak of the First World War, with 19-year-old Phillip Maddison, a city clerk, going to Flanders with a Scottish Regiment as a private soldier.


A Fox Under My Cloak is being published, very appropriately, on November 11, the 37th anniversary of Armistice Day.


Viewing the first great upheaval from a distance of time, Williamson has, perhaps an advantage over those of his contemporaries who wrote of it too soon after the events. He himself says: “It was written with love for all remembered faces of nearly 40 years ago. There are no villains in the story – only human beings.”


Smith’s Trade News (William Lloyd), 5 November 1955:


As I read this vividly-written novel with a first world war setting, it seemed that it was only yesterday that I shared in the perils and discomforts of trench warfare. I could hear, once again, the crump of shells and the vicious ping-ping of bullets, so realistic and the passages descriptive of the battle of Loos. This is Williamson’s finest work for many years, if not his best work ever. It is my Book of the Month. . . .


Smith’s Trade News (William Lloyd), 10 December 1955 (recalls Outstanding Selections of 1955):


That mature novelist, Henry Williamson, in my estimation, easily topped the list of writers of novels dealing with wartime exploits of the Army. He went back to 1914-18 war, but he recreated that atmosphere of dreary trench warfare with such skill that A Fox Under My Cloak will be remembered by its readers for a long time to come.


Illustrated Newspapers, 23 November 1955 (Tatler, Sketch etc.):


fox illus news


The text accompanying this item was:


There is a twofold purpose here; to go on with the Maddison story (now a many-volumed thing), and to give a faithful record of the year 1915 in World War 1 – but so good a war book is it that any reader can get its full impact, and will, in any case, quickly establish familiarity with the drably suburban, but strangely appealing Maddisons and the boy Phillip, the character through whose eyes we see the war. The book opens just after Ypres, with Phillip doing an appalling frost-bitten spell in the trenches as a private soldier. He goes back sick to England, gets a commission and an almost equally appalling training period with some very class-conscious officers, and returns to France to fight at Loos and become a seasoned, and to some extent esteemed, warrior.


Never heavy, indeed often very funny in his treatment of Phillip – the “temporary gentleman” who is always putting his foot in it, but in his own endearing way does well enough – Mr. Williamson is extremely effective in presenting a war history that is both subjective and objective.


New Statesman and Nation (Maurice Richardson), 3 December 1955 (6½” x 3” column):


One of the many socially revolutionary effects of the First World War was the creation of thousands of T.G.s – Temporary Gentlemen, as they were called – to officer the new mass armies. . . . One of the strong points of Mr. Williamson’s novel is his concentration on this important phenomenon. [Then a neat précis of the plot, commenting – presumably Mr. Williamson is saving Phillip for further war coverage. Many features in this book not covered in previous war books: the Christmas Truce and Battle of Loos] . . . All the background, with details of the impending struggle between the Frocks [politicians] and the soldiers has a nice authentic period flavour. . . . As a character Phillip is not altogether satisfactory, too much of a bundle of impulses and moods [as was HW himself!] perhaps; but he serves well enough as the hero of a pre-eminent sociological novel which – so it seems to me – has been written principally to recapture a period. The writing, plain and straightforward, is subordinated to this end.


The Listener (Maurice Cranston), 22 December 1955, reviewed A Fox Under My Cloak in tandem with (but not in comparison) The Quiet American by Graham Greene (an interesting and quite critical analysis of this work – ‘despite denial it is intensely religious’). That HW was pleased by this piece is shown by his note written at the top of the page:


fox listener


The reviewer makes a useful comparison with John Galsworthy (to whom, as I have stated previously, HW was related, unbeknown to either):


Mr. Henry Williamson is a novelist who deserves more recognition than he has as yet received. Like Galsworthy, he goes in for family sagas, and he leans heavily on social history; but he seems to me a better social historian than Galsworthy, by whom I suppose, his market has been spoiled. [The Forsyte Saga, volumes published 1906 to 1921, as one volume 1927; with second series 1924-29.] Mr. Williamson knows and understands people of diverse social classes, whereas Galsworthy was quite incapable of anything . . . other than haute bourgeois; and Mr. Williamson has none of Galsworthy’s infuriating neutralism (which pretended to be liberalism). A Fox Under My Cloak is about the adventures of Phillip Maddison . . . during the 1914 war. Mr. Williamson takes the Owen-Sassoon-Sitwell view of that war, which is, I believe, the right one: the soldiers on both sides are seen as decent fellows from whose mutual slaughter no good will come. . . . He [Phillip] cannot connect the business-as-usual life in England with what is happening in France. His main problem is that of being a lower-middle-class subaltern in a fairly smart regiment. He dreads the trenches, but the embarrassments of the class barrier prove to be, if anything, more painful still. Mr. Williamson’s book is not anti-class in the sense it could be said to be anti-war. [neither class are blamed] . . .


Mr. Williamson manages to be detached without being non-committed. He has set himself to record the inside as well as the outside of events, to give a narrative at once of private and public things. The result is not a well-constructed novel, and the style is sometimes makeshift; but it is a genuine, wise, and continuously interesting book.


News Chronicle (David Holloway), 15 December 1955:


(Also reviewing The Quiet American: ‘Greene remains the finest story-teller of our time and those who would shrug him aside will find him uncommonly hard to shift from that pinnacle.’)


Those who know Mr. Henry Williamson as an exact and understanding observer of Nature might be surprised that he can see a battle long ago with as clear an eye.


. . . Here is the feel and smell of the trenches during one of the worst periods of the First World War, as seen by a rather cowardly young man whose only real desire is to save his own skin. . . .


The writing is not elegant, but it remains immensely forceful. It is strange that Mr. Williamson should have taken so long to get round to writing this book, forty years after, but it has been well worth waiting for.


Guardian, 24 November 1955:


No-one who already knows young Phillip Maddison will expect heroics from him as a soldier of the First World War. . . . Through it all he displays a touching humanity, youthfulness and love of a spree, and at the same time an illuminating candour through which we see the muddy, bloody, blundering warfare of the Western Front and the wretched human beings submerged in it. These battle scenes in this latest section of the Maddison saga are as realistic and memorable as the lighter passages are amusing.


Birmingham Post (R. C. Churchill), 29 November 1955:


Henry Williamson is that rather paradoxical figure in modern life, a pacifist who knows something of war at first hand. . . . It is not too much to say that the whole of Mr. Williamson’s attitude to life was changed by the 1914 war, and particularly perhaps by one strange incident in it, that unofficial truce one Christmas in the trenches when Tommy and Fritz exchanged greetings for a while before getting on with the business of exchanging bullets.


Mr. Williamson is one of the few surviving eye-witnesses of this “strange meeting” and it was inevitable that it should come into this “Maddison” series of novels . . . In A Fox Under My Cloak Phillip is, comparatively, the tried soldier – and seldom can any writer have described more honestly than Mr. Williamson the manifold things that tried, almost to breaking point, the soldier of 1915. The battle scenes in this novel have the mark of truth upon them. . . .


Queen, 28 December 1955 (a most wonderful example of bathos – and indeed, snobbery!):


fox queen


The Daily Telegraph (Peter Green), 16 December 1955:


Just how does one define a historical novel? . . . [as stated by his publishers] . . . They are quite right; it is a matter of viewpoint, not dates. For all his detailed battle-scenes . . . Mr. Williamson’s real aim is to recapture the social and moral flavour of the era.


In this he has succeeded only too well. His dialogue . . . reads far too like the real thing: stilted, crudely prolix, facetious when not expository. . . . It may be good history, but it doesn’t make a good novel. . . .


Mr. Williamson, plodding gamely along in the mud behind Messrs. Graves and Sassoon, flogs all their dead horses with a flourish. But his world – less familiar to a young reader today than Imperial Rome – may still have its grisly fascination.


Sunday Times (Michael Swan), 27 November 1955:


. . . It is a sincere, moving story, but it is a pity Mr. Williamson has deliberately chosen to remove stylistic distinction from his narrative.


The Times, 8 December 1955, gives a short overview – emphasising the ‘temporary gentlemen’ aspect and:


the rough strength of the author’s compassion, underlined rather than diminished by the sometimes rather clumsy and homespun quality of the writing.


This was repeated the following week in:


The Times Weekly Review, 15 December 1955 (reviewing Greene, The Quiet American, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Winter In The Air, HW, A Fox Under My Cloak):


Greene’s ‘a tragedy of good intentions gone wrong’ – ‘a disappointment when finished’; Winter In The Air – ‘a masterpiece’. . . .


A Fox Under My Cloak . . . [briefest précis of plot] . . . Maddison, in his diffidence and fears, is a likable character, but what makes the story memorable is the rough strength of the author’s compassion, a compassion that is underlined rather than diminished by the sometimes rather clumsy and homespun quality of the writing.


[As several reviewers mention this, it is perhaps pertinent to point out that HW was writing as it was – the style is deliberate: of its era and of Phillip’s temperament and background (although it is possibly not a feature that stands out for the modern reader).]


The Times,16 December 1955, unsigned (8” column) – note: this is a second review:


. . . [This book, fifth etc. . . .] is also a history of England during part of the First World War. The young man, partly owing to an unhappy childhood and partly because of his own temperament, is stricken by his war experiences . . . [at the end] he rises gallantly, though still in his own haphazard fashion, to the occasion. He is throughout a strange mixture of rather endearing boyishness, a little boastful, an occasional liar, always uncertain of himself, yet with an impish daring. The battle scenes are magnificently done . . . The portraits of various soldiers and officers – notably . . . Twinkle – are very good indeed.


Mr. Williamson’s strength lies largely in his ability to build up a sense of breadth and depth by an expert use of detail, coupled with a splendid imaginative insight into character. Amid a deluge of war books, A Fox Under My Cloak will hold its own.


Time and Tide (Henry Drown), 19 December 1955:


The sad thing about [Fox - and the series as a whole] is that the book might just as well have been written and published a quarter of a century ago. . . . no worse and no better [than Goodbye to all That] . . . but no different. Yet this is not to say that it isn’t well done. The descriptions of the Battle of Loos is probably as good an account of one of those bloody, confused and blundering trench battles of the Western Front as you will find anywhere. A good, solid wodge of reading-matter.


The Observer (John Davenport), 11 December 1955 (unfortunately the review opens, and is threaded, with 'clever-clever' stuff – the reviewer showing off in a nervous self-conscious manner, which rather mars the interesting points he makes):


. . . such jumbled automata as most of us become are fit slaves for Houyhnhnms; yet Mr. Williamson is a novelist, not a satirist, and although one may sympathise with the man, one is puzzled by the writer. Can it be that he is working out some obscure grudge not against mankind, but against himself? It is not easy to see what ghost he is laying [in this novel]. Mr. Williamson writes of the 1914 war as part of the tragedy of European man, divided against himself. This desire to re-create a period is Tolstoyan, and with all his virtues, Mr. Williamson is no Tolstoy. A Fox Under My Cloak is the fox of physical cowardice and of social insecurity, united in the vitals of a suburban bank clerk, an imaginative but semi-literate twin of Mr. Aldington’s ‘Hero’, who died.


[Points out that it is (unfortunately) obviously going to be a long series.] There are some good things in this seemingly purposeless chronicle. . . . As I was only six years old at the time . . . I cannot vouch personally for its accuracy . . . [but in 1939 it wasn’t like that (but who said it was!)] Phillip’s agonies in his county Territorial regimental mess could scarcely be matched today except by those of an ill-trained chimpanzee unexpectedly posted to the Rifle Brigade.


The Spectator (H.M. Champness), 25 November 1955:


. . . no reader should ignore Mr. Williamson’s latest novel . . . [plot précis] . . . This is the early war, preceding the tanks and Sopwith Camels, the scene which still offers a diminishing vista back into the age of peace. . . . It is a scene of unique and appalling fascination. . . . Mr. Williamson has it all at his fingertips: Zola, in La Débâcle, can hardly have taken more trouble. Throughout the book, self-respect and self-preservation contend for Phillip. Each has its victories and the final result is far from certain, but . . . it does not seem to matter. He is altogether dwarfed in his monstrous setting. . . . [notes Phillip’s various key experiences] It is a splendid, frightful torrent of experience which tends to flow past Phillip and pour direct upon the reader. Unsubtle (though highly observant) as a novel, as a record it is often overwhelming.


Eastern Daily Press (Adrian Bell), 9 December 1955: reviews 7 books under heading ‘American Novels’ – rather misleading as only two of them are. This review from a close friend of HW (and notable writer himself) seems a little grudging. Obviously Bell was not interested in the First World War:


[Fox] . . . continues the story of Phillip Maddison . . . The book is episodic: the episodes seemingly accidental, do not follow a line of development so much as build up a picture – a chaotic picture of trench warfare and “Blighty”. . . . Phillip’s pranks . . . are so tactless that we feel he rather asked for what he got. Actually, Phillip is only his true self when alone with nature. The Battle of Loos is graphically told, with the eye of a combatant and the wider knowledge of later research.


St Martin’s Review (William Kean Seymour), January 1956 (also friend of HW – different viewpoint):


fox seymour


Manchester Evening News (Julian Symons), 3 December 1955:


Top of the list this week are two good factually-based novels one English [Fox] and the other American [A Stone for Danny Fisher, Harold Robbins].


Fox . . . [précis and background] . . . Each little incident taken by itself may seem flat and pedestrian . . . [but] through hundreds of such incidents Mr. Williamson has rebuilt convincingly a vanished world. . . .


The tautly-written military narrative is interspersed with scenes of civilian life which reintroduce many characters from earlier books.


. . . the heart of the book is in those memorable evocations of battle scenes, of the fatigue, discomfort, absurdity – and the occasional exhilaration and comradeship – of war.


Manchester Guardian (Anna Bostock), 5 January 1956 (the reviewer does not appear to have read the previous volumes & so found herself confused):


The time is Christmas 1914, and the none-too-endearing youth is in the trenches, taking part in the fighting as in the famous fraternisation. [Then he goes home and new reader cannot possibly comprehend the details. . . . then the Battle of Loos, which he survives:] and the sense of surprise that any man should have done so, conveyed by sheer hard reporting, seems to me the only thing to raise this long, confusing book above the level of private reminiscence.


National and English Review (Ruby Millar), January 1956:


The atmosphere of the First World War is brought back . . . the charm of the book lies in the magnificent battle scenes, word painting comparable with those contorted landscapes, those hell-hound unities of men and guns, painted by Wyndham Lewis, C. R. W. Nevinson and Paul Nash . . . It is a long while ago and much has since happened, but no generation of men has ever been called upon to endure more than was asked of Phillip Maddison.


Western Morning News, 9 December 1955:


With A Fox . . . Henry Williamson, the West Country author, has achieved a further stage in mastery that ranks him among the great authors of the time. This novel has moments as fine as any in All Quiet and the subject provides magnificent opportunities, which he handles with a blend of intuitive psychological insight and keen objective description. The result is truly fine.


[résumée of plot – placing re previous vols.] . . . This volume recreates the spirit of the time; the mixture of fear, courage, misery, and incompetence at the Front, and the dwindling and modulating of long-established values at home. There need be no end to the series, which is so close to reality as to constitute a social history of this century.


North Devon Journal and Herald (L.M.J.), 8 December 1955:



Henry Williamson describes War


To many of the people who took part in it, the 1914-18 war will always be the Great War. Their experiences touched heights and depths in them which no other event can equal. Possibly the ability to endure Hell is memorable.


Mr. Henry Williamson must, one feels, be of this number for . . . [in Fox] this atmosphere of frustration and exultation overwhelms and almost swamps his continued story of the life of Phillip Maddison. . . . [the wealth of detail present in his nature books now seen here in war scenes] . . . No bitterness pervades the story . . . the enemy appear not as Huns, but as soldiers, believing that “God and Right” was with them in their struggle for their Fatherland.


Mr. Williamson set out to write this book as “part of the tragedy of European man divided against himself”. He has succeeded, perhaps because he has no use for bitterness, only the memory of human beings of nearly forty years ago.


Homes and Gardens (Brenda E. Spender), June 1956; gives a résumé of the plot and ends:


[Phillip] is in the main the sad product of an unhappy childhood and dreadful wartime experiences. This is a painful book, but worth very serious consideration.


Rochdale Observer,10 December 1955 (7” column):


Novels of the Month [headed by Fox]


A Fox Under My Cloak is a notable piece of work which adds another long chapter of 400 pages to the Phillip Maddison saga. [Gives good analysis of plot with comments] . . .


. . . this book leaves the reader with some disquieting thoughts. How many lives were thrown away between 1914 and 1917 by bad staff work [etc] . . .


The advance of the Guards as Phillip Maddison saw it from one of the pylons of “Tower Bridge” – in which swallows were nesting amidst the crash of the enemy bombardment – will take its place among the great passages of literature which were forged in the fiery furnace of the First World War.


Yorkshire Evening Press (S. P. B. Mais), 12 December 1955:


This is, in my view, Henry Williamson’s best novel up to date. He went to the front in the First World War at a very impressionable age and as he grows older he is getting it into ever clearer perspective. . . .


From an inevitable contrast with Evelyn Waugh’s “Officers and Gentlemen”, Williamson’s portrait comes out with flying colours. Both authors describe with fidelity the fright and futility of modern war, but the mud of Flanders provides a large canvas for the greater artist.


The canvas is not so large as that taken by Tolstoi in “War and Peace” but Williamson certainly recaptures the emotional feelings of a young and untried fighting man with amazing accuracy. . .


I look forward to the volumes dealing with the later phases of the war with impatience and great interest.


There is a further selection of cuttings from numerous provincial newspapers – Coventry, Glasgow, Manchester, etc. – but all are of a similar nature. One stands out, as HW underlined the following sentence:


The Northern Echo, 9 December 1955:


. . . one has read nothing more evocative of the Great War and the accents of the time on home and Flanders fronts; the latter sequences are magnificent. The people are as alive as the events.


There was also good selection of reviews in Ireland: Belfast Telegraph, 1 December 1955; The Belfast Newsletter, 17 December 1955; Irish Independent, 31 December 1955; Irish Times, 7 January 1956 (a very good review).


Belfast Newsletter, 17 December 1955 (a long Saturday review column by ‘E.M.L.’ – 8 books, devoting 6” to each):


Is it possible to publish in 1955 a first-class work of fiction about the 1914/1918 war? The answer is that Mr. Williamson has done it, and done it brilliantly. . . . [brief note on HW’s writing career, & précis of the plot.]


. . . The battle scenes have been magnificently done. For all who served in that war and knew its misery this book will stir the memory and the heart. Mr. Williamson’s prose rises on occasion to the heights, and its lyrical quality, its evocation of the past, its occasional satire, its sincerity and accuracy of description, mark this as an outstanding work. . . .


Irish Times (R.G.), 7 January 1956 (8” column):


Mr. Henry Williamson’s output . . . comprises in great measure the ploughing and reploughing of the same lonely furrow . . . His nature books are superbly observed . . . and the same quality of detail is to be found in his novels.


The chief disadvantage . . . is his dynastic outlook. The Maddison family, an undistinguished collection of human beings, has occupied all his attention . . .


A Fox Under My cloak covers a short period in Phillip Maddison’s life as a soldier . . . [précis of plot] . . . Mr. Williamson has been commandingly objective . . . The battles which he describes are almost forgotten history; but they take on, under his inspiration, an immediate vividness. He has in fact surpassed himself and [Fox] should remain in the memory for some time to come.


These are made amusingly memorable by a further article in:


Irish Times, 21 January 1956 (double 7” column), headed:




The British newspaper Daily Sketch has been banned because recent issues “have usually or frequently been indecent or obscene . . . [plus] a large amount of crime”.


The Board has also banned 77 books [this list is given in full: it includes The Quiet American by Graham Greene; Aspects of Love by David Garnett; The Photography Book of the Year; and Marriage for Moderns, Barbara Cartland (birth control content!).  The list is headed by Lolita (the only title that is perhaps understandable!). It is not clear if the list is in order of iniquity, but Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife is very near the top. Squadron Airborne, by Elleston Trevo appears, The Daffodil Sky by H.E. Bates, and well towards the bottom, A Fox Under My Cloak. Well!]


It does also state that the ban is only for three months, when content will be reviewed – but possibly renewed.






The book was discussed in a BBC Radio programme on 6 January 1956:


fox radio







1963 paperback reprint:


A Fox Under My Cloak got wide coverage as one of the top ten paperbacks. One or two gave more detailed coverage: remember that by 1963 HW was actually up to volume 11 of the Chronicle.


North Western Evening Mail, 10 October 1963:


Henry Williamson has surely set himself one of the most monumental tasks of his time . . . under the collective title A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight. This is the fifth, a separate story in itself but still only a part of the epic. . . . Obviously, many hours of research have gone into this project – and it is equally obvious that the effort has been well worth while. It is a highly impressive book.


Oldham Evening Chronicle (D.R.T.), 19 August 1963 (having reviewed a book about Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the famous criminologist, and found it disappointing, it continues):


Murder of a different kind, and murder more horrifying because of its senseless perpetration is the subject of (Fox) . . . This chronicle of the First World War, with the retelling of the mass slaughter that took place on the battlefields of France, is horrific as it is brilliantly unfolded. It is a book which, almost 50 years on [and now a 100 years on] can still frighten the reader, living in a world where the formidable tank and flimsy aircraft of the 1914-18 debacle are [now well in the past].


Irish Times (B.F.P.), 30 September 1963 (12” column) – the ban has obviously been lifted! This is so percipient that it is reprinted nearly in full (note it is again from Ireland, but 8 years later; the reviewer does not mention Tolstoi, but from the heading he obviously had this somewhere in mind):




Henry Williamson seems doomed to live with the label “nature-writer” hung about his neck. . . . That was the early Georgian¹ Williamson, who came home from the trenches to hide his scarified² soul among the lanes of the English countryside. The early Williamson wrote good novels as well as nature books, but it was decades later that he began “A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight”, a great sprawling cycle . . . . Many critics have lashed these books with rods. They have been called old-fashioned, rambling, diffuse, over-personal, trite. Certainly they straggled at times like uncut hedgerows. . . . But if these books lack tailormade neatness and linger minutely over details and description, that is because he has chosen deliberately to make them so. He is painting an age, the one leading up to the First World War, and great realist that he is, has been at pains to fill in his background fully. Also, he has a passion for the English landscape and lavished pages of golden prose upon it. . . . [Critics are ‘bright little urbanities . . . they want their novels in the same bloodless and stylised mould.’]


Williamson, with his Victorian-Edwardian sprawl, his nostalgia and his real bigness, is not for them. Realism – true realism – that rarest of things – has never been popular unless it keeps in step. . . . [Gives a brief but succinct résumé of the previous volumes.] Panther Books, who are publishing the series, have brought out the fifth [Fox]. This is in many ways the finest, a truly great war novel. The description of Loos is a classic masterpiece. . . .


Williamson is a cumulative writer, not one who composes in swift scenes. A rich and uneven book, with a gallery of characters who have the stamp of reality, a magical feeling for period, and a vein of pure poetry which gleams through the frequent prosiness. Williamson’s visionary moments fall like brief rays upon the sunless plain of his realism. For all their seeming backward look, these books are “modern” in the deepest sense.


Compare them with the war novels of Ford Madox Ford, so much lauded just now. Ford is an old pro with all the tricks of his trade, but a suspicion of contrivance remains. Nor do his people become more than types, closely but externally observed. Williamson is the natural writer of the two, with all his faults.


[¹ ‘Georgian’: the early ‘Georgians’ (this is George V – movement c. 1910-22) were considered ‘nature writers’ – later Georgians considered more ‘innovative’.


² ‘scarified’: does not mean ‘frightened’ but ‘scratched’: one ‘scarifies’ (rakes) soil to allow seed to grow. Thus HW’s soul was raked raw – allowing the seed of writing to grow.]



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