A Solitary War - Critical reception




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Critical reception:



Bristol Evening Post (Anthony Gower), 29 September 1966:


solitary rev gower


The Times, 29 September 1966 (Opening paragraph quotes HW's description of Hitler):


The tone of the novel is one of tragedy, not the tragedy of the pay-off of appeasement, but, at one axis of the story, the tragedy of the “man who was two men” . . .


There are many, many pages of descriptions of encounters with the soil, of the effort to get produce and profit out of it, so that for long patches the outside world, Hitler [etc] . . . retreat to the margin. . . .


His effort . . . is to present the whole period, the whole tragedy of this particular member of the Imperial Socialist Party reorganising and rethinking his ideas in the first two years of the war. . . .


A Solitary War is written well, if at times a little portentously. If the reader finds many of the ideas embedded in this long passionately felt novel actively disagreeable, he should not feel regret that we do have this particular version of spiritual and concrete history of those years.


Daily Express (Ernest Wycherley), 29 September 1966:


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[The reviewer gives a short précis of the Chronicle as a whole – then:]


Maddison decides that in this war he must only be a farmer . . . Hitler's true purpose is to defend Europe against Stalin. So Maddison fights a personal war to create fertile land out of . . . the Bad Lands . . . His farming is next to impossible, his relationship with his wife and farm workers difficult, and the village scrap-merchant puts it about that he is a German Secret Service man. . . . arrested under 18B . . . detention is brief . . . His views of Hitler are modified [quotes 'man who was two men'] . . .


Williamson writes like a man with scars on his soul . . . He promises two more books in this astonishing sequence. It is a major mark he is making on the modern novel.


The Guardian (Christopher Wordsworth), 30 September 1966:


solitary rev guardian


. . . Henry Williamson's marathon concern with war and tilth is not to the universal critical taste. Phillip Maddison, Williamson's dispossessed, war-haunted autobiographical hero . . .


Will the novels survive . . . I believe they will since the sound of a man reviewing his own lonely and cantankerous self is purer than most of the clever sounds we hear. . . .


Meanwhile, in the unlucky thirteenth in the chronicle, Maddison plods on into melancholy debt and the drift from his second wife Lucy. . . . [let down on all sides] . . . the author is better with wurzels than women who remain mysterious Gravesian forces . . .


Express and Echo (Exeter), 30 September 1966:


. . . Williamson continues his Phillip Maddison chronicle, who emerges as a realistic if unsympathetic character . . . we see a disillusioned ex-soldier struggling to make a living from marginal farming. Believing that Stalin is a greater threat than Hitler and affronted by pacifist ideas which seem cowardly and ineffectual . . . The author brilliantly portrays a man of high principle, out of step with majority opinion.


[The cover] is calculated to rouse fury but hostility to the Nazis need not blind us to the sheer scope of the massive literary undertaking of which this book forms an integral part.


Oxford Mail (M. G. McNay), 29 September 1966:




The latest volume in . . . raises in an acute and uncomfortable form the question of whether we can admire a novel whose premise is pernicious. . . . Phillip Maddison has become a supporter of Birkin (translate to Mosley). It is uncomfortable because in the hysterical chauvinism inseparable from war many people suffered needlessly [gives P. G. Wodehouse as an example] and Phillip is presented as a level-headed First World War hero, and admirer of Birkin's economic ideas (Mosley's were of course in advance of the Labour Party of the time) and a patriot who wants peace. . . .


[Continues to address the salient facts and arguments] . . . All this Mr. Williamson depicts admirably. Phillip as a character forced into solitariness is utterly believable. But to believe is not to sympathise . . . [reviewer quotes from Ernest Fischer, The Necessity of Art.] Behind this marxist terminology lies a truth that applies to Phillip Maddison: the super-patriot and yeoman hides a bigot. [Gives examples.]


Birmingham Post (R. C. Churchill), 1 October 1966:


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The Sunday Times (Julian Jebb), 2 October 1966:


. . . is the thirteenth . . . novel dealing with the life of Phillip Maddison – the Survivor. He passed, like his creator, through the major battles of the Western Front in the first war, he married, had children, farmed, wrote, and became involved in Fascism – all like his creator.


Phillip has two parallel concerns: to resuscitate the Bad Lands and to face his sad disappointment at the brink of war with Hitler whom he had seen as the saviour of Europe during the tragic apathy of the preceding decades. The farming episodes are too long . . . but the reconstruction of what it was like to be a suspected traitor, to daub your house with the name of the English Fascist leader, are acute and surprisingly funny. The writing throughout is civilised, and in Phillip Maddison himself there is a character of a complexity which extends far beyond eccentric political beliefs.


Spectator (John Daniel), 7 October 1966:


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The reviewer has (unforgivably) misquoted HW's words to use against him (by either sloppy or deliberate misreading of the text), which drew forth HW's wrath, as his letter shows:


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Glasgow Herald ('L.V.B.'), 8 October 1966:


New Novels: 18b AND ALL THAT


[Opens by quoting the passage of Phillip's arrest and continues:] Yes, it was inevitable that in . . . Phillip Maddison would find himself in jug.

The tortured hero – Loos, Passchendaele and Ypres never far from his thoughts – is as frustrating as ever, as stupid, and as egotistical. Women, and he attracts them still, retire hurt. . . .


Yet, “A Solitary War” does continue a unique history of our time . . . It is written with a passionate, agonising honesty, and impatient as a reader may be with Maddison, the man's innocence, his unswerving childlike faith in decency – even Hitler's – is breathtaking and believable.


Liverpool Daily Post (Rosaleen Whateley), 12 October 1966:


The breath of country air – no, the strong wind that blows through all Henry Williamson's novels cannot dispel the political implications that may be distasteful to many readers of “A Solitary War”. . . . We have come by laborious stages to 1939 and Phillip Maddison sees his country and his sons sliding into the flood that engulfed his own generation in 1914. With agonised preoccupation he works away at his East Anglian Farm while the war hots up and local opinion turns against him. . . .


Punch (Eve Burgess), 12 October 1966:


Henry Williamson makes no concessions to the uninitiated reader. He sweeps straight into the thirteenth book in his immensely subjective epic on the malaise of our time. . . . Now the date is 1939, and the unbelievable has happened; England is at war again. On the personal plane, defeat is equally vicious. His struggle to redeem the Bad Lands, his farm in East Anglia, has brought him to extremes of physical exhaustion. . . . Intimations of failure surround everything he does . . . But when he writes about the land, or about nature, describing the frozen landscape, or swallows on the wing, all his forces are released and he is superb.


The Times Literary Supplement, 13 October 1966:




[The Chronicle would take the prize for:] most Unfashionable Literary Undertaking of our time. In bulk and shape, the thing is of dedicated unmodernity. [And continues in like vein.]


And if the architecture appears nostalgic, the content is likely to feel stodgy and undigested. . . . This latest episode contains his misfortunes and failures as farmer, writer, political thinker and family man during the Phoney War of 1939-41. It is of course the politics which do most to place the saga outside the main drift of contemporary acceptability. Maddison, veteran of the Somme, is here stubborn follower of the English Fascist leader “Birkin”, admires the wit and good sense of Lord Haw-Haw, loathes Churchill and, even at this time, remains fairly unstinted in his devotion to Hitler . . . [the underlining is by HW, in red biro – see his letter below.] . . .


All the same A Solitary War is occasionally moving, enjoyable and honest. Maddison has many valid insights . . . and his conscientious perverse integrity sometimes looks positively heroic . . . but there is still too much sagacious clap-trap about the state of the world. . . .


The phrase underlined in red by HW is again a misquote (one wonders if it was the same reviewer as previously) and again brought forth a letter from HW:


solitary rev tls hw


Financial Times (A. Calder-Marshall), 13 October 1966:


[First reviews J. M. M. Stewart, The Aylwins, ending ' it is as funny as frailty.'] Though equally concerned with frailty, A Solitary War is passionately serious.


[Unfortunately the review contains several errors (e.g. Phillip's imprisonment is far longer than it actually was) possibly due to an over-hasty reading of the book. Basically Calder-Marshall finds the politics 'off-beam' but the efforts to:] reclaim the farm, the tactics of game-shooting and the sense of country tradition are finely presented.


[There is further comment from Calder-Marshall in a later review.]


Eastern Daily Press (Mark Oliver), 14 October 1966:




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Northern Echo (W. J. Nesbitt), 14 October 1966 (2 inches within 8 total reviews):


. . . Phillip Maddison believed in Hitler as a bulwark against communism, so for him the opening of the war is a lonely affair . . . moreover he is concerned with his own lonely struggle against the Badlands. . . .


Methodist Recorder (Dr P. Sangster, Vice Principal Worcester College of Education), 20 October 1966:


[Reviewer first reminds readers that HW is no doubt weary of being reminded he wrote Tarka and Salar . . .] Phillip Maddison is stubbornly opposed to the Second World War . . . we see him as a farmer, writer, and would-be politician. [But too much detail about car mechanics, price of grain: only of interest to the social historian. Phillip is interesting but not absorbingly so.] . . . the book is a long description of him making a mess of things.'


New Statesman (Robert Taubman), 21 October 1966:


“A Solitary War” is eloquent about English fascism, not as a political programme but as a state of stress and muddle. Phillip Maddison muddles his way through the first year of the Second War: a ready patriot, prepared for invasion, and unwilling to disgrace his country, but still a believer in Hitler . . . Phillip is realist enough to see himself as 'ex-military idiot' [but realism does not extend to Hitler, although the author does much to explain his views].


The novel is good on the wear and tear of life – the benumbing nostalgia for the First War trenches, the struggle to reclaim marginal farming land in East Anglia. Phillip's is not a shirked life. He can also persuade one to agree with nearly everything he says. . . . On the decay of industrialisation, as of farming, he can be as forceful as D. H. Lawrence. In spite of intrusions of doctrine, one can take Phillip on his own evaluation as a seeker after health and sanity in a disordered world. . . .


Bridlington Free Press, 4 November 1966:


solitary rev bridlington


Western Times, 4 November 1966:


solitary rev wtimes


Southern Evening Echo (Southampton) (W. M. Hill), 5 November 1966 (This is a particularly percipient insight into HW and his writing.):


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Current Literature, December 1966:


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Books and Bookmen (possibly Ian Flavin?), December 1966:


[Opens with a quotation re Phillip's proposed article for 'peace'.]


. . . While the war against Hitler is still a phoney one, there is still room in England for those who, like Maddison, believe in cooperation with the Reich. But Phillip finds that his political life, like his private affairs, invite increasing hostility from those around him. . . . [some details of the plot] . . .


Anybody who reads the book will understand Phillip Maddison, the sort of man he is and why he thinks as he does. I can sympathise with Maddison – but can I forgive him? In the novel he remembers too well the horrors of Ypres and Passchendaele . . . be that as it may . . . [by 1939 common sense should have prevailed (there speaks someone who did not partake in its horrors)] . . .


Still, Henry Williamson has the courage to present the situation as he saw it . . . but perhaps he should stick to Tarka the Otter.


Daily Telegraph (David Holloway), 5 January 1967:


My generation has learnt more of exactly what it was like to be in the trenches in nearly all the battles of the first world war from Henry Williamson's long novel sequence “A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight” than from any other work of fiction.


Phillip Maddison's feelings are very different now from 1914 . . . he is a fascist and the feeling of the East Anglians among whom he lives turns to hostility.


This is perhaps the saddest of all the volumes of the saga . . . [details Maddison's problems] . . . Maddison is his usual spikey, self-righteous self . . .


Financial Times (A. Calder-Marshall), 5 January 1967:


I read only 150 novels during 1966 out of 4,263 published. Of these I select some for their excellence . . .


[Each chosen title only gets a brief one sentence. First on his list is Anthony Powell, The Soldier's Art (vol. 8 of Dance to the Music of Time): 'rightly hailed for its sustained invention'; then] . . . but A Solitary War' did not receive the recognition it deserved because of its strange account of the quandaries of a Hitler-loving patriotic Englishman in the first year of the late war.


Sheffield Morning Telegraph, 7 January 1967:


. . . [details of book] . . . Maddison, veteran of World War I, faces a new war in Europe with reluctance and disbelief, though his battles are restricted to his personal home front. The fact that he, a farmer and writer, has purchased some “bad” lands just at the time when the war with Germany is at hand, makes him the subject of suspicion as an enemy agent. Which is only one of his troubles. . . . [Notes that the plot seems to have an autobiographical element.]


All the same this novel proves once more that Williamson is a gifted author. He has approached his immense task with a great deal of dedication.







solitary rev advert






The Panther paperback edition, published in 1969, received considerable attention, although several were merely short and repetitive and so not included here. Most regrettably Panther decided not to published the last two books in the series.


Evening Despatch (Bob James), 29 August 1969:


Stand by for another chapter in Henry Williamson's magnificent saga 'A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight' which follows Phillip Maddison from childhood through two world wars. . . . the 13th book in a series that presents a panoramic view of social and political life over three generations. It knocks the Forsytes into a cocked hat!


Halifax Evening Courier, 8 August 1969 (The wording suggests the reviewer is the same as for the review above):


Into the Panther list comes “A Solitary War” (7s) the 13th story in . . . a panorama of British social and political life over three generations.


Liverpool Daily Post, 8 August 1969:


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Express and Echo, 15 August 1969:


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Retail Newsagent, 16 August 1969:


Stephen Mogridge's Book Counter



[Includes Ace of Spies, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Long Trail, Grains of Sand, The Gothic Line, Strike North, The Bridge of Remagen.]


Panther have the 13th in Henry Williamson's novel sequence . . . The epic sequence recounts the trials and triumphs of Williamson's hero, Phillip Maddison, from childhood through two world wars. In this latest volume Phillip is on the threshold of the Second World War, farming in East Anglia, and is detained by the police as a suspected fifth columnist when France falls.


Methodist Recorder ('WEP'), 21 August 1969:


On the Book Page a week or so ago Leslie Farmer reviewed one of Henry Williamson's newest books and made a reference in so doing to the Maddison Saga the author had built up . . . . The newest title is A Solitary War and it traces the story of Phillip Maddison during the Second World War. It is a time of national and domestic disaster, for both on his land and in his home Maddison is having an extremely bad time. All this is set of course against a period still vividly remembered and caught meticulously by this most discerning, sensitive and indefatigable of writers.


Sunderland Echo (M.C.B.), 19 September 1969:


solitary rev sunderland


Evening Express (Aberdeen), 18 August 1969 (also in the Doncaster Evening Post):


The latest paperback in the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight sequence, one of the most monumental achievements in fiction by a 20th century British author.


Phillip Maddison, central figure in the Chronicle novels finds himself facing the rigours of another world war. His farm in East Anglia is failing, and Phillip's personal life is in the process of disintegrating: his wife and children are growing away from him.


His political activities in the pre-World War II years are catching up with him and he is regarded with suspicion by the local people. All in all he seems set up for a pretty unpleasant war, but his dogged determination and quiet courage provide an unwavering flame of hope in the gathering darkness of the early war years.


Henry Williamson needs no introduction as the highly successful author of Tarka the Otter and Salar the Salmon and other immensely popular novels of rural life.









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