A Test to Destruction - Critical reception

 

 

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Critical reception:

 

There appears to be a problem about copies of reviews of A Test to Destruction. The file is very thin indeed. I should point out here that these ‘reviews’ files (as indeed all the files in the archive) have been gathered together by myself (Anne Williamson). At the time of HW’s death in 1977 the archive was in chaos, total disarray. It took several years to get it into any kind of order. Although HW was meticulous in keeping items, he was not meticulous about storing them: particularly in the later years, let us say post-WWII.

 

Thus the material in any one current file has been gathered up from various sources and more than one location (his Field, the Ilfracombe cottage, his first wife’s belongings).

 

These reviews, often still folded up in the tiny envelopes they arrived in tended to be thrown into a box along with letters, accounts etcetera: when the box was full he would start another. But even that vague order did not actually exist: it is obvious that over the years much muddling of material took place as he looked for items he needed.

 

So here it is apparent that material has to be missing. There are hardly any ‘official’ review cuttings: that is, Durrant’s Press Cuttings with their distinctive green information slip. The few items I have found have been cut, more often torn, out by HW himself. Perhaps the subscription to Durrant’s lapsed (one of those things he had expected Christine to attend to which caused so much irritation). The fact that there are a few once 1961 begins tends to bear this theory out. The following advert also shows some quotes from current reviews not in the files.

 

 

test tlsreview1      test tlsreview2

 

This long advertisement (here in two parts for convenience) reveals HW’s other publications at that time.

 

The Observer (John Davenport), 27 November 1960:

 

A Test to Destruction is the eighth in the sequence of novels known collectively as “A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight”. The present volume is about the last year of the “Great War” and the year following the first silence upon the battlefield. Mr. Williamson has set himself a task of re-creation that is almost unparalleled. This, one feels, is what it was really like. Aldington, Blunden, Graves and Sassoon wrote their very personal war books roughly a decade after 1919; Mr. Williamson, looking back over more than forty years, is attempting to re-construct a whole society. One feels that one knows everything about Phillip Maddison and his world.

 

This is the weakness of the book: one knows almost too much. It is like an enormously long documentary film. . . . The hero’s responses are so unsurprising, for Mr. Williamson has deliberately set out to create an ordinary lower-middle-class young man, that one becomes a little bored by him. Too little is left to the imagination. . . .

 

At the end Phillip feels a sense of power to face the future . . . It will be interesting to see how the succeeding volumes develop, now that the hero has reached this point. One thing is certain: whatever its literary merits, the completed work must have a permanent historical value.

 

Daily Telegraph (David Holloway), 9 December 1960:

 

All wars have to come to an end sometime – and so do their chronicles. After half-a-million words, Phillip Maddison’s annals of the 1914-18 war have now reached Armistice Day. In fact [Test] takes the Maddison story into the uneasy readjustment period of 1919.

 

. . . The documentary of life in the trenches and the comment on the military conduct of the war are often brilliant, always [un? – surely a typo error] prejudiced and almost certainly true. Few books give a better feeling of the moments before an attack or of the unconquerable fear that leads to a rout.

 

Yet at the same time Phillip himself is a maddening, unlikeable character, huffy, socially uncertain, self-centred, and generally impossible. . . . He takes over the command of his battalion in an emergency and comes home burnt by mustard gas, a colonel and a D.S.O. but while he is fighting he is full of doubts and fears. . . . always the narrative is being broken for irrelevant incident or self-examination.

 

The war is over but the saga is not. Phillip, fed up with civilians and missing the schoolboy code of morals that worked in the trenches has retired to Cornwall [actually Devon!] to write. Annoying, not always well-written though they are, somehow through sheer doggedness and idiosyncracy these books will be read as a complete chronicle of a man at war when half-a-hundred better books are forgotten.

 

Express & Echo (C. V. Jiggens), Exeter, 2 December 1960:

 

Henry Williamson is still probably most widely known as a writer about animals and rural life . . . [which] have a quality that seems to assure them of a permanent place in the literature of the countryside. But what this prolific Devon author regards himself as his major work is a monumental chronicle about people which aims (he has said) “to re-create an entire period in which I grew up, observed, wondered, was thrilled . . .”

 

Williamson is now in his sixties, and his earliest days were thus spent in the late Victorian era, and his entry into manhood coincided with the Great War.

 

[Details of Test et cetera] . . . the world which the author recreates so faithfully and so convincingly is the world he has lived in.

 

Williamson has already drawn a vivid and horrifying picture of the realities of life in the trenches and the cruelty of war in the last three volumes . . . in “Test to Destruction” the Germans prepare their final offensive. He finds himself in a short time in command of a battalion as the Fifth Army reels under the onslaught.

 

He returns again – a casualty and hero – to the world of his family and friends, from which a great gulf separates him . . .

 

The detail and incident with which Williamson blends fact and fiction in re-creating this world of Phillip Maddison makes the drama of this situation come alive in our minds. As well as a fine novel it is a historically valuable narrative, and will make newcomers to these books want to turn back through the hundreds of pages to the beginning of the “Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight”.

 

Punch (Eric Keown), 14 December 1960:

 

It is as remarkable a feat by Henry Williamson to write so vividly of the battles of 1918 that they might have happened yesterday as it is an experience to sense again the atmosphere of the war before last, so wildly different from its successor. A Test to Destruction is the eighth in Mr. Williamson’s sequence of novels dealing with the Maddison family; it covers the Spring of 1918, when Phillip Maddison, much battered by war, finds himself back in the trenches again, to the summer of 1919 when, having been to prison after something approaching a nervous breakdown, he begins work in a newspaper office. [Interesting that this reviewer picks up on that ‘nervous breakdown’.]

 

Phillip was an unspectacular amateur who, though very uncertain of his courage, drove himself to lead a battalion with gallantry, and through him the final struggles in France are magnificently described. . . .

 

His record of the home front is no doubt just as accurate, but I find it less successful. Even Phillip’s unhappy parents are pale figures beside such striking portraits as that of his wise, tired Colonel.

 

The Aylesford Review, Volume IV, No. 1, Winter 1960-61, carried an important essay, ‘Facing the Spectres of the Mind’, by Fr Brocard Sewell (pp. 21-25). The article opens with an overview of HW’s previous writing but then concentrates on Test:

 

The author’s powers of recreative and interpretative 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 will recognise their truth . . .

 

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.

 

[Various characters are then analysed.]

 

With the Armistice comes the climax – Phillip’s real Test to Destruction. (The phrase is Winston Churchill’s.) . . . Phillip . . . 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. . . . The initial period of peace is the harder to bear in that since the war all comradeship has gone, and the fighting seems to have been in vain. So the real test is spiritual.

 

[Fr Brocard then concentrates on Thomas Turney and his religious thinking. At the end he states:]

 

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. . . . What will Phillip become?

 

. . . In these novels of Henry Williamson 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.’

 

This issue of The Aylesford Review also contained reviews by Anthony Gower of In The Woods and Letters from a Soldier.

 

Christmas Choice (unattributed) – shows an interesting selection:

 

test sixofbest

 

Unattributed:

 

A TEST TO DESTRUCTION . . . which has grown up from the first world war’s seeds in Victorian industrialism to the falling of Europe’s flower of youth in the mud of the Western Front.

 

Here are the last great convulsions of 1918, and Phillip Maddison’s return to peace – and the greater struggle that confronted the young soldier with his unique and terrible experience to become a civilian. The reality of the humour and fear, despair and courage, love and conflict, draws you in to live within the world re-created with such truth, power, and pity.

 

Irish Times (R. M. Gamble), 17 December 1960:

 

“A Test to Destruction” is the eighth in the series of sizable novels describing the experiences of Phillip Maddison through the First World War (or the Great War as it used to be known). This one deals with the German offensive in 1918, the allied riposte, and the first year of peace, when the horror of trench warfare was replaced, for the ordinary man, by the unfamiliar horror of civilian life.

 

If Phillip Maddison had only been a more likeable character, these novels would have been easier to take; but his brash incompetence, his weakness of will and ill-placed bravado, however accurate they may be . . . are a fatal flaw.

 

Nevertheless, the grand design, a sort of Tolstoyan chronicle of 1914-18, is very definitely something to be reckoned with, a valuable record of human experience at a crisis point in history

 

Church Times

 

Recent fiction: ANCIENT SUNLIGHT

 

. . . Mr. Williamson’s design and continuing accomplishment must rank as one of the outstanding literary achievements of the twentieth century. He has unusually great gifts of evocation and is a master of conversation; he writes extraordinarily well, and his occasional aloofness is never without compassion. Not that aloofness, a cold dispassion, is a mark of his work; he can be very passionate indeed, and is not afraid to take sides with his own characters.

 

The result is a novel full of vigour and life. . . . A vast amount of care and thought must have been poured into the making of this book. Too often, in such circumstances, the result is a dead weight of words to be hurried over or ignored. This is certainly not the case with [Test]; the desire to paint a picture historically accurate has in no way occluded emotion or excitement.

 

In any assessment of Mr. Williamson’s work – and one day that assessment will have to be made – it has to be remembered that he has set himself a task which is no less than the re-creation of an epoch, an epoch when the sun set over Europe in the years immediately before and after the Great War of 1914-18. . . .

 

Mr. Williamson has cast his mind back while the memory is not too dim; the result is a series of novels which also form something of a social document. It is a highly impressive achievement. Compared with the literary bungalows of his contemporaries, Mr. Williamson’s work is architect-designed.

 

Western Morning News (undated):

 

PHILLIP MADDISON IN LAST YEAR OF WAR

 

By each new work in the great “Maddison saga” Henry Williamson, the North Devon author, promotes it further in significance. The series . . . now ranks among the greatest contributions to literature in a century.

 

[Test] . . . has a double source of power. By itself it wonderfully recaptures the spirit of those battlefields; the sense of comradeship; the vividness given to natural details by the constant presence of death; the inner personal motives, some based on childhood incidents, that decide conduct in times of test; the curious blend of savagery and farce remembered from those years.

 

. . . Allied with this interest in the novel of itself is the background of the preceding ones, that gives every move and detail a personal characteristic.

 

The work covers a very broad field, recalling the scope of “War and Peace”, and has, in chief, the most ambitious target of exploring life itself, with the parents-and-son relationship predominating as the enduring impression. . . . [Readers should read them all.]

 

John O’London (Antony Gower), 5 January 1961:

 

test gower review

 

Sunday Times:

 

test wiggin review

 

One wonders what HW thought of this! He met Gavin Maxwell (see HWSJ 36, September 2000, John Irving, ‘Two Dedicated Otter Men’, pp. 89-90.) That article may give a misleading impression: a couple of letters from Maxwell show a normal friendship and an invitation to visit.

 

Herald and Express (Torquay, Devon), 7 January 1961; this is a notice of a forthcoming radio programme:

 

In “Books and Authors” on Tuesday in the B.B.C. Home Service, John Wilders will review the eighth volume of Henry Williamson’s series of novels tracing the life of Phillip Maddison. This volume, “A Test to Destruction” takes the story through the last stages of the 1914-18 war into the first years of peace.

 

The Belfast News-Letter, 4 February 1961:

 

THE WORLD OF 1918-19

 

“A Test to Destruction” . . . continues the author’s sequence of novels about Phillip Maddison and covers the period of the last year of the 1914-19 war and the first year of peace. Seen at a distance in time of 40 years, this large-scale reconstruction of the world of 1918-19 is characterised by true historical detachment, which at times detracts from one’s sympathy of the individual characters. Nevertheless, Mr. Williamson succeeds admirably in the task he has set himself – and it is no minor one. More than any of the other books written by British authors about the First World War, this makes one feel that this is the real thing, and if its rather prosaic hero is not one to capture the imagination, that is the touchstone of the book’s realism. Phillip Maddison is typical of his generation.

 

Mid-Devon Advertiser, 19 August 1961:

 

test middevon review

 

Evening Argus (Brighton), 19 March 1964 (review of paperback):

 

test argus review

 

 

 

Back to A Test to Destruction main page

 

HW's design suggestions for cover

 

HW at Trefusis House, 1917

 

HW at Felixstowe