The Gold Falcon: The background



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The book


Publishing history and book covers


Critical reception


Press clippings about HW's 1930/31 visit to the USA




The background:


The background to HW’s first visit to America and to The Gold Falcon is told in considerable detail in HWSJ 45, September 2009, which is almost entirely devoted to various aspects of the book (and should be read by those who want full understanding of it); and of course there are also some brief details in my biography Henry Williamson: Tarka and the Last Romantic (1995). However, there is a great deal of information which is needed to put the book completely into context. The actual sequence of events is put together from letters and other documents within HW’s archive. It is all quite complicated, but the book marks an important landmark in HW’s literary life and so needs detailed explanation.


HW’s American publisher, John Macrae of E. P. Dutton & Co., made fairly frequent visits to London on business, and it is evident that HW had met him more than once. For instance, on 1 January 1929 HW recorded:


Dined with John Macrae. He wants the early novels “as soon as I have them ready revised for him” & hopes to sell 50,000 of The Pathway in the U.S.A. Perhaps!


(The Pathway did indeed take America by storm on publication.)


Further, HW took the current ‘love of his life’, a German girl called Barbara Krebs, to dine with Macrae in London just before she returned home to Germany in January 1930. Barbara had been studying literature in England, and had visited Georgeham, staying with Miss Johnson (naturist and vegetarian who ran a guest-house there), where HW met her in the summer of 1929.


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Barbara Krebs with HW, at the time of the building of his Writing Hut in 1929


Although she appears to have reciprocated his feelings, Barbara wanted him to be reconciled with his wife, and refused to be drawn further into a relationship, returning to Germany in January 1930 – leaving HW in a state of suicidal desperation, as the note below illustrates; though his depression at such failed affaires did not usually last too long.


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Barbara features as Marlene in The Gold Falcon, although there is no evidence that she was ever actually in New York, as happens in the novel.


Macrae, together with his two sons who also worked at Dutton, invited HW to join them on a fishing trip in Quebec Province, Canada, in September 1930; and then to continue down to New York, no doubt with the thought to publicise the imminent publication of The Village Book the following month.


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On the voyage out HW had, most fortuitously, shared a cabin with Professor W. K. Stewart, lecturer in English at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, who invited him to give a lecture at Dartmouth in the New Year and to enjoy some skiing. (HW must have told him of his skiing trip in the Pyrenees the previous year.)


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Written on back in unknown hand (but most likely Helene):

'You survey it skeptically enough! I hope you found all you wanted

in America.  H.T.'

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Captioned by HW:

'Two pals of the Tourist third, Osgood & 'Browneyes'

(possibly Helene?)

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Captioned by HW:

'H.W. on S.S. Empress of France, last afternoon 12th Sept. 1930,

steaming up the St. Lawrence river 1 hour off Quebec'


The fishing trip at Mastigouche lasted until the last day of September, the end of the season, and then the men travelled south back down to New York, where HW was much lauded with a great deal of press attention. The US edition of The Village Book was published on 21 October, and a large number of reviews appeared.


HW had decided to stay on in New York (possibly due to the invitation from Prof. Stewart, but he may have always intended to make an extended visit) and work there over the winter. This was reported in the press and also back in England – and, astonishingly, in Italy! See the page of Press clippings for a selection of these.


His first task was to revise (rewrite!) The Dream of Fair Women for the new edition, a task he completed in three weeks (this was published in June 1931).


At the end of October he moved into an apartment at the top of a six-storey building in Greenwich Village, ‘the arts centre’ area of New York, using his considerable stack of American royalties to pay for it. This may have been part of his original purpose, as the rate of exchange was so poor as to make these royalties fairly worthless in England. (Details of HW’s sojourn in New York can be found in Walker Burns, ‘Grove Street Blues: Places and People from Henry Williamson’s First Trip to America 1930-31’, HWSJ 45, September 2009, pp. 33-54.)


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70 Grove Street in 2007; HW's apartment was on the top floor


When he arrived in New York he had met a girl who worked at Dutton (possibly Macrae’s secretary) called Barbara Sincere, who became the new love of his life – but this quickly became the now familiar see-saw affair, causing him much anguish. She is Barbara Faithfull in The Gold Falcon, where the story of this ‘love-affair’ is told in full detail.


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Barbara Sincere; on the back of the photograph on the right she has written:

'Dress & scarf knitted by Miss B. Sincere'


During the first week of November HW finished re-writing The Dream of Fair Women, wrote an Introduction for H. A. Manhood’s Little Peter the Great, and at some point an introduction for the American edition of John Heygate’s Decent Fellows, while also working on The Star-born (Faber 1933; there was no US edition) and a ‘new’ book, as we learn from letters home to his wife:


6 Nov. 1930, Written from 70 Grove St., Greenwich Village, New York City.

. . . I’m in my lighthouse ‘apartment’. . . . Traffic thunders 24 hours. I’m sitting in the sun – big windows give sun from rise to set. I love it. I won’t write now because I’ve a secret. I am going to write a book called ‘Manfred in New York’ which I shall send you home in lieu of letters.


15 Nov. 1930: I hope Manfred won’t make you sad. Manfred and his symbolical white falcon in New York. It’ll be a queer book – quite imaginary, a fantasy, a reality. Poor Manfred. Poor Helen. Helen is the wife in England. It will be a very modern book, published anonymously. [Helen was soon changed to Ann.]


By 6 December the title had become ‘The Gold Falcon – the Mystical Tale of Manfred in New York’.


Mr and Mrs Sincere, Barbara’s parents, entertained HW on his birthday on 1 December, as evidenced by this birthday tribute poem by Frank Sincere:


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"Birthday Greetings to Henry"


To “Berkman Hill” young Henry came

That smiling writer of English fame

With Ba and Turna (?) as hostesses dear

To greet our writer with mirth & cheer


So Henry old pal here’s birthday greets

And yes, we’ll add to it (?) plenty of eats

Lets remember the kiddies and wifey too

And send them fond greetings from me & you.


For they will be wishing that all the fates

Will be kind to you in the United States.

So you tell ‘em that Gwennie & Bobbie dear

Have added their share of birthday cheer

Sufficient to last you another year

So on with the party at Frank Sincere


However, by Christmas Barbara had made it clear that she could not get involved with a married man – or rather, that her parents had no intention of letting this happen. HW now begged his wife to come out to join him as he was desperately lonely and unhappy, due to the blocked outcome of this affair. By the time Gipsy joined him on 19 January 1931 (leaving the three children, including 6-month-old baby, with Annie Rawle, their housekeeper), he had done quite a lot of work on this book.


They went down to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire on 5 February, where HW met Professor Herbert Faulkner West (who in due course visited England and wrote a charming short bibliographical volume on HW – The Dreamer of Devon), and where HW gave his lecture ‘Hamlet and Modern Life’. The second and last pages of HW's TS of the lecture appear below. Local reports of the lecture are reproduced on the Press clippings page.


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It had previously been thought that HW also gave this same lecture to both Yale and Harvard Universities, but the Harvard Crimson, the daily student newspaper of Harvard University which has recently been digitised, announced in its 3 March 1931 issue:




Henry Williamson, noted British novelist, will speak at 7.30 o’clock tonight in the Exhibition Room of Widener Library on Wilfred Owen, an English poet who was killed in the World War.


Instituted by Morris Grey ’77 to stimulate interest in recent poetry, those talks are delivered several times yearly to an invited audience by speakers entirely independent of the Harvard faculty.


These lectures are a part of HW’s US adventure not included in The Gold Falcon.


The Hamlet essay is reproduced in HWSJ 45, September 2009, pp. 58-80. However, from the few references available it can be inferred that there was a further section to do with ‘modern writers’. From comments made by Prof. West it is possible that this is the material found in HW’s ‘Reality in War Literature’ essay (first published in the London Mercury, 1929, and printed in Linhay on the Downs and other Stories, 1934): and that HW added at least some of this into his Hamlet lecture. News cuttings show this to have been a very successful talk – but I imagine that HW was most dreadfully nervous about it. Photographs show that the skiing was great fun – though HW did manage to twist his ankle (this does appear in The Gold Falcon!).


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HW's inscription was written for Prof. Herb West, the 'swelled guy' comment being a

wry reference to his twisted ankle. (Photograph courtesy of Dartmouth College Library)


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Loetitia and Herb West


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Loetitia with Professors W. K Stewart (left) and H. F. West


HW moves the Dartmouth lecture back in the novel as one given to the literary ladies in New York. He did indeed give them a talk, but his personal papers show that it was not the ‘Hamlet’ lecture (see HWSJ 45, September 2009).


HW and his wife returned to England, sailing on 10 March 1931 and so arriving back about 19 or 20 March. While still in London, before returning home, they paid a visit to Mrs Helen Thomas, widow of Edward Thomas (whose work HW knew and greatly admired – and indeed notes that Thomas had died very close to where HW was at that time), where they also met Thomas’s daughter, Ann. This is Myfanwy – always known to HW as Ann, as indeed she called herself at this time.


In June 1931 HW achieved his ambition to own a fast car by purchasing a second-hand Alvis ‘Silver Eagle’. It had previously been owned by the racing driver Whitney Straight (later a fighter pilot in the Second World War, and subsequently managing director and CEO of the post-war airline BOAC), and was a car that had clearly been driven rather hard. (Indeed, the car itself had an epic life, later serving as a farm car, with a box body, on the Norfolk Farm and as a glider tug post-war. Amazingly it still survives, now carefully restored and a much-loved classic.)


Ann Thomas visited HW at Shallowford that summer (1931) while on holiday in the area, and shortly afterwards gave up her job as a secretary at the BBC (where John Heygate also worked) and came to work for HW – and soon became his mistress. Ann was very good indeed at her work and was certainly a great help at what was a very busy writing period. It is obvious that she was in love with him from the start, and equally obvious why he would have fallen in love with her.


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Top: A studio portrait of Ann Thomas

Bottom: Loetitia (left) and Ann, probably taken on Saunton Sands



They lived as a ménage-à-trois; Gipsy was mainly pre-occupied with her three children, and one suspects that on some levels she was glad to have HW well occupied. Ann gave him a ‘card’ (it is folio size and has 8 pages!) as a gift on his birthday on 1 December that year. Four pages of the card are reproduced below; note that the inscribed poem is by John Donne:


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There followed a very busy and productive time. The Labouring Life was prepared and published in May 1932. In the same month HW was approached by Charles Tunnicliffe (not then well known), who wanted to provide illustrations for a new edition of Tarka the Otter (published by Putnam, autumn 1932). This involved visits from Tunnicliffe and guidance on what was required – all quite energy and time consuming, especially as this quickly evolved into illustrations for new editions of further books (The Old Stag, February 1933; The Lone Swallows, November 1933; The Peregrine’s Saga, February 1934; all published by Putnam as uniform editions).


HW’s major project at this time was the work he had originally written during 1922-3: The Star-born. This was now to be published as the book written by Willie Maddison in The Pathway, as a pendent volume to The Flax of Dream series, and also illustrated by Charles Tunnicliffe. Ann took the typescript of the book to Richard de la Mare at Faber and Faber on 8 August 1932.


Two days later, on 10 August 1932, HW recorded: ‘Completed G.F. at 2.30 p.m.’ He had decided at a very early stage that he would publish the book anonymously. The writing of it was known only to a small handful of close friends who were sworn to secrecy, and he was adamant that the book could only be referred to by its code name ‘Auriferous Bird’ (meaning golden – not exactly a challenging code!). To help maintain this secret he chose two people to steer the book through the processes of publication. For the English edition this was his friend and fellow-writer Frank Swinnerton; and for the American edition it was Barbara Sincere – herself a major character in the story.


Swinnerton was instructed (all cloak and dagger stuff!) to send the book to the publisher Victor Gollancz, but Gollancz felt the book was potentially libellous and turned it down. HW then suggested Faber, and on 10 December 1932 Swinnerton reported that Richard de la Mare had offered good terms: an advance payment of £200, 15% royalty on the first 3000 copies and 20% thereafter. HW tried to haggle for more but to no avail! De la Mare was let into the secret, but again sworn to secrecy. HW was absolutely paranoid about his secret getting out, and if anyone mentioned the book immediately started to accuse all and sundry of betraying him.


Actual publication followed swiftly, in February 1933, only two months after acceptance. Interestingly, this was before The Star-born, which had gone to Faber much earlier but did not appear until May 1933. It was doubtless held up by Charles Tunnicliffe, already busy on illustrations for the other volumes, and whom HW notes as visiting Lydford Gorge (together with HW) to get his local colour for the illustrations on 12 December 1932. ‘Tunny’ sent ‘pulls’ of the illustrations for approval on 28 December, and some time would have been needed to set everything up.


Reviews (see Critical reception) tended to concentrate on the mystery of the authorship rather than the intricacies of the book itself, and as several discerning critics quickly fathomed it out it quickly became an open secret. As HW was fairly scathing about several well-known writers and critics, he upset quite a lot of people – and one can only wonder why someone did not actually sue him! Today all the literary chit-chat is of great interest as giving an insight into that world at that time.


Barbara Sincere found herself very affected by the story when she was sent a typescript copy in November 1932, writing:


It is too much a reliving of my own experience for me not to be absolutely personal in my reaction. Your remembrance and accuracy in retaining and putting down conversation, comments, sights, and sounds, is uncanny. . . . I was fearfully startled when I saw my own letter to you, staring from page 386 [of the TS] and yours to me shortly following. [These are at the end of chapter 9 and the beginning of chapter 10.]


Barbara Sincere had left Dutton at the end of 1930 to remove herself from HW’s presence, at her parent’s insistence, and was then running her own ‘knitting shop’ in Illinois.


There was no question of Dutton taking this book. The relationship between HW and John Macrae had already turned sour. There is no verification available that Barbara was actually in real life engaged to Macrae junior – but if she was then it is certainly part of the reason for the split with HW. Another factor was that Macrae had originally agreed to publish The Star-born, but HW had demanded a great deal more money than Macrae was prepared to give: HW insisted – so Macrae turned it down. HW had also become convinced that he was not getting the correct amount of royalties due to him and was very suspicious, querying every item that appeared. Neither could the two men agree about new editions of the various titles. Probably they found that with prolonged contact they did not actually like each other. Macrae certainly did not approve of HW’s behaviour.


It is certainly possible that HW did not want Macrae to see the book ahead of publication – and so read the portrait of himself as ‘Homer’. Macrae did indeed take great exception to this portrait, but mainly because the very recognisable ‘Homer’ is shown as having a plentiful supply of alcohol around at a time when the Prohibition laws made this illegal, and he was worried that this might damage his reputation.


Barbara was accordingly instructed to approach Longman but they turned it down; then Harrison Smith contacted her asking if the rights were available, and so it was the firm of Harrison Smith and Robert Haas who published the American edition in August 1933.


Publication brought forth an amazing rash of enthusiastic and discerning reviews, and some controversy, as will be seen in the Critical reception section.




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