Henry Williamson and Catholicism

 

 

Go to:

 

A look at Francis Thompson's life and work

 

The influence of Francis Thompson on Henry Williamson

 

Henry Williamson and the Francis Thompson Society

 

'A First Adventure with Francis Thompson' in The Mistress of Vision

 

'In Darkest England' in The Hound of Heaven

 

 

 

Henry Williamson and Catholicism

 

 

Before examining HW's actual essays regarding FT, it is perhaps useful to pause and ponder his position regarding the Catholic church, and indeed to religion in general. Although I do not presume to speak for him, there are certain points which are obvious.

 

HW was not a Catholic (and states this to his audience in his Presidential Address essay ‘In Darkest England’), but one finds there was quite a definite leaning towards Catholicism in his family.

 

By a strange affinity, both his mother, Gertrude Leaver, and his father's sister – HW's aunt, Mary Leopoldina Williamson – had been educated at the same Catholic institution: St Ursula's Convent at Thildonck in Belgium. (These two families, Williamson and Leaver, were, towards the end of the 1800s, also next-door neighbours in Sutton, near London.) This Catholic education must have influenced both women, although with perhaps very different results. I have shown in these pages on Francis Thompson, and elsewhere, the very potent influence of Mary Leopoldina on HW, which was towards the visionary rather than the religious aspect of thought.

 

HW's mother does not appear to have actually been of the Catholic faith, but HW shows in his novels that the fictional Hetty Maddison (based on his mother) did, as often as she could, attend services at the nearby Catholic church, and that young Phillip often went with her. These episodes are based on real life. It is also interesting to note that in Young Phillip Maddison (vol. 3 of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight), when the family paid a visit to the Convent in Belgium, young Phillip (and so HW) felt blessed in the company of Mère Ambroisine (the actual name of the Mother at St Ursula's). See ‘A Fair Seed-time’: An illustrated account of Henry Williamson's childhood for further information about St Ursula’s Convent.

 

HW's sister Kathy was also educated at the Convent at Thildonck (this being the reason for the fictionalised visit above), and I understand that she did convert to Catholicism at some point.

 

Then we find, crucially connected with HW's experience of the war, two men of vision: one the Catholic visionary Francis Thompson, the other the equally visionary Richard Jefferies and his The Story of My Heart.

 

HW's 1920s 'Journal' – the 'Richard Jefferies Journal' (so-named by myself) – reveals his deep inner struggle to equate war and religion – in terms of Jesus Christ and his own confused thoughts. The outcome of this was the almost surreal work The Star-born, which was written in 1922 although not published until 1933, when it is stated that it is the book Willie Maddison was writing before his death by drowning in the estuary (the ending of The Pathway).

 

It is also interesting that HW was taken up and lauded by Fr Brocard Sewell, a devout Catholic priest, who mostly wrote about great figures within Catholic literature. Brocard evidently recognised a visionary quality pervading HW's writing that had the ring of 'Truth', even if it wasn't necessarily Catholic Truth. I note that all the other members of the 'Aylesford group' were staunch Catholics.

 

HW was not perhaps religious in the accepted sense of the word, and the visionary and mystic qualities found in his writing are more based on FT's idea of 'All things linkèd are'. Throughout his life he was searching for something that would answer life's questions – as indeed was FT in his ‘The Mistress of Vision’.

 

It is also surely worth noting that at the very end of his life, when troubled by dementia, HW was taken into the care of the monks at Twyford Abbey, and found solace there; just as, in earlier years, FT had found solace at St John's Hospital.

 

 

 

*************************

 

 

Go to:

 

A look at Francis Thompson's life and work

 

The influence of Francis Thompson on Henry Williamson

 

Henry Williamson and the Francis Thompson Society

 

'A First Adventure with Francis Thompson' in The Mistress of Vision

 

'In Darkest England' in The Hound of Heaven

 

 

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