How Dear is Life: Critical reception

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Critical reception:

 

 

That HW was feeling very anxious and depressed about the lack of review coverage is obvious from the opening section above. This is the first of those books about the First World War that he had been planning to write since the end of that war. He was very keyed up, and fragile emotionally.

 

That there was a total lack of review from the mainstream newspapers seems most peculiar. However, there was quite a wide coverage elsewhere. But it becomes very clear that many did not want to be reminded of war, especially one that had taken place so long before – when they were still recovering from the wounds of the Second. But those that were in empathy were very enthusiastic.

 

First, a quotation from the long critical essay ‘The Novels of Henry Williamson’ by John Middleton Murry, printed in The Aylesford Review, Vol. II, No. 2 (Winter 1957-58): reprinted with additional material in Katherine Mansfield & Other Literary Studies (Constable, 1959), and issued as an e-book by the HWS (2013). It is from this essay that the quotation on the back cover of the Macdonald 1984 edition is taken. Murry was an esteemed writer and critic, had been a close friend of D. H. Lawrence, was the husband of Kathleen Mansfield, had run a Community Farm in Suffolk during the war, and was a long-term friend of HW, and the editor of The Adelphi (handing that literary magazine over to HW in 1946). Murry wrote:

 

. . . How Dear Is Life deals with Phillip’s experience in the First World War. Innocent and ignorant, as a young insurance clerk he has joined the London Highlanders, for the fun of the thing, with a schoolboy’s romantic idea of soldiering. Then he plunges into the appalling reality of war. No picture of the 1914 was that I know surpasses the second part of How Dear Is Life for the sheer power of enduring in the reader’s memory. In a queer way, it is not terrible; it does not so much haunt as satisfy the imagination. It is human, it is humorous, it is pathetic, it is horrible, it is noble – and, above all else, it is beautiful.

 

Liverpool Daily Post (Brother Savage), 7 June 1954. This is an advance notice by someone who knew HW and obviously wrote a regular column. That he had read the book is obvious – a TS version as proofs did not arrive with HW until 10 July. Headed ‘A Poet who Vanished’, the first part is about the poet Ralph Hodgson (with whom this reviewer had once been friends), now awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for work done 40 years before and not heard of since the early 1920s – which he obviously finds rather odd. The second part is about HW, now moved back down to Devon and ‘with a talented son just preparing to embark on a career not unlike his father’s’ (that is Richard, author and naturalist, President of the HW Society).

 

Mr Williamson is happily at work writing more novels, all of them natural successors to that early best-seller “Tarka the Otter”. It is inevitable that the latest of them should be autobiographical. Mr Williamson’s own experience has been rich and vivid and in “How Dear Is Life” he looks back at the first World War in which he had a tragic part.

 

He brings home the poignancy of Laurence Binyon’s “They went with songs to the battle, they were young”, and the terrible irony of it. We learn now that the ammunition issued in the great Battle of Ypres was for rifles which had never been tested, so that it did not fit the magazine charges. The London Highlanders lost 400 men in the first twenty-four hours.

 

The Spectator (John Metcalf), 12 November 1954:

 

How Dear Is Life is the ninth volume in the chronicle of the Maddisons [interestingly including The Flax of Dream within the number!], the third to concentrate on Phillip. It takes him from his first job at the Moon Insurance sub-office in Wine Vaults Lane to a shell-hole near Ypres in the first year of the Great War. It is written with a timeless kind of cosiness, a sprawling, spacious, suburban mansion of a book, that includes somewhere in its overfilled rooms a souvenir of every day of its inhabitants’ lives; a comfortable cheery book which, by its good-hearted innocence, makes Phillip’s experience in France read like a Boys Own Paper for grown-ups. Yet Mr Williamson is patiently creating an authentic middle-class view of social history through the end of the nineteenth century towards today; and irritating as How Dear Is Life is at moments, the main impression retained is one of painstaking honesty.

 

Oxford Mail (S.P.B. Mais), 11 November 1954:

 

The Horror of Ypres

Epic of World War I

 

Henry Williamson deals faithfully and in vivid detail with the first four months of the First World War. Gifted with an extraordinarily retentive memory, and very unusual patience, he is able to reconstruct step by step every stage of his young hero’s transition from raw recruit in the Territorial London Highlanders to seasoned war veteran. . . .

 

Mr Williamson conveys very clearly the almost happy-go-lucky attitude of those first young volunteers who were sure it was all going to be over by Christmas; their gradual realisation of the overwhelming power of the Germans, the increasing misery and horror of those confused days. . . .

 

Mr Williamson is obviously building up a monumental epic . . .

 

The Scotsman, 11 November 1954:

 

. . . The new novel describes how young Phillip takes his first job in the City, joins the Territorials, and, almost before he has spent his first salary, finds himself in the Battle of Ypres.

 

Mr Williamson tells the story with a compelling depth of feeling. He makes deeply moving the youth’s introduction to work in the City, while his thoughts lie with the life of the country, and the hardening process of war, bringing lines to a young face which hardly knows the razor. The experiences of the British Expeditionary Force in the early months of the war are described with detail which, while engrossing, does not swamp the personal story. This is the most satisfying of the Maddison series of novels.

 

Eastern Daily Press (Adrian Bell), 2 November 1954 (8½” column):

 

A New Novel by Henry Williamson

 

. . . Partly it is a war book, but the war is that which we knew as the “Great War”. . . . But before that the scene is one of bourgeois tranquillity. . . . The jog-trot of the period is well suggested. Phillip suffers all the embarrassments of a young man not yet sure of himself . . . but there is a wild and independent streak in Phillip that takes him into the country . . . Nothing is more characteristic than this power which is infused into his writing when, through Phillip’s eyes, he looks at nature. It becomes also an implicit comment on humanity.

 

This dual nature of Phillip is the vital élan of the book. [Then records several instances of nature within the horror of the war scenes.] The battles of 1914 read like battles of a hundred years ago compared to the war of block-busters and guided missiles – confused struggles in midnight woods, while alternate terror and bravado possess Phillip. . . .

 

In the final pages . . . becoming inured to that nightmare world of mud and blood seems to be pushing the young idealist in Phillip into the background. But Mr Williamson has not done with Phillip yet.

 

The Birmingham Post (R.C. Churchill), 23 November 1954:

 

Henry Williamson’s chronicle . . . has now reached the time of the First World War. . . . [Phillip] soon becomes a unit in that mixed army of Regular veterans and Territorial youngsters which suffered so severely in Flanders in stemming the triumphant German advance.

 

How Dear Is Life is not a great novel, but it is a well-remembered one, reminding us notably of the poems of the author’s contemporaries – Edward Thomas, Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen – who were among the many young men who did not survive.

 

[Also reviewed here is J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers:] ‘his epic romance . . . with further enormous instalment. Perhaps ‘epicurean’ would be a more fitting term . . . for [despite] every praise for his imagination and learning, one rather doubts whether his fable . . . has the inherent popularity which the epic theme demands.’ [Ah!]

 

Manchester Evening News (Julian Symons), 30 December 1954 (15” column):

 

OVER THE TOP – WITH A USELESS RIFLE

 

. . . Reading these books is rather like looking at a series of old photographs. It is with a kind of photographic faithfulness that Mr Williamson records the kind of tea Phillip eats as an insurance clerk . . . its cost . . . and reads one of the magazines of the day – Nash’s, The Royal, the London Magazine, or Pearson’s. . . . The effect of Mr Williamson’s writing is cumulative . . . the total effect is one of deep observation [gives various examples]. In this book Phillip Maddison for the first time emerges from the shadow of family life to become a real personality.

 

Sheffield Telegraph (E.P. Watling),26 November 1954. In a column headed ‘Language Has Its Explorers’, which states (waffles about) that good prose is verse, and vice versa and mentions some classic writers, giving William Sansom’s Lord Love Us as a current good example [not the best example surely?] and continuing:

 

Old hands Henry Williamson and Ernest Raymond can be relied on for good story-telling. “How Dear Is Life” is a further stage in the story of Phillip Maddison . . . London life of Edwardian days and First World War; nostalgic is the word. [I can imagine HW’s reaction to that!]

 

British Broadcasting Corporation (Bristol): Letter, 11 November 1954:

 

. . . Mr Waller [Talks Producer West Region] asked me to let you know the R. H. Ward will be reviewing [How Dear Is Life] on Tuesday 7 December, 6.45 – 7.00 pm in the West of England Home Service.

 

Church of England Newspaper (Bernard Causton), 3 December 1954 (7½” column):

 

An experienced novelist [basic resumé of the plot – 3 different parts]. The narrative, compelling attention throughout, evokes the tense atmosphere at the outbreak of war, as it affects ordinary people in homes and offices.

 

Yorkshire Evening Press (Evie Crosland), 2 December 1954 (10” column):

 

It’s Good But Conventional

 

By comparison with previous volumes, which raised Mr Williamson to the best rank of contemporary novelists . . . is a little on the conventional side. The first part of the book, it is true, reveals something of Mr Williamson’s individual style. . . . We glimpse the strain [of becoming adult] and we are infected by the animal exuberance which possesses the young man during his solitary holiday in the country. All this is unpretentious, real, solid, and beautifully handles. [But the reviewer does not like the war descriptions].

 

Nevertheless, the book is saved from being just another war novel by the author’s acute perception of character. Skilfully he reveals the gradual hardening of Phillip’s personality under the impact of army life. . . . I rather hope Mr Williamson will skip the rest of the war and concentrate on the pleasant landscape and sensitive portraits which are his true metier.

 

Western Mail, Cardiff (H.M. Dowling), 24 November 1954:

 

Continuing his saga of Phillip Maddison, a character in whom all men over 50 must recognise something of themselves and the vanished world of their youth, Mr Williamson takes him, raw, naïve, and untried, from an insurance office in London to the chaotic fury of Ypres. The 1914 era is reproduced with astonishing vividness. . . . rare fidelity to his recollections. He paints young Phillip and his world without romantic gloss, yet tenderly and with power.

 

Vanity Fair, February 1955, gave a mention:

 

. . .[How Dear Is Life] is an excursion into another branch of the Maddison family, the story of Phillip, cousin of Willie, . . . Set in the days of the First World War. . . . Wonderfully and movingly written in the best Henry Williamson manner, this book is a worthy addition to his list of previous bestsellers.

 

St Martin’s Review, 5 January 1955:

 

In fiction this month. Mr Henry Williamson leads the way with . . . I have sometimes thought that Phillip was doomed from the start in the petty and unhappy family life into which he was born, but Mr Williamson is a practical visionary and it is clear that he has plans for Phillip as he comes through his ordeal. Other writers – poets, historians, dramatists and novelists – have talked this mighty and painful theme, but none, I think, has excelled Mr Williamson in his dreadful but compassionate picture of a young generation lost or disillusioned in the inferno of war. He selects and marshals their experience with the vision and assurance of a great artist.

 

Fortnightly Review (John Eales), December 1954. Three novels are reviewed here: HW’s; John Cowper Powys, Atlantis; Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Flint Anchor. As these are authors of some standing in the literary world, one would expect such comparison to be useful and interesting. The reviewer opens with a nice analysis of the conventions of reviewing: ‘there are certain recognised civilities’ [one should not be rude!], and that the reviewer has to make choices and comparison [some of which is personal choice]. But after such a preamble his remarks tend to be somewhat trite.

 

Each of the novelists under review is an expert: ‘expert’ meaning no more or less than its face value. All have set their narratives in times already consigned to history. Mr Williamson . . . is the easiest to read; he put himself out to be agreeable company [one might query that statement!] . . . Mr Williamson’s account . . . will possibly never be more vividly described. . . .

 

Keeping company with Mr Powys is a different and altogether more disconcerting experience [and the reviewer cannot get on with his style or content].

 

[Miss Warner’s] novel is the one that gave this reviewer the greatest pleasure . . . [She] is an intractable realist.

 

The Bookseller, 1 January 1955. A long column: in the interval after Christmas the reviewer has ‘communed with the controversialists of a quarter of a century ago’, among which he looks briefly at war books at that time as reviewed then by Clennell Wilkinson, who had stated that:

 

Henry Williamson in The Wet Flanders Plain had revisited: “with every appearance of enjoyment the scene of all the blood and misery which he has so often denounced” (and what would the reviewer have said if he had known that twenty-five years later the same author would have just published So Dear Is Life [sic] the same theme in greater detail); Charles Douie’s The Weary Road was “refreshingly optimistic” and the Rev. P. B. Clayton’s Plain Tales from Flanders were “at any rate, sincere”, . . .. Only the key word Flanders marks the passage of years. [Thus for us tying up nicely those two HW titles.]

 

The Tablet (Robert Cardigan),8 January 1955. After a bland description of the plot the reviewer feels it all:

 

. . . seems quite distant in time. The book should hold an appeal for the curious, or for those who wish to rekindle old memories.

 

British Weekly, 27 January 1955:

 

. . . This story is memorable for two things, first the almost painful clarity of scene after scene of that old world, brilliant, care-free, hard-working, colourful; and second, the ineradicable effect of that first war on all those who knew the era before it. It says much for Mr Williamson’s powers that he rises triumphant over the horrors and bitterness. It would be unfair to ask him for a complete answer to the problems he raises.

 

The book got rather scant attention from west of England papers.

 

North Devon Journal, 21 October 1954 (with photo of HW):

 

New book on way.

 

A new book by . . . the celebrated author who now lives at Georgeham, is being published next week. I am told it includes an account of a holiday spent in North Devon just before the outbreak of the first world war. . . . Mr Williamson has kept his place among the foremost writers in England since he attained international fame with “Tarka the Otter”.

 

Western Morning News, 3 December 1954:

 

West Novelist Adds To Saga

 

Steadily Mr Williamson, the West Country writer, has matured into one of the really significant authors of this generation, each succeeding book seeming to show increased assurance and mastery. . . . Williamson has practically perfected his style of novel, which is distinctive in having no conventional plot at all. Like life, on which it is closely based, it consists of a series of incidents, a passage in the round of a typical family, having no specific beginning or end.

 

Ireland took more notice:

 

Dublin Evening Herald (Bookman), 1 November 1954:

 

It is now many years since I read with deep pleasure “The Flax of Dream” . . . Williamson’s latest novel returns again to those rural scenes he so well loves and to that first world war which provides such a startling contrast. This strangely nostalgic story shows the remarkable difference in outlook between the youth of that generation and those of the pre-1939 vintage. A story of great power and beauty.

 

The Cork Examiner, 4 November 1954 (7” column):

 

For his latest novel Henry Williamson goes back forty years to the time when there was something of romance left in the prospect of war and when youth ventured forth to fight as to a gay adventure. Those of us old enough to remember can recall that the opening gambits of World War I contained no threats of bleak years ahead or of such permanent changes in the structure of living that a new way of life had to be fashioned afterwards. Mr Williamson captures it all in this most realistic novel, which moves smoothly from youth to manhood and on to the final disillusionment in which all love, all romance and all the dramas of high adventure were swept away in the bloody holocaust that was the first Battle of Ypres. . . .

Dublin Sunday Independent, 30 January 1955 (6” column):

 

We do not consider this an exceptional novel . . . but it may bring back to readers deep in years, cherished and poignant memories of vanished youth. . . . Its opening pages are a literary recreation of the cushioned comfort and social serenity of the English middle classes in the months that preceded the bursting of the storm towards the end of Summer 1914. . . .

 

In Australia:

 

Sydney Morning Herald (E.H.S. Miller), 22 January 1955 (10½” column):

 

This novel of World War I is a good example of the impressiveness than can sometimes be gained by distant perspective. . . .

 

In these pages Mr Williamson is plainly reliving a personal experience, yet the passing of time has enabled him to place it with a historian’s accuracy in the broad pattern of events. This is the story of the British Expeditionary Force to France in 1914; of the Old Contemptibles – the regulars who met the first crushing weight of the German onslaught at Mons – and in particular, of the Territorial troops . . . the young men who found themselves pitchforked from a tranquil, prosperous, ordered and orderly life in the pre-1914 England into a holocaust beyond their wildest imaginings [a point made before] but seldom so effectively.

 

The change of setting to France is achieved with a suddenness that is stark and awesome. . . . painfully subjective but also uncompromisingly realistic. Though it is a notable departure from his other versatile writings, this novel will be counted by many as his best work.

 

There are three reviews which deserve fuller coverage. The first because the writer, Lt. Col. T. A. Lowe, DSO, MC, had known HW at Ypres in 1914, and so must be unique:

 

hdl lowe

 

The second is the discursive article by George Painter, a staunch supporter of HW, who himself was an eminent biographer, notably of Marcel Proust, which won him a prestigious literary prize. This is the review mentioned by HW’s first wife in her letter shown earlier in this exposition: a review which obviously restored some of HW’s belief in his self-set task.

 

hdl painter

 

But let us end with the third, from John O’London’s Weekly, 20 August 1954, which has a photograph of HW on the front (one used quite a lot for publicity at this time).

 

hdl hw olondon

 

The long article (over a whole page) is by Denys Val Baker (a friend of HW and himself a writer) and is headed:

 

BRILLIANT OR HALF-BAKED

 

Henry Williamson has written books of many types, but has now finished one that he has been wanting to write for nearly forty years, about the first battle of Ypres.

 

The content of all the first part of this article is general and belongs elsewhere but Val Baker finishes with comment on the forthcoming How Dear Is Life:

 

Of his latest book, he told me that it was one which he had been wanting to write for nearly forty years. It deals with the “red little, dead little army” which perished in the first battle of Ypres, in the 1914-18 Great War. For many months Williamson worked on this novel – to be published shortly by Messrs. Macdonald under the title How Dear Is Life – and he says he found it emotionally exhausting reliving a period that was so important in his life, both as man and writer.

 

After weeks and weeks of nearly night and day writing, often writing for eighty hours continuously with breaks for food and sleep in my clothes, I began to feel that my writing-hut was a bunker in the winter of 1914, in the Ypres salient. It was as if the battle were on outside in the Devon winter darkness, and I was almost afraid to cross the field at night to my home, in case machine guns opened up! But I enjoyed it all hugely.

 

After completing this book, Williamson described himself as looking like a ghost. When I saw him he was still voluble with

 

all the old feelings, anguishes, comradeship, and romance felt in those early days among the finest fellows in the world, the old soldiers of the pre-war Regular Army, the gutter boys who could not get work, so they joined the Army in the days when “soldier” was a taunt on the lips of those who had just avoided the gutter.

 

Written with such passion and feeling, Williamson’s book is certain to cause a stir. He is the sort of writer, and man, who can make his friends as well as enemies angry with him: but that is no reason for ignoring the fact that, in the stream of English literature, he is a figure of real stature and undoubted permanency.

 

 

 

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