The Flax of Dream
THE FLAX OF DREAM: a novel in four volumes with a pendant celestial fantasy.
One-volume edition, Faber,
1936, 1st issue
One-volume edtion, Faber,
1936, 2nd issue
The series appeared at intervals over several years starting in 1921. Several other books were published in the intervening period. In 1936 HW achieved his ambition to have the four parts published as a single volume.
The Flax of Dream tells the story, in four volumes, of the life of William Beare Maddison – always known as Willie.
The first volume (HW’s first published book), The Beautiful Years, takes us from the time of Willie’s birth, which causes the death of his beautiful gentle mother, through his lonely, innocent, but turbulent, childhood at the West Country family home, Rookhurst.
His tempestuous schooldays, from which he escaped whenever possible into the countryside, with contrast of hilarious romps and unhappy beatings, are related in the second volume, Dandelion Days.
The third, The Dream of Fair Women, opening in North Devon but moving to Folkestone, deals with an unhappy love affair just after the end of the First World War.
The final volume, The Pathway, is set in the coastal countryside of North Devon around the Braunton Burrows and estuary of the ‘Two Rivers’ (the Taw and the Torridge), where Henry Williamson went to live in 1921. This book shows Willie’s idealistic ideas for reforming the world, at odds with all around him, and his growing but doomed love for the gentle Mary Ogilvie, who lives with her family at Wildernesse, on the marshland behind Braunton Burrows. That the ending is tragic is inevitable.
The story is based on Henry Williamson’s own early life but is not by any means literally biographical. It is a tale of ‘far away and long ago’ (HW quotes from W. H. Hudson, another writer who greatly influenced HW) – over one hundred years ago now – in the early years of the twentieth century; but there is a freshness, a spontaneity, a TRUTH inherent in the books that make them as readable today as when they were first published.
Apart from the story of the development of Willie and the sorrows and joys that beset him – with which we can all identify – HW describes the countryside with such vivid detail that we see it and live in it ourselves. This is HW’s supreme skill; one that gives his writing an extra dimension, an immediacy which grips the reader.
HW began writing this series of books, which is really one long novel, while he was still a soldier in the First World War. He probably began writing as a form of therapy when invalided home and sent to a convalescent home in Cornwall during the summer and autumn of 1917. His diaries and early notebooks contain many sketches, phrases and story lines that show how his ideas developed and were gradually honed and polished. An early version was entitled ‘A Policy of Reconstruction’ which becomes a theme found within the eventual published version. HW's idea was to show ‘cause and result’ of the war itself and what he thought was an underlying cause of the troubles of man – the education system.
The earliest versions were abandoned or radically worked over as the young writer learnt his craft the hard way, working as a journalist after the war and graduallymeeting success in publishing articles and short stories in various journals and magazines while working on his novel at night.
The first volume was accepted for publication in the spring of 1921 and was published that autumn. Committing himself to his writing career, HW now went to live in the little village of Georgeham on the north Devon coast. The second and third volumes followed in 1922 and 1924, interspersed with books of nature stories.
The final volume, The Pathway, did not appear until 1928. By then HW was an established and mature writer. He had married, and two children had been born, and his most well-known book Tarka the Otter, acclaimed by the critics and earning its author the Hawthornden Prize for Literature, had been published the previous year. He now felt those first three volumes of The Flax of Dream were a little immature and not worthy of The Pathway, so they were radically revised and the original chapter headings were discarded – rather a shame as they had a piquant charm that is of their era, and added to the enjoyment of reading the books. Republished over the next three years, they were also published in the United States to great acclaim. Since then these volumes have been reprinted many times.
Henry Williamson was greatly influenced in his early years by his father’s sister, his Aunt Mary Leopoldina, a most interesting and forthright lady, cultured and travelled, who took an interest in her young nephew and encouraged his development. (She is characterised as Theodora Maddison in HW’s later series of 15 novels, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight.) Mary Leopoldina had herself written two short strangely visionary books, privately published around 1910. One of these, The Incalculable Hour, contains the phrase 'the flax of dream' which forms the overall title of HW’s series, and there are various other details which can be recognised. This is HW’s homage to the debt he owed his aunt. She introduced him to many cultural ideas, especially about literature and the arts and the classics, particularly important was the gift to him of a volume of the poetry of the visionary poet Francis Thompson, with whom HW identified as a fellow soul-spirit.
In May 1914 she had invited the adolescent youth (he had left school and started work as a clerk in the Sun Fire Insurance Office in the city, but at the age of eighteen was still very immature) to spend his annual holiday with her at a cottage that she rented in Georgeham. For the first time the young Henry saw the wild Romantic scenery of the steep craggy cliffs, tangled woods, wild moorland, the vast estuary of the Taw and Torridge rivers, and the seemingly endless expanse of the dunes of Braunton Burrows. He felt totally at one with the area: his ancestors had lived on the edge of Exmoor and he felt that this was his spiritual home. At this time he kept ‘A Schoolboy’s Nature Diary’ in school exercise books (later published in its entirety). At the end of his two weeks' holiday he vowed to return. Just over two months later the First World War had begun. After the war he wrote at the end of his Nature Diary:
H.W. was a soldier 2¼ months later, in France 5¼ months later
And Finish, Finish, Finish, the hope and illusion of youth,
For ever, and for ever and for ever.
One of the most important catalysts which catapulted him past the barrier of the doubts deeply embedded in his psyche was the discovery in a bookshop, in Folkestone in 1919, where he was stationed as an adjutant on duties concerning the return of soldiers from the Front, of a copy of The Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies. HW had known of Jefferies’ writing since a very young age, for he had been given a copy of that wonderful story, Bevis, handed down from his grandfather to his father and then to himself, and there is evidence that he had read other books by the great country writer. But The Story of My Heart is very different: it is a deeply visionary and mystical experience, and it contains the idea of ‘ancient sunlight’ that HW explored for himself. The sensitive and troubled young man totally identified with its content and message, and with its writer, as a twin soul. He determined to become another Jefferies.
When Henry Williamson, then aged twenty-five, did return, riding down on his beloved Norton motorcycle, to live in Georgeham in the spring of 1921 (almost certainly to that same pre-war cottage, as he had visited once or twice during the war), he had experienced five years as a soldier, had lived through the hell of the trenches in the front line, and was in a state of extreme nervous tension. This great turmoil never really left him for the rest of his life. He was bitter and disillusioned about the war, its causes and the politics behind it. His detailed journal at this time shows his struggles to understand the meaning of life and the place of religion and Christ (the ‘Khristos’). Much of this can be seen in the character of Willie Maddison in The Flax of Dream, but it is finally explored in the book which HW called the ‘pendant’ to the Flax – the book which Willie himself is shown to be writing in The Pathway, the strange allegorical celestial fantasy called The Star-born.
HW’s own thoughts on his series can be found in:
Henry Williamson: 'Some Notes on "The Flax of Dream" and "A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight"'
First printed in the Aylesford Review, Vol II, No. 2, Winter 1957-58. Ed. Fr. Brocard Sewell.
(The issue is subheaded: 'Henry Williamson: A Symposium & Tribute')
Reprinted in Henry Williamson, The Man, The Writings, A Symposium, ed. Fr. Brocard Sewell, Tabb House, 1980.
Further see: Fr. Brocard Sewell, 'Some Thoughts on Henry Williamson's "The Flax of Dream"'
Aylesford Review, Vol. VII, No. 2. Summer 1965. Address given at University of Exeter, May 1965, on the occasion of the Presentation by HW of a selection of his MSS 'Devon works' (Tarka the Otter, Salar the Salmon and others).
The books will now be examined individually:
Some different editions of The Flax of Dream tetralogy are illustrated below:
The Faber Library (vols 1 & 2, 1932; vols 3 & 4, 1933):
Later reprints in The Faber Library series had a different colour scheme for the dust wrapper:
In the 1960s Faber reissued the books as paperbacks, in strikingly bold covers (vol. 1, 1967; vol. 2, 1966; vol. 3, 1968; vol. 4, 1969):
In the 1980s it was the turn of Zenith Books (the paperback imprint of Hamlyn Publishing), with not entirely appropriate covers of a bucolic nature (vols 1-3, 1983, vol. 4, no date, presumed also 1983):