A Novel in Four Books



All who fought for freedom

in the World War, and who are

still fighting

flax36 front    
First edition, Faber, 1936  

The book


The background


Critical reception


Book covers



First published Faber & Faber, March 1936; 1416 pages on India paper, price 8s 6d


Matthews (Henry Williamson: A Bibliography, 2004) states two further issues:


i) has an advertisement for The Children of Shallowford – so has to be post September 1939


ii) advertises both  The Children of Shallowford and The Story of a Norfolk Farm, so therefore post 1941




The book:


Basically the book is a reprint of the revised versions of the four separate volumes:


The Beautiful Years (1929)


Dandelion Days (1932)


The Dream of Fair Women (1933)


The Pathway (1929)


There are now further revisions and the linking passages are more rational, making the overall flow of the work into a single unit. (The pendant volume, The Star-born (1933) does not form part of this new edition, but, as deduced from a review, a new edition was published at the same time.)


The book also contains an explanatory Foreword by HW, dated Christmas 1935.


Detailed discussion of the four books comprising The Flax of Dream will be found by following the title links above.


The three issues over six years (two of which were actually during the Second World War) suggest that the book was not the failure that HW tends to suggest it was. He states in Goodbye West Country, in an entry dated 6 June, that 10,000 copies were printed and only 800 sold. That statement I think is highly suspect, even though Matthews cites a letter from Faber dated 1966 supporting this print quantity. At that point the book had only been out a few weeks, and I find it surprising that any publisher would consider a print run of 10,000 in the first instance, especially a book which readers of HW’s work would already have bought as separate volumes not too long before, and perhaps not inclined to purchase further. As ever, HW was his own worst enemy!






The background:


Unfortunately, there is no information about the background of the work in the archive. HW would have prepared the material during the autumn of 1935 after his return from Germany, and taken it with him when he went up to London immediately after Christmas to see Richard de la Mare (a close friend, but more importantly, as a director of Faber & Faber, his publisher). That allows for printing and publishing in March 1936.


The content of the Foreword needs to be addressed and put into context as it contains one sentence that has caused criticism and some puzzlement. The Foreword opens:


On Christmas Day, 1914, the author of this history had a conversation with a young soldier of the 133rd Saxon Regiment in no-man’s-land, in front of the Bois de Ploegsteert [more usually known as Plugstreet Wood]. Although he did not realize it fully at the time, that experience altered his entire conception of the world. . . .


My aim was to show all the causes of the Great War . . . I thought that if I were true to my own experiences that Truth would be for all. I wanted to point the way to a new Europe.


The Christmas Truce is, of course, the crux of the matter, when English soldier spoke to German soldier, shook hands and exchanged gifts, a happening which struck so deeply into HW’s psyche that he decided he had to devote his life to ensuring war never occurred again. These four books were his first attempts to illuminate his purpose.


At the point of writing this Foreword HW had recently returned from a visit to Germany, undertaken by invitation of his close friend, John Heygate, who was currently working for the UFA film studios in Berlin. Exhausted from the intense writing of Salar the Salmon, he was only too glad of a break, a change of scene (and the tedium – for him – of yet another baby at home: HW was not a domestically-minded person!), and a chance to be present at the interesting spectacle of that year’s annual rally at Nürnburg.


From the start HW was assigned an official ‘guide’, who made sure he saw and heard all the good that was being achieved in that country, the new autobahn roads, the cleanliness, etcetera, but in particular the youth movement, the Hitler Youth Movement, with its huge numbers of eager, happy young people learning life skills (which no doubt reminded him of his own happy boyhood days as a boy scout). He was fed the Party line – and was very impressed by all he saw and heard. Hence his sentence: ‘I salute the great man across the Rhine, whose life symbol is the happy child.’ We know now that this was naïve in the extreme – but, and it should perhaps be emphasised, he was by no means alone in the UK at that time in thinking along these lines. HW thought what he had seen and heard showed that Germany was on the road to the Utopia he dreamed of. But of course, like the perfect woman that he also dreamed and longed for, it was to be Alice’s pack of cards and disintegrate into nihilism.


HW’s only thought was avoidance of another war. His assumption was that Hitler, as an ex-soldier, who had been through the same hellish experiences as himself, would never go to war was (with hindsight) a gross error of judgement – but it arose from the most deeply sincere determination that peace must and would prevail. It is the actual dedication that should be taken note of.


Apart from that one sentence, it is an excellent Foreword. HW explains his raison d’être and tells his readers his original source: that extraordinary visionary book written by his Aunt Mary Leopoldina, using the pseudonym ‘J. Quiddington West’ (the surnames of her great-grandmother and grandmother): The Incalculable Hour (reprinted in HWSJ 31, September 1995, pp. 28-32). Mary Leopoldina Williamson took much interest in her nephew, and was a great influence on him. For instance she gave him a volume of Francis Thompson’s poetry when he was in the trenches. Most of his Foreword consists of a long quotation from her book:


Our dreaming must be beautiful and wide and deep if it is to become again a significant factor in the world’s progress.






Critical reception:


Oddly, for a book that was apparently published in March, reviews only start to appear in May: possibly there was a slight delay in publication. It is also noticeable that only one reviewer took any notice of that problem sentence. In 1936 it was not considered noteworthy by most people. It was the content of the work itself that mattered.


Bristol Evening Post, 12 May 1936 (9-inch column):


Christmas in No-Man’s Land 1914

Four Books in One now appear as Sequel


[After some analysis the reviewer concludes:] Although largely the conception of an ignorant and optimistic young man who had never felt happy since that fraternisation of No-Man’s Land of Christmas 1914, it is never-the-less an authentic spiritual history of our times.


Morning Post (Osbert Burdett), 12 May 1936 (7-inch column):


[The first part of the review gives a précis of the 1400 pages.] . . . The merits and defects of the whole work are clear enough. The education of the hero typical as it is meant to be. The young man is equally typical of those sensitive people who have rejected all traditional clues to the mystery of life. The hero’s knowledge of bird, beast, and flower is as exceptional and excellent as a hero of Mr. Williamson’s was bound to be. But the philosophy offered in place of conventional education is no more than a little blend of Shelley, Richard Jefferies, Blake, with a pinch of Lenin. It is not to be compared with traditional Christianity. As a type Willie Maddison is admirable and on the narrow ground of accuracy to its period “The Flax of Dream” is an excellent tale. He wins our hearts, but we pity rather than admire him. Our admiration is for the English wild life that Mr. Williamson describes beautifully.


News Review, 14 May 1936 (13-inch column with photo):


flax36 newsreview


[This reviewer was well-versed in HW’s other writings on the First World War as they are quoted for half the review. He then continues to expound on HW’s reasons for writing, some as in HW’s foreword. However he includes some odd comments – one that the author had worked in a ‘shirt warehouse’ before journalism, and then the apocryphal story that HW walked down to Devon to write (this work). He ends:] He dedicates his fine, inspiring book “to all who fought for freedom in the World War and Who are still fighting.”


Punch, 13 May 1936:


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Methodist Times & Leader, 14 May 1936:


. . . this tale of John [sic] Maddison is full of beauty, profound feeling and an understanding of the secrets of Nature comparable with that of Richard Jefferies. Readers familiar [with North Devon] will recognise many of the scenes. This volume will be treasured alongside the sagas of John Galsworthy. It is the contribution of a sensitive, observant and unconventional mind to a post-war literature not pre-eminent for spiritual insight. . . . here then is Maddison’s record in its final satisfying form.


Catholic Herald, 15 May 1936:


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Time and Tide (Geoffrey West), 16 May 1936 (10½-inch column):


Ways and meanings


. . . [Tarka the Otter made his name but the present work] now for the first time printed, as originally intended, in one volume, remains in every way his outstanding piece of writing. Its special quality is hard to define but “the story of one human unit of Europe immediately before and after the War has for its theme the unhappiness of the child . . .”


Willie Maddison is the quintessential type of the shy, sensitive youth . . . out of very boyhood he is thrust straight into war . . . once war is over he . . . evolving . . . in what seems to him a nobler pathway – the way of imagination, the way of Jesus Christ . . . . It is an undoubtedly personal . . . book, yet it has within it sufficient authenticity and enough of universality to give it a larger value. . . . It is beautifully done, with both exceptional understanding and richness of scene. . . .


[But] in the foreword to this present volume Mr. Williamson delivers a jolt . . . saluting . . . the man whose life symbol is the happy child. . . . Mr. Williamson’s gullibility cannot disturb his past achievements, but his strange notion that Willie Maddison would have been happy in modern Germany does seem to set down something of a query across his future.


It was in fact an excellent review, but HW could not let that last paragraph pass. He wrote one of his long rambling letters in riposte (which Time and Tide printed on 30 May 1936), basically stating his belief that Hitler was a pacifisist – not to be confused with pacifist – and proceeds to defend Germany as misunderstood. He rather vilifies the English press, and ends with a plea for understanding and end of hostility to the Third Reich, ‘lest it be driven through necessity [to isolation leading to war]’.


This brought forth further letters in reply. One puts HW firmly in his place with obviously fairly expert knowledge; another understands why HW thinks as he does but does not agree; a third (female) diverts – with no reference to HW whatsoever – to boys playing with toy soldiers (on which there apparently had been a recent article), more or less saying that if we give children such toys we can expect them later to be war-like. Pacifism is the answer.


The Observer (L. P. Hartley), 17 May 1936:


Mr. Henry Williamson’s novels are a special though not, I think, an acquired taste. Four of them – the entire “Willie Maddison” saga – are now collected in “The Flax of Dream”.


A pre-war childhood, a post-war manhood, an intervening experience rendered crippling, yet somewhat creative, by the effect of war experience on intense easily-aroused sensibility. . . . It is a story that may move one to irritation or to tears, or to both. Though I admire “The Pathway” I realise it has faults of immaturity and inflamed emotionalism; it is too, too plangent. But I shall always be grateful to Mr. Williamson for “The Beautiful Years” and “Dandelion Days”.


Northern Echo, 20 May 1936:


[A standard review, ending:] . . . Maddison certainly shares with his creator a love and knowledge of country and wild life. . . . The publishers believe that it “will rank with the great possessions of English literature.” That is a large claim, but not an impossible one.


Weekly Scotsman, 23 May 1936 [NB: reviewing not The Flax of Dream but The Star-born – a new cheap edition not listed in Matthews]:


flax36 scotsman


South Eastern Gazette (Llywelyn W. Maddock), 26 May 1936:


Ever since 1928 I have been looking forward to the complete tetralogy published in one volume. That day has now come and the book will be given an honoured place on my shelves. . . .


If any of my readers have missed reading this great work in the four separate volumes I urge them to buy the complete edition now. . . . “The Flax of Dream” is a book to possess, for it is one of the most important contributions to English literature that our age has produced. . . . [gives background and short synopsis of each volume].


Now that the whole work is available in one volume no one should miss the opportunity of reading it as a whole. Then should be read the “Star-born”, a lesser known book which has recently been re-issued in a cheaper edition.


Oxford Times (A.D.P.), 29 May 1936:


It is some years now since the four books which go to make The Flax of Dream first appeared in separate volumes but their publication as one book is an event of importance. For these four books . . . [gives titles] are fundamentally one and to read them separately is to lose much of their meaning. The life of Willie Maddison has a beauty which is not to be denied and a message to the modern world to which it would do well to listen.


John O’London’s Weekly (Richard Church), 30 May 1936 (10-inch column); Richard Church (1893-1972), poet and novelist, was a civil servant for 24 years (so at this point probably still was!), before becoming a publisher’s reader.


[He first comments on the length of the book, 1400 pages, and that it] must have cost a whale of a sum for printing.


Not even the most fastidious critic can fail to be impressed by this writer’s gifts. . . . Mr. Williamson is comparable to John Cowper Powys in that he knows no restraint in his art. In fact, his art [is more] a religious ecstasy . . . he has no intellectual restraint . . . and pours out the most trite generalisations. [And he lays the source of, or blame for, that on] Richard Jefferies’ queer book, The Story of My Heart, another perfervid [ardent] outpouring by a naïve spirit. . . .


[Church continues to give several examples of HW’s poor style based on Jefferies:] Perhaps if Mr. Williamson could have escaped from the “umbrall thrall” of his servitude to Jefferies, and studied the clear and simple prose of W. H. Hudson, he would have done better service to his genius. For he obviously possesses genius, and compels attention, even of a critic like myself who abominates his myopic sentimentalism and his slipshod prose.


John O’London’s Weekly, 13 June 1936; Church’s review brought forth a letter:


flax36 letter


The Western Daily Press, 3 June 1936:


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The London Mercury, June 1936:


flax36 mercury


The Scotsman, 1 June 1936:


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And finally – not a review, but one of those gems that occasionally appear to lighten the darkness:


Dorset Daily Echo, 20 February 1937:


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Book covers:



The dust wrapper for the first issue:



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flax36 cover1a




The dust wrapper (this example somewhat faded and foxed!) for the third issue, as it advertises The Children of Shallowford (1939) and The Story of a Norfolk Farm (1941):



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