The Labouring Life
THE LABOURING LIFE
First edition, Jonathan Cape,
First published by Jonathan Cape, 9 May 1932:
Limited edition, 122 copies (of which 118 for sale), 1½ guineas (£1 11s 6d); this includes ‘Preface, or What You Will’, not present in the trade edition
Trade edition, 7s 6d
E. P. Dutton, USA, 1933, $2.95, with the title: As The Sun Shines (see text below for explanation)
Cape, 1934 reprint in Life and Letters series
As with The Village Book these stories were republished under a different title by Faber, in 1945. As the selection of material changed considerably for these two new editions, they will be dealt with separately in due course.
The quotation from the Bible echoes Arty’s sentiments exactly. (I have not found the original letter from Arty in the archive.)
A companion volume to The Village Book, this volume contains ‘The Spirit of the Village: Summer and Autumn’ and ‘Air and Light of the Fields and the Sea: Summer and Autumn’.
The correction marks on these galley proofs shows how HW altered the order at the very last minute, although the actual order of the stories is intermingled, as in The Village Book. In his prefatory note HW is now admitting that the work, although an imaginative interpretation, is based on ‘the village of Ham’:
[so] that the spirit and letter of village life in the decade following the Great War be contained for future students of English country life.
So again we wander through the village and its surrounding countryside, even as far as Dunkery Beacon, with the author as our guide, returning at the end to the quiet retreat of the village and Windwhistle Cross.
In the prefatory note, HW states that this collection of short stories and sketches have bases in reality seen through the eyes of the author, created not only for the reader’s entertainment but that these stories may act as a picture of country life of that time and place for future generations. This is a prime example of the social history side of HW’s writing.
However HW also states in his ‘Preface, or What You Will’ that:
I am, or was, a wilderness writer; but I had to unlearn what I learnt there. When I began to see the scapegoat-bones by the wayside, and the sanded horizon apparently melting in swooning air, yet remaining static in its barren leagues, I hurried back, hoping it would not be too late to lose myself among the sheep once more.
This would appear to be a subtle and clever reference to (and possibly a swipe at) T. S. Eliot and The Wasteland, which had first been published in 1922 in The Criterion, of which Eliot was editor and in which HW had material printed. The poem refers to a dry and desolate sterile country. Despite the fact that the source of the poem was connected to the legend of the Holy Grail and so had ‘romaunce’ associations, Eliot was notably against Romanticism (today The Wasteland is considered the central text of Modernism), and in 1928 published his Essays on Style and Order, in which he describes himself as ‘classical in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion’.
HW must surely have recognised and realised his own affinity with Romanticism. He was neither an academic nor an intellectual (in the formal sense), and because of this was not accepted by the powerful coterie that surrounded Modernism, which included those that comprised the Bloomsbury Group (mainly Clive and Vanessa Bell, and Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and included David Garnett) – two of whom, the Woolfs, founded the respected Hogarth Press.
Again there is very little background material for this volume in the archive. But an interesting insight into HW’s thoughts about the two companion volumes is shown on a sheet of paper which presumably would have fronted his original manuscript: HW actually envisaged these as a single unit:
Even the business letters shed very little light on the subject. A letter from G. Wren Howard (director at Jonathan Cape), dated 30 October 1931, states:
I don’t mind very much when in the spring of 1932 we publish LABOURING LIFE as long as it can come out before the end of April.
On 22 December 1931 Wren Howard writes that he is glad to hear about the book, but sorry to hear HW has been ill. His letter of 14 January 1932 reveals that a limited edition of The Labouring Life is not going to be easy to sell, as times are difficult. This letter ends:
When are you next coming to test your racer round Bedford Square? When you do so leave the hunting horn behind. His Grace the Duke, K.G., objects to it!
‘His Grace’ was the Duke of Bedford (whom HW knew); this was obviously a little joke between them. HW had bought a second-hand Alvis ‘Silver Eagle’ open racing car in June 1931, soon after his return from America. For HW to have revved it up round the prestigious London square blowing his hunting horn is pretty typical behaviour!
On 12 February a letter again states that a limited edition will be hard to sell because of the slump. And further, on the 15 February (obviously in answer to a ‘panic’ letter from HW!) that the limited edition will (of course) be the same quality as that of The Village Book but that ‘the published price should not be more than a guinea and a half [31s 6d]’. At this time galley proofs had just arrived. Then further, on 18 March, Wren Howard writes:
Of course Mrs. Ovey of the King’s Arms, Georgeham can have a dozen of the ordinary edition.
Which was a nice gesture by HW.
On his return from America at the end of March 1931 (literally while still in London, before returning home to Devon), HW had visited Helen Thomas, widow of the writer and poet Edward Thomas, and met their daughter Ann (full name Myfanwy). (See Helen’s review of the book in the Critical reception section.) Ann visited HW at Shallowford that summer when on holiday in the area, and very soon after left her job in the typing pool at the BBC to work for HW as his (very efficient) secretary. Business letters, diary and other notes, et cetera, are from now on often in Ann’s handwriting. However, their relationship quickly became personal and a ménage à trois was established.
The Labouring Life was published on 9 May 1932, as shown in this cutting from the Publisher’s Circular, 7 May 1932:
A letter from John Macrae, president of E. P. Dutton Publishing in America, dated 1 July 1932, gives us mention of the new book:
We are all delighted with THE LABOURING LIFE. It seems to me you have gotten into this some of the best work you have done. . . . [However, the advance is to be only $500 on a 15% royalty] . . . The condition of the book market over here is very bad indeed.
However he also states that ‘Labouring life’ has a different meaning in the US to that in England (he doesn’t define what this different meaning is, but probably to do with farming, as HW mentions in the American edition preface that his book is not about farming), which obviously gave HW food for thought and caused him to give the American edition a new title. On 18 July a letter from Jimmie Macrae (Elliott Beach Macrae, secretary and treasurer of Dutton), about some general points, has a note written on it by Ann Thomas:
Answered 30/7/32. Asking for L.L. to be published in Spring 1933. New title to follow.
A letter from John Macrae dated 22 July shows that he had already decided to move publication date from 27 September 1932 to 1 February 1933:
Please send me the Introduction; please send me the maps for the end-papers.
Then on 15 September 1932 he wrote:‘the new material, the alterations, and the new title for your book, THE LABOURING LIFE, have been duly received.’ (Although the new title is not mentioned!)
Macrae writes further, however, on 7 December 1932: ‘AS THE SUN SHINES is going through for publication in February.’
As you will notice, this is the title HW had on the top sheet of his original manuscript. As the Sun Shines additionally contains the first section, shortened and revised, of HW’s ‘Preface, or What You Will’ from the UK limited edition. (The complete Preface has been reprinted in Threnos for T. E. Lawrence and Other Writings, ed. John Gregory, HWS, 1994, e-book 2014).
The stories contained in The Labouring Life exude a sense of more maturity than those in The Village Book – or rather, they seem more reflective other than in the opening passage. (Many of the real names of these fictional characters can be found in Peter Lewis, ‘Ham in the 1920s’, HWSJ 31, 1995, pp. 47-58.)
‘Chapter 1’(pp. 13-21): being samples of the sayings of the village – 8½ pages of wise saws: a somewhat strange way to open a book, and possibly should never have been placed in such a prominent position. In the American edition the title is much better expressed as ‘Village Sayings’.
‘The Life of the Stream’ (pp. 22-46) is a most lovely essay: HW at his lyrical best:
The stream which flows and murmurs through the village of Ham rises in a field above Jonathan Furze’s farm, where a spring breaks out of ground trodden by cattle. . . .
. . . By its mosses and hart’s tongue ferns the rill flows and murmurs, by violets pale and long-stemmed in the shade of the rookery elms. Above which patches of sky gleam, and the high cirrus clouds drift in still June days. . . .
. . . the water slides under the tall ‘ditched’ wall of the churchyard with its nine elms, and past the cottage with the dark opening under the thatch of its end-wall, through which the white owls float on summer nights.
This is Skirr Cottage, in case you had not realised! So we learn of all the creatures that inhabit the course of that stream; animal, humans, plants and insects, and possibly the most important – the fish. The trout that: ‘guard the water, for where the brown trout lie a stream truly is living.’ So the little stream, made up of three tributaries and starting as a trickle, makes its way through the sandhills until: ‘Its brawling over, the summer stream was gone under the sand, to its immortality in the immense sea.’
However, HW adds an epigraph telling the reader of the changes (for the worse) in the area even in that short time: mainly the number of summer visitors, who do not see the glimmer of hope that our author sees: that in the shadow of the bridge ‘all unsuspected, lay the trout, guardian of the stream’. (Later we will see the other side of that stream.)
‘Old Men’ (pp. 47-57): A selection of pen-portraits of village ‘grandfathers’.
‘Summer Afternoon by the Sea’ (pp. 58-64) relates the pleasure of sitting and doing nothing but watching the myriad busyness of the natural world while:
The sun burned away in brilliance, and the air was sweet with the living sea.
‘The Well’ (pp. 65-93) relates the wonderful dispute that arose over the well that ‘renews itself eternally, is scarcely deeper than a pitcher and in volume less than half a cubic yard’, which is owned by Jonathan Furze (the richest man in the village) but traditionally used by the villagers for drinking water. When Charlie Tucker helps himself to a whole pail-full for purposes other than drinking, Jonathan Furze puts a lock on the door of the well house. At a subsequent parish meeting heated discussion occurs – and continues at several further parish meetings. A typical village ‘to-do’!
‘Star Flights of Swifts’ (pp. 94-96, dated 1923): A short lyrical essay musing on the night flight of the swifts.
‘The Labourer’and ‘A Labourer’s Life’(pp. 97-134) ostensibly covers notes for a proposed gentle and empathic portrait (to be called ‘A Labourer’s Life’) of William Carter, or ‘Revvy’, HW’s neighbour at Skirr Cottage and father of Ernie, who features in several early essays. But it is also an insight into the life of our author:
a man of twenty-three with a beard, who lived alone, with a spaniel dog and a cat. He kept a racing motor-cycle, making a noise like a machine gun, on which he departed and arrived at all hours of the day or night. . . . [and] had set himself to do work which would, when published, he felt, be a revelation to the world. . . . the burden of his thought was the whole of the Great War and its human causes.
But the plum of this section is the quoted words of Maurice Hewlett: ‘The West Country labourer is a gentleman.’ Revvy is a gentleman.
‘The White Witch and the Blackbird’ (p. 135): A cat is chased off by a very angry blackbird – given ‘black-barbed strength’ in its endeavour to save its young.
‘The Darkening of the Doorway’ (pp. 136-152): The original MS (in Exeter University Special Collections archives), has the ‘I’ of the story changed to ‘The Beard’ (a nice device), and is dated 26 October 1931. The story is in two parts. The first part tells of various visitors, each selling something and mostly dishonest, who darken the doorway of the cottage of ‘The Beard’. It is related in a rather forced jocular fashion and involves repetitions of the phrase ‘a sock on the jaw’. This first part was reprinted, with some small revisions (the story being told in the first person), as 'The Darkening of the Door' in the Daily Express on 12 April 1938. The second part opens with a somewhat bitter tirade about editors of sundry magazines who have refused his work for various reasons (an error of judgement, one is given to feel). Our author explains that is the cause of the falsely jocular tone of the first part – writing according to what they require. Now he intends to tell the tale as it really happened under its original title ‘Village Traders’. This section rings true and gives us a far more interesting picture (as intended!) of the variety of door-to-door salesmen prevalent in those days (the equivalent of web-trading today perhaps!). The nicest touch comes at the end when we realise the salesman has mistaken ‘The Beard’ for some sort of inferior servant!
‘Above the Needles, June 1928’ (pp. 153-156): previously published in The Daily News, 22 August 1927 and also in The Outsiders, USA, March 1929). A tale of a tame raven in a cage pining for freedom, a jackdaw which steals a gull’s egg only to be stooped on and killed by a peregrine falcon, who is attacked by a raven in a thrilling aerial display – all watched by the encaged raven and the author, who tells it that it would be killed in half a minute by the wild ravens if it escaped: to no avail – for its ‘thoughts were always in the sky’.
‘Village Children’ (pp. 157-176, dated 1927): Based on the allure of wheels for children – objects to be made into exotic machines (which all can empathise with); which thoughts remind the author of other notes made for tales about Ernie but never developed – and then Babe – but mainly the tale of poor Hen-ry, son of the Maltese woman who had married a soldier from the village (and is virtually an outcast). Poor Hen-ry can’t help getting himself into trouble!
‘A Summer Day on Dunkery’ (pp. 177-180, dated 1923): the story opens with a lyrical description of things seen while the writer rests in the heather on Dunkery Beacon (a well-known landmark on Exmoor), but remembering a visit made that morning to the hunt kennels, marred by the sight of a ten-month-old puppy dying of distemper. That night as the writer returns past those kennels he stops for a moment, seeing the shape of a stage glide silently past, which he felt was a phantom ‘luring the dying hound to the forests beyond the sun’. This is one of HW’s handful of fey other-worldly ‘ghost stories’, which never seem to have had the recognition they deserve.
‘Cemetery or Burial Ground’ (pp. 181-260 – in 19 ‘chapters’; the MS is dated 9.12.1931): A hilarious tale of Clib the Sexton and the village ‘discussion’ about the need for a new cemetery, as there was only room for three more burials in the original churchyard site. (This was a discussion that went on for four years!) HW gives several headstone inscriptions, quoted as examples of mortality; churchgoers pass this slate stone on their way from the lychgate to the church porch:
(Go to the churchyard in Georgeham and look for and read those very same headstones, and others that mark the resting places of many of HW’s village friends.) Our author injects into this tale the story of Coneybeare, the Rector’s handyman: sober, honest, hardworking – except for his frequent drinking bouts. (This character reappears within the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight series.)
The various proposed sites (11 of them) for the new cemetery are inspected, with all the amusing details, by a group of ‘officials’. Three are selected a possibilities. These have to be voted on at a parish council meeting; the chosen site being that belonging to Jonathan Furze. The tale continues with all the ramifications of crafty manoeuvrings in meeting after meeting. Eventually after many unseemly exchanges, the Rector offers instead to extend the area of the burial ground at the church itself (that area on the west side of the brook and nearer to Skirr Cottage); but it had been the Rector who had refused to do that in the first place, asking the parish council to acquire new land!
This tale could easily have been named ‘Much Ado About Nothing’!
‘Otters in the West Country, September 1927’ (pp. 261-265): A lyrical essay which is pure HW.
‘The Fox in the Moonlight’ (pp. 266-280): Our author sits in his room at night under the hunter’s moon (October full moon), listening to Delius’s Brigg Fair on a new wireless set (as radios were first called):
from the Queen’s Hall came the green-corn music of Delius, akin to the green-corn spirit of Jefferies: men who strove to dream themselves out of the present, whose desires arose like mayflies in ancient sunlight.
But just as the orchestra prepared to play Cynara, Delius’s setting of Ernest Dowson’s poem of that name, which in due course was to be the first record chosen by HW to open his Desert Island Discs (the whole programme is now available online), his listening is interrupted by a group of people carrying lamps on long poles. Each lamp is painted with a red letter. The group stand in a row with the letters in random order making a non-sense word while singing a hymn. These letters are reshuffled several times, each new combination still not making any sense, while the leader calls on all sinners to repent.
They are being watched by two men, one with a gun, obviously out to do some (illicit) shooting. When the group has moved off, two lads see something that appears to be a fox on ‘Mis’r Wisson’s’ rockery: this is a stuffed fox put there by the same boys for a joke. Our author joins in the joke and suggests they try and fool the religious group. The boys set the stuffed fox up again and raise a ‘Fox!’ alarm. A shot rings out (narrowly missing one of the boys), and all chase off after what they think is a wounded fox, egged on by the boys who have thrown the fox out of sight into the stream, leaving the author alone with the religious leader for his sins! Finally, as the group gathers to set off for the next village they get their letters in the correct order to spell ‘MISSION’; but HW does not go to chapel as he had promised he would!
‘The Long-Toms’ (pp. 281-283, dated 1925): Thoughts about the life of long-tailed tits:
No civilization has corrupted the instincts of the wild birds in the brake; it is not made weary by thought; it is pure in spirit.
‘The Mystery of Dark Cottage’ (pp. 284-307): The MS (held at Exeter) ends: ‘Henry Williamson alias The Beard’, 20-22 October 1931). This is a hilarious tale of two rogues who rent Sam Pidler’s cottage, adjacent to that of ‘the bearded author’.
‘Devonshire Cider’ (pp. 308-323; the typescript has a note: ‘Dictated: the TSS is the first version – 40 minutes, Ann Thomas transcribing. 13/1/32’. The intention, presumably, is to show how much easier things are with Ann as secretary.): The bearded author makes cider out of his own apples – rather disastrously, so it is poured away and everyone gets drunk on the fumes – jolly or argumentative, according to temperament. The story contains the (wonderful) phrase, repeated several times between two brothers:
‘They’m ’oppin; they’m ’ard.’
‘Yes, they are hard, so they’re hopping.’
(The apples are too hard to be cut by the machine so they jump around.) Which in the Williamson family (our branch anyway!) is one of those silly catchphrases that can be repeatedly applied to a great variety of situations!
‘The Fair’ (pp. 324-378) is in two parts: first, ‘Morning’; then ‘Afternoon’. There are various festivities: ‘but September Fair is the greatest event of the village year’, so we are treated to all the delights of the fair, its attractions and the characters running them, in a merry-go-round of words. Then an interlude for lunch as ‘What the Doctor said’ to our author. ‘Afternoon’ reveals more treats of the fair including ‘The Human Spiders’ spinning their webs of words. But our bearded author gets caught by the Corn Cure Merchant who noisily objects to him taking notes to put in a book, though he is appeased when learns that the author wants to write ‘everything exactly as it is, as the sun sees it, as it were.’ Promises of copies of books are made to more than one of the participants here.
‘A Bird-Blasted Wood’ (pp. 379-382): first published in The Sunday Express on 8 July 1928. A flight of starlings, ‘a high vast speckled patch was spread across the sky’,come to roost in a wood.
All vegetable life under the settling flocks was the greyish hue of chaos, a relapse into negation – the hue of a Somme battlefield . . .
‘The plants of death’ [hemlock] were the only plants growing. One feels this is an early story – it still has the sting of war content.
‘A Village David and Goliath’ (pp. 383-392): my file notes state that the original MS (at Exeter) was entitled ‘Landlord and Tenant OR Tenant and Landlord’; in the corner is written the revised title. Andy Lovering tells our bearded author how he got the better of Farmer ‘Champion’ Hancock, who had refused to make any improvements or repairs to the cottage that Lovering lived in, and how when Lovering moved he got his own back. A shortened version of the story, with the same title, was printed in the Daily Express on 6 January 1938.
‘P.C. Bullcornworthy’ (pp. 493-405) is the village policeman for ‘Ham’. But in this story, told to our author by his dentist as he waits to have a tooth pulled, he has been promoted to the City of Exeter. The tale tells of Bullcornworthy’s attempts to apprehend a supposed burglar he thinks he has seen entering a house. Our author’s next encounter with this intrepid policeman is some years later in The World’s Evening News, stating that he has made a remarkable recovery from an unimaginable illness by taking Dr. Shardeloes Nervkicke Pillules (which name he repeats several times in the telling of this newsworthy tale). A shortened version of the story, entitled 'The Casebook of P.C. Bullcornworthy', was printed in the Daily Express on 63 April 1939.
‘Billy Goldsworthy’s Cow’ (pp. 406-422): The story opens with a long sympathetic portrait of Billy Goldsworthy and his aged mother; then we hear of the sudden death of their ‘l’il ol’ brown coo’ at night as it was being led home by the old lady to be milked. All the main occupants of Ham gather to look and wonder. It is a quite tragic little story. And to add to the drama, later that night Mrs Goldsworthy herself dies. On the day of his mother’s funeral, Billy Goldsworthy is mourning his cow: his mother had died at her natural time. This is an acute insight into the realities of life, or rather – death.
‘Consecration of the New Burial Ground’ (pp. 423-444) – subtitled: ‘Fifth Year’ (of the ‘discussions’!): The service for the new burial ground finally takes place and we are taken through the proceedings with an interesting sub voce commentaryon the appearance and conversation of the village onlookers. Inevitably there is further parochial dispute with the Church School Managers, who resign. All is reported in the ‘Monthly Bulletin’ – with which our author offers to help the Rector, but he is misunderstood and further approaches by him are equally futile. All is redeemed by the Bishop’s Address of Blessing of the New Burial Ground.
‘A Devon Hillside, October 1928’ (pp. 445-449): A further simple lyrical essay, musing on the benefit of the sun to the small creatures of nature.
It is pleasant to sit in the sunshine, and to watch the business of others. It is summer again, for awhile – but stay: where are the swallows? [Summer is over and we] must wait with the seeds in the trusted earth until the celandines come again.
‘Provincialisms’ (pp. 450-454): from the London Mercury, February 1928. This was in response to those who had criticised unusual words used in Tarka the Otter. The explanations end with an appeal to Jack Squire (the man who had sponsored Tarka for the Hawthornden Prize, and who was a Devonian by birth; and editor of the London Mercury), hoping that he had not spoiled his friend’s county:
for I would wish were I dying, to sleep in its dear soil.
‘Surview and Farewell’ (pp. 455-487): This penultimate essay is of prime importance (together with, and very similar to, the ‘Apologia’ that prefaces The Wet Flanders Plain) as a statement of HW’s philosophy, his outlook on life, and deserves close attention.
Outlook it is literally, for HW climbs the circular stone steps of the church tower and looks down over the village: thus connecting back to the essay ‘Washing Day’ to be found early in The Village Book,and so giving coherence to the idea that the two books are part of each other. However, this essay, easy though it is to read, is deeply but gently philosophical as he reflects on his life in the village and the life of its inhabitants from his first all-important visit in May 1914. It opens:
On a morning of St. Martin’s Little Summer I climbed the circular stone steps of the church tower and looked down on the village.
The church tower has deep significance. One is very conscious that HW feels that he is in a holy place and that the tower symbolises a confessional.
There was tranquillity on the tower.
It is above and beyond reality. It is a place of contemplation. Here only truth can be spoken. Even so we have a series of asides about the village characters. There is also a distinct aura of Hamlet in the background scene of Mr Clib the Sexton digging a grave in the churchyard below. (HW had recently returned from America where he had given a lecture at Dartford, Yale and Harvard Universities on ‘Hamlet and Modern Life’, and this would have been a conscious thought in his mind. See HWSJ 45, pp. 58-80.)
HW remembers his first visit to Georgeham: ‘the sun always shining’, and how he was met in Crosstree village (Braunton) by Arty Brooking:
That was in May 1914, before the horizon suddenly dropped away, and the earth became a place with an unreal, harsh-bright sky. . . . Seven years afterwards I was back again . . . Haggard and thin, haunted by the harshest lights of the world from which escape had been made with the barest life, I sought again in wave and tree and bird that land beyond the lost horizon. . . .
So our author muses over all the happenings of the years that he had lived in Ham, including recollections of Coneybeare. (This was Cecil Bacon, who for a time, after his final quarrel with the Rector, worked for HW – until his drunken bouts drove him on again. He appears in the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight novels as Coneybeare and again as Rippinghall.)
A sub-thread is reminiscence of ‘The Bell Fund Feet’ (Fête) and the subsequent difficult placement of the new peal of bells. (For the background of this see Brian Harris’s ‘The Bells of Georgeham’, HWSJ 37, September 2001, pp. 58-61.)
We read of the Great Drought of 1921 and the Great Flood of 1931, which swept through the village from a cloudburst up at Windwhistle Cross (Ox’s Cross, where HW’s Field and Writing Hut are situated) which among other devastation, including half-drowning several characters we know well from these books, knocked down the wall around Skirr Cottage garden:
Revvy’s garden wall was gone, and his garden, his closet-house and his wooden washing-house.
HW was by then living at the Shallowford cottage on the Fortescue estate at Filleigh, and visited the scene in the immediate aftermath, taking these two photographs of the devastation at Skirr Cottage:
The second photograph is captioned on the back: 'Original Skirr (1921) Cottage, after flood damage June 1931. Cloudburst on hill, & rose to 6 ft in 10 minutes.' He sent five guineas to the Flood Relief Fund, asking to be anonymous. On his receipt the Secretary has written: ‘N.B. Donor will appear as ‘Old Villager’ in list of subscribers’.
And throughout the 'Surview and Farewell', as if a refrain, we return to:
Clib below, digging a grave: another world has passed away; soon my world, of which this book is a part, will sink into the earth again.
The grave that Clib is digging is for ‘Emma Gammon, mother of Hen-ry, of the small boy Char-lie, and a baby girl . . . Emma known as the Maltese . . .’, and we learn the sad story of Emma, an outcast in a foreign village.
But – ‘it is time to come down from the tower, this place of isolation, this airy wilderness, and to say goodbye to the village . . .’
So HW ends the life story of the bell-tower, its demise and resurrection, an allegory of the life of man and beast, for he ends:
Now it is time to quit my solitary stance overlooking the village. LIVING! says the great landlord of the sun, burning bright over all. LIVING! answers old Jimmy Carter, at the verge of the grave; and, we all hope – Clib and Revvy and Arty and Davy and Charlie and Tom and Stroyle and Thunderbolt and Ernie and I and the parson – living Beyond.
Certainly they are all living still in the work of Henry Williamson.
‘Windwhistle Cross’ (pp. 488-491): This final essay is a wistfully lyrical portrait of HW’s field at Ox’s Cross above Georgeham – ‘four lanes meet by its southern edge’ – which he first discovered in
the Spring before the war, when the leaves were fairer, the valleys and the sea and the hills immense with unknown beauty. . . .Memories of grass and corn seen from the hilltop; of Dartmoor tors rising blue in the south; of Exmoor smooth and grey, nearer and more intimate, in the east; of the estuary sea-widened under the lesser hills beyond the village; of sunshine and summer wind shared with friends, four-footed, winged, rooted, human: some gone, others to return and renew delights in the ancient earth and sun. These are with me when the window panes are flawed with grey sea rain, and the storm is rushing past the chimney stack, to the trees enduring on the hilltop.
May 2014 is exactly 100 years since HW first discovered the place that was to be his refuge for the rest of his life. This essay is his Nunc Dimittis.
Click on link to go to Critical reception.
The cover for the first trade edition is, dare one say it, a little nondescript, though the flowers do make a splash of colour; while the back cover gives excerpts from reviews of The Village Book:
Jonathan Cape's limited signed edition was published simultaneously with the trade edition, at one and a half guineas – half a guinea cheaper than that of The Village Book. This handsome edition was limited to 122 copies (a curious number!), being quarter bound in white vellum with dark brown cloth, with the top edge gilt and the other edges uncut. It was accompanied by a glassine wrapper which became brittle and fragile with age, and few have survived the years.
The US edition (E. P. Dutton, 1933) had a somewhat brighter cover:
Jonathan Cape's reprint in their Life and Letters Series (1934) used their standard cover design for the series: