The Labouring Life - Critical reception

 

 

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Critical Reception:

 

Now and Then, No. 42, Summer 1932; published on an 'occasional' basis by Jonathan Cape, and designed to highlight the authors and books that they were currently publishing. This issue contains an interesting review by Helen Thomas, widow of Edward Thomas, together with an advertisement.

 

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LLife advert

 

LLife thomas rev1

 

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All the following reviews are pasted into a brown ‘Newspaper Cuttings’ scrapbook – marked and dated by Ann Thomas.

 

Yorkshire Telegraph and Star (J. M. Bullock),11 May 1932:

 

As a contrast to febrile fiction, let me recommend Henry Williamson’s new book . . . It describes his reactions to life in the country . . . Mr. Williamson contributes a curious map of his environment by way of endpapers . . .

 

The Daily Telegraph, 13 May 1932:

 

Mr. Williamson’s Village Book” which covered the seasons of winter and spring, demanded a sequel. Here he continues through summer and autumn, and worthily completes a village cycle [worthy of] W. H. Hudson and Richard Jefferies.

 

Country Life (V.H.F.), 2 May 1932:

 

“The Labouring Life” is a collection of tales, character sketches and notes about a Devon village, of which Mr. Williamson has already written in “The Village Book”. . . . There are many good things in the book – racy stories, fragments of country talk, evidence of close loving observation of people, places and especially birds and animals. . . . [but on the whole it is a bit piecemeal.]

 

The Star (Norman England), 11 May 1932:

 

The brilliant genius of observation who gave us “Tarka the Otter” has once again turned the lens of his mind on the Devonshire village which he made famous in “The Village Book”. . . . He tells us wonderful stories about ravens and swifts, rectors and publicans, and the epic story of the new cemetery which wandered all over the parish until it finally came to rest where it ought to have started several years before. . . .

 

Glasgow Herald, 19 May 1932:

 

. . . The Labouring Life” is an honest book. Mr. Williamson does not sentimentalise his countryside. The result is that his outlines are clean and the scene comes through to the reader. The writing is purged with clear winds and living water and warmed by the author’s humanity. . . . Whether the subject is the life of the stream or the strange ways of village politics, these are always delightful, the more so because they are informed with true knowledge of the labouring life.

 

Birmingham Post, 17 May 1932:

 

It is a sheer delight to have another village chronicle from the accomplished pen of Mr. Williamson . . . for the author is at his best . . . One appreciates his quiet voice that contrasts so pleasantly with much that is harsh and over-emphatic in the literature of today. This work, at once interesting, sympathetic and extraordinarily vivid, is almost the perfection of descriptive writing. . .

 

A deeper maturity and a fuller knowledge are evident in this work, a knowledge which recognises the happiness and humour, as well as the bitterness and striving, in life. . . . His book is the record of a man who has found the indefinable beauty in common things.

 

Daily Mail (Compton Mackenzie), 31 May 1932; Sir Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972), a prolific and popular writer of the day (the young HW admired his Sinister Street, a bildungsroman published in 1914), is best known today perhaps for his comic novels The Monarch of the Glen (1941; developed for television 2000-05) and Whisky Galore (1947; adapted to film 1948). In the First World War he served in British Intelligence in the Mediterranean, working in counter-espionage; his account of his experiences is related in a four-volume memoir, beginning with Gallipoli Memories (1929):

 

To be candid, I was a little suspicious at first of The Labouring Life . . . Fortunately for my pleasure [as] I turned over the pages . . . I read the whole book from beginning to end with enjoyment and admiration.

 

Daily Herald (Roger Pippett), 12 May 1932:

 

RURAL JOYS WE MISS

 

. . . The countryside has almost disappeared from the world of fiction. . . . The plain sight and the simple sound of it as, say, Hardy saw and heard it – how rarely we meet them now! . . . [But] Mr. Williamson comes whistling down the lane this week with a glorious country chronicle tucked under his arm. . . . He knows his furrows and his folk.

 

In The Village Book he broke new ground by alternating village scenes with hedgerow scenes in winter and spring. Here, in the same fascinating fashion, he completes the cycle of the seasons through summer and autumn.

 

I can only hint at the full flavour, the quiet rhythm, the slow, steady, pulse, the rich ripeness of Mr. Williamson’s record . . . the very village gravestones tell him their tale. . . .

 

But such pleasures are simply the decoration of this shrewd, understanding volume. . . . The Labouring Life, that bright bird’s eye view of the land, is at once a vision, an entertainment and a warning.

 

The Spectator (Edmund Blunden), 4 June 1932; Blunden (1896-1974), First World War poet and author of Undertones of War (1928), which HW included in his ‘Reality in War Literature’ essay:

 

Perhaps the countryside is not so obvious an inspiration now to the writing kind . . . but the enthusiasm and the success of such writers as Mr. H. J. Massingham, Mr. Adrian Bell, and the author of The Labouring Life prove that there is still a rural world worth finding in life or in literature. . . . In his new book Mr. Williamson presents with a free hand sketches, descriptive or narrative of “one village and its neighbourhood” . . . His free treatment perhaps does not avoid actual looseness . . .

 

Time and Tide, 18 June 1932:

 

This is a beautiful book, tender and true, and rich in loving intimacy with fields and animals and the country inhabitants of a small Devon village. . . . It is more mature than its predecessors. Mr. Williamson is growing up. The intense young man of The Dream of Fair Women [the revised edition was published in 1931] has grown into ‘The Beard’ a more mature and tolerant person . . . nothing that I have yet seen of Mr. Williamson has pleased me more.

 

Week-End Review (E. M. Nicholson), 4 June 1932; Also reviewed is H. J. Massingham’s World Without End. Nicholson picks on an important aspect which should be read in full:

 

LLife weekend rev

 

Daily Express (James Agate), 9 June 1932; James Agate (1877-1947) was a trenchant drama critic:

 

LLife express

 

John O’London’s, 4 June 1932:

 

[HW] . . . devotes himself to an intimate series of photographic essays . . . He has developed a manner of his own, deliberately pedestrian and concerned with odds and ends of detail cunningly put together until a gradual picture of the whole rustic scene is created. . . . And his conclusion about the changes that are creeping over the countryside is not to lament [the past but to embrace improvements].

 

Saturday Review, 28 May 1932, 9 x 3½ inch column:

 

. . . Again, incidents in the village are alternated with delightful vistas of country lanes and streams, with trees and flowers, with acute observations of the comedies and tragedies of wild life . . . There is a simplicity and charm about this second volume, so tha tit appears at once more tolerant and more mature. . . .

 

In the complicated fabric of modern life as we live it today [and that was over 80 years ago!] there is a tendency to overlook the value of simplicity and to discard it for more ephemeral but more vivid emotions. . . . Although this book may be unable to stem the forces of disintegration already at work, it will at least retain for us a picture on which to model ourselves when the realisation of the need for simplicity comes back with the turn of the wheel.

 

Mr. Williamson brings the spirit of poetry into his prose and his words flow with a haunting rhythmical beauty that makes reading a delight.

 

“The Labouring Life” is a notable piece of work and Mr. Williamson takes his place naturally with those who have added to the store of the world’s beauty. There is profound truth in his pages for those who come to read and understand . . . .

 

British Weekly, 26 May 1932, 8-inch column:

 

Mr. Henry Williamson has gained well-merited distinction in literary circles . . . and his new volume will greatly enhance his reputation, for it is a work of sheer genius. . . . The varying nature of the contents of the book make it specially attractive. . . . It is essentially a book that must be read more than once, and each fresh perusal of it will leave an impression of the author’s power of interpretation and discernment.

 

Times Literary Supplement, 26 May 1932, 16-inch column: A long and very thoughtful review which examines the detail of the book and begins by invoking W. H. Hudson:

 

. . . In Mr. Williamson’s vision, the refractory individual particles are as manifest as the life of the community . . . a close and intimate view [of the village] even when he mounts the church tower at the end for his bird’s eye view and allows himself a general and valedictory meditation. . . .

 

New Statesman & Nation (H. M. Tomlinson), 28 May 1932,17 X 3¾ inch column; H. M. Tomlinson (1873-1958), novelist and journalist; First World War war correspondent for the Daily News; anti-war novel All Our Yesterdays (1930). HW had a large selection of his books. Tomlinson opens with a reference to Richard Jefferies and other well-known nature writers and the idea of rhetoric (a word which has degenerated in meaning from ‘impressive writing’, as here, to a modern ‘insincerity’). Tomlinson states that he finds The Story of My Heart practically unreadable (because of its pre-war thought?). He picks up strongly on the effect of the war on HW:

 

Mr. Williamson has been compared with Jefferies . . . but he is a long way this side of Jefferies, with the chasm of war between. It was probably the war which turned so sensitive a writer to a life apart from ours, and to the poets who celebrated it. . . . [After the war Devon and nature] was enough to make a lacerated mind dance in joy again to Jefferies’ eloquence: a sort of emotional thanksgiving. The black remembrance of the doings of men made it turn to the large indifference of nature in happy relief. . . .

 

[Mr. Williamson’s] revolt from the obscenity and dementia of the war years has turned his interest away from men in the cities, and he concentrates on [nature]. . . .

 

So his book became as casual as the drift of the village stream and a receptacle, like the stream, for anything dropped into it . . . I think it is as good a book as he has written, and we have not had the best of him yet.

 

Sunday Times (R. C. K Ensor), 5 June 1932, 12-inch column:

 

[Mr Williamson] has now established a distinct position in English letters [as a nature writer]. . . .

 

Brooding over the exact, vivid, and often humorous picture in “The Village Book” was a perplexed sense of mystery before the cruelties of nature. . . . In the new volume the perplexity persists but is less dominant. . . . But behind this feeling another now emerges even more strongly – that of the transiency of life. Perhaps that is why Mr. Williamson begins here with an account of the Georgeham Stream [note no beating about the bush as to the actual location of 'Ham'!]; for are not streams the very symbol of what flows and passes? . . . [Also having left the village] to record the facts truly, while the mind still holds them . . . to transmit to posterity a just picture of an English village’s life in the post-war decade.

 

This in considerable measure he has achieved. His detailed and most diverting account of Barnstaple Fair, for instance, is not merely an amusement, but a historic document. . . .

 

Western Morning News, 15 June 1932:

 

. . . Mr. Williamson’s latest book on Nature (human and otherwise) possesses that rare quality, the genius of sympathy. It has enabled him to see far more clearly than the average person the faults and failings, the merits and attainments of the country folk in North Devon.

 

The stories in “The Labouring Life” have basis in reality . . . I should like to quote from them extensively, for they breathe the very spirit of Devonshire [but where to start or finish] . . . .

 

Bristol Evening Post (C.R.H.), 21 May 1932, 10-inch column; This review picks out some of the more amusing incidents – starting with ‘Figgy’ Tucker scrumping apples (the opening tale in ‘Old Men’) and continues to relate the tale of Granfer Billy Bale’s visit to the dentist from the same section, which the newspaper illustrated with a cartoon; the artist seems to have understood Granfer Bale to be a respectable retired general!

 

LLife bale

 

LLife cartoon

 

Every page of this delightful book reveals the author as a keen observer and a writer of considerable charm.

 

Methodist Times (R.G.B.), 7 July 1932, 9½ inch column:

 

[Easy to generalise with facile adroitness – difficult to do it ‘with unfaltering fidelity to truth’. HW has achieved the latter] . . . These sketches . . . are faithful transcriptions from life . . . always true and sincere.

 

[The reviewer picks up on the difficulties HW mentions he had encountered in getting stories published (related in the second part of ‘The Darkening of the Doorway’) – until Tarka and fame.]

 

No-one with any feeling for either English literature or the countryside could read this book and remain unmoved. Williamson is Richard Jefferies over again. His observation is minute, and his descriptive power remarkable . . . .

 

 

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As The Sun Shines (Dutton USA edition): There are only two reviews on file, both apparently sent privately – i.e. not by a cuttings agency – so one must presume that HW did not pay a subscription for the service at that time.

 

New York Herald Tribune (Carey Jeffries), 12 March 1933, 21-inch column:

 

LLife new york herald

 

[The review continues, stating that this (as above text) has been accomplished – nothing and no-one is black or white but many shades of grey; and there is plenty of quiet humour.]

 

‘The Stream’ which wanders through Ham reflects its life in more ways than one. . . . [It] makes one of a number of themes that are woven together to form the fabric of the book. . . . [It] sets the stage [for all the various ensuing characters]. Anyone who has observed life at all will grasp at once the fidelity of Mr. Williamson’s portraits. . . . This virtue in itself justifies the departure from conventional literary form.

 

It has the very feel of a book that will be read and treasured for long years after most contemporary literary work has found its way to the trash heap.

 

The New York Times (Jane Spence Southron), 12 March 1933, 18-inch column; The review opens with a rather rambling though interesting ‘country literature’ paragraph, then arriving:

 

“As the Sun Shines” is an attempt, the difficulty of which the author does not minimize, to show things and people “as they are”.

 

The technique of the book is personal to the writer, arising immediately out of his subject and purpose. You are taken in to the author’s confidence; shown behind the scenes of the workings of his literary consciousness.

 

The book is neither tragedy, comedy, drama nor sheer story . . . It is “life” . . . This stark, ironic, often unlovely truthfulness has a beauty of its own. [Various examples are given.]

 

There are no out-and-out villains; nor does anyone wear even a temporary halo; but the broad, Saxon quality of the humor and the bucolic cheerfulness of the West Country peasant has, perhaps, never been better pictured than in the present volume.

 

 

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Finally, an item which appeared in the Sunday Referee, 27 August 1933: HW could not have asked for more from anyone.

 

LLife referee

 

 

 

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