Some Notes on The Flax of Dream and A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight



Henry Williamson



'THE FLAX' was begun during the last year of the Great War, in 1918. There were two MSS, one of which I destroyed, the other is still in my possession. Both were written out of a secret self which was beginning to withdraw from Army life and living, a secret self of longing and emotion and possibly imbalance. I was ignorant of Literature, having failed to pass the London Matriculation exam in that subject in 1913. My MSS were a mixture of all kinds of moods and hopes and other writers' styles. The theme was of lost love, lost friendship, earthly misunderstandings, resurrection and forgiveness in Elysian Fields. My hero was killed in battle – a commonplace ending of those days – and returned a ghost. At last, those who had misjudged him understood.


A third attempt was made just after the war. The first volume, The Beautiful Years, had all the freshness of an early morning of the summers of my boyhood. It was also sad: the father did not understand the son. This book had good reviews. Its successor had very bad reviews. No wonder! It was a slapstick attack on schoolmasters, satiric, 'screamingly funny' to myself, coming down every morning in Skirr Cottage, bare-foot, to sit on the kitchen table and read what had poured forth from me the night before. I yelled with laughter. Ye gods, I was showing them up, my former critics in the classroom! The book was really a terrible farrago. John o' London's said it out-did Dotheboys Hall. The Times Literary Supplement (I quote from 1922 memory: J. B. Priestley, coming into the cottage one morning in 1924, advised me to burn my press-clippings book, so I set fire to it then & there) said, 'He pictures for us meticulously a sordid round of deceit, subterfuge, and rank bad behaviour', and declared that the masters were worse than the brats they had to teach. The book did not reach the sales of The Beautiful Years (520) and was soon remaindered for 6d a copy. It is now a collector's rare item.


The Dream of Fair Women followed. The publisher, Collins, by this time had also published, on the advice of J. D. Beresford, two nature books, The Lone Swallows, and The Peregrine's Saga. These had been well reviewed, but had sold about 200 copies each. That brought my literary career to 1924.


In 1928 Collins wrote they did not wish to exercise their option on the fourth novel, for £25 advance. Just before this, I had been told in confidence that Tarka the Otter (published in 1927) had won the Hawthornden Prize. I was badly in need of money, and asked them to accept my novel – almost completed – unseen, and pay over £25. The novel, I said, was faraway ahead of the other three: something quite different indeed. An official in 48 Pall Mall said, gently and kindly, that they did not want to look at the MSS. 'We are going to return all your copyrights. I'm sorry, but—'. So I offered the novel to Constant Huntingdon of Putnams, who had done Tarka, for £50. 'But you cannot write novels', he said. I repeated what I had told Collins & Co. He asked to see the MSS. This terrified me, I dreaded a negative criticism of a work held tenuously within the imagination: worse, adverse criticism, which hurt, delayed, even stopped me. While I was hoping that he would trust me in my declaration that the novel would sell, and let me have £50, another publisher offered my agent £250 for the next book, whatever it was. I did not tell Huntingdon this, but asked him again to trust me, adding that I had no money, and had to support a wife and baby. Indeed I begged him to trust me, and fork out £50. Nothing doing. I told my agent to decide. £250 arrived from Jonathan Cape that afternoon.


Alas for the good intentions of the diffident! When Galsworthy cracked up Tarka in the Aeolian Hall in June 1928, Sir Godfrey Collins was heard to say, 'I discovered this young man'; dear Constant Huntingdon was aghast, the announcement came as a surprise to him, as to most of the 800 people present. In conratulating me, Huntingdon said, 'Well, genius I suppose has its independible side'. The Pathway, published four months later, sold eventually 30,000 copies. My wife's father read it, and on putting the book down, remarked only that his son-in-law was an ass. There was some basis for this criticism. The Church Times, which he read, had declared the book to be blasphemous. Maddison, the ex-soldier, was the angry young man of the post-war, with a political slant to his idealism – 'My aim is to co-ordinate the teaching of Christ with that of Lenin' – and a devastating self-distrust, being aware of the difference between what he preached and what he did. He could not reconcile the surviving soldier-feelings with those of the civilian mind at home. He blamed his nervous, diffident state of mind on his schooling, particularly on the head master. (By this time, Dandelion Days, mixture of Comic Cuts, mystical nature, Beano, Dotheboys Hall – which I had not read – was fortunately out of the way.) However, I showed them to Cape, saying, 'I am going to re-write them'.


Jonathan Cape was advised by his reader, Edward Garnett, not to re-publish the three earlier novels. Garnett's report on them was devastating: so when I had recast the trio I gave them to Faber's – severely cut, altered, and now in line with the central theme of Pathway. They sold well; The Flax of Dream was concluded.


Even at that time I could not be sure that the work, in its final form, completed when I was under 30, was fundamentally true. My feeling was not new: I had it in 1919, hence the escape-route via Phillip Maddison, the London cousin. William Maddison acted as he did because he lacked father-love. His mother died giving birth to him. John and Jenny Maddison had adored one another. They were entirely suited; they lived a quiet, happy life, being wholly themselves. Then one died. The father had known true love; he would all his life have this love in his being. Surely he would not have behaved as John Maddison behaved towards Willie, his little son: whose early life was impressed by a pattern of incompleteness; lacking the father-hero vision on which to grow spiritually sound, he made his own wilderness-vision later, through poetic feeling. It was not the war which deranged him; but that early pattern, 'poor twisted boy', ever seeking what was lacking in him, restless, escapist, hurrying to find over the next hill what he had not found in life – serenity through love.


However, I had thought of the Flax as 'the subjective or romantic treatment of the theme of redemption, while the story of Phillip, the poor London cousin, would be built on the classic or objective pattern'. This wording was possibly clumsy, but that is how I phrased it to myself in the early 'twenties. From the summer of 1919, my entire outlook had changed. I knew I was a writer, I knew my destiny, I was tremulous, like something new born. The hectic tempo of the infantry war, at home and at the front, was ended; I became solitary, and dedicate. In this aspect, the words of William Maddison, when talking to Mary about his changed state of mind, are more or less autobiographical. So Phillip came into the four novels of the Flax; he had a watching brief, as it were. To use the building metaphor, his appearances were intended for ties.


As I have said, The Pathway, ultimate volume of the Flax, was written between 1924 and 1928, and published in October of that year. Twenty years were to pass before the first sentence of the new series of novels was written. And during those twenty years the proverb of Blake was chronically before my mind, 'He who desires but acts not breeds pestilence'.


The reason for the chronic putting-off lay, I told myself, in the changed circumstance of my living since 1924. Part One of The Pathway had been written during the last few weeks of that year, easily, with clear imaginative excitement, and devotion. The book was broken off just before Christmas, which was to be spent in the home of the girl I was going to marry. She was the 'original' of Mary Ogilvie, and her father was Sufford Chychester in the story, Mary's great-uncle. With what joy did I think of the West Country, from the empty house near London in which I had been writing my novel, in the flame of a single candle set in a Cromwellian brass stick! The bare walls and floor boards, the flickering shadows, the coal fire, the garden room where my uncle had died in pain and torment – many years later to arise in Phillip's story as Hugh Turney. At last the third week of December came, and I set off to Devon. In my bag were presents for my new friends, who had accepted me in their midst to take that beautiful, modest, and tender girl for my bride.


One of the presents was a book, which I had bought in town, by the Rev. 'Dick' Sheppard, priest in charge of St Martin-in-the-Fields, whose services, with his gentle and compassionate voice, were then deeply appreciated by many listeners to 2LO, the London B.B.C. station at Savoy Hill. But, unknown to me, my father-in-law-to-be had read, in The Church Times, a review of the book, which damned it. He was a courteous, kind, gentle old man, but I had never been at ease with him; and hoping to make myself plainer to him, and anticipating his joy on receiving the book the following morning, I said on that Christmas Eve, 'What do you think of Dick Sheppard, Sir?', for surely he, as a church-warden of the little barn-like church above the marsh, would be an appreciator.


'Oh, that fellow', he replied. 'I've no use for him at all', and the subject was dropped as he took up the latest 3d booklet adventure of Sexton Blake, famous detective, and his assistant Tinker. I hastened away into the town, to buy him a book on Rock Plants, for he was a keen gardener. And alas, so weak was my head, that I allowed an old man's remark to spoil my Christmas; and doubt, too, extended to his daughter. I went for a long walk alone, all the joy of my work in London was gone.


Some readers of The Pathway have felt a change of feeling, a strain replacing the spiritual clearness, after Part One, called 'Winter'. I must try and account for this. Originally the ending was not intended to be tragic, with the drowning of William Maddison in the estuary of the Two Rivers. Caught by the tide opposite Appledore, on the Middle Ridge, at night, he was to struggle to keep afloat by will-power, and not to give up. He must return, lest others be hurt further by his death. Eventually the swift flowing currents were to take him inshore, having seen, while he reviewed his life in the waters, how arrogance had darkened his spirit, overlaying its inspiration.


The book was abandoned soon after January, 1925. I was married in May of that year, my qualms, or thoughts of the spirit, set aside. Children came in the following years. Alas there were hopeless attempts to help the deteriorating fortunes of my father-in-law and his sons. I made the mistake of trying to re-pattern their lives for them. By 1928, when the book was resumed, Maddison, my doppelganger, had become irritable and haggard, a ranter at times, immediately remorseful, but doomed by his own nature. This was a return to the hopeless theme of the early versions started during the was in 1918, the same fatalistic pattern. Death was the only clarification.


Twenty years later, another attempt to settle the family, with the help of one of my wife's brothers, on a farm in Norfolk failed in the same pattern of failure as revealed by William Maddison, who saw, at the end of The Pathway, another way by which the world might be redeemed – by direct political action. 'We must rouse the ex-soldiers!' in the manner of the 'ex-corporal in Germany, with the truest eyes I have seen in any man'. There it was: the phoenix impulse, 'arisen from the frozen battlefields of 1914', during the miraculous truce between German and Briton in No-man's Land. A holy impulse; which in direct action could only become changed, for men were different in their minds, and to make all in one pattern would in itself be tyrannous, and therefore false. William Maddison knew this, too; and I think (I do not know, the author is but a medium for his visions and feelings) he went to his death with a presentiment that he had come to the end of his pathway, where Love would be awaiting him, as for all who try, falter, and fail, in the after-world.


So much for William Maddison. Why was The Flax written? On what impulse? I felt in 1919 that the gift within me, or the impulses, came from outside myself, from the Spiritual World; that I was the trustee for work which only I could do, to help reveal to others the simple truth of God underlying all creation.


In my own personal life, from 1926 onwards, until 1945 indeed, and the selling of the farm – a failure to me, despite what we did in eight years, through many difficulties and dissensions, being said now to be the basis of the success of those who came after – there was no time to withdraw oneself, to walk the hills and the shores of sea and river, to meditate and so bring to being the books about Phillip. By 1948 the family was settled; amity succeeded dissension. We had been part of the fragmentating war in Europe; now we were recovering. So in 1949, under changed circumstances, The Dark Lantern, the first volume of Phillip's story, was at last started.


The years 1937–1945, although strenuous – one was labourer, engineer, business man, manager of a farm of 240 acres with insufficient labour, and insufficient food for the working men – nevertheless produced some books and (unpublished) MSS of other volumes. I wrote over a million words, most of them at night, after the day's work which started at 5.30 a.m. with feeding of horses, and ended at 9 p.m. with loading 15 tons of sugar-beet. It was a punishing, also cathartic time; the worst part of it was the feeling of failure, of guilt that one had fallen so far beneath the standards one knew to be right. I was permanently tired, sleepless, often bitter, generally without hope, seeing myself as but a microcosm of Europe in travail. Now for the new phase. I had lost self-confidence. The Dark Lantern was written tremulously. It was hard to believe that it was not dull (as some critics later declared!), boring, and dreary. It was a long book; and it had been commissioned by Messrs Collins, who had, in the intervening years, felt that it had been a mistake of their predecessors in office not to take up the original option. But history repeats itself; perhaps we all do not change so much as we think we do; and in due course, dismay was felt that the commissioned novel was not what it had been hoped to be. The author's fears were confirmed; he was finished. Then, through the intervention of a friend who was also a publisher's reader and a believer in the book, it was taken by Macdonald & Co., without its being seen by any of the directors. Much relieved that someone had faith in the work, the author set to work to leaven or lighten many of the scenes which perhaps had been rather grim; and new chapters were worked in. By this time the book had four beginnings; all appear in the book! Lantern originally began with the arrival of Thomas Turney and his profligate son Hugh at Liverpool Street station . . . now the beginning of part 2.


I could not believe that the novel was interesting. Perhaps this is because it was written outside myself, as Salar the Salmon was – a hard work, based on study and observation, and made as a sculptor chips away the hard stone.


Now I am working on the seventh volume [Love and the Loveless], which I hope, by discipline and by planning, to end in 1919. A comparatively short book, a soldier's tale. Hitherto the scenes and characters have ruled me; now I must, having established their world, learn the art of leaving out in order to intensify what is left in: an art which Proust, according to Anatole France, never acquired. Often one thinks of the saying of M. France – 'Art is long, but Proust is longer'. Proust, as it seems to me, wrote variations on some of his incidents or thoughts, and lumped them all in together.


What, I am asked, is the basic feeling, or faith, of my authorship? What impels one to sit, hour after hour, week after week, from autumn to spring, in a hilltop hut in Devon, in the dark days, before a wood fire, and live, sometimes glowingly, in the scenes which arise before one? Is it a neurotic impulse, derived from childhood incapacity to face up to life under a roof which was shadowed, much as Phillip's life was shadowed; and his father Richard's life, in turn, before him? Is this how one seeks prominence, how one justifies ineself in one's own eyes? Shall I confess what I believe deeply within myself? That life is a Spirit; that the artist is but a medium of the Spirit of life; that many, if not all, of his 'imaginative' thoughts and impulses towards magnanimity are as it were signals. The theme of the last published novel, The Golden Virgin, is love and the loveless. I wanted the title page to bear that sub-title of Love and the Loveless, but was asked to omit it. Of course the percipient reader will live with this underlying theme: that men who have love, which is also Love, the impersonal force of creation, have a sense of honour and comradeship and courage; impersonal love bears them up, their personal love is not selfish; that the lost or bewildered or crooked or unhappy or loveless ones break down, for they have found nothing outside themselves to sustain them, in the hard testing of life, by which the spirit of man is made clear.


I would like to end my apologia with a quotation from a book composed in prison and written shortly after his release by one whose thought has greatly influenced my own: a man who, wounded in 1914 when his aeroplane crashed, is perhaps the most misunderstood man of my generation.


'Our task is to preserve and build. If the Fatherland of Europe is lost, all is lost. That home of the soul of man must be saved by any sacrifice . . . It is the age of decision, in which the long striving of the European soul will reach to fulfilment or plunge to final death.' (Sir Oswald Mosley, The Alternative, p. 314.)


Speaking for myself as a writer, I do not think I could write outside the belief that the purpose of life is to create beauty, 'under the fostering hand of the Creator'. Everybody has his bad or off moments; but there is no happiness, or serenity, without the voidance of self, thus making way for the spirit by which alone an artist can live and have his being.








First published in The Aylesford Review, Vol II, No. 2, Winter 1957–'58

Reprinted in Henry Williamson: The Man, The Writings (Brocard Sewell, ed., Tabb House 1980)

Reprinted in 'Some notes on "The flax of dream" . . . and other essays' (Paupers' Press, 1988; The 'Aylesford Review' Essays, Vol. 2)