Settled once more, Henry Williamson now began to write his great odyssey, a journey through the life of his parents and himself, from birth almost to death, encompassing the first half of the twentieth century, undertaken in fifteen volumes called collectively A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight.
He had been given a rare gift, a second wind. He had planned and plotted a short series of books for many years, envisaging a trilogy; but the writing caught him up in its own energy and momentum and he was swept along on a tide almost outside his own volition.
He wrote sometimes for fifteen hours every day, often for much of the night. Each novel was well over the normal length at almost two hundred thousand words, and all had at least one major rewrite; some of them several. Between 1951 and 1969 a volume appeared nearly every year. It was a tremendous achievement.
He had a faithful sales circulation of about 5000, enough to keep the series alive but small by modern standards. The volumes dealing with the First World War are considered by many to contain the finest descriptions ever of trench warfare, and as a record of social history from just before the turn of the century to the 1950s, they have a high place in English literature.
George D. Painter said that ‘the whole cycle will ultimately be recognised as the great historical novel of our time, its subject is the total experience of twentieth-century man,’ while John Middleton Murry stated that, ‘This will be in its entirety one of the most remarkable English novels of our time. . . . It is amazingly rich in all living detail of a swiftly changing society.’
Henry’s second marriage did not withstand the pressure brought about by this mammoth task, and he and Christine parted in the early 1960s after Christine suffered a nervous breakdown, although they did not actually get divorced until 1968. A series of assistants and secretaries always ended in disaster as they could not cope with HW’s temperament or eccentricity. He demanded total attention and yet he would not let them get on with the work he wanted done. But he was not quite as lonely as he liked to make out. He had many loyal friends who supported him. The children of his first marriage were grown-up, married and had children of their own. ‘Granpa Henry’ loved to visit and play with them and they loved the wildness of his field on summer camping trips.
Apart from the books there were still articles and reviews, broadcasts and television interviews and programmes – and constant letter writing. Thousands upon thousands of words were poured out. Henry Williamson had a compulsive energy and a single-minded purpose.