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Henry Williamson

Biography

Henry Williamson is best remembered for his nature books, in particular Tarka the Otter and Salar the Salmon. This is unfortunate for, worthy though these books are, he made a much greater contribution to English literature. His Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight was mentioned in Anthony Burgess’ Best 99 novels in English since 1939 though Burgess, with his usual critical inadequacy, says that”no reader who ignores the second half can be wholly blamed.” This is unjust to Williamson, as some of his finest writing occurs in the second half of the Chronicle . What Burgess is referring to are the major weaknesses Williamson had as a human being and which influenced his writing.

His first weakness was support for the Fascists, the British ones at first but also the German ones (he met Hitler). This support, naturally, meant that he was severely criticised in Britain both during and after the war. However, a close reading of his works reveals that Williamson is, as George Painter has rightly pointed out,”the last romantic”, in a tradition, stretching from Blake, Shelley and Jefferies. This reflects Williamson’s close attachment to the countryside and to things English which is both unfashionable and dangerously close to fascism. Williamson was a political naïve and he saw in fascism a support for these values, in comparison with the then current political alternatives. He failed, of course, to see the dark side of fascism. (In this he was not alone among 20th century writers – Francis Stuart, Céline, P. G. Wodehouse and Ezra Pound are four other obvious examples.)

His second weakness was his teenage crushes. He used to fall in love with attractive young women all the time – he called them Barleybrights – to the detriment of his various wives and children. As he got older, they got younger. Not only did he fail to see the negative effect this behaviour had on his family, he did not see the effect it had on him. Both these weakness are clearly evident in Phillip Maddison, the hero of the Chronicle .

Williamson made his living from his writing, punctuated by occasional attempts at farming. As well as the Chronicle and the nature books, he left behind many other writings, including, in particular, The Flax of Dream tetralogy. As well as his teenage crushes and his love for nature, his work was coloured by his poor relationship with his father and his experiences in World War I. Like many participants in World War I, Williamson was profoundly affected by what he saw and the treatment of the soldiers. When the war ended, he was determined to write about his experiences and the suffering he saw, though it was not till the 1950s that he finally published the first volume of the Chronicle, five of the fifteen books of which are devoted to his experiences in World War I.

Williamson should be remembered for more than his nature books and his fascism. They don’t write books like that anymore. That may be just as well but the loss is undoubtedly ours.

Books about Henry Williamson

1979 Ted Hughes: Henry Williamson: A Tribute
Brocard (ed.) 1980 Sewell: Henry Williamson – The Man, The Writings – A Symposium
1982 Daniel Farson: Henry: An Appreciation of Henry Williamson
1995 Anne Williamson: Henry Williamson – Tarka and the Last Romantic (the standard biography, written by his daughter-in-law)
1998 Anne Williamson: A Patriot’s Progress; Henry Williamson and the First World War

Other links

Henry Williamson
Henry Williamson
Henry Williamson: Biography
Henry Williamson Bibliography
The Henry Williamson Society

Bibliography

1921 The Flax of Dream (1921 The Beautiful Years; 1922 Dandelion Days; 1924 The Dream of Fair Women; 1928 The Pathway)
1922 The Lone Swallows
1923 The Peregrine’s Saga and Other Stories of the Country Green (later published as The Sun Brothers)
1926 The Old Stag
1926 Stumberleaf
1927 Tarka the Otter
1929 The Linhay on the Downs
1929 The Ackymals
1929 The Wet Flanders Plain
1930 The Patriot’s Progress
1930 The Village Book
1931 The Wild Red Deer of Exmoor
1932 The Labouring Life (US: As the Sun Shines)
1933 The Star-born
1933 The Gold Falcon
1933 On Foot in Devon
1934 The Linhay Downs and Other Adventures in the Old and New Worlds
1935 Devon Holiday
1935 Salar the Salmon
1935 Christmas
1937 Goodbye West Country
1939 The Children of Shallowford
1941 The Story of a Norfolk Farm
1941 Genius of Friendship: T. E. Lawrence
1943 Norfolk Life
1945 Life in a Devon Village
1945 Tales of a Devon Village
1945 The Sun in the Sands
1946 Collected Nature Stories
1948 The Phasian Bird
1949 The Scribbling Lark
1951 Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight (1951 The Dark Lantern; 1952 Donkey Boy; 1953 Young Phillip Maddison; 1954 How Dear is Life; 1955 A Fox Under My Cloak; 1957 The Golden Virgin; 1958 Love and the Loveless; 1960 A Test to Destruction; 1961 The Innocent Moon; 1962 It Was the Nightingale; 1963 The Power of the Dead; 1965 The Phoenix Generation; 1967 A Solitary War; 1967 Lucifer Before Sunrise; 1969 The Gale of the World)
1953 Tales of Moorland and Estuary
1958 A Clearwater Stream
1960 In the Woods
1960 The Henry Williamson Animal Saga
1960 Some Nature Writers and Civilization
1969 Contributions to the Weekly Dispatch
1970 Collected Nature Stories
1972 The Scandaroon
1974 Animal Saga
1987 Days of Wonder
1988 From a Country Hilltop
1988 Some Notes on ‘The Flax of Dream’ and Other Essays
1990-91 A Breath of Country Air
1992 Spring Days in Devon, and other Broadcasts
1993 Pen and Plough: Further Broadcasts
1994 Threnos for T.E. Lawrence and Other Writings
1995 Green Fields and Pavements
1996 The Notebook of a Nature-lover
2000 Words on the West Wind: Selected Essays from The Adelphi
2001 Indian Summer Notebook: A Writer’s Miscellany
2003 Heart of England: Contributions to the Evening Standard, 1939-41
2004 Chronicles of a Norfolk Farmer: Contributions to the Daily Express, 1937-39
2005 Stumberleap and other Devon Writings: Contributions to the Daily Express and Sunday Express, 1915-1935
2007 Atlantic Tales: Contributions to the Atlantic Monthly, 1927-1947