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Henry Williamson: Flax of Dream

This tetralogy was Williamson’s first major novel. It is clearly a draft for the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight. In this story, the hero and Williamson character is Willie Maddison, while in the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight the hero is Phillip Maddison and Willie is his cousin. Other characters, such as Eve, the woman he loves in Book Three and Julian Warbeck appear in both books. There are lots of other differences but the main ones are that in the Chronicle , Williamson describes his experiences in both World War I (as a soldier) and in World War II (as a farmer). In Flax, World War I is completely passed over, while the book was written well before World War II.

The tetralogy tells the story of young Willie Maddison from the age of seven to manhood. Willie’s mother died after giving birth to Willie and his father has not remarried. His father is very strict and finds it hard to show any love for Willie, particularly as Willie is a wild one – his friends call him Mad Willie. Willie is a nature lover and likes nothing better than wandering in the woods with his friend, Jack. He is sent to Colham school when he is eight and he hates it. He finds no interest in school work and has permanent run-ins with the teachers. The first two books take him up to the end of his school days.

The third book skips over the First World War, in which he served with distinction, and shows him living in a secluded hut on the Devon coast, starting his career as a writer. Most of this book is taken up with his love for Eve Fairfax, wife of Lionel and mother of Jonquil. He is not the only one who loves Eve. One of his rivals kills himself, another is arrested for fraud. Others generally misbehave. Indeed, the best-behaved is the cuckolded husband, who seems to tolerate his wife’s flirtations. Williamson, sorry Maddison, does not get the girl.

The fourth and final book brings us another of his loves. (In real life, Williamson did chase the girls somewhat, right till the end.) In this book it is Mary Ogilvie who has made occasional appearances in the previous three books – they have know each other since childhood – but now has a larger role as the object of Maddison’s affections. Despite the fact that they seem to be in love, Maddison’s pacifist and Jesus-as-man religious views alienate him from Mary’s mother. Both Mary’s brother and sister are fond of Maddison but this does not help. Finally, as a good Englishman, he does the decent thing, as Willie will do in the Chronicle

Publishing history

First published 1951-1969 by Faber and Faber (1921 The Beautiful Years; 1922 Dandelion Days; 1924 The Dream of Fair Women; 1928 The Pathway)