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Henry Williamson: The Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight

The Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight was the life’s work of Henry Williamson, not only because its hero, Phillip Maddison (whom we first saw in The Flax of Dream), was clearly Williamson himself but also because he spent most of his adult life on it. Originally intended to recount his experiences in the First World War, it expanded to include his entire story, from the meeting of his parents up to the time when the last volume was published (1969). He took notes and wrote drafts for it while serving in World War and continued to work on it though the first volume was not published till 1951.

Anthony Burgess has complained that the book lacks”thematic unity”, a strange criticism. For God’s sake, it is fifteen volumes, spans an entire lifetime and was written over many years. What makes it such an important work is that we see Maddison, warts and all, with all his imperfections (and there are many) but, more importantly, Maddison (and, presumably, Williamson) evolves considerably over this period, while retaining some of the both annoying and endearing characteristics of his childhood. Like Thomas Wolfe, Williamson might have benefited from a good editor, as there are times he rambles on but, also like Wolfe, this is what makes the work so valuable.

Williamson has been described as the”last romantic”. This certainly does not mean that he is sentimental, for he is never that. It essentially means that he is not a modernist, that he does not subscribe to the values of modern civilisation, that he is closer to nature than to urban life. This is the thematic unity that pervades the entire book and that Burgess fails to see, from his father’s sighting of a rare Camberwell Beauty butterfly (and losing it when he is mugged) before Phillip’s birth in The Dark Lantern to his citation of Blake, which gives the Chronicle its title, at the end of The Gale of the World. These values, which are buffeted not only by two world wars but by progress and development and the changing face of England, are what this chronicle is about. Whether you agree with them or not, this is a work you should read.

Publishing history

First published 1951-1969 by Macdonald (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)