Henry William Williamson (1895 - 1977)

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About Henry William Williamson

<Archive obituary>

<The Times, August 15, 1977>

MR HENRY WILLIAMSON

Creator of 'Tarka the Otter'

Mr Henry Williamson, the novelist and writer of nature stories, died on August 13. He was 81.

He achieved eminence as a writer as long ago as 1928, when he was awarded the Hawthornden Prize for "Tarka the Otter" in the same year as he published "The Pathway", which completed the tetralogy of novels subsequently collected as "The Flax of Dream". Yet though always a prolific writer, he added little to his reputation before his 15-volume roman fleuve entitled, "A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight" which began with "The Dark Lantern" in 1951 and ended with "The Gale of the World" in 1969.

These novels met with a mixed reception, for - apart from "The Dark Lantern", which tells the story of the courtship and the marriage of Philip Maddison's parents till their son's birth - none is a complete novel in itself. Volume after volume develops only a further stage in the life-story of the hero, who is not always a very admirable or sympathetic human being. But the hero's many defects suggest an earnest attempt at veracity in portraiture, and the painstaking elaboration of meticulous detail in "remembrance of things past" inspired some critics to acclaim Williamson as the English Proust.

Others, while admiring his ability to recall with such painful clarity Edwardian suburbia and tensions of the soldier's life in battle found his chief characters Philip and Willie Maddison neither likable nor credible.

A fellow author and old friend once remarked that Williamson knew the way of the eagle better than he knew the way of a man or a woman and certainly much of his most successful work is to be found in his studies of wild life, particularly in some of the early tales in such collections as "The Peregrine's Saga" and "The Lone Swallows" written before "Tarka the Otter". Here his gifts as a descriptive writer, his talents as a field naturalist, and his undoubted and almost mystical affinity with the English countryside are all harmoniously met together.

Williamson was born on December 1, 1895, of middle-class parents resident in south London, and educated as a day-boy at Colfe's Grammar School, Lewisham. Soon after the outbreak of war in 1914 he joined the forces, received a commission in the Bedfordshire Regiment, and saw some service in France. Though he remained a serving soldier throughout the war, he suffered something of the same awakening to the futility of war as Siegfried Sassoon described in "Memoirs of an Infantry Officer". From seeing the graves on both sides marked with crosses, labelled either "For King and Country" or "Fur Vaterland und Freiheit", came a "shaking, staggering thought; that both sides thought they were fighting for the same cause!" So "the idea came to the young and callow soldier, that if only he could tell them all at home what was really happening, and if the German soldiers told their people the truth about us, the war would be over."

The idea became the obsession of his life and work - tat all conflict arose from what he called "un-understanding" or "misprision". It received confirmation soon after his demobilization in 1919 from his reading Richard Jefferies's "Story of My Heart", the effect of which on himself he ascribed to the hero of "The Pathway."

"All the stored impressions of my boyhood seemed to return, with a mysterious spirit that brought tears to my eyes many times. I stood there more than an hour, so rapt was I in the pages, which were a revelation to me of my own self, which had been smothered and overlaid all through the hectic days of the war. Indeed, for some time afterwards...I thought that Jefferies was with me, and of me. I grew and grew in spiritual strength; and I realized that all the world was built up thought; that the ideals which animated the world were but thought; mostly mediocre and selfish thought. Change thought, and you change the world."

While seeking a livelihood in Fleet Street (he used to speak of a brief period on the advertising side of The Times) he wrote "The Beautiful Years", in which the romance of a pretty maidservant and her ineligible lover provided a thread of fiction for linking the "stored impressions" of his childhood into a novel. On its publication in 1921 he left London to settle in a labourer's cottage at Georgeham in north Devon, where he disciplined himself to study nature with the same meticulous observation as Jefferies. "The Lone Swallows" (1922) and "The Peregrine's Saga" (1923) were first fruits of his observations of bird-life. He also continued the story of Willie Maddison, the hero of "The Beautiful Years", in "Dandelion Days" (1922)- a picture of grammar school life vivid for its generation as Kipling's "Stalky and Co" had been of the smaller public school a generation earlier - and "A Dream of Fair Women" (1924), but none of these books sold more than a few hundred copies.

A change of fortune followed his marriage in 1925 to Ida Letitia Hibbert, who was romantically portrayed as the heroine of "The Pathway", in which her father was the prototype of Uncle Sufford Chychester. Mr Hibbert, of Abbotsham, near Bideford, was a sportsman who hunted the stag and the otter, opening to Williamson a new field of observation which produced perhaps the finest of his short nature stories, "The Old Stag", and the naturalistic novel, "Tarka the Otter" published in 1927 and awarded the Hawthornden Prize of the following year.

Williamson asserted that "Tarka the Otter" was "rewritten 17 times" but these rewritings were probably only amendments made in the course of that number of re-readings. For it was his practice to work over and over the typescript made from a hand-written first draft, and so long as the book remained in his hands, he could never leave it alone. Even after publication he frequently had second thoughts, and most of his early books were revised for re-printing.

On its publication in the same year as the prize awarded for "Tarka the Otter" many reviewers followed Sir John Squire in regarding "The Pathway" as a "really big novel," but its success was not consolidated. A largely subjective writer, Williamson had thus far exhausted his store of life's experience. An exposure of the degradation of war in "The Patriot's Progress" (1930) came too late in the wake of the many pacifist novels following Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front". The alleged masterpiece, "The Star-Born" (1933) left behind by the "prophet of reconstruction", Willie Maddison, at his death by drowning in "The Pathway", fell between the stools of allegory and polemics. As it satirized contemporaries under transparent psuedonyms, "The Gold Falcon" (1933) was published anonymously, but this novel, as Middleton Murry remarked, was merely a variant of the story of "The Pathway" - though with the notable difference that Willie Maddison was bouyant with youthful hope, while this later mock-Byronic hero suffers from disillusion on finding the fruits of material success sour to the taste.

Naively, Williamson confessed in "Goodbye West Country" (1937) how he had thought that "all the best English writers would recognize I was better than they were". In disappointment he regarded himself bitterly as a "has-been half success". "Salar the Salmon" repeated the success of "Tarka the Otter" after a lapse of eight years, but proved "so costly, so continuous an anguish to write, a daily act resented so bitterly that I spent quite 40 minutes every hour during the summer of 1935 declaiming against the necessity of having to write for money."

His observations of the habits of salmon were carried out in the Bray valley at Shallowford, whither he moved from Georgeham in 1930. But at this period of his life his experiences in the trenches re-surfaced in a new form. His deepening sense of frustration diverted his attention to politics as a disciple of Sir Oswald Mosley and decided him to abandon his adopted home in Devon for a new life as a practical farmer at Stiffkey, Norfolk. The first three years of this experience were described in "The Story of a Norfolk Farm" (1941) but the vexation and exhaustion there depicted were intensified by his sufferng during the Second World War. Besides a feeling of having failed in his mission to avert repetition of the "un-understanding" of 1914, he was briefly interned on the outbreak of war for his Fascist sympathies - he had addressed Hitler in the foreword of "The Flax of Dream" (1936) as "the great man across the Rhine".

Obsessed by the need for self-justification, he could not concentrate on writing of fox or pigeon as of otter and salmon, and frustration deepened when he laboriously compiled volumes of autobiography which his publishers advised him against publishing. He sold his Norfolk farm soon after the war ended, and when his first marriage broke up with divorce in 1947, he returned to Georgeham to live in a hut in the hill-top field he had bought in 1928 with the prizemoney from "Tarka the Otter". In 1948 he remarried, and soon afterwards found the necessary autobiographical outlet in the series of novels about the life of Philip Maddison, Willie Maddison's London cousin. In the opinion of some, these novels represent the crowning achievement of one of the most gifted descriptive writers of his generation. His battle scenes in the volumes about the First World War have been especially praised.

A loveable and unpredictable character, he often misinterpreted the intentions of others and assumed offence where none was meant that he was told his loneliness was due to his having a skin less than other people. He liked the idea of this, as suggesting sensitivity appropriate to the artistic temperament. But his lack of sensitivity to the feelings of others blunted his perception, and as he grew older, instead of developing, his awareness decreased.

He was a gifted broadcaster, as many who heard his Western Region talks from Bristol in the inter war years will recall and, when he could be persuaded, a beautiful reader. By his first marriage, Williamson had four sons and a daughter, by his second, one son.

END