Tarka the Otter: Critical reception
There follows a selection of contemporaneous critical responses: (even a selection becomes a massive amount!) There is a huge amount of material surrounding the publication of Tarka the Otter, all carefully pasted into a large folio size scrap-book: twenty of these pages are devoted to reviews – a further twenty to reports of the award of the Hawthornden Prize.
London Mercury (unsigned) July 1927:
The Chiswick Press announce the publication of an edition, limited to one hundred copies, of Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson. Sir John Fortescue has written an introduction to the volume, which is printed in two colours in antique Caslon type on hand-made Royal octavo paper, bound in full vellum. The work had an unusual history. The first version was burnt in the autumn of 1923, the second stolen on a railway journey. The next six drafts were written in 1925, when the work was abandoned, on the advice that “the field had already been covered”. In the winter, however, it was begun again, and the final, seventeenth version was completed this February. Mr. Williamson’s careful prose and sound knowledge will be familiar to our readers, and Tarka himself has appeared in these pages in a story called Otters in Winter. Subscriptions for the Chiswick Press volume, which costs 3 guineas, post free, should be sent to Mr. Williamson, Georgeham, North Devon.
[Those first two drafts are – as certain as one can be concerning HW – apocryphal: note that T. E. Lawrence had reported the theft of his manuscript of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom from a railway station. The coincidence is a little too close for comfort! Note further the jump from ‘the next six’ (i.e. seven) to ‘seventeenth’: either this was an error for ‘seventh’ or the reviewer was being facetious! I can account for seven versions (see University of Exeter Special Collection Dept. where the MS / TS are deposited): there were never seventeen. That within the seven versions there were several revisions is slightly different. Once ‘seventeen’ had been mentioned, however, all followed that lead – including HW himself.]
Another loose cutting with no attribution at all appears to me to be also from the London Mercury (the typeface and general layout are exactly similar): the above is for the limited edition – this one below for the ordinary trade volume.
Tarka the Otter. By Henry Williamson. (Putnam) 7s. 6d. Net
This is an imaginative study. It is the story of an otter, his joyful water life and death in the country of the two rivers. What we have seen of Mr. Williamson’s work we find attractive. He has a firm touch, an unaffected style and sincere emotions toward the things of the country. He is stern with himself concerning these emotions; there is never a sign of irrelevant emotionalism. For the present his control is only admirable, but we hope there is no danger of his becoming too stern with himself: we look forward to his producing sooner or later a chef d’œuvre of considerable interest, but when we attempt to speculate upon the particular quality that such a book would reveal we are rather baffled.
Daily Telegraph (undated, unsigned):
The fashion for lively narrative and a sympathetic and highly imaginative interpretation which is so noticeable a feature of the most characteristic modern biographical writing is making its influence felt in other spheres of literary activity. The student of zoology, the observer of natural history, is no longer content to put down the results of his labours in bald text-book from. . . . Among these [unnamed] romantic writers of natural history Mr. Henry Williamson takes a foremost place, for his tale of Tarka the Otter is a work of extreme interest and charm, to which the minuteness of observation, vivid descriptive power, and sympathetic atmosphere, all contribute. Particularly fascinating is the sense of the otter as the member of a community . . . This is a worthy companion volume to the author’s The Old Stag, and no higher commendation can be paid.
John O’London’s Weekly (undated and unsigned):
The nature novel in which animals take the place of human beings is steadily attracting more and more writers of distinction. In “Tarka the Otter” . . . Mr. Henry Williamson has written a book which combines in an unusually vivid and charming fashion the dramatic excitement of the novel of action with the patient, minute observation of the field-naturalist, and over all he has shed a bright mantle of poetry. The book traces Tarka from his birth in the hollow trunk of a tree, through the education of hunting, fishing and swimming, which are to prepare him for the battle of life. Left to his own resources at the appointed time he mates, engages in many wild adventures in the river, and finally meets the remorseless fate of his kind, the otter-hound, dying a gallant death.
Manchester Guardian (E.G. [Edward Garnett]), 1927:
In “Tarka” Mr. Henry Williamson has written an extraordinarily full and fascinating narrative of the life of a family of otters. The country described [its character, its inhabitants] remarkable . . . in the Tarka epic. For epic it is in its wide sweep and scope, and in the pitiless actuality of this drama of wild nature, man, more or less kept in the background, is as pitiless as the [wild creatures]. But, ceaseless as is this conflict of wild, preying nature, the author has not neglected to fill his picture with a sense of the beauty of the creatures’ mastery and enjoyment of their powers in their craft of living.
Referee (unsigned, undated):
Here from his birth in the holt under Leaning willow Island to his gallant death in the waters of the estuary is the life of a dog-otter told with all that sympathy and understanding of which Mr. Williamson is a master. It is an epic of small things made Homeric . . . . I would add that the charm of it is much increased by the constant use of good but perfectly understandable dialect words which are in too much danger of falling out of the language. “Dimmity” for the time of fading light is, for instance, one that we ought not to lose. The otter is, with the possible exception of the badger, by far the most interesting beast in Britain, and you have no idea how exciting Tarka’s life was. I own that I held my breath when he so nearly went into the trap which the keeper had prepared for the stoats.
Bedfordshire Saturday Telegraph (undated, unsigned):
In “Tarka the Otter”, Mr. Henry Williamson has written a classic . . . Mr. Williamson . . . took unto himself the otter’s mind, his fears, his loves, his hardships, his attitude to humans . . . . All things feared the hideous upright creature [man] . . . so Mr. Williamson caries us on spell bound to the last great hunt . . . . Tarka is a striking example of inexhaustible patience, accurate observation, and nearly faultless writing.
London Mercury (Douglas English) undated:
Modern nature stories are a form of fiction beset with peculiar difficulties [a sentence re ‘anthropomorphism’] . . . This tradition was shattered by a Frenchman Louis Pergaud, whose Histoires des Bêtes gained him the Prix Goncourt for the greatest imaginative work of the year 1910 [ a book of powerful and terrible prose poems] . . . In some ways Mr. Williamson’s Tarka the Otter reminds me of [this book]. [Reviewer proceeds to compare various points between the two.]
Yet when all this has been said, and the conclusion has been reached that Mr. Williamson’s outlook on nature is as yet that of the local historian and photographer rather than that of the artist, it must be admitted that in his field knowledge and poetic insight he has . . . the indispensable and rare equipment of the great nature writer, whose evolution into the artist is merely a matter of time – and tide.
Times Literary Supplement (unsigned, undated):
We are a little weary of the stories of wild animals [as heroes and philosophers] . . . Mr. Henry Williamson’s TARKA THE OTTER is a book of another kind. . . . Few of us can say whether he is correct in every point because we are ignorant [of the habits of such creatures] . . . but Mr. Williamson has obviously adhered very closely to his observation . . . It is undoubtedly a brilliant one, presented with great charm and technical skill. Sir John Fortescue . . . suggests that ‘. . . at times he possibly carries the work of polishing and finishing to excess’. . . . [agrees] Mr. Williamson’s style is inclined to be precious . . . but we are won over to forgive extravagances by the vividness of his descriptions. [Some résumé of the story follows, pointing out some salient points]
All through the tale the baying of the otter-hounds forms a dreadful chorus to the drama. Father, two mates, friends, all fall to them. And they have Tarka too at the last; but not till, in his dying moments, he has bitten through the throat of Deadlock and destroyed the pride of the pack. It is a brave tale, bravely told.
Observer (unsigned, undated):
A GOOD NOVEL
“Tarka the Otter” by Henry Williamson
A really memorable book in its vein should one day come from Mr. Williamson. He has written several things that no one else could have written; . . . The store of incidental observation is immense, and at its best the language has emotional and poetic virtues that are rare, real, and unspoiled by touch of sentimentality. . . . but damaged by self-consciousness of style and great excess of detail. Both produce absurdities and cause irritation. The ungrammatical affectations of the opening paragraph of the book are enough to warn readers off all further advance. . . .
If Mr. Williamson would allow his narrative a natural flow he might write in his particular field, a West Country classic.
The Spectator (unsigned) 3 December 1927:
About Animals [4 titles]
Of the four books about animals which we have before us, the smallest is the best. Mr. Williamson, in his story of the life and death of Tarka the Otter, has attempted something much more ambitious than have the other authors, but he has been justified by success. His book is of that rare, and particularly English, sort in which the human author attempts to see through the eys of his animal hero. Sir John Fortescue, who has himself attempted this method, contributes a very understanding preface . . .
His [HW] strong imagination enables him to look at river, stream, and meadow as they may seem to the otter . . . The narrative is made exciting by the accounts of the various hunts which go up and down the river, and pathetic by the death of Tarka, the otter hero, in his last hunt. If Mr. Williamson is ambitious in his method, he is also ambitious in his style. Sometimes it is very good. [as e.g.: the fall of one of the great oaks] But as Sir John Fortescue hints, he is terribly prone to be literary in his choice of words. For example, he will call twilight “dimmity” – a maddening habit.
Evening Standard (Arnold Bennett) undated (weekly column):
‘Books and Persons’
A Strange Work on Art and a “Dazzling” Novel
[The ‘Strange Book on Art’ is Mental Handicap in Art which AB (his letters to HW are signed thus) rather (lengthily) sends up, ending: ‘I neither assert nor deny that it is just tosh.’ AB continues (and I must point out that a key word of that book, and AB’s whole review, is ‘paranoic’):]
And I have just read two novels (if novels they can sanely be called) which I fear must be the decadent fruits of paranoia. The first is “Tarka the Otter” by Henry Williamson. Instead of dealing with mankind, Mr. Williamson deals with otters, fish, and other aquatic amphibious beings. His knowledge of them and his imaginative sympathy with them are really astonishing. But is this preoccupation with beasts and fish a sure sign of paranoia? “Tarka the Otter” has been praised by some of the finest critics in our depraved land. For example, by Edward Garnett. I agree that is marvellous. And the writing of it is marvellous. Indeed, to my mind, the writing of it is too marvellous. I consider it to be over-written, marked by a certain preciosity. The author has searched too often and too long for the utterly right word. But I have no other criticism.
[The second novel reviewed by AB here is The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, where AB states that the characters therein are nearly all ‘paranoics’ and ‘their creator’ is ‘paranoic’. This book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel of its year. AB then suggests: ‘A horrid qualm seizes me – I am a paranoic myself.’]
The Nation (unnamed but revealed elsewhere as Frances Pitt, author of many ‘nature’ books and particularly Moses, My Otter, coincidentally also published in 1927; Tarka was obviously the competition!), not dated but November 1927. This is an extremely critical review (about 750 words), damning with faint praise and picking on fault after fault. It led to an interesting exchange as you will see:
Well, slips of omission and commission that leave one with the impression that the author has never known an otter intimately and personally . . .
[Ms Pitt particularly objects, at length, to Tarka having skinned a frog before eating – and the noise, ‘yinner-yikker’, made by otters. Ms Pitt refers to her own otter, ‘Madame Moses’, as example of true otter behaviour.]
But after all these comments we must give Mr. Williamson credit for his sincere endeavour to paint the life of an otter, and for making his hero a happy, joyful creature, which indeed the otter is; also for his vivid description of water-life, the countryside, and a pack of otter hounds, to say nothing of the otter hunt. The last is the most vivid and lifelike, though to the reviewer the most unpleasant, of his many vivid descriptions.
In response, HW sent a very reasonable letter to the paper in reply, dated 7 November 1927, pointing out he has actually seen an otter skin a frog for her cubs, and on other occasions; that different otters have different characters and habits. He relates the story of the cub rescued in 1921. Below his letter was printed Frances Pitt’s reply:
Mr. Williamson’s belief that he saw one doing so [skin a frog] is probably based on a misapprehension of what he actually observed . . . [and asks] would he kindly say how far he was from her, and give us full particulars of her actions.
Into the fray with a further letter then stepped Arthur Heinemann. Heinemann (1871-1930) was quite an extraordinary character. Born in Sussex, educated Eton and Trinity, Cambridge, he had been involved with hounds first in Essex, then buying the Cheriton Otter hounds from William Cheriton in 1902, but selling them again in 1905 due to financial problems. He bred the (famous) ‘Parson Jack Russell’ terriers, founding The ‘Parson Jack Russell’ Terrier club. His main interest was in badger hunting.
Heinemann wrote under the pen-name of ‘Peep-out’. His housekeeper and kennel maid was Annie Rawle, who, after Heinemann died in 1930, became housekeeper to the Williamson family, by then living at Shallowford (see forthcoming entry for The Children of Shallowford).
Heinemann had written to HW in June 1927, introducing himself and asking for a review copy of the forthcoming otter book as he was ‘Hunting Ed., The Shooting Times & British Sportsman’. HW had obviously mentioned the limited edition – as a further letter points out not everybody can afford 3 guineas!
After Frances Pitt’s letter was published, Heinemann wrote (in his rather wild-looking red ink) to HW:
She is too cock sure. She is Miss Knowall or thinks she is. I have put her right – if the Nation publishes my letter . . .
His letter was indeed published, under the heading ‘OTTERS AND FROGS’:
. . . This lady ridicules Mr. Williamson’ [re skinning frogs, and he goes on to describe how he had witnessed such a happening, or the effects of, when out otter-hunting]: ‘To dogmatize on their behaviour is dangerous work and often leads to one’s undoing.’ Heinemann points out he had also reviewed the book himself in the Shooting Times and in which he takes issue on various points. His letter is very clear and to the point and well put together – very different from the wandering scrawl (both in style and content) of his letters to HW. His review follows next.
The Shooting Times and British Sportsman (‘Peep-out’, i.e. Arthur Heinemann) 29 October 1927:
Now is the winter of the otter-hunters discontent [i.e. no hunting in winter] and they should feel grateful to Henry Williamson for his charming study . . . . [Heinemann objects to the various names HW gives his creatures (e.g. ‘Garbagee’; for him that is anthropomorphism) and that he fathers strange words on the Devon dialect: and he makes HW’s descriptions of hounds and huntsmen sound like caricatures. But he ends:]
The whole book is thrilling and reminiscent of Richard Jefferies. Otter-hunters will not put it down until they have read to the last bubble the life-story of these charming water-babies.
In a later letter (short red-ink scrawl) to HW, Heinemann thanks him for visiting, saying that he has had no real conversation for a very long time – revealing a rather sad and lonely man. He also sends himself up in one letter by signing ‘Pee-Pout’.
Perhaps one of the biggest compliments to be paid Tarka was a marvellously funny send-up which appeared anonymously in:
Punch, or the London Charivari (unsigned, but by E. V. Knox, see below – also known as ‘Evoe’), 7 December 1927:
[In respectful admiration of Mr. HENRY WILLIAMSON’s wonderful new book about the otter, published by PUTNAM, which leaves all other stories of wild animal life in England far behind, not only in knowledge and sympathy but in amplitude of vocabulary. Every word used below is warranted absolutely genuine, though the places of one or two of them may have got a little mixed.]
The extract below gives a flavour of 'Evoe's' humour:
This item was reprinted in HWSJ 2 (October 1980) pp. 21-25, as ‘The Doom of the Otter’ by E. V. Knox, as from his book of burlesque Here’s Misery (Methuen, 1928). There are a few very small changes of text between the original Punch piece and the book version.
E. V. Knox ordered one of the 3 guinea limited edition volumes – and was allotted No. 63.
In answer to the frequently repeated criticism of the number of unusual words, HW sent a letter to the London Mercury giving a glossary and defence of such words (see facsimile illustration below). This was printed in some subsequent editions of the book.
Home and Abroad (Edith K. Harper), undated:
. . . Almost a naturalist’s vade mecum with its fullness of detail concerning an English countryside yet it carries one forward from chapter to chapter with all the thrill of a romance in which life and death struggle together and death gains – or seems to gain – the victory. Not only is Mr. Williamson an artist in words, he is also a great moralist and, because he is an artist, he preaches no sermon. . . .
I would that every reader of Home & Abroad would likewise read Tarka the Otter. They will close the book very thoughtfully and probably with grim resolution.
Queen (undated, unsigned):
TARKA THE OTTER is a biography too. [Unfortunately the cutting does not show what has gone before!] It is also a book of nature study. It is moreover, and most emphatically, a work of genius. Even the, it must be whispered, affectations of Mr. Williamson’s style cannot obscure his book’s real and exquisite preciousness. It is a lovely, amusing, moving, richly informing piece of work. . . . [comparison to Kipling – BUT] Mr. Williamson writes as if he too were an otter. All Devon and Somerset are here, all the beauty of English scenes, seasons, weathers and hours. . . .
No-one, having read the book, will fail to regard the world about him with more eager eyes. With this key, Mr. Williamson unlocks for us the secrets of the countryside.
The Field: ‘The Country House’ – ‘Newsletters from London’ (Isaac Bickerstaff), undated [a nom-de-plume and in style of Bickerstaffe (1733-c.1808), an Irish dramatist who wrote English comic operas.]
My Dear Coverley, -- [presumably Sir Roger de ---]
I have gradually and unconsciously come to regard with equal interest all forms of passionate expression, whether grave or gay, profound or superficial . . . [Mentions Sir Edmund Gosse, Leaves and Fruit] Then there is a writer on field sports who is new to me, Henry Williamson. You must at once buy Tarka the Otter which he has just written. I shall be very much mistaken if this is not a new star in the firmament of sport in the open air to which you and I are especially partial. [Interestingly, next mention is of Richard Aldington’s introduction to Madame de Sevigny’s Letters]
The item is beautifully mannered and amusing – but one would have expected The Field to have carried a more weighty review.
The E.P. Dutton USA edition published in February 1928 attracted numerous reviews across the continent, as with previous volumes.
Saturday Review (undated, unsigned):
By the way, about this fellow Henry Williamson, Thomas Hardy himself (no less!) called “Tarka the Otter” a remarkable book. John Galsworthy, Edward Garnett, Arnold Bennett, and H.M. Tomlinson, all have praised Williamson’s writing. His other volumes, all published by Dutton, are “The Lone Swallows”, “Sun Brothers”, and “The Old Stag”. The entire collection is well worth having.
New York Times (undated, unsigned) replicated in the New York Herald (14 column inches):
In keen, sympathetic, accurate and comprehensive observation of wild life Mr. Williamson’s nature tales, of which this is the fourth, are not excelled by any English or American writer. . .. [the otter is little known to American readers – followed by a précis of the story]
Mr. Williamson has a notable facility for making his read see and feels the scenes he describes and his story is rich and colourful with graphic accounts of incidents in the life of Tarka and other otters . . . It is a pity that, with all his meticulous observation . . . Mr. Williamson has not made a better story. . . . [but basically the story is too long].
New York Evening Post (Ray C. Brown) undated, (10 column inches):
Henry Williamson has the happy ability to write nature stories untinged by anthropomorphism or sentimentality, and yet engrossing in their vivid presentation of animal consciousness as man imagines it. . . .
One secret of his vividness is the detail in description and the plenitude of what we may, but he never does, call characters in his tale. . . . We meet Tarka as a cub . . . and we regretfully take leave of him when he is killed after matching his wits for ten hours against a pack of hounds and a band of biped hunters. . . .
. . . His picturesque prose, constantly gleaming with color, is sometimes overwrought to the point of preciosity and occasionally rises into passages of poetic description. [Quotes as example passage about the Icicle Spirit.]
New York Tribune (Llewelyn Powys) (undated) (about 21 column inches). Opens with a rather obscure paragraph about Thomas Hardy and (Powys’ own) anti-bloodsport views. Llewelyn Powys (along with his two brothers), noted British writers, spent a great deal of time off and on in the USA. Powys does seem to have somewhat misunderstood or rather missed the point of Tarka – his prejudice against hunting obviously influencing his attitude:
If I were to offer a criticism of Mr. Williamson’s work, in many ways so admirable, I would say it lacked the detached, imaginative insight, deep and philosophic, which was the natural heritage of those two great nature writers, Thomas Hardy and W.H. Hudson. . . .
The truth is Mr. Williamson can do excellently well within his limitations but these limitations seldom allow his imagination to adventure beyond the park walls of those great west country landowners, whose point of view he reflects. . . .
But when so much has been granted, we can give him complete praise. He has developed the power of observation to a very high degree. . . . He misses nothing. . . . He has an extraordinary power of evoking a scene through his method of intimate realism. . . . [But] It is too much when he includes his wealthy sporting friends in his pictures of nature! . . . He does not seem to recognise his companions for what they are and it is impossible for us to feel any enthusiasm for their brutalities. He gives us a series of unpleasant glimpses of unpleasant people. . . .
I admire Mr. Williamson’s craft, but I have never read a book of his without impatience. A deeper passion, a deeper intensity toward life must be apparent in his writing if it is with complete assurance to be regarded as literature.
New York Tribune (A.C.M.) (undated) (17½ column inches). It is interesting that the New York Tribune decided to run a second feature on Tarka! Perhaps it was felt that Powys had been a little unfair.
My Book of the Summer
[Some preamble] . . . “Tarka the Otter”, then, is my book of the summer, not because it is so true to the life story of one of the oldest and fiercest animal tribes, but because it contains the very spirit and essence of river life. . . .
. . . The poet, as well as the naturalist, in Mr. Williamson has attuned his ear no less than his inner eye to what he sees under sunlit or moonlit skies . . . I am not surprised to learn that it took Henry Williamson four years to write. One feels instinctively that this is a book which has ripened slowly, a book in which the zeal of the reformer is never substituted for the record of the naturalist. The facts of otter hunting, the humans and dogs concerned in it, are here dramatized for boy or man, but whatever conclusion is to be drawn i left to the individual reader . . . .
[compares Tarka with Bambi which this reviewer did not like] I read it before reading any reviews, not even Mr. Galsworthy’s tribute to the galley proofs so eagerly read by him and his family during a channel crossing.
It is a distinct relief to state that I dislike “Bambi” and its message as heartily as I admire “Tarka”.
[The book Bambi, A Life in the Woods by Felix Salten (an Austrian) was originally published in German (Verlag, 1923) and translated by Whittaker Chambers and published in the USA (Simon & Schuster) in 1928. The story line takes a very similar path to that of Tarka. It was of course later made into the famous cartoon film by Walt Disney – which was the main reason that HW would not give Disney the rights to Tarka.]
Vogue (unsigned, undated) (12 column inches):
“TARKA THE OTTER” . . . was the occasion for one of the funniest parodies ever written by “Evoe” in Punch . . . but “TARKA” is still a good book . . . it takes you more deeply, more convincingly, into the mind and heart of the hero than any other animal book we have ever read. . . . It is an entirely other world, not altogether happy, not altogether beautiful, but seemingly more real than our man-made one. . . . He requires of us a proper effort of imagination. . . . The death of Tarka for example, is an extremely fine and powerful piece of work. We hope we have conveyed the idea that we liked this book extravagantly. Indeed, though it be treason to say it, “TARKA THE OTTER” moved us far more deeply than did W.H. Hudson’s “Green Mansions”.
Brooklyn Citizen (Norman Lustig), 19.2.1928:
Book Ends – And Odds
By NORMAN LUSTIG
Where “Tarka the Otter” And His Delightful Water Life Is Mentioned –
Other Information of No Possible Consequence
After reading the book, it is impossible to decide whether it was written for children or for adults – if there is a distinction. . . . It belongs to that curious and quite negligible branch of literature that deals solely with animals. . . . We looked into Tarka’s life with little expectation of reading further than the fourth page. . . .
Might we report that Tarka is more fascinating than all the missing heroines combined, or even a genuine Russian emerald? No action whatsoever . . . Not a word of conversation, except at brief intervals . . . There is ‘color’ but . . . Williamson relies, for the most part, on sound.
[RE ‘no movement’] Perhaps, but there are moments when we sympathize when we become intrigued by the death fight of an animal hunted [describes Tarka in trap and Greymuzzle scene].
Chicago Evening Post (Corinne Hardesty), undated:
A Successor to W.H. Hudson
If you would know and love and count an otter among your friends, read this story. . . . Tarka’s life is unfolded for you . . . He lived the curious land and water existence the centuries have fitted him to live. He learned the hard lessons on how to take care of himself in every sort of danger. He learned to procure his food. He played in joyous, happy sport.
But a day came that brought hunters. . . .
The long years of observation, the hours of understanding study have gone to the making of this book, and Mr. Williamson’s fellow writers in England have already begun to regard him as a worthy successor to W.H. Hudson. . . .
There is a good selection of provincial reviews from across the continent: some are actually syndicated; many are similar; all praise the book. But I want to conclude this section with a longish extract from a man who championed HW’s writing and wrote more than one long article in his praise. Grant Overton (1887-1930) was a respected editor and well-known writer – including a volume on Frank Swinnerton, in collaboration with Arnold Bennett and H. G. Wells. (The writer Frank Swinnerton was a friend of HW.) As literary editor of Collier’s Magazine, Overton published several of HW’s earliest stories (see The Old Stag)
Dutton’s ‘Weekly Book News’ Broadsheet (Grant Overton) undated (35 wide column inches):
William H. Hudson’s Heir
Editor Discusses Henry Williamson and Reason for his Popularity and Unpopularity
I first came to knowledge of him while I was spending half a million dollars a year. The money went on fiction to publish in a magazine read by several million people. . .. The story was the story of a deer [so 1924, when ‘Slumberleap’ sold to apparently 3 American journals] . . . The charm and beauty of the tale caught at my heart from the first page; soon a racing excitement arose; and long before the death of the undefeated Slumberleap brought tears to my eyes, I was settled to buy.
The story was published. . . . No effort was made to Americanize or clarify, and yet the story was warmly liked. Several other stories by Williamson followed (all now included in “The Old Stag”) . . . I rather expected protests that these stories were “cruel” . . . but no such objection was offered.
[Some reasons put forward as to why HW’s books not widely read: cruelty – dismissed; Englishness – dismissed.]
Williamson had about everything: keen observation of nature, the sense of beauty in outdoorland, the secrets of animals, the perception of drama, sobriety of imagination, an unerring instinct of sympathy, a pounce upon the perfect word, a prose of great loveliness and unforced power.
Yet, as I knew, a long and terrible road lay ahead of him – one that W.H. Hudson travelled in his time . . . also long obscure.
[Overton quotes John Galsworthy and Walter de la Mare (at length) on HW’s literary merit.]
Who is he?
[i.e. HW: there follows a biographical resumée – interesting but not totally accurate! (interestingly it refers to HW’s Aunt, not named but this was Mary Leopoldina Williamson, as having owned Skirr Cottage – I have many times noted that Skirr was a family cottage long before HW actually went to live there – although here the aunt has died and left it to him).]
I recommend beginning with “The Old Stag”. There is no possible doubt that Williamson’s skill increased enormously somewhere between his first two nature books and the second two.
[There follows a list of 12 names of eminent authors who have praised HW]
What, then, has been the difficulty about getting their full audience for Henry Williamson’s books. [Possibly short story form – but more likely because ‘animal’ stories.]
. . .”animal stories” is a term that has been brought into deserved contempt by the antic of just such writers as Mr. Curwood.
It is unfortunate, hard to overcome, and sure to be overcome. Just as soon as this great part of the book-reading public understands the character of Henry Williamson’s work, he will take his place in its esteem and affections with W.H. Hudson and William Beebe . . . Kipling . . . .
A further heavy flurry of press coverage attended the award of the Hawthornden Prize for Literature to Tarka the Otter on 12 June 1928. A cutting from The London Mercury gives succinct coverage:
Daily Telegraph (unsigned) 13 June 1928, (12 column inches). Announces the award, then reports a conversation with HW on his early writing career (not all totally accurate!), but it contains the following interesting point about The Pathway (HW’s words) – note that although the book had been written, it had not yet been published:
. . . the story of a soldier injured in the war who revolts against the whole set of ideals which he holds caused the great upheaval.
“My great ambition”, he added, “is to write the story of the war from the human point of view, which will be the story of every man who was in the war.”
[The article continues with a long extract from John Galsworthy’s speech:]
Mr John Galsworthy in presenting the prize at the Æolian Hall, New Bond Street, yesterday afternoon described “Tarka the Otter” as a truly remarkable creation. It was the result of stupendous imaginative concentration, fortified by endlessly patient and loving observation of Nature. Henry Williamson had received as yet infinitely less credit as a writer then he deserved. He was the finest and most intimate living interpreter of the drama of wild life, and he was, at his best, a beautiful writer. . . .
. . . when a writer can bring to us some true and thrilling sense of the strange, vivid, and separate importance of beasts, birds, and plants, shall we not be grateful and do him honour?
A further article is marked as from the Daily Telegraph (possibly an editorial lead item?):
Daily Chronicle (unsigned) 13 June 1928:
AUTHOR’S LEAP TO FAME
HAWTHORNDEN PRIZE FOR NATURE BOOK
TARKA THE OTTER
[After setting the scene, the article continues:] . . . Yesterday afternoon . . . John Galsworthy . . . paid one of the most remarkable tributes to his work ever given to a living writer. . . .
The audience included such well-known writers as Lawrence Binyon, J.C. Squire, Hugh Walpole, Rebecca West and Robert Lynd.
Mr. Galsworthy read extracts from the prize-winners works. Miss Alice Warrender . . . also expressed her delight in the book.
Bristol Evening News (20 column inches):
How Last Years’ Best Author Lived [sic: ‘Years’ !!]
With Birds and Beasts in the West Country
Famous figures in English Literature assembled in the Æolian Hall yesterday . . .
[‘Scarecrow Cottage’ refers to a short series of articles that HW wrote for the Sunday Express (December 1921 to January 1922) describing his life in Skirr Cottage, reprinted in HWSJ 31, Sept. 1995, pp. 43-6, and in Stumberleap and other Devon writings, HWS, 2005; e-book 2013]
The article continues with long quote from Galsworthy’s speech and at end reiterates HW’s remark about the forthcoming book The Pathway, as printed in the Daily Telegraph.
Similar articles appeared in a wide variety of publications, with an equal variety of repetition of the facts and fiction of the occasion: the Daily Sketch, Liverpool Post, Darlington Times, Birmingham Post, Sheffield Telegraph, Children’s Newspaper, Manchester Guardian, Methodist Times, Publisher’s Circular.
The gathering of literary people at which the winner of the Hawthornden Prize is announced always meets in a pleasing state of excitement. . . . [Mr. Galsworthy’s speech] which for sympathy and appreciation was quite perfect . . . He spoke of the kinship of the young writer as an interpreter of nature with Hudson and Jefferies. . . .
The Teachers World article was headed ‘Dr. Mcnamara and the Side-whiskers. Why the Hawthornden Prize-winner walked from Fleet street to North Devon.’ Several articles repeat the tale (obviously told by HW himself but possibly embroidered by journalists) of HW’s time in Fleet Street, his failure to get an article on ‘side-whiskers’, and so walked out of Fleet Street. (Some have an unflattering reference to his editor – not a good idea!) and on down to Devon. (The original ‘side-whiskers’ story can be found in The Weekly Dispatch collection, HWS, 1983; reprinted as On the Road, e-book, 2013.)
Glasgow Evening News:
In a short paragraph (obviously sending this story up!) wonders whether it was the article on side-whiskers that stirred HW to write Tarka – ‘but there is an affinity between otters and beavers’ (a play on words – a beaver also being a kind of hat!).
Eastern Daily Press:
A blushing young man in a grey suit clambered up the platform steps in the Æolian Hall in Bond Street this afternoon and received from the kindly beaming Mr. Galsworthy the Hawthornden Prize. The young man – his existence is so obviously news to most people, for he has been writing about wild life, not in night clubs, but in nature – was Mr. Henry Williamson. The crowned book is “Tarka the Otter”. This was a solemn literary occasion in the subdued light of the Æolian Hall and it was not alone the background of organ that made one feel we might arrive at standing up for the last hymn. There was also Mr. Galsworthy’s manner, which in public speaking seems to me to be so definitely Episcopalian. . . . He looks more like a bishop. I should like to have referred the point to Mr. Walpole, who was in the audience and had a bishop for a father. I must say that the literary audiences did not go wild over Mr. Galsworthy’s blessing of the clever young author. But then it was a very literary audience . . . [they] do not care to show too much emotion over other people’s work. A former Hawthornden Prize winner is Mr. R. H. Mottram, of Norwich, for his “Spanish Farm”.
The Sunday Times:
Mr. John Galsworthy made an excellent speech at the presentation of the Hawthornden Prize to the modest Mr. Henry Williamson. True, he read it, but with the air of extempore speaking which took away from it any feeling of stiffness. . . . It was a keen pleasure to many in the audience to listen to the feeling tributes to Sir Edmund Gosse (who made the first presentation of the prize) paid by Miss Warrender, the giver of the prize, and by Mr. Laurence Binyon. Various well-known writing people were present, including Mr. and Mrs. Robert Lynd, Mr. “Jack” Squire, who is on the committee, Miss Rebecca West, Miss Bradda Field . . . and Mrs. Binstead, who is an Hon.Sec. of the Femina Committee. The happy winner of the prize only emerged from the back of the hall to shake hands with Miss Warrender and Mr. Galsworthy on the platform, and having done so again disappeared to a more retired spot. But he must have been a proud man to deserve all that was said of “Tarka the Otter”.
Newcastle Chronicle [this reporter obviously knew HW very well – the mention of cricket suggests it might be S. P. B. Mais]:
In talking of the Hawthornden Prize last week, I quite forgot to mention this year’s distinguished winner, Mr. Henry Williamson. Mr. Williamson is a very strange person. He is in a perpetual hurry, and he talks very fast. He is quite likely to hand an enormous map of the western front out of his pocket while you are talking to him about cricket and explain to you how it was that the German attack on Amiens failed in April 1917. He is immensely keen on his work and likes reading it out loud. The book with which . . . [etc.].
Evening Standard (Arnold Bennett), July 1928: In what evidently begins, but unfortunately not kept, as an article on Joseph Conrad’s ‘Letters’ to Edward Garnett – particularly how Garnett discovered Conrad (and others):
His [Garnett’s] perceptions are profound . . . He has been right again and again . . . He has made the literary prestige of at least three firms of publishers. And he it was who first singled out Mr. Williamson’s “Tarka the Otter” which has just received the Hawthornden Prize.
Personally I doubt if “Tarka the Otter” is the sort of book that ought to be “crowned”, but it is vastly superior with all it preciosity and queerness and over-writing to some of the books that have received the Hawthornden Prize. It has really fine qualities. Mr. Williamson owes a lot to Edward Garnett. So do we all.
(For a most interesting article of the details and background of the Hawthornden Prize see: Peter Lewis, ‘The Hawthornden Prize’, HWSJ 26, September 1992, pp. 32-49.)