In Search of Truth – Henry Williamson’s credo



Sensitive, soulful, eccentric, dynamic, forceful, controversial, egocentric, painfully honest, highly strung, playful, a jester, a Til Eulenspiegel – Henry Williamson was a very complex man. Being in his presence was like being caught in a magnetic storm with electrically charged particles as glowing, magical, and elusive as the aurora borealis.


The artist Edward Seago knew all these facets and wrote in an essay accompanying his portrait of HW in his Peace and War (1943):


I am certain that the various Williamsons are all of them very real, for I have never met a man more completely sincere, nor so steadfast in his search for truth.


An American professor, Herbert Faulkner West, most aptly entitled his monograph on HW The Dreamer of Devon (1932); George Painter (the well-known biographer of Proust) writing of HW’s great work, the 15-volume A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, called him ‘the last Romantic’ and considered him to be the English Proust.


Seago went on to state in his essay:


There have been a few writers in every age who have refused to shut their eyes to the truth underlying the modes or conventional thought-patterns of their time; who have said ‘These things are real, that is how we shall put them down. Beauty in hand with Ugliness, and sometimes apart, but never will we mask them with the cloak of conventional thought to make them more palatable.’ I admire these men who follow unflinchingly their own vision of truth but theirs is a hard road, and scarcely a happy one. Henry Williamson is one of them, and he, I believe, is not a happy man. I wish he could find peace of mind, but I’m afraid that if he did the spark which burns fiercely inside him, might die.


So what drove HW along his relentless path in search of truth?


The bottom line has to be that he was born a compulsive writer and seems to have had a sense of destiny from his earliest years, coupled with a total fear that he would never fulfil the task that he had set himself. He was not a scholar and never went to university, preferring to spend his time escaping to roam the countryside, teaching himself, and he grew up in true Wordsworthian mode ‘fostered alike by beauty and by fear’. He kept a ‘Boy’s Nature Diary’ in old exercise books with details of his schoolboy exploits of birds’ nesting and egg-collecting. (Later published, it still makes a good read today.) HW was born in 1895 into an ordinary family (his father was a bank clerk) but there has to be significance in the fact that his paternal grandmother was German, a high-born refugee who fled to England in the mid-1800s when her father and brothers were killed and their castle burnt to the ground in one of those fierce skirmishes prevalent within Germany at that time.


But the catalyst was his experience of the First World War, in which he fought throughout and from which he never recovered. On various levels he was in a state of breakdown for the rest of his life. That war was the fulcrum of his life’s see-saw. It dominated everything. After the war he wrote after the last entry in that ‘Boy’s Nature Diary’:


HW was a soldier 2 ¼ months later; in France 5 ½ months later

And Finish, Finish, Finish, the hope and illusion of youth,

For ever, and for ever, and for ever.


He could never enjoy Christmas – rather, Christmas was a torment for him because every year he relived the 1914 Christmas Truce when he spoke to German soldiers and discovered their hopes and fears were the same as those of himself and his English comrades, and that German soldiers dying in agony cried out for their mothers just as did the English Tommy. The slightest sight or sound would catapult him back into the battlefields. His formidable Aunt Maude had told him – in a war that tended to be called ‘The Cousin’s War’ (due to the Royal Family’s close German connections) – that he was literally fighting his own cousins. A troubling thought for a sensitive and immature lad. He came to realise that all men are brothers, and that war was futile and evil: basically engineered by political machination. His life’s credo was that it must never happen again, and to pursue that end through the medium of writing: to write the truth – the cause and effect.


He began to write seriously during a long convalescent period in mid-1917, having been invalided home with dysentery and gas inhalation. I am sure this was suggested as a therapy by his doctors (cf Siegfried Sassoon – whom he later knew – and Wilfred Owen, whose poetry he passionately absorbed). By the time the war ended he was already planning out what was to become so many years later his extraordinary A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight.


In early 1919, stationed at Folkestone overseeing the return of soldiers from the Western Front, he read Richard Jefferies’ remarkable book The Story of My Heart: this visionary work reinforced his own ideas and gave him the impetus and courage to follow his own star. He had already read much of Jefferies’ work as a youngster. It seems fashionable to sneer at Jefferies today, but he was a singular man of his time: a staunch socialist champion of farm workers, striving to get them a living wage, and at the same time a sensitive Visionary, who saw the past as a living presence. (T.S. Eliot, a modernist, also believed in a dynamic connection between past and present.)


In 1920 HW obtained a hack job on The Times. He joined The Tomorrow Club where he met the great names in literature of that time – among them Bernard Shaw, Arnold Bennett, Walter de la Mare, and John Galsworthy. I have discovered that totally unknown to either of them he and Galsworthy were quite closely related – and thus The Forsyte Saga and HW’s Chronicle are therefore in essence about the same family! These grand men of literature saw HW’s latent power and potential before he had published nothing more than a few short nature articles, and encouraged him in his chosen path.


In March 1921 HW went to a party given by Walter de la Mare (meeting there his son Richard, who was to become HW’s great friend and in due course publisher). Something radical must have been said to encourage him to have faith in himself – the next day he left the family home and travelled down to Devon on the Norton motor-cycle bought with his ‘demob’ money to live in the tiny cottage which he named ‘Skirr’ (after the call of the barn-owl) in the village of Georgeham, where he had spent his last holiday before the war broke out, and where the scenery and wildlife had struck such a chord in his essentially Romantic psyche, and which had kept him going through the horrors of the trenches – vowing to return.


He interspersed nature stories with his first sequence of novels, The Flax of Dream, the story of the childhood, young manhood, loves and death by drowning of Willie Maddison. The war had made Willie a radical left-wing socialist, a follower of Lenin, full of ideas about reform of the world. Indeed, as was HW at that time, following in the wake of Richard Jefferies but also along with many ex-soldiers disillusioned by the aftermath of the war, epitomised by the writings of the war-weary left-wing French writer, Henri Barbusse, a big influence on HW.


Those early books were more successful than we are led to believe, for although sales were not large the reviews were actually pretty good and most were soon also published in the USA. But HW wanted a big success, and in 1924 decided to write a story about an otter. Joining the local otter hunt – not for the glory of hunting, but to ensure he got every detail correct – he strove for perfection in his writing (though the tale of seventeen versions is somewhat of a myth: seven versions exist, although they are also extensively corrected). Here he met the young lady, Loetitia Hibbert, the shy and strikingly beautiful daughter (he called her Gipsy) of one of the hunt officials, whom he married in 1925.


Tarka the Otter was published in 1927: the following year it won for its author the prestigious Hawthornden Prize for Literature. Never out of print in the 85 years since publication, it still sells about 2000 copies every year, and has recently been taken on to the Penguin Classics list. It was not written for children, neither does it glorify hunting: by any criteria hunters are the enemy and further, the world of nature is violent. I personally feel Tarka can – and perhaps should – be read as an allegory of the First World War. Tarka brought HW the fame he desperately wanted. He wrote to his wife’s grannie (once quite a grand family, but by then very reduced in circumstances): ‘One has arrived.’ With his prize money he bought a field above Georgeham and built himself a Writing Hut made of elm-boards, a refuge for the rest of his life.


1928 also brought the tenth anniversary of the First World War. HW had revisited the battlefields on his honeymoon and again in 1927, and now wrote a series of articles which were incorporated into A Wet Flanders Plain; but he also, more intensely, wrote the ironic The Patriot’s Progress to stark woodcut illustrations by William Kermode. The book tells the story of John Bullock, an ordinary soldier – every-soldier – with deliberate allusion to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The irony is that the book’s theme shows that there was no progress. Nothing is gained: much is lost, including the leg of Private John Bullock, who ends up selling matches on the street: a fate that befell many who had fought for their country, causing much bitterness.


Also in 1928 HW met a man who was to have a huge influence on him, John Heygate, heir to a baronetcy and an estate in Ireland. Heygate was a very wild but penurious young man about town and driver of fast cars, working then for the BBC but wanting to be a writer, and very right wing. HW helped Heygate to get his first book, Decent Fellows, revealing the homosexuality prevalent at Eton, published in the United States. HW was very influenced by Heygate, for apart from anything else Heygate was great fun to be with. HW was by then realising that left wing politics were not going to be the answer to the world’s problems and was easily persuaded by Heygate to turn to the right. Heygate shortly went to work, through the Gaumont film company, for UFA, the German film studio near Berlin. One of his letters to HW reveals that he actively worked for the Nazi party, and delivered pamphlets in Austria for the regime.


In 1935 HW was desperately writing Salar the Salmon (which may be seen as a companion volume to Tarka) – desperately, because he had been promising it for some years, had received and spent the advance payment some time before, and now his publisher (Dick de la Mare) was demanding immediate delivery. In order to get the peace and quiet necessary to concentrate and produce, he removed himself from the family home and lived more or less as a hermit in his Writing Hut in the field above Georgeham, eating little, working all hours, and snatching short bursts of sleep. He became very gaunt. Each chapter was sent off to the publishers without revisions (unlike Tarka!).


As he finished, totally exhausted, he received a letter from John Heygate with an invitation to visit him in Germany. Gipsy had just given birth to their fifth child, Richard. HW was not a ‘domestic animal’: a holiday in Germany (he was led to believe at Heygate’s expense as a thank you for help received) was far more attractive than dealing with baby-chaos at home. Anyway, he felt that he needed and deserved a holiday. It is obvious that Heygate had been primed to lure HW into a honey-trap, into which he fell, hook, line and sinker. Any eminent British writer would have been a very good catch for the Nazi regime – as the author of Tarka and the well-received The Pathway, HW was currently eminent: Heygate put his name forward: the die was cast.


In that letter Heygate mentions that ‘The Direction of German Writers’ were translating and printing an article by HW: there is no evidence as to what that actually was, but I feel it can only have been HW’s very powerful essay ‘I Believe in the Men Who Died’ which appeared in several different journals in the UK and prefaces his Wet Flanders Plain as ‘Apologia pro vita mea’. Nothing else would have interested the Germans. That of course would have been very flattering to HW. ‘I Believe . . .’ contains his credo – a powerful cry for brotherhood and for wars to cease. It ends:


I must return to my old comrades of the Great War – to the brown, the treeless, the flat and grave-set plain of Flanders – to the rolling, heat-miraged downlands of the Somme – for I am dead with them, and they live in me again. There in the beautiful desolation of rush and willow in the forsaken tracts I will renew the truths which have quickened out of their deaths: that human virtues are superior to those of national idolatry, which do not arise from the Spirit: that the sun is universal, and that men are brothers, made for laughter one with another: that we must free the child from all things which maintain the ideals of a commercial nationalism, the ideals which inspired and generated the barrages in which ten million men, their laughter corrupted, perished.


I have a little boy now, an innocent who with his friends in the village street laughs in the sunshine; . . . Must he, too, traverse a waste place of the earth: must the blood and sweat of his generation drip in agony, until the sun darken and fall down the sky, and rise no more upon this world?


So the fateful visit to Germany took place. It may be considered quite extraordinary that a man of HW’s personality and standing should fall for any of the propaganda with which he was bombarded. But HW was indeed naive and gullible – and the German propaganda was very cleverly presented. The bait was well prepared by the man assigned to be his ‘guide’. HW was shown and told about all the good that Hitler was doing for Germany. These ideas were exciting, and furthered HW’s own thoughts about how a country should be run. He wanted Germany to be a force for good: he truly believed that no-one who had taken part in the horror of WWI would ever instigate such carnage ever again. (He didn’t really think he might have shaken hands with Hitler at that Christmas Truce – only that Hitler was there – somewhere – on the Front Line: it was a symbolic thought.) Above all the amazing atmosphere of the Nuremberg Rally itself (again with careful background propaganda drips) appealed to HW’s sense of Wagnerian operatic splendour. (Liken this to a crowd at a pop-concert today: hysterical worship of the star regardless of that person’s life-style or morals.) The Germans, of course, hi-jacked Wagner just as they did Nietzsche. HW was like a horse with blinkers on: he could not see the dangers lying all about him.


However, looking at it all objectively, one can see that on his return he did actually sense danger. On his return to England it is obvious that HW was in the grip of a life-crisis. The fact that yet another affaire-de-coeur had gone awry, or that he felt he had out-written the West Country, cannot account for his extreme anxiety of spirit. He paid a visit to Dick de la Mare and spent the New Year with him in north Norfolk. De la Mare (very active in the ecological-agricultural world) suggested that he took up farming. That seems rather a strange antidote for a broken love-affair! There is no evidence of what actually occurred between the two men but I have considered the peculiarities of this deeply, and have come to the conclusion that the real cause of HW’s extreme unease was a realisation that war was, if not inevitable, then certainly on the cards. De la Mare’s radical solution to his dilemma then has a raison d’être. Farming would be an honourable, indeed vital, way to serve one’s country: and a safe haven for his family: in particular his eldest son would not have to go to war (farming being a reserved occupation) – and to inevitable death.


The Norfolk Farm was in a dreadful state when HW took it over in 1937. HW, with no real previous experience or knowledge of farming, threw himself into his task, drawing on his WWI experience of organisation and knowledge of horses (he had been a transport officer dealing with horses and mules and limbers taking up ammunition and food to the Front Line). By the end of the war he had turned the farm into ‘A Grade’ – although his peremptory (officer-used-to-immediate-obedience) orders upset the men who worked for him.


At the end of 1937, after continual badgering from the Dowager Lady Downe (a local BUF live-wire) at a time when he was living rough and working frantically to prepare the farm prior to taking over, HW gave in and joined the BUF. Shortly afterwards she introduced him to its leader, Oswald Mosley, and HW came under his spell. HW found Mosley an interesting person, again being over-impressed by the persona, but he was never ‘politically’ involved. His basic interest was in Mosley’s agricultural policies (HW’s ten articles for Action were purely agricultural – and were, moreover, reprints that had been already published elsewhere). Mosley’s campaign was for Peace and it was for that that the Government finally arrested him. Mosley apparently dismissed HW as rather over-reacting to everything: and he hardly gets a mention in Mosley’s autobiography.


Further, HW was never a Nazi, nor a Nazi-sympathiser. Those emotive words come loaded with our post-war horror of the atrocities involved, which HW never condoned. On the whole, shattered by the betrayal of events, he ignored anything other than the constant worry of his work on the farm and his writing to provide income with which to run it, along with his ever-present personal problems. But in a diary entry of October 1940 he does refer to Hitler as ‘bloody wicked’. Post-war he always called him ‘Lucifer’, the chief angel and Bringer of Light, fallen to become Satan. That is a powerful metaphor that cannot be ignored in understanding HW’s writing.


Much of the misperception arises from HW’s innate integrity. When he came (at last) to write his A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight he told his tale as it was at the time – for his chief character, Phillip Maddison (who is based on himself, though at times an enlarged version). This long series tells the socio-historical story of this country in the first half of the twentieth century from the point of view of Phillip and his family and friends. It does not tell the whole story (that would comprise a history tome), but it is not enhanced with heroic embellishment nor is it overlain with hindsight as are so many tales. HW was too honest for that: too ‘steadfast in his search for Truth’ on his hard road of personal integrity.


The early volumes give a vivid picture of life in suburban London at the beginning of the last century while the five war volumes are considered by many to be the finest of the genre. It is as the work progresses that the perception problems begin, but I would ask readers to be objective and to try and understand what HW was trying to achieve. The final volume, The Gale of the World, is extraordinarily complex and full of intricate detail, some quite amazing: a rich tapestry akin to the Bayeux. However, some form of ‘concordance’ may be needed to fully understand it. HW was totally unable (more probably unwilling) to explain himself or his work. On the rare occasion that he did he nearly always succeeded in making matters worse. He was indeed his own worst enemy.


The Gale of the World is nowhere near so full of politics as is suggested by some. I have analysed the political content to be under 3% of the total book (a total of about 10 pages altogether, covering the various aspects). Most of that is factual: these events happened. HW included them in his novel. Not to have done so would have been dishonest. He hid nothing. Much of the contention seems to be that he quotes from Mosley’s The Alternative (1946), which is seen by his more rampant critics to be a work of fascist monstrosity. Mosley wrote The Alternative while he was imprisoned under the Defence Regulation 18B rule (without charge or trial) for the duration of the war. His opening statements show that he realises that fascism has failed, here and in Europe. The book is indeed very turgid and is a difficult read, but it is basically an anti-communist-threat plea (a huge concern just after the Second World War), and his central idea (his ‘alternative’) embodies basically a view of, and hope for, a Union of Europe. This view is extremely close to the European Union that does now exist. The passages that HW quotes are to do with that idea – that ‘brotherhood of nations’ dream as it was for HW. Read from that point of view The Gale of the World loses the sinister aspect that some perceive.


On the day HW died, 13 August 1977, we were filming (under the direction of David Cobham) the death of Tarka at Canal Bridge on the River Torridge, where the otter had been born. There cannot be many occasions when a whole film crew have been so visibly shaken. It did seem a most extraordinary occurrence: and could not have been more fitting or moving, and yes – HW would have revelled in it (and perhaps did!).


I would ask that readers strive for a more objective view of HW and his work. There is so much more to him than that label of 'fascist'. He did ‘walk a hard road’: he was ‘not a happy man’: but that ‘spark which burned so fiercely within him’ never died.



Anne Williamson

Manager, HW’s Literary Estate.



Some of HW’s œuvre is currently available on demand at Faber Finds; the Henry Williamson Society's website contains a wealth of information about his life and work.