A Tale of Youth after the Great War


(Vol. III of The Flax of Dream)



First edition, Collins, 1924  

The background


The book


Critical reception


Book covers



First published Collins, June 1924 (750 copies)


Dutton, USA, 1924


Revised edition Faber & Faber, 1931


Dutton, USA, 1931


Many subsequent reprints


Currently available from Faber Finds





This is the third volume of The Flax of Dream, and represents 'Youth' in the author's scheme.


The first edition was dedicated:


To my Friend, J. D. Beresford, Book III. of "The Flax of Dream."


HW had met J. D. Beresford (himself a prolific author) at The Tomorrow Club in 1920. Beresford was also a reader for W. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd, the publishers, and HW sent him a copy of his first typescript. Beresford saw the promise that this foretold and recommended that The Beautiful Years should be published by Collins, thus launching HW on his literary career.


For the 1931 revised edition the original subtitle 'A Tale of Youth after the Great War' was dropped, and the dedication modified:


To J. D. Beresford, who helped the young writer much;

coupled with the name of Walter de la Mare –

friends seldom seen, but well loved.


Walter de la Mare, whom HW again met through The Tomorrow Club, also gave the young writer a great deal of encouragement, and HW became close friends with his son, Richard de la Mare, who, as a director of Faber & Faber, became HW's publisher in due course.



The background:


The background to this novel is again based on true events: and thus, apart from being a rattling good tale, it is a powerful social history document that captures the piquant essence of its time. Henry Williamson, then in the army, was stationed at Folkestone during the first seven months of 1919 as an adjutant overseeing details of men returning from the Front, and he himself had a tempestuous and unhappy love affair with the wife of a fellow officer, whom we now know to be a lady called Mabs Baker. Mary Ogilvie is based here on a beautiful young girl, Doline Rendle, whom HW met in London and by a strange coincidence lived in Folkestone and was actually related to Mabs Baker! After the Mabs debacle, HW fell in love with Doline but she kept him at a distance – to his despair at the time. But she was very supportive of him during this early period of writing, and she remained a friend throughout his life. Most of the characters appearing in the novel are based on people living in Folkestone at that time, and have been identified, including the Mayor, who is portrayed as rather a pompous idiot. Naps Spreycombe can also be identified in real life while the flamboyant Julian Warbeck was HW's somewhat wild friend and near neighbour in London, Frank Davis. The Peace Day celebration is an exact record of what happened in Folkestone on that day as can be verified by newspaper reports of the event. HW must have been very disappointed that no-one ever seemed to notice this extraordinary account of a most historic event.


Further details of the background of The Dream of Fair Women (and there are plenty!) can be found particularly in HWSJ 39, September 2003, and the booklet Recreating a Lost World: HW and Folkestone 1919-20 (text by AW, published by HWS; also available as an e-book), both of which contain a wealth of detail, photographs and documents giving the background to this important era and book, and references to further articles.


When HW was writing these early volumes he was still a bachelor living pretty rough in the tiny Skirr Cottage situated next to Georgeham church. The village people found him strange ('mazed'), whilethe local gentry greatly disapproved of him. His general behaviour tended to be a little wild: he rode his Norton Brooklands Road Special motorcycle very fast and noisily around the narrow Devon lanes, had unusual friends (Frank Davis lived with him for a while in Skirr Cottage and tended to drink too much and be argumentative – declaiming Swinburne's poetry to all and sundry: he was also a shell-shock victim). HW did not conform to any idea of a 'gentleman' or an ex-officer: he was very gauche, swam naked in the sea, walked about all day in shorts and barefoot, then wrote all night, or often slept out in the fields. He did not belong anywhere: he was an outsider. Yet, in his writing he was at the core of everything and everybody.


In the first edition the book was divided into three sections: 'The Weaver and the Flax', 'The Scarlet Thread', and 'The Broken Web', which all devolve from a passage in The Incalculable Hour by J. Quiddington West (the pseudonym of HW's Aunt Mary Leopoldina Williamson) and follow the theme and idea of weaving life's web. In the revised edition of 1931 HW changed the title of the first section to 'The Policy of Reconstruction, or, True Resurrection', which although it may have stated more directly what the author wanted to say, does not have quite the same poetic ring! That title was originally given to the whole series, and it is now the title of the book Willie is writing, that he thinks will change the world. 


The first edition states at the end that it was written: 'London–Devon: November 1919–November 1923', while the revised edition (both Faber's and Dutton's) states 'Manhattan Island, Fall, 1930'. The Faber flyleaf states: 'Written in the autumn of 1930 in New York city . . . '. In fact HW revised this book in three weeks while on an extended visit to America. Behind that, of course, lies another story – well ahead of our present concern and we will come to it in due course.



HW tells us in his 'Surview and Farewell' essay in The Labouring Life (1932), when mentioning the Great Drought of 1921:


There was the Great Drought, which lasted from April until late summer; this was described, as an actual and symbolic background, in The Dream of Fair Women, a work which on appearance was treated by most of the critics as a strange bird is usually treated in the village [Georgeham].




The book:


When The Dream of Fair Women opens, the First World War is over. HW avoids any direct portrayal of the war itself in this early work: he was still too close to this shocking era to be able to write about it – that was to come later. Very early in the book the hero (Willie) cries out to himself:


Despite the praying men continued to die and to be maimed . . . No man wanted to die, yet the bones of the slain girdle the earth . . . [War is wrong] . . . when I am stronger I will make all men hear my voice.


The splendid bitter days of the war were often recalled as he lay on the shell beach in the sun.


It is the summer of 1919. Willie has survived the war, has left the army and is living in a more or less derelict cottage overlooking the sea on the North Devon coast: his only companions are his dog, Billjohn, and an assortment of injured animals and birds. He is disillusioned and bitter about the war and its causes and aftermath. We soon learn that his views are decidedly of the left and embrace those of Lenin. Withdrawn and remote, he sees himself as a prophet of the future and is determined to write a book that will show all this and put the world to rights: the book being 'The Policy of Reconstruction, or True Resurrection', which examines what Willie sees as the iniquities of the educational system, the causes of which he feels have led directly to the recent war.


His hideaway is discovered by a beautiful young woman, Evelyn Fairfax, visiting the area accompanied by a supercilious army officer, Pat Colyer (who appears to have a shady secret), with a fast and powerful car. Evelyn (or Eve), who lives in Folkestone, knows Willie's Cousin Phillip, who has been recently stationed in that town and has told her of his cousin's whereabouts.


Willie falls instantly in love with this earthly Eve, in what is virtually a 'Garden of Eden' – the untouched wilderness of the North Devon coast and marshes, the dunes of 'Santon' (Saunton/Braunton) Burrows, and the estuary of the 'Two Rivers' (the Taw and Torridge). Eve does not discourage him, indeed she leads him on, playing him as a fish caught on the end of a line, but she soon reveals that she is a married woman and has a five-year-old daughter, Jonquil. Also, it is obvious that she has several other men vying for her attention and affections. But their affaire rapidly develops, although with a lot of see-sawing of emotions, sincere on Willie's part but artificial on Eve's.


After a few weeks, hearing that her husband has returned home from duty abroad, Eve abruptly returns to her home in Folkestone, telling Willie of this in a letter after she has left. Willie determines to follow and, taking the train, he arrives in Folkestone on the morning of the day set aside to celebrate 'Peace Day' – 19 July 1919 –and finds the town in an uproar of panoply and celebration.


Among the many extraordinary characters assembled in Folkestone – including Quillie, the young daughter of Eve, and Elsie Norman and her friend Mary Ogilvie enjoying a relaxed post-war holiday by the sea – we meet the flamboyant Lord 'Naps' Spreycombe, heir to the Earl of Slepe, and the wild red-haired would-be poet Julian Warbeck, an ardent follower of the poet Swinburne.


Willie is welcomed into the Fairfax household as a guest by the forbearing Major Lionel D'Arcy Fairfax, where he is torn by guilt and jealousy and despair as Eve dispenses her favours on every male that appears (and to his dismay it becomes clear that her entourage has included Cousin Phillip). But Eve's promiscuous behaviour is not done out of malice. She is very mixed up and is desperately unhappy herself from a troubled childhood and a rape experience as a young girl, the perpetrator being Lord Naps' father. She is deeply insecure and desperate for attention.


Again the story line is embellished with extraordinarily beautiful descriptions of nature in all its moods, interspersed with a series of hilarious moments, while the historical detail of Peace Day is woven in as a poignant background. Willie lives in the shadow of the war and his dead comrades. One of the great scenes in the book is the moment that Willie climbs up to the tumuli known as Caesar's Camp high above Folkestone on the night of Peace Day to commune privately with his thoughts about the dead – not just of the recently ended war but throughout history. This is of course a direct connection to Richard Jefferies' book The Story of My Heart, which HW found in a bookshop in Folkestone in early 1919 and which confirmed his own beliefs and determined his ambition to be a writer. Willie's tortured mind, scarred by the horror of war, struggles to find a way to communicate his ideas to mankind through his book 'The Policy of Reconstruction' – although the content of this is always somewhat obscure (one might say to the point of being non-existent).


Throughout the frenetic activity Mary Ogilvie stands calmly and faithfully on the periphery and again, like a leitmotif in music, there is a final scene between her and Willie, this time on the Downs above Folkestone, with lyrical and tender undertones. We have learnt that her home is in North Devon.


As The Dream of Fair Women comes to its climax, Major Fairfax is recalled to duty and departs for 'the East', leaving Eve on her own, but asking Willie to look after her as she is very vulnerable. The supercilious Pat Colyer is revealed as a complete bounder and imposter, while Eve's youngest and most inexperienced victim, the young Peter White, commits suicide out of despair, leaving a long desolate letter. Horrified at the thought (and the scandal), Eve is distraught. After a final scene with Willie on the beach late at night when he comforts her, she returns home, only to flee with the flamboyant Naps Spreycombe.


Willie, having slept for over twenty-four hours, returns to the Fairfax house, where Quillie tells him her mother has gone away in Naps' motor.  In despair but resigned, Willie, leaving his manuscript there for Eve to read and then return to him, also departs – to be true to his own soul. But as we learn later Eve (a woman, a temptress who had infiltrated that Devon 'Garden of Eden') loses for Willie, the would-be saviour of the world, the manuscript of his magnum opus 'The Policy of Reconstruction, or True Resurrection'. An allegorical connotation surely meant by HW, that can be seen more clearly with the (eventual) publication of The Star-born – the book that Willie is writing in the next volume of The Flax of Dream.


The complication of the added passage 'Valediction' in the revised edition (in later editions the title of the passage was revised to 'Post War' and then later removed altogether), need really only concern students of literature and purist collectors. With it HW was seeking to solve the problem of the fact that the different editions, and particularly the fact that the fourth volume, The Pathway, appeared before any of the revised versions of the earlier three volumes, which confused American readers especially.






DOFW HW1922         HW1922 2
Studio portraits of Henry Williamson, taken in 1922




HW's inscription to Loetitia in the copy of The Dream of Fair Women

that he gave her








There follows an explanation of the interval between The Dream of Fair Women and Vol. 4, The Pathway  –  a précis of HW’s various postscript passages 'Valediction', 'Post War' and 'Lost Generation' which explain what happened in the time interval between the two novels.)


When Willie Maddison left Folkestone on that traumatic day, he went to see the only person he thought would understand him, his cousin Phillip Maddison, living in south-east London. Willie was in a state of post-war breakdown. But after a while he went to France to work as a labourer attached to the War Graves Commission. Here he gradually regained both his physical and mental strength. Back in London, Julian Warbeck became the friend of Phillip. Their story is told elsewhere [in A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, still many years in the future here – but very obviously already well planned], but Willie was destined to meet them one last time.


Since Willie Maddison never returned to Folkestone, and Eve Fairfax never answered the letter he wrote her, he never knew what happened to his manuscript 'The Policy of Reconstruction, or, True Resurrection', left behind in 9a The Paragon when Eve eloped with Naps Spreycombe. It has vanished for ever.


William Maddison, likened by many who knew him to that noble spirit Hamlet, was haunted – not as the Prince of Denmark, by the ghost of a murdered parent – but by the ghosts of ten million murdered men of his own generation – the lost generation. That he continued to follow his pathway will be seen in the final volume.


The reference to Hamlet in the above paragraph is not fortuitous. HW revised this volume in New York in the autumn of 1930 shortly before he gave a lecture, ‘Hamlet and the Modern World’ (relating Hamlet to the First World War and its literature), at Dartford, Yale, and Harvard in early 1931. (See HWSJ 45, September 2009, where this episode is thoroughly explored.)



Critical reception:


A small number of review cuttings of the 1924 first edition exist.


Yorkshire Post, 22 August 1924:


The present volume . . . gives us William, hurried early by the war into the full heritage of manhood, still the bewildered seeker but with a firmer hold on life to help him through the pain of his first mature love. The book is more than a faithful transcript of 'Youth After the Great War', [it's sub-title] it has some of the qualities of permanent Art . . .  [Against which HW has written 'damn good!']


But the Glasgow Bulletin, 30 August 1924, is headed 'A Promise Unfulfilled'.


Nottingham Guardian, 18 October 1924, headed 'Beauty and Sentiment':


. . . 'his mind is a chaos of pure beauty'.  We admit the chaos, he is as bemused a character as one could meet . . . the beauty of his mind is equally faint and cloudy. . . . The book is rather incoherent: the author aims at writing something that might become significant, but his achievements lose themselves too often in vapid sentiment.


A single USA 1924 review in The Republican, 14 December 1924, states (with some pomposity!):


To the rapidly growing group of English writers capable of employing the novel for imaginative purposes, may be added the name of Henry Williamson . . .  [This book] reveals talent of a fine quality but falls short of being a work of substance . . .


One can understand why HW felt it was necessary to completely revise these early works as time passed and he became more proficient in the craft of writing – and, post 1928, famous. By the time of the revised version HW was an established writer of some renown. But the odd timing of the various revised volumes threw some reviewers completely, especially in the USA, some thinking it was an entirely new book.


The Sunday Times, 7 June 1931, opens with 'It completes but does not conclude' (the last volume, The Pathway, being already published):


To my mind this new instalment is by far the best of the four. There are no baffling moments, there is a dramatic story which moves fast . . . It is a fine and sincere piece of work and by no means without its excitements . . .


Glasgow Herald, 11 June 1931:


. . . Mad Willie is the supreme example of a square peg in a round hole of our twentieth-century civilisation . . . those who fail to go right through the four volumes have missed an experience that is unique even in these days of catholic production.


Sunday Referee, 14 June 1931:


In his new novel . . . completes the tetralogy which has perhaps awakened more interest in the literary world than any series of novels since the 'Forsyte Saga' [AW: Oh! If it had been known that HW and JG were related, what comparisons would have been drawn – and still need to be!] [This book] is the work of a scrupulous and sensitive artist, some of the descriptive passages are superb in observation, colour, and rhythm . . .


The Times, 9 June 1931:


We doubt whether even fervid admirers will unanimously agree that he has done well to intercalate [this book] into the story of William Maddison . . . One fails to see what interest there is in the events described . . .


Yorkshire Post, 16 June 1931:


. . . It is difficult to see where the author's distinction really lives. That he has distinction is not in any question. [Eve] is flesh and blood and – yes – spirit, an actual woman. The Shelley soul in Maddison makes itself felt as you read.. . . Mr. Williamson is a writer . . . who is nearly 'wonderful' – but, to my mind, not quite.



American reviews of the revised 1931 edition abound (though some are syndicated across various main towns and states). Many reviewers were confused by the sequence of publishing – and possibly the significance of the post-war scene was lost on them, particularly the detail of the Peace Day celebration on 19 July 1919 (a date that may even seem odd to us today!).


American Review, October 1931:


Mr. Williamson has completely rewritten this story of the period immediately after the World War, and has improved it in its organisation and style . . . Maddison is not a satisfactory protagonist for a drama as sweeping as this . . . however hard Mr. Williamson tries to convince the reader that Maddison is a sort of Christ-Shelley, destined to lead the world into brighter times, he cannot escape the charge that his hero is guilty of the awful sin of self-pity . . .    [AW feels that was exactly HW's point – Willie is not destined to change the world – no-one could – see The Star-born section.]


The Nation (New York City), 2 September 1931:


This is Henry Williamson's first novel, now entirely rewritten. [Readers will] find here the same individual, the same poetic spirit, the same lover of nature in all her varied forms, the same twentieth century romanticist . . . [it is] however, uneven in quality . . . The last two parts . . . while moving and engrossing, lack real distinction . . .


The Evening Sun (Baltimore), 29 August 1931:


Henry Williamson belongs to the naturalistic school of English novelists. His sensibilities, which comprise a penetrating interpretative understanding of subtle human emotions, include an unusually profound knowledge and deep love of the elements and of nature in her various manifestations . . .


Union (San Diego), 27 September 1931 – an excellent résumé and grasp of the work, which ends:


. . . [the author in extracts from 'Policy . . . '] states definitely his point of view, which is, briefly, that man will be unhappy and alone until he has turned from the civilization of cities, productive only of war, poverty and sterility, and found again unity with God in nature. This message is implicit in every book Mr. Williamson writes.


Eagle (Brooklyn), 13 September 1931; Headings are: 'Henry Williamson's Adventuress-Isolde' [an interesting insight at this stage of HW's writing]; and 'Idyll Plus Disillusion':


Henry Williamson is always doing something out of the ordinary. This time he has re-written . . . The result is grimly idyllic . . . Thus this strange, at times eerily uncompromising romantic, who will not, however, allow the facts of life to lie stored away in mothballs, sets before us a lovely scene . . . Only an Englishman would have destroyed his idyll. Maddison is a misfit who insists upon creating his own purgatory by trying to wish into being the things that are found only in dreams. [AW: And that captures HW's own problem throughout his life.] . . . ah me, he [HW] has such a beguiling way of writing. He carries a reader along by the music of his prose and the delights of his imagination, and if he has not led us very far into the sunlight of revelation, at least he has given us a fascinating experience.


The June 1968 Faber paperback attracted a fair amount of attention, albeit mostly brief, of which the most interesting is:


The Times, 24 August 1968:


A stage in the spiritual history of William Maddison – cousin of Phillip Maddison . . . After the Armistice . . . he is engaged in writing 'The Policy of Reconstruction . . . ' – a document both mystical and autobiographical . . . Oddly compulsive fiction – descriptions of the countryside and country life extremely beautiful and evocative, dialogue absolutely unspeakable.



An American review of the 1931 revised edition, from an unknown source, has a little-known portrait of a brooding HW:



HW USreview1931







Book covers:



The scarce dust wrapper for the first edition, front and back:








Other editions:



DOFW1924 US2
First US edition, Dutton, 1924



DOFW1931           DOFW1931US
Revised edition, Faber, 1931   Revised US edition, Dutton, 1931



Some other covers of different editions of The Dream of Fair Women are shown at the bottom of The Flax of Dream page.





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