Henry Williamson (1895-1977) was a hugely prolific author (he wrote over 50 books), best-known for his 1927 novel Tarka the Otter. As you might expect, given his birth date of 1895, Williamson fought in WW1 and his experiences there were extremely important to the direction of his life and writing. At our reading group discussion we got the impression that Williamson had two topics for fiction – his own life, in particular his war experience, and the natural world. And the two are of course, intertwined. Williamson’s own move to the countryside after the war was a reaction to the trauma of his war service.
Williamson is a controversial figure because of his political views. The Henry Williamson Society demonstrates just how controversial in their careful description of themselves as a ‘Non-political society promoting the literary achievements of the controversial author of Tarka the Otter.’ In the 1930s Williamson went to Germany, and was greatly impressed by what he saw there. The Henry Williamson Society writes: ‘His enthusiasm was fired by the German Youth Movement started by Adolf Hitler, and by the move towards cleanliness and order and the emphasis on agriculture as a basis for life. This led him to make the fatal mistake, that was to haunt his future life, of believing that Hitler was fundamentally a good man.’
We received most of the Williamson books in the University collection through one donation. The donor wrote to me: ‘I fell in love with his nature stories as a boy, and later read almost all his other fiction, but now find I cannot be doing with his self-pitying, self-righteous tone and his apologies for his fascism.’ Setting aside Williamson’s political views, it is always interesting how our reaction to books can change over time. It shows that the act of reading is always an active process of creating meaning, for the text does not change, while what it means to the reader does.
The reading group’s reaction to Williamson was – and I know I always say this! – mixed. Three reviews to follow, of The Beautiful Years (1921) Williamson’s first published novel, Tarka the Otter (1927), and The Sun in the Sands (1945).