This is Williamson’s first published novel. I wondered, after hearing how the book presents a bleak picture of the years before World War 1 – years that are often presented as a golden ‘Edwardian sunset’ – whether the title is ironic?
Review by Helen N:
The plot concerns Willie Maddison, a motherless boy growing up in the countryside. He is a romancer and often in trouble for lying. He is eventually sent to the local Grammar School where he encounters bullying. The book is the first part of a quadralogy that follows Willie into adult life, the First World War and adult relationships. The book is partially auto-biographical but it is not necessary to know that.
I enjoyed the book for the most part though some of the writing about “nature” is hard going. Williamson is great when he reports what he has seen and gives clearly observed details but he easily lapses into a generalised “poetic” descriptive writing –where words however well-chosen fail to bring a scene to life.
Willie himself is a fascinating child, – there are elements of Just William in his inventiveness and misunderstanding of the adult world. The fractured relationship with his father, affected both by Willie’s Mother having died in childhood and by the father’s complete inability to understand how his son feels and thinks, is painful and deeply felt. William has relationships with many people round him and each interaction reveals more of the child and of the world in which he lives.
The School, where he encounters quite savage bullying, is a depressing place, so far removed from his true life that he struggles to have any kind of success. The natural world, though cruel, is a happier place for him.
There is another plot in the book which is a love story. Jim Holloman, who is a loner who can’t settle to any job that ties him down, lives outdoors and knows “all about the wild beasts and birds”. Jim is drawn to Dolly, the young maid and she is fascinated by him, yet he fears to be tied down by her. This love, with it’s misunderstandings and reconciliations is drawn very tenderly but all the time there is a doom in the background and the feeling is created that though they seem to be heading for a happy marriage, yet all will end badly.
The book, in spite of the descriptions of the beauty of the surroundings has a melancholy. It is the first of four books and written long after the events remembered or imagined. Later Willie will go to the Great War and the shadow of conflict and cruelty cloud the book.
One of the themes of the book is the contrast between the cruelty of nature, represented in the hunting and killing of prey, and the arbitrary harshness of the weather. There is a description of a hard winter that kills not only animals and birds but humans too.
Yet against this is set the unkindness of humans with the bullying at Willie’s school and the gamekeeper who illegally sets traps for Jays.
Another theme in the book is bereavement. Not only are Willie and his father bereaved, living in a dangerous separation of grief, but also Jim has lost his mother at an early age, and one of Willie’s friends at school has a father who has been “killed in the Boer War”
Williamson was influenced by Richard Jeffries’ “Bevis” – a book I loved as a child. But there is more action and less description in Jeffries’ book, which is told entirely from Bevis’s viewpoint and indeed, must be one of the earliest children’s book of its kind ever written (pub.1877). It is the forerunner of books such as Arthur Ransome’s “Swallows and Amazons” and B.B’s “Brendon Chase”. It is altogether less complex and more extravert than “The Beautiful Years”.
Williamson is not writing for children and Willie’s is not the only viewpoint in the book. It is a clearer-eyed view of the “Edwardian Sunset” before the Great War than one usually reads, but it is not a book I would want to re-read.