Review by George Simmers (see his Great War Fiction blog here)
When Chris told us that this month’s author would be Henry Williamson, my heart sank a little. I’ve read a fair bit of Williamson but he is not among my favourite writers. Reviewing one of his novels, J. B. Priestley described it as ‘a great oozing slab of self-pity, bearing the wet trade-mark of Henry Williamson’. No, this is not the whole truth about Williamson, but there were times this month that I felt Priestley had got it right.
I chose a Williamson that I had not read – in fact, I had not even heard of The Sun in the Sands before. In the event, I was reasonably fascinated by the book, though not always in ways that the author intended.
This book is one of his many attempts to redefine his life. It covers the period that he had previously written about in The Pathway (1928, last part of the novel-sequence collected, with revisions, as The Flax of Dream in 1936) , and later dealt with in It was the Nightingale (1962) and The Innocent Moon (1961), novels 9 and 10 in his long and ambitious Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight series. The basis for all of these was the voluminous journal that he kept throughout his life.
This book, he says in an author’s note, was written in 1934, refused by his publisher because its theme of the post-war years was too dated, and put aside for a decade (until 1944, when another post-war period was in the offing).
The note is not the complete truth, though, because apparently Williamson made very significant alterations to his book, changing third person to first, for example. He may also have gone in for some political self-censorship, since this book shows none of his 1930s enthusiasm for Hitler, ‘the great man across the Rhine, whose life symbol is the happy child’ as he called him in 1936.
Anyway, this book covers about four years in the life of a character called Henry Williamson, though the last quarter is melodramatic fantasy rather than fact.
The book begins with one of the best first sentences I’ve read for a long time.
In March 1921, through circumstances over which I had no control – the circumstances being my own feelings – I was abruptly homeless.(9)
In a chaotic state after his war service, he came in drunk most evenings, had quarrelled constantly with his father, and had threatened suicide. He leaves the family home in London for a cottage in Devon, where he is joined by Julian, another would-be writer, with an even more severe alcohol problem. He is distrusted by the locals.
His personal myth is dominated by memories of the War and resentment of the peace:
Although the Armistice had been signed two and a quarter years, the Great War was still continuing in the minds of many young old-soldiers: they were solitaries, fighting mentally the war-spirit of non-combatants. (23)
He goes in for rhetoric like:
The dead had died in vain. The peace was more bitter than the war. (10)
The book covers the period in which he was writing his first autobiographical tetralogy, The Flax of Dream (see the review of the first volume in this set, The Beautiful Years). It shows the ambitious intentions behind the work, and it is interesting in what it shows of the editorial and publishing process of the time. His editor at Jonathan Cape was the novelist J. D. Beresford, who orders him to severely revise Dandelion Days, cutting out ‘those idiotic little Latin words’, like ‘umbral’ and ‘vesperal’ and ‘gracile’, and to write in plain clear English.
Most readers will find the story of Williamson’s life during this period less interesting than he did himself. A lot of pages are devoted to Julian, who, like most alcoholics, becomes a bore. The emotional thread is Williamson’s relationship with two teenage girls : Barley, who is sixteen, and Annabelle, who is fourteen when he first meets her, and whom he decides he loves. He is ten years older than she is.
Nothing much comes of these relationships. Though there is some comic charge in a section where Annabelle’s mother very clearly fancies Williamson, while he prefers the daughter. I’m not sure how much Williamson intended us to find this funny. He is not a humorous writer. At the end of the novel, Barley declares her love for Williamson, but he prefers Annabelle, and goes off though the snows of the Pyrenees to find her. Barley, devotedly follows him, but is later found dead on the mountain, a victim of her own adoration. This part of the story bears no relation to the facts; he seems to have departed from the dull realities of his journal to provide a more novelistic ending.
I would say that this book is strictly for Williamson completists. The best bits of the fifteen-volume Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight are much better, though those volumes too have their longeurs – some of them very long indeed.