Henry Williamson – Rewriting the War

It’s a commonplace of literary history that the standard myth of the war changed in about 1927 – so that rather than as a worthwhile (but painful) patriotic effort, the war came to be seen as an exercise in futility.

Yesterday I discovered how a major text, first published in 1924, was altered in 1929 to convey the new orthodoxy.

Henry Williamson’s A Dream of Fair Women is the third of his Flax of Dreams tetralogy – four novels that show the pre-war life of Willie Maddison, and his life after the war, but deal with the actual war years only by inference.

The events of A Dream of Fair Women happen in 1919, and a long middle section deals with events on ‘Peace Day’ (19 July, 1919). The hero is confused and alienated; his mood seems to match  that of Williamson himself at the time, who wrote in a letter about his demoblisation:”It was then that I felt lost.”

Peace Day in the 1924 version is characterised by drink-fuelled chaos. A drunken taxi-driver causes a minor accident, which annoys a pompous businessman (“My name is Dodder, sir. – Mr Archibald Dodder, O.B.E. Have you heard of Dodder’s Disinfectant, sir? I am that Dodder, sir!”). Maddison feels lonely in the crowd:

“Every face was a strange face; everybody seemed radiant with the spirit of carnival; gay bubting and merriment everywhere, laughter and talk –  he wandered aimlessly down the High Street searching the faces that passed him by.”

The emphasis is on the alienation of the ex-soldier among the uncaring populace, who are getting on very well without him. Dodder represents the old men who take the credit (“What have we been asking for?” he asks rhetorically) without having done any of the fighting. Maybe he’s supposed to be a war profiteer too – plenty of disinfectant was needed in the war, and that O.B.E. may well have been won by delivering the goods to the army when needed.

In 1929 the drunken taxi driver crashes again, and Dodder is indignant again (but there is no reference to the disinfectant now. But a whole new element has been added to the episode. Where in 1924 the Peace Day procession was just the distant “blare of a brass band”, now it is a full-scale march-past of the Shorncliffe and Folkestone Command, described in some detail, andcausing an emotive reaction in Maddison:

How alert and beribboned were the staff officers, with their red-banded caps whose peaks were gold-encrusted with oak leaves, their red tabs, their shining boots and spurs and double rows of ribbons. The beribbon’d staff! … Ah! here was the cavalry!… Skull and crossbones, the seventeenth lancers – his heart beat violently – the old seventeenth! Did they remember when they had been sent to attack Bullecourt in broad daylight…  because the blasted Staff had believed the Germans in the Hindenburg line would be asleep after their mid-day meal? The survivors had returned about 3.p.m., looking as though their faces had been soked in brine, their eyes smarting and fixed beyond seeing.

Which is standard “Lions and donkeys” stuff – stupid staff and suffering soldiers.  Did Williamson see and think that in 1919? If so, why didn’t he say do in 1924?

In his introduction to the 1936 Faber volume that includes all four novels, Williamson says that his revisions were to cut out “many untruths, exaggerations, incidents of false characterisation and false writing.” In the new version the farce of the Peace day episode is cut down, and it feels less contrived, but the addition goes beyond this, adding a new political dimension to the passage.

So – were the comments about the Staff ones that Williamson would have liked to make in 1924, but felt that he couldn’t, or was not allowed to? Or had he changed his mind about the meaning of the war, and was shoe-horning this changed viewpoint into his earlier novel? My money is on the second interpretation, but I’m not entirely sure.

The 1936 collection, by the way, had a foreword that salutes “the great man across the Rhine, whose life symbol is the happy child.” That’s Hitler, if you hadn’t guessed. Williamson was an odd chap.

One Comment

  1. anne williamson
    Posted September 25, 2008 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting —— this spring the HW Society met at Folkestone to study this book, The Dream of Fair Women, and to trace the places and people named in it —- a very interesting and amazingly moving weekend. The fullresearch into this will be published in due course in the HW Society Journal.
    Basically when HW wrote the first version – he was still learning the craft of writing. By the time he had finished the fourth volume (The Pathway) he had matured a great deal – and wanted to change some details to make the series more of a whole unit.
    It is all too complicated to go into here – but I personally consider this book one of HW’s more important volumes. I have just written a short booklet on the ‘folkestone era’which is published by the HWS:
    details about HW, the HWS and books available can be found on our website:
    best wishes
    manager the HW Literary Estate
    Editor HW Society Journal

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