Here is Henry Williamson describing how in 1921 he settled down with Wilfrid Ewart’s new novel:
Having re-lit the fire, I settled in my armchair – surplus officer’s mess furniture – and continued reading Way of Revelation, a new and long War novel which was at the time a best-seller. It was magnificent, a real book… oh marvellously real and true, a recreation of the incredibly vanished times and places…
I read on; I was with the battalion officers in the forest hut as the colonel gave orders for the daylight attack: I knew how they felt as they swallowed their quick drinks of whisky, before going back to their companies and platoons: I was with them when the german machine-guns opened up from the forest of Mormal, and they fell and a stream of chips was cut from the young oak tree just above the head of the wounded Adrian… Here ar last was someone whose glance was level upon the world of reality, level in a post-war world of prejudices, hates, scornings and denials.
This is from Williamson’s The Sun on the Sand (written around 1934, but not published till the forties, and probably closely based on a 1921 diary).
Williamson was a highly critical reader of war fiction, judging books by their authenticity. He had strong doubts about Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, for example.
Ewart is, of course, one of the key pieces of evidence against those who still argue that all the soldiers repressed their feelings about the war for a decade, and were unable to write about it – which is nonsense, of course, though a nonsense repeated by many of the sage and respectable.
Henry Williamson 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’. Williamson does rather go in for misery and aimlessness on a large scale, and yet…
The strength of Williamson’s novels is their honesty. He does not spare himself; he does not create consoling fictions. Apply the authenticity test to his work, and it passes. If you want to know what it was like to be a soldier in the Great War, the wartime volumes of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, in all their often tedious detail, are the ones to tell you. If you want to know how an intelligent and sensitive man could become a fascist in the thirties, look at The Phoenix Generation.
The Sun in the Sands is my homework assignment this month for the Reading 1920-1950 group. I may write more about it later.