I try not to let the personality of an artist interfere with how I feel about their work. I liked the play Amadeus, but I continue to enjoy Mozart's music irrespective of whether he was a nice person or not. Sometimes though it is difficult, and occasionally it can have an odd effect on how you view a work of art, whether it be music, a painting, or a novel, retrospectively.

Henry Williamson,
portrait by Charles Tunnicliffe, ca. 1935
I recently finished Henry Williamson's The beautiful years, the first novel in his The flax of dream series. It also happened to be Williamson's (later winner of the Hawthornden prize with Tarka the otter) first novel. The beautiful years follows young Willie Maddison from birth to his tenth birthday. Although a creation of Williamson's, Willie's childhood is at least partly rooted in Williamson's own - especially young Willie's passion for nature, and Williamson's own difficult relationship with his father.

In many ways Willie's childhood seems idyllic. Enchanted by the countryside and wildlife around his home, Willie leads a carefree childhood playing with his friend, Jack, meeting the adorable Elsie, and, most of all, finding great happiness in the lives of the animals and birds that he watches all the time. There are strains in this childhood though, Willie's mother died during his birth, and his father struggles to develop an emotional bond with his son; embarrassed by his grief and lack of empathy with the boy, the father takes refuge in a strict Victorian approach to child-rearing, and his interaction with Willie, a shy boy, is often brutal. Matters come to a head when Willie springs all the traps on a neighbour's land in an attempt to save the innocent bird life that is in danger of flying into them. Terrified of his father's reaction he runs away....

I so enjoyed this book, yes, the language is a bit dated (shades of Cold Comfort Farm), but there's a wonderful joyfulness about life and nature. An awakening to happiness after the strains of the First World War. Having struggled (a long time ago) to read Tarka the otter, this was a hugely readable, happy book full of the joys of life despite life's many problems. I loved it, and looked forward to reading the next book in the series - Dandelion days, in which Willie goes to school.

But then, in preparation for this post, knowing very little about Henry Williamson, I decided to find out a bit more about him; and was shocked by what I discovered.

Williamson, in common with many men of his generation, was profoundly affected by the events of the First World War. He came home from the war hating war and all that it stood for, and was determined that there should never be another war (so far, fair enough). In 1935, he visited Nuremberg, and was impressed by the National Socialist Movement especially the work of the Hitler Youth. Convinced that the growing shadow of another war was due to the machinations of "Jewish" interests, he joined Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists after his return from Nuremberg. In fact he became so enmeshed in them that on the day war broke out, he offered to go to Germany to have a chat with Hitler. The British government was sufficiently concerned about his behaviour that he was arrested and spent a weekend in jail being questioned. In his last novel written in the late 1960's, his hero still feels able to question the validity of the Nuremberg trials.

Hard as I try for the author's life not to influence my view of his work, I'm finding this very difficult at the moment. Much as I loved The beautiful years, I detest Williamson's politics and am finding it virtually impossible to disassociate this from his writings. I'm sorry that this is the case, as there was so much in The beautiful years to admire, the innocence and the beauty of the book could easily stand with other classics of children's lives such as Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie. Humans are complicated, and one wonders how someone who writes so beautifully and life-affirmingly could ever want to throw in their lot with the Nazis. Perhaps one day, I will finally be able to read more Henry Williamson, but I think it will be a while....


Popular Posts