A fish out of water;Books

17th November 1995 at 00:00
HENRY WILLIAMSON: TARKA AND THE LAST ROMANTIC By Anne Williamson Alan Sutton pound;19.99. - 0 75O9 0639 1. Jonathan Croall discovers what the man who wrote Tarka the Otter was really like

Henry Williamson was, indirectly, responsible for the death of one of his heroes. When T E Lawrence was killed in a motorcycle accident in Dorset in the summer of 1935, he was returning from sending a telegram in response to a letter from Williamson, a friend and later one of his biographers.

In that letter, Williamson simply asked Lawrence if he might call in at his cottage and show him a typescript of another writer's work. Yet a year later he was claiming that he had written it to get Lawrence's support for a plan for world peace, and that Lawrence had been so enthusiastic he had rushed out at once to wire his support for the idea.

Such fabrications were characteristic of Henry Williamson, especially later in his life. Keenly attuned to the natural world, as his most enduring work, Tarka the Otter, makes brilliantly clear, he was totally at sea in that inhabited by human beings. This failing was perhaps most evident in his stubborn support for fascism.

Writers are rarely loveable creatures, but Williamson seems to have been an especially appalling example of the species.

The picture that emerges from his daughter-in-law's biography is of a man self-absorbed, self-pitying and self-deceiving, who had no compunction in riding roughshod over the emotions of his two wives, eight children and countless lovers.

Perhaps he should have remained the hermit that he was when first he lived in the Devon countryside. Anne Williamson catalogues in detail the mayhem of his personal life, his increasingly pathetic search for his ideal mate, leading to two failed marriages, an illegitimate child for Edward Thomas's daughter Ann, countless "episodes" with young admirers, and finally a proposal of marriage to a schoolgirl.

His self-deception and conceit extended to his literary abilities. After an unenthusiastic review in The Times of a collection of his short stories, he complained in his diary: "Oh God, when will people see that I can write better than anyone living today? A generation to come, I guess - when I am dead."

Certainly Tarka has never been out of print. Ted Hughes called it a "holy book", confessing: "It entered into me and gave shape and words to my world, as no book has ever done since." And Williamson's other tales of wildlife and the countryside, such as Salar the Salmon, still have their admirers.

But his early quartet of novels, and his later 15-volume A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight - based intimately on his own experiences, and supposed to be a chronicle of our century - are little read now. His name does not even appear in some of the newer literary reference books.

This biography, published to mark the centenary of the writer's birth, is a frustrating work. The author, a librarian, overwhelms us with detail, often utterly trivial, from her father-in-law's diary and archive, but offers us few other perspectives on her subject, and little critical evaluation of his work outside the reviews of the time.

She does try to tackle Williamson's notorious liking for Hitler and Mosley, suggesting that it was his inherent romanticism that blinded him to reality. Less kindly critics might see it more as a consequence of his inward-looking personality: other romantics have been quite clear-sighted about their times.

Williamson was certainly deeply affected by his experience in the trenches during the first World War, and The Patriot remains a vivid evocation of that moment in history.

But his lack of interest in other people was surely what ultimately prevented him from ever becoming the great writer he evidently thought he was.

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