William; An Englishman – Cicely Hamilton

And so for the first of my reads for my Persephone Project, where I plan to read all the Persephone books in order once a month, and I have to admit I was slightly nervous of reading ‘William – An Englishman’ in part because if it was a dud it would have thrown me off from the start of this venture and two, and probably the most worrying, it was about WWI… I am not good with war books, I feel that WWI and WWII are overused in fiction and tend to provide nothing new. Cicely Hamilton’s debut novel however, released in 1919, is an unusual account of the war that I have never read before.

Persephone Books, paperback, 1919 (1999 edition), fiction, 226 pages, from my own personal TBR pile

William Tully, the protagonist after whom ‘William – An Englishman’ is titled, is really just your average rather nondescript gentleman. Yet after his mother days, a controlling woman who he never liked, he finds himself a man of money and wants to make some kind of difference. Befriending fellow insurance clerk Faraday he soon becomes involved in the politics of the time and through this meets Griselda, a suffragette, who is almost his opposite yet the two fall in love and within years marry (leaving out her having to obey him) and are soon on honeymoon in the summer of 1914, in an old cottage of Griselda’s friends, in the middle of Belgium with no newspapers for their retreat and so no idea that war has broken out all around them, well not initially, and soon they find themselves stepping into the very heart of it.

“’If it’s fine.’ William cautioned again as they mounted the stairs to bed. ‘I’ve heard thunder several times in the distance, so we may have a storm in the morning.’”

What Hamilton does with William and Griselda is try to tell the tale of some of the Mr and Mrs Everyman’s, and how they were affected, at the time of the First World War yet from a completely different angle. Especially bringing in both of their political and social agenda’s. Whatever their thoughts on war however nothing will quite prepare them for what they witness from the moment they walk unknowingly into it. It is very rare a book makes me cry, or with fiction at least horrifies me really deeply but Hamilton creates a scene of hostages in a small village that will haunt me for quite some time, and that is only the start of what William and his wife endure.

The other thing that Hamilton does really well with the war aspects of the book is to constantly humanise it, sometime in the strangest of ways. You have horrific things going on all around you as the reader, and yet Hamilton will put something very normal in amongst all this that you wouldn’t even think of which makes the whole scenario all the more bizarre and yet all the more real because of it. I found this quite an incredible device, yet one that never felt it was a device, if you know what I mean?

“The white cat may have been deaf, or she may have been merely intrepid; whatever the cause her nerves were unaffected by the fury of conflict and she dozed serenely under shell-fire, the embodiment of comfortable dignity.”

I have to say though I did really struggle with the book at the start. Part of this was the initial mundane lifestyle which William had; I just wasn’t particularly interested in him as a character even when he went political. Yet I think that the mundane nature of the start of the book is to highlight how the everyman, even the most unlikely, was involved in the war. I was quite interested in Griselda though initially I have to say I didn’t really like her very much, of course you don’t have to like every character, which I thought made Hamilton’s writing all the more impressive because I really felt for Griselda as the book went on. I would have loved to have been able to ask Hamilton if this was intentional, I admired it greatly.

“On the night when William first saw her, she wore, as a steward, a white dress, a sash with the colours of her association and a badge denoting that she had suffered for the Cause in Holloway. Her manner was eminently self-conscious and assured, but at the same time almost ostentatiously gracious and womanly; it was the policy of her particular branch of the suffrage movement to repress manifestations of the masculine type in its members and encouraging fluffiness of garb and appeal of manner. Griselda, who had a natural weakness for cheap finery, was a warm adherent of the policy, went out window-smashing in a picture-hat and cultivated lady like charm.”

The other reason I think I struggled with the start, and also found myself slightly bogged down for a few of the chapters before the very last, which was wonderfully poignant, was all the politics. I found I couldn’t quite get a grasp on it all for a start (but then politics and me are like that full stop) and also it was the only sections of the book where I felt Hamilton was suddenly writing a historical reference book rather than a novel. I did wonder if this also contributed to my slight ambivalence to William initially, though of course this ambivalence was completely turned around by the end. This did also occasionally happen when Hamilton tried to explain to the reader what was going on war wise that William and Griselda didn’t know, it wasn’t dreadful in any way it just slowed me down and I stuttered for a while. Reading Nicola Beauman’s introduction however has made me understand all this a little more.

I couldn’t say that ‘William – An Englishmen’ is a perfect book, but the roughness of its edges are actually what make it all the more appealing and important a read, for me at least. This is a book that has a fire in its belly for the everyman (possibly due to what the author herself saw in her involvement in WWI) and a passion that is completely reflected in its prose – especially in all the parts of the book where we are at the heart of the war. I thought it was a very skilful and unusual look at WWI and one that has a sense of hindsight far ahead of the years in which it was published. Heartily recommended, just have a little patience at the get off and you will be well rewarded by this book.

So, all in all a wonderful start to my Persephone Project, and a book that once again shows me the broad nature of the books that Persephone publishes. I would love them to publish Hamilton’s other book ‘Theodore Savage’, an early science fiction novel about civilisation being destroyed by scientific warfare. I am now very much looking forward to reading title no.2, ‘Mariana’ by Monica Dickens, which I will be discussing on January the 13th 2013 if you want to join in or read-a-long. In the meantime though, have you read ‘William – An Englishman’ and if so what did you make of it? What other books on WWI or WWII do you think tell the story of it in an unusual way?

27 Comments

Filed under Cicely Hamilton, Persephone Books, Review, The Persephone Project

27 responses to “William; An Englishman – Cicely Hamilton

  1. rosemarykaye

    Thanks for this very detailed, balanced and interesting review – I’m now looking forward to reading this book, which I’ve seen (and to be honest, avoided) on the Persephone list many times. I’ve read Mariana and loved it – Monica Dickens was such a good writer – but I’ll try to dig it out and re-read before your discussion.

    • A pleasure Rosemary, I am glad that you enjoyed it. I don’t think this would have been my first choice of read either looking at the catalogue of all the 100 marvellous Persephone books, but actually it was wonderful and so I am looking forward to what the next 99 have in store.

      I am intrigued by Mariana, Persephone are apparently a little worried I won’t like it.

  2. Laura Caldwell

    I enjoyed this book very much, especially the middle section. Like you, I didn’t know if I was going to like the book at the beginning, but I stuck with it and the part in Belgium and France was fantastic. I like books that take place in the WWI era as long as they don’t have too much battle in them, I just am not a “weapons and battle strategy” type of reader. I read Mariana sometime in the last six months and thought it was good, but didn’t love it, so I think I’ll probably skip that one and reread Someone at a Distance for February-I loved that one.

    • It is most definitely a book that you have to stick with. I found the beginning a little dry and dull but I think you are meant to, I wonder if this has put people off over the years? They are missing a very special book if so.

      I thought the battle elements of the book were done brilliantly. Not too much yet definitely enough to bring you the atmosphere.

  3. A very considered review, Simon, I enjoyed reading it. I agree about the humanising aspects Hamilton used, and I did find this a very affecting novel. Somehow I’ve never read Mariana, so I might well join in for January.

    • Oh please do Simon, I would love that! Thank you for your lovely thoughts on my review. I am never happy with my own reviews/book thoughts but this one I actually almost thought was ok hahaha.

  4. I enjoyed it too, though the first little but is a bit dry – I also think that was intentional – it demonstarted the extreme ordinariness of William and Griselda. I thought it a powerful and interesting portrayl of WW1. After a few pages or so I found I just wanted to keep reading. The middle section was particularly unputdownable for me.

    • I agree, I think the opening was intentionally dry and a bit dull, because that a) makes what comes so shocking and vivid b) they are your average dull muddling couple who get caught in something horrendous. Thank you for reading along with me too!

  5. piningforthewest

    The only Cicely Hamilton book which I have read is Modern Germanies, an account of her travels there in 1930. I enjoyed reading The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning, set in World War 2 and very autobiographical.

  6. Oooh, this is a fantastic idea! And this does sound like a great book even though it sounds like a bit of a heavy one at times. Onto the wishlist it goes🙂

  7. Glad you enjoyed this first Persephone – it’s one of my favourites and embodies what Persephone is all about – taking a period of history that has been written about at length in fiction and giving it a slightly different take and perspective. Which is what many women writers of WWI did since they weren’t in the trenches, although the accounts and fiction of those women who worked as nurses at the front can be just as harrowing. What happens to Griselda in this novel is a shock and unusual for a “heroine” in a war novel. Enjoy the next book – I’m inspired to pick up some more Persephones that I haven’t yet read. They are so good, aren’t they?

    • I completely agree with you and what you say about Persephone books, they certainly offer a different take on things. Though of course not all of them are about WWI or WWII, which is another think people tend to think about Persephone books I have notices.

  8. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you’ve said here. I adore this book and Cicely Hamilton is a fascinating woman. I almost think the flaws are what make this book great because if you do stick with it, it is a treat. The language is beautiful and I think I’m still haunted by the more harrowing sections. So glad to see someone with the same opinions as me, a lovely review!

    • I think sometimes you have to work at books full stop and they will reward you. It is also very hard to make a book start with a dull opening because it needs to for the rest of the book to have such an effect, and yet keep reader reading at the same time and I think Hamilton did with this book, certainly seems like many people have read it and been pleased to get through the slowish start.

  9. I love your project! Next year I plan to read one Persephone a month, so I’m not quite as ambitious as you are! Actually, this one is on my shelves, so I’ll try to fit it in next year🙂

    • I am only reading one a month too Iris so we are doing a very similar thing really, mine just goes on forever, well the 8.5 years ahead anyway ha, ha. I hope you enjoy this one as much as I did when you get to it.

  10. catalpa32

    I also loved William (and blogged it at http://20thcenturyvox.blogspot.co.uk/2009/12/william-englishman-by-cicely-hamilton.html). It was fascinating to read such an early response to the First World War that departs so much from notions of heroic sacrifice and I found the story terribly moving. There are some jolting lurches of tone – I’m not sure if these are flaws or a realistic representation of wartime emotions.

    I do envy your project, and hope you enjoy the full run of Persephones.

    • Thank you for the link, I shall go and have a look shortly.

      I think the closeness between the war and the writing of this book is very important, I will admit it did mean that the writer assumed the reader would understand the politics etc of the time but most of us learn that at school now anyway don’t we?

      I am really looking forward to the Persephone’s ahead.

  11. Kate

    The description of this book always seemed one of the least attractive in the Persephone lineup, but I eventually purchased it…thinking that if it was chosen to be #1 it must be special. I’ll admit, it’s not one of my favorites but I am still (a few years later) haunted by it and think of it often. To me, William-An Englishman represents what I cherish most about Persephone–even if you do not love a particular title, all books they publish are thought-provoking and a pleasure to read. I’ve never regretted a Persephone purchase!

    • I completely agree with your Kate. I don’t think that this will ever be one of my very favourite Persephone books overall but I am very fond of it and especially of what it does and highlights. I have been talking about it a lot so , off blog, so that is always a good sign, and recommending it to everyone – with a slight warning about the start.

  12. GLENDA MOCK

    I am delighted to have found Persephone recently thanks to a newspaper article and decided to begin at the beginning with William- such a different book and very surprising! I am savouring it slowly and thoroughly enjoying the prose. I liked your commentary and will follow your progress in the Project with interest.

    • I am glad you found them too Glenda as they are full of surprise and every one is so different, they are great. Which one are you planning on reading next?

      • GLENDA MOCK

        Mariana wasnt available before Christmas so i have “Someone at a distance ” No 3 to look forward to and just ordered No 7 “The Home -Maker”-but I intend to follow your monthly sequence as well!

      • Was it not available. Drats. I timed my project badly for everyone else. Oops. I will be reading the Whipple in March. She’s a Persephone favourite.

  13. Pingback: A Persephone Project Pit-Stop; One Year In… | Savidge Reads

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