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.
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?