(All Persephone Books are in grey jackets, where they differ is the end papers which feature designs from the year of publication or thereabouts. This is the Omega Workshop linen, dating from 1913 when the novel begins, which is used for William – an Englishman. The Persephone Books website explains: ‘With its pattern of abstract shapes outlined in black ‘Pamela’ has an appropriate austerity; yet the soft curves evoke the Belgian hills and the blue, green and purple recall the suffragette colours.’)
Category: Fiction/WWI – Paperback: 248 pages – Publisher: Persephone Books – Source: Independent subscription library
First Published: 1919
William – an Englishman was the very first reprinted work from Persephone Books and it’s a booming shot across the bows of those who reprinted safer, ‘fluffier’ works. Originally published in 1919, it’s a violent tale of WWI and tragedy. Not only an angry, passionate response to the war but a book that (rather savagely) confronts its own previously pacifist author along with any unsuspecting reader.
When our Everyman ‘hero’ William Tully – middling height, lowly insurance clerk, no social life – discovers in 1913 that his controlling mother has died and left him enough money to quit his job he could, theoretically, do anything. He’s young, he has no ties, he now has some funds and the world is his to explore. Sadly he is a rather inert young man and what he actually does is tell a colleague, Faraday, and then become absorbed into Faraday’s busy alternate life as a socialist. The meetings, speaking engagements and debates quickly fill the gap of William’s unemployment.
His love-life is similarly one he drifts into. Griselda, a pretty and acceptably risque suffragette who goes ‘window-smashing in a picture-hat’ is a girl he meets at a rally. They bond over slogans and make love amongst the pamphlets. In 1914 they marry, daringly amending the vows to drop the clause about wife obeying husband. A friend offers them a cottage in the middle of the Ardennes forest in Belgium for their honeymoon, they go, taking their political prejudices in their luggage, and everything is mundanely lovely, until World War One begins the day before they’re due to head home and soldiers march into the forest.
The couple witness a massacre. They’re split up. Griselda is raped. William escapes from a chain gang to rescue her but is too late. They go on the run for their lives.
At first glance this is almost a medieval morality tale, perhaps fitting given that World War One, The Great War, was on a scale that hadn’t been seen for hundreds of years. We have two foolishly naive, privileged people going out into the world, ignoring warning signs and cutting themselves off from help, then they are thoroughly and violently punished. One repents, one dies.
If I was analysing the book for its story and style I’d point out the raping, pillaging German soldiers are grotesque caricatures, the idea of William and Griselda being in the forest in the first place is rather unbelievable and the heavy handed author got on my nerves with her omniscient narrator and determined efforts to use almost no dialogue. Hamilton tells you everything rather than letting you into her characters’ minds unguided or leaving you to watch from the sidelines.
But I think to do so would be to miss the point.
Hamilton was 42 years old when war broke out, a playwright and a long-term suffragist, not a suffragette. While suffragettes believed in any action being legitimate if it furthered their cause (chaining themselves to railings, publicly throwing themselves under horses, flinging acid at paintings and smashing windows for example), suffragists believed in peaceful, dignified actions only. Hamilton was at the heart of the suffragist movement and in 1908 she co-founded the Women Writers’ Suffrage League, an organisation that aimed to win women the vote using nothing more than a well-wielded pen.
The declaration of war in 1914 must have not only been a horrible shock for Hamilton but a personal struggle too – the majority of suffragists were also pacifists on some level. She spent the war nursing and putting on concerts for the troops and it obviously left her with a burning need to do something more, to get the truth of what she had seen and heard out to the public.
So, in a tent in the middle of a war, in the middle of her forties, she wrote her very first novel.
It’s not smooth, as later works would be after being polished by time and philosophy, and it is not the work of a great writer who happened to be in the right place at the right time to Witness History.
It is instead the work of a woman who had no other way to fight but to be there, writing like every bomb or bullet might be the one that hit her in the hope that her clumsy but passionate plea might help shake the complacent public’s acceptance of simplified, distorted newspaper reports of the glorious dead and heroic Tommy ‘giving Jerry what for’ in between tuck boxes from home.
I don’t agree with Hamilton’s conclusion for Griselda. We’d probably have clashed horribly in a political debate. But everyone has to draw their line in the sand and I am rather awed at the battle she decided to pick when writing this novel. I imagine contemporary readers were similarly rocked by this whizzing into their homes and exploding unexpectedly.
Buy the book: Direct from Persephone Books