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#126 William, an Englishman - Cicely Hamilton (1920)

I was prompted to read this by Savidgereads who has started his Persephone reading challenge. However I didn’t have a copy, and couldn’t really justify buying myself a Persephone book just before Christmas. So I downloaded a free copy from the open archive. It is testament to the brilliance of this book that I bothered to continue reading – the text was full of ridiculous errors, which drove me slightly mad. I will definitely buy the Persephone edition to add to my collection when I can – as I will surely want to re-read it at some stage.
This novel originally published in 1920 was Cicely Hamilton’s blistering answer to the realities of war as experienced by Mr and Mrs Everyman. Cicely Hamilton was serving in France at the time that she wrote this novel, and we see the war ravaged landscape through her eyes. Lulling the reader into a false sense of security, the novel starts off benignly enough; William Tully is an unremarkable young man in an insurance office, small, weak, pale and rather dominated by his mother. When his mother dies – William delights in his freedom, and uses it to launch himself upon the world of political agitators, aided and abetted by his new friend Faraday. He meets Griselda a young suffragette ‘his exact counterpart in petticoats’ who has already spent time in prison and is a zealous agitator herself, these two ideally suited young people, inevitably marry. So concerned are they with their own political ideals and activist confederates that they have very little idea of the gathering storm clouds over Europe in the summer of 1914. They honeymoon in Ardennes in Belgium where they bury themselves in a cottage for three weeks, neither of them able to converse with the locals, and having no contact with anyone back in England they are in total ignorance that war has broken out. On the day they start to think about returning to England and the hustle, bustle and political landscape they have both so missed, they find the farm nearby inexplicably deserted. The following day outside the gates of this same farm, the young couple come across a group of German soldiers. Instantly they are faced with the brutalities ad horrors of wartime as they are taken hostage.

“There, in the middle of the road, they also halted—the soldiers smartly, the captives uncertainly—and William saw the two civilians clearly. One was a short and rotund little man who might have been sixty to sixty-five and might have been a local tradesman—nearly bald and with drooping moustaches, rather like a stout little seal. Essentially an ordinary and unpretentious creature, he was obviously aiming at dignity; his chin was lifted at an angle that revealed the measure of the roll of fat that rested on his collar, and he walked almost with a strut, as if he were attempting to march. Afterwards William remembered that he had seen on the little man’s portly stomach some sort of insignia or ribbon; at the time it conveyed nothing to him, he was told later that it was the outward token of a mayor. He remembered also that the little man’s face was pale, with a sickly yellow-grey pallor; and that as he came down the steps with his head held up the drooping moustache quivered and the fat chin beneath it twitched spasmodically. There was something extraordinarily pitiful about his attempt at a personal dignity which nature had wholly denied him; William felt the appeal in it even before he grasped the situation the meaning and need of pose.”

Over the next few days the horrors which face both William and the reader are desperate, the images which Hamilton leaves the reader with are reminiscent of Pat Barker and even the war poets themselves. However it is William’s later response to his experiences in Belgium which are at the heart of this novel, his disappointment in the small contribution he must inevitably play is heart-breaking. Cicely Hamilton’s powerful and enormously readable novel is an important and brilliant piece of writing not just about War, but about socialism, suffrage and the naivety of youth, and the response of the many to the threat imposed on one nation by another. How different are today’s celebrity obsessed young people with their sense of entitlement!
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