William — an Englishman by Cicely Hamilton

Capture1266963Fiction — print. Persephone Books, 2014. Originally published 1919. 226 pgs. Purchased.

In 1914, twenty-six year old William Tully, a Social Reformist living in England, marries Griselda the suffragette, and the two sojourn to Belgium for a month long honeymoon. Hoping to take a break from their political activism and enjoy their time together, William and Griselda instruct their friends and family not to write to them or send them English-language newspapers.

Neither of them ever considered Europe would end up going to war. To them, rumors of war were:

“…always regarded as foolish and malicious inventions set afloat in the interest of Capitalism and Conservatism with the object of diverting attention from Social Reform or the settlement of the Woman Question” (pg. 74).

Three weeks into their honeymoon, they return to their cottage to find a note left by their landlady. She’s nowhere to be found — neither is the rest of her family — but Griselda and William go to bed, assuming nothing is amiss because neither of them can read French and focusing more on their empty stomachs than the content of the unreadable note.

When they wake in the morning and find no one has return, they head into town planning to either inquire what is happening or return to England. There, they find the invading Germany army led by a man named Heinz, who assumes they are English spies and keeps them in captivity.

As the atrocities of war are inflicted upon William and Griselda, their idealism is shattered. Feelings of patriotism, which they rarely experienced due to their focus on reforming the political ills of English society, are fostered with them. So much so that when William makes it back to England, he eagerly tries to enlist in the Army and is devastated when he is turned away due to his short physical stature.

“If you had told him a short day earlier that the thought of the soil he was born on could move move and thrill and uplift him, he would have stared and despised you as a jingo, that most foolish and degraded of survivals; yet with his eyes (as he thought) looking their last on the blazing gold that was sunlight, with the sword suspended over his head, something that not only his pitiful love for Griselda, something that was more than his decent self-respect, fluttered and stirred within him and called on him to play the man. It bade him straighten his back from men of an outlandish race, it bade him refrain from pleading and weakness before those who were not of his blood; and for the first time for many years he thought of himself as a national, a man of the English race.” (pg. 93)

His devastation is amplified when he joins his friends at socialist meetings and finds them condemning the war. He gives an impassioned speech imploring his friends to listen to his experiences. He wants them to sign up to fight in a war that so deeply affected him, to understand that pacifism is worthless when another wants to kill you and occupy your land. Yet not one listens to him, clinging to the ideals he so violently lost.

“When you live in a crowd,” he said at last, “you can always make excuses for yourself. Most likely you don’t need to. If you’re a fool or a coward you herd with a lot of other fools and cowards, and you all back each other up. So you never come face to face with yourself.” (pg. 210-211)

Like James Facos’ The Silver Lady, this wartime novel surprised. I started the novel rather unimpressed with William and Griselda’s naivety and unsure if I would be able to continue following them on their journey to Belgium. While I have the benefit of hindsight — traveling to Europe seems particularly stupid after Archduke Ferdinand is shot — these two characters are treated with a peculiar level of contempt by Hamilton. She seems to hate them, resent them even as she chooses to write about them.

Yet once the war begins, once the German army arrives and they are forced to confront their naivety, both Hamiltion’s own affection for her characters and my view of the novel changed dramatically. Hamilton puts her characters through a living hell; she is unflinching in her portrayal of firing squads, brutal captors, and the desperation of refugees.

All the while, her characters are infused with shades of grey; they lose their black and white view of the world and her black and white portrayal of them. In one bewildering moment, William, who gladly married a woman who refused to promise to obey him in their wedding vows and put suffragette ribbons in her bouquet, expresses anger at Griselda for not comforting him after she is abused by their captors!

“She must know what it meant to see her suffer and have no word; he felt she might have tried to rouse herself to the extent of one little smile of comfort.” (pg. 134)

According to the introduction written by Nicola Beauman, Hamilton wrote her novel while serving on the front lines of War War I in 1918. Hence why Hamilton was able to  provide gruesome details about the war in her novel; hence why she might view idealism as worthless in the face of such circumstances.

To her and her characters, black and white ideology is worthless in world filled with shades of gray, and I felt every bit of William’s frustration when he tries to get his friends and comrades to sign up only to be spurred by almost every one of them. I also felt his transformation from man to “Englishman” to be moving, poignant, and, oddly as it is to say given the content, a delight of a novel.

This is my seventh book for #20BooksofSummer. According to my account history on Persephone Books’ website, I purchased Hamilton’s novel on June 28, 2016. I finally read it almost two years later to the day.

Note: The endpaper (above) is a linen from the Omega Workshop, dating from 1913. From the Persephone website, “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”. 


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