william, an englishman: a book for its time, and ours


William, An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton was the first book published by my beloved Persephone Books in 1999, a reprint from the novel’s original publication in 1919. If you don’t know about my love affair with Persephone, do check out this post to be brought up to speed!

I stockpiled a number of Persephones before leaving London and this was among them. I read it at bedtime over the course of a few weeks, not something I’d recommend, as it’s not an escapist read to send you off into a dreamy, calm sleep. But it is an incredible book for its time - and for ours.

William and Griselda are young newlyweds, both heavily involved in various causes and social justice, extremely earnest and ready to fight for what they believe in. But they are in actual fact very impressionable, have been swept up in these various movements that were rocking the social foundations of Britain in 1914 (namely socialism and suffrage), and parrot the beliefs of the movements they support, as opposed to analysing and considering them, determining their own moral compasses rather than blindly following a crowd. They think they know what “fight” means but really, they haven’t a clue.

They honeymoon at a remote rural cottage in Belgium in August 1914. After three weeks of contentment, they are blissfully unaware of the world around them (they don't know war has been declared, let alone that Belgium has been invaded) and they don’t even speak the language so they cannot understand the warnings from the farmer's wife who cooks for them (despite everything it's amusing that William and Griselda are so oblivious).

On the day of their departure, they go to the farmhouse nearby to arrange for the boy to carry their suitcases to the train station, as he did when they arrived. Instead, they find the house deserted, with all the people and animals gone, and a lot of evidence to suggest they left in a real hurry. Bewildered, William and Griselda begin their way into the village to the train station on foot, when they are captured by the invading German troops. They finally learn what has happened and from that moment on, are caught up in the brutal, cruel horrors of war - a real one.

Cicely Hamilton spent the entire First World War on the frontline in France - she wrote this novel in a tent during the hostilities. You can tell. This is a woman who saw the horrors of that war firsthand and was unapologetic about exposing the ignorance of so many people as to what was really going on, what "war" really means when you're caught up in the middle of it. As an Australian soldier I knew, who died of his wounds in Iraq some years ago now, said, "it's not beer and skittles."

At the same time, this novel is not entirely "anti war" - Hamilton actually goes after the pacifists quite a bit too, asserting that they live in a "paradise of fools", that the things that were happening in Europe were horrific and the British war effort was actually very important and vital to fight the evil that was brewing on the European mainland.

William and Griselda are initially taken prisoner by the Germans, and separated at this point. William eventually makes an escape and finds Griselda, whose clothes are torn and spirit is crushed, she is utterly traumatised. Hamilton doesn't spell out what's happened to Griselda - we’ve already worked it out. The restraint with which she writes this scene, when they are reunited, is quite extraordinary.

Weakened from injuries and lack of food, the pair attempt to get to safety through the Belgian countryside to the French border. They are helped by travellers along the way, managing to remain out of sight of the enemy. But a road accident weakens Griselda further - and a few days later, as a kindly villager gives them a lift in their cart, she dies lying on a pile of straw.

William then mercifully finds someone who speaks English and manages to get through the trauma of burying his wife. His Good Samaritan, Edith, helps him get the train to Paris and eventually another train and boat back to England, where he arrives a broken man.

Having seen the horrors of what is happening in Europe and determined to stop it, he attempts to enlist in the Army, but he is rejected because he doesn't meet the height requirement. "Oh don't worry, in a few months they won't care about that," William's friend Faraday consoles him. And oh how true that turned out to be.

In the meantime, William attends meetings that he used to go to all the time, full of fiery speeches to motivate everyone into supporting the socialist and pacifist causes, which he loved and felt a sense of community in. But now, he is appalled. These people aren't brave - he realises - for they have sacrificed nothing. They haven't got the first clue what he's been through, what thousands are going through, of the brutality, the horror of what he's witnessed and what he's so cruelly lost. And it must be stopped. Now is not the time for pacifism, in his opinion. He is incensed, enraged and utterly broken.

Eventually he does get accepted by the Army and ends up in what one might deem a communications job - he writes letters, takes dictation, files documents. But then William moves to the third phase of his character development - utter disillusionment. What difference has he actually made? He has done his duty, yes, but what has been the point?

“He hated the war as it affected himself, was weary of the war in general; all he longed for was its ending, which meant his release from imprisonment; but neither hatred nor weariness had blinded his eyes to the folly of that other blindness which had denied that war could be.”

Eventually, as was the fate of so many, he is involved in combat, suffers massive injuries, and dies quietly in a field hospital.

It is not a happy read, but Hamilton did not intend it to be. I think she thought people had their heads far enough into the sand and they needed a reality check. This book won the Prix Femina-Vie Heureuse, the highest honour bestowed on female authors in 1919 (probably the equivalent of the Stella or the Women's Prize today) and no wonder. It’s unforgettable. And I think it's just as relevant a read now as it was then.

that's where the donuts come in

Some rather spectacular donuts at  Bread Ahead in Old Street, London . When it was a choice between cold pizza or one of these for breakfast on Saturday, I chose the custard donut.

Some rather spectacular donuts at Bread Ahead in Old Street, London. When it was a choice between cold pizza or one of these for breakfast on Saturday, I chose the custard donut.

I have gotten to know a lot of writers and I know now we’ve all been there. Not the same thing at the same time, but the truth is always there: sometimes it’s so hard, and you really don’t know how to make your work work, and it feels like months or years of may have been wasted and you continue to be, beyond all heroic efforts, right smack in the middle of the job, rather than at the end, as you had so brightly hoped.
People will tell you that you need a thick skin to be a writer, what with all that disappointment and rejection, but I think part of what makes a good writer is the ability to be porous, to be able to feel all the intricate and complicated notes, the particular music of each moment. No writer should turn the volume down on her own emotional register. That’s her instrument. We have to feel everything. Which also sucks. That’s where the donuts come in.

Excerpt from a brilliant article by Ramona Ausubel on LitHub, which I highly recommend reading in its entirety. 

the third, wherein I discuss best books of 2015

Goodness, another blog post from me already? Could this be what they refer to as being on a roll? 

Today I’m going to do something I’ve never done. 

I’m doing my best books of last year post…in JANUARY. I know! This is a first!

If I’m not writing or running or eating something, I tend to be reading. And yet I read a surprisingly little amount, compared to previous years, in 2015. A big reason for that was that the writing of my own book took over my entire life. When I did have free time, I wanted to spend it with my husband and friends, preferring to go for long walks or out to see live music, away from a screen or a page.

But what I did manage to read was magnificent.

Two of my top reads of the year I’ve actually not yet finished but I want to mention them in my 2015 reads regardless. 

The first is George Eliot’s Middlemarch. This is embarrassing for someone who did honours in English at university to admit, but I’d never finished reading it. The length was enough to put me off for a start. Austen was always a little more manageable, and her satire and wit so sharp, she was my preference for a long while.

But in 2015 I found myself being drawn back to George Eliot. Her satire and observations of society of the day are just as sharp as Austen’s, but there is a real wisdom there, an appeal to our sense of humanity to take pity on people like Fred Vincy, Featherstone, even that complete knob Casaubon. Eliot is very witty, for sure, but she is never cruel. She paints these people as flawed human beings as opposed to caricatures, doing their best with what they know, and in many cases, they are merely products of their society, their environment, the norms of the day. I am finding reading Middlemarch fascinating and hugely enjoyable, and Eliot's writing is exquisite in places. There was even a quote about marriage that rang so true for me I ended up using it in The Latte Years. For those reasons I am savouring it and didn’t manage to finish it before New Year’s Eve. But I shall continue. 

The second is Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. This title was familiar to me, I’d heard many women I know and admire sing its praises for years, but when I first tried to read it myself, I think around 2012, I just couldn’t get into it. But sometimes books appear again in our lives when we’re ready for them. Over the summer of 2015, my friend Holly announced she was off to Colorado to attend a conference about this book. An entire conference?! I was intrigued. There had to be something in this book after all. 

Well, it’s safe to say I’m now hooked. It’s like reading about my own life. I never really appreciated how many of us, as women, silence our true selves and compromise our true natures. The book examines traditional folktales and myths to illustrate how repression of feminine power has been the norm for centuries, and how we can overcome it. But in a culture where a woman being brave with her life and being unapologetic about getting her needs met still makes some people uncomfortable as hell (something I’ve written about in The Latte Years too), it’s not easy and we’ve still got a long way to go. 

And now for the books I managed to completely finish reading, and loved. 

The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard (five books in total, this is the first)
This series was one of my most joyful reading discoveries of the year. I started seeing these appear on several Instagram feeds I follow, being read in cosy English cottages, hand-knitted blankets and mugs of hot chocolate alongside. They looked like wonderful cold weather reading. I snapped up the first in the series at the local charity bookshop, and the next day I bought all the rest!  The series follows the fortunes of an upper middle-class family, the Cazalets, before and after the Second World War, with five books in all. It’s utterly enthralling, like ‘Enid Blyton for grownups’ as one of my friends put it. If you want a series to get lost in, I highly recommend them. 

One More Thing…stories and other stories by B.J Novak
This book caught my eye while I was waiting at JFK airport after our wonderful trip to NYC in May and I'm so glad I got it. It’s a collection of such surreal, clever and funny writing, where the ordinary becomes extraordinary, and vice versa. Not only very funny, but every story makes you think. As Oscar Wilde said, "if you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh" and BJ Novak does this brilliantly. I liked the playfulness of the writing too, something you don't see nearly enough of. Some stories are only a few lines long. It's a book full of surprises.

Something Special, Something Rare: Outstanding Stories by Australian Women
A wonderful friend bought me this as a present, as it was a collection put out at the start of the year by my own publisher! It’s a simply magnificent collection of fiction from Australian women writers, with the themes, settings and characters as diverse as they are engaging. Many well known names in here, as well as some new to me. Contemporary and compelling, I had many favourites in this collection and couldn’t pick just one - but I always enjoy Karen Hitchcock’s writing (her book of short stories was one of my favourite reads of the year a few years back). 

The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer
Oh wow, where do I begin with this book. I don’t know if anything I write can do it justice, only that if you are a creative type, please read it. Amanda shares her journey through music, creativity, expression and connection - and the vulnerability that comes with it -  with so much honesty and heart. I identified with so much of her story and her experiences. I think every creative person has experienced 'Imposter Syndrome' or a raid from the 'Fraud Police' at some point. We've all thought 'who am I to want this, to ask for this?'. Amanda shows that you can indeed ask for it. There will also be seasons where it will be you being asked, as that is the cycle, of giving and receiving. But life has a way of rewarding you for having the courage to ask, to reach out.  I tried to explore this a little in The Latte Years too.

Springtime by Michelle de Kretser
This novella showed up in my local bookstore quite unexpectedly. Whenever I see a book by an Australian author in this part of London, I snap it up! This is a beautiful little book, with finely tuned observations - less a ghost story in the obvious sense and more about the other ghosts in life - an ex partner, a parent we didn't get on with, a beloved pet, places we've loved living in but had to leave. Quite exquisite. 

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Another ‘oh wow, I have so little to say that would do this book justice, just read it’ kind of sum up, really! This book was a god-send and a game changer for me. It came along at exactly the right time for me, exactly when I needed to hear its messages.  

My biggest takeaway was about how you have to let your creative work be what it is, whatever it needs to be. Because, after all, you are just the messenger. If the work feels safe and supported, with no pressure to be a bestseller, to make you heaps of money, or give you any kind of external validation, then it will show up and do its thing. It made me think about my own process - how I fought and fought for so long for The Latte Years to be the book I wanted it to be, the book I thought would reflect best on me, or protect me. In the end I had to let it be what it is. Fascinating stuff. 

The Fictional Woman by Tara Moss
Part memoir, part social commentary but 100 per cent compelling, this book opened my eyes so much.  You only have to glance at the book’s cover to see how many ‘fictional’ labels are put on women, labels that have nothing to do with who we are, labels that are stereotypical and dismissive at best, and downright dangerous at their worst.

Tara Moss, working as a model as well as being a highly accomplished writer, has had to take a polygraph test to prove she writes her own books. This mind-boggling story opens the book and the rest barely pulls any punches. There are experiences Tara relates here, with so much honesty and courage, that reminded me of things I and other women I know have been through and my eyes pricked with tears as I read it. It makes you notice the sexism and prejudice still so prevalent in our society, especially in the media. This message was hammered home one morning on the train when I noticed the reading material of the man next to me:

I think The Fictional Woman is essential reading for everyone - men and women. It is a brave, intelligent and beautifully written book.

Lillian on Life by Alison Jean Lester
I was already a fan of Alison’s excellent short fiction - and was lucky enough to meet her when I visited Singapore many years ago - so when I heard she had published her first novel, I was all over it. Lillian on Life is the story of a woman reflecting on her choices, taking stock on the cusp of turning 60, wondering what else she might have to look forward to.

Each chapter is a little vignette from her past, or in some cases her present, flitting from the 1930s through to 1990s, where the glamorous, energetic yet thoughtful Lillian ponders the road she took, and the roads she didn’t. As she recalls the stories, lessons and memories, she speaks a lot about how vital it is to be the author of your own life, rather than standing by “like a teenager next to her mother at a cocktail party.” In fact, Lillian advises, if you really want to get to know someone, don’t ask them what they’ve done with their lives, ask them what they wanted to do. “What they want to do is who they are.”

It’s a thoughtful, elegant, quirky and very wise book, and very funny. But equally, in places, heartbreaking. You forget it’s a novel, as the voice is so strong and some of the experiences so painfully real. I loved it.

Letters to a Young Artist by Anna Deavere Smith
A recommendation from Brain Pickings, I found myself reading this over the summer.  Every chapter is a letter from Deavere Smith, an actor and writer, to an imaginary young artist she calls BZ, sharing insight and wisdom about the creative life - everything from confidence and discipline, to the fear of failure, to paying it forward. Every letter has some kind of gem in it and I found myself reading with a pencil in hand, underlining many things I wanted to take in and remember.

One part particularly spoke to me - the need to be heard is not enough. To develop a voice, you need to develop an ear. To develop a vision, you need to develop an eye. To develop your mark as an artist, you need to see the marks of others - especially the marks of those who are unrecognised.” Over the past two years, my own creative practice has shifted to what Deavere Smith describes - developing an eye, a voice, a vision. Before then, it was all about trying to “find” something. These days I’m trying to use my art to start conversations and be of service. I’m trying to be more fearless and less apologetic about who I am and what I want to say, to dig a bit deeper and notice what others are doing as well. 

Having spent the past ten years testing my physical limits with triathlons and marathons, I have realised that creative endeavours require just as much fortitude, discipline and pushing yourself. Books like this are a real tonic to pep you up when you’re flagging. 

Bossypants by Tina Fey
The great Tina Fey needs no introduction. 2015 was also the year I discovered 30 Rock (I know, I must have been living under one) and so reading her memoir, which was as funny, observant and well-crafted as her television show, was a real treat.

Tina Fey and this book inspired me a great deal in the writing of my own. Early on in the drafting process, I was trying to write that all-important but ultimately laborious second chapter, the one that sets the scene, and getting nowhere fast. Everything I wrote didn’t work, or felt too heavy. Eventually, after a whole weekend of writing nothing I was happy with, I took a break and sat with a cup of tea and turned to where I was up to in Bossypants. I had a revelation as I read. I thought, why not try to make it funny instead? Tina even manages to write about a physical attack on her as a child with a detached kind of humour. So, feeling fresh and inspired, I rewrote my second chapter from scratch, trying to tease the funny side out of it instead, and I think it worked.

Bossypants also has some wonderful wisdom about dealing with internet trolls (Tina’s responses are hilarious), sexism in the workplace, and about the creative process. I learned a lot about letting go in 2015, particularly in regard to my work. Letting The Latte Years go was a sticky and involved process but, as Tina writes, “you can’t be that kid standing at the top of the water slide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute.” 

Bossypants is as brilliant as the woman who wrote it and telling you about it has made me want to read it again. 

And so there you have it, friends, my 2015 in books. What gems they were, how much they taught me, how they made me laugh and think and see the world in a new way - as all good books do. 

What were your favourite books in 2015? 

PS: Full disclosure and all that, most of the links in this post are Amazon Affiliate, you know the score! xx