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.