Tuesday, 29 December 2009

William, an Englishman by Cicely Hamilton

Another Persephone reprint, William is the story of the sudden impact of war on two people who thought it could never possibly come.  William is a suburban clerk, suddenly precipitated into freedom by the death of his overbearing mother, who leaves not only their home, but a significant some of money.  William uses his freedom to devote himself to political life as a left-wing Internationalist in the years before World War I.  Through his political work he meets Griselda, who shares William's causes and has long been an active and commited suffragette, even to the extent of a spell in Holloway.  The opening chapters, with their descriptions of William and Griselda's limited intellects and understanding of the ideals they espouse, could come out of H G Wells:  we are in familiar territory, mocking the suburban clerk, his undeveloped body and mind.  But the rest of the novel will take us far away indeed from the Diary of a Nobody landscape.

William and Griselda marry in July 1914 and choose an isolated location for their honeymoon: the Ardennes forest in Belgium.  For a while, all is appropriately blissful.  Then one day they visit the farmer's wife who is cooking their meals, and find it deserted.  Faintly alarmed by this, and rather hungry, they eventually decide to walk back to the nearest town, and find that it is occupied by the German army.  From an English-speaking officer, they learn of the war, and that they are now prisoners.  This is only the beginning of a nightmare which will see William renounce his previous ideals of pacifism and internationalism.

This was Cicely Hamilton's only novel - she is better known as a playwright and non-fiction writer and journalist, as well as a prominent suffragette - but shows a skilful handling of her narrative and plot.  You would expect a playwright to rely more on dialogue, but Hamilton's descriptive passages are lucid and powerful.  I found the meaning of the book, which you might expect to be clearly political given Hamilton's suffragette background, rather ambiguous.  Willam and Griselda's political campaigning and militancy are mildly mocked, and their self-satisfied radicalism swiftly punctured; William has no experience to back up his political convictions, and it is suggested that Griselda's attraction to suffragism is more to do with the opportunities it brings for attention and notoriety, rather than because of a deep commitment to a feminist cause.  William's political transformation into patriotic Englishman after the atrocities he experiences is reactive and emotional and therefore unsustainable; faced with the reality of war service behind the lines in a clerical role, the passion that inspired him melts away.  Their social positioning within the novel could allow an ironic reading of their suffering, but the narrative tone is straightforwardly sympathetic and the descriptions of their plight harrowing.  William seems to me to attempt to come to terms with the experience shared by thousands of Englishmen in the immediate and raw aftermath of the Great War, hinting at the critique of that war as futile which would be articulated more explicitly by later writers.

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