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Review: William: An Englishman, by Cicely Hamilton

Pages: 226

Original date of publication: 1919

My edition: 2007 (Persephone)

Why I decided to read: Browsing the Persephone website

How I acquired my copy: Persephone subscription, February 2010

William: An Englishman is a bleak tale about William Tully, a young man who takes his honeymoon to Belgium on the eve of WWI. A naïve man, he is completely inexperienced and completely unprepared for what he is about to witness. He is a Socialist, and his wife, Griselda, a suffragette, so they are both rather idealistic as well. William and Griselda, have no idea about what’s going on in the outside world, and they make flippant comments about men playing at war while the war really begins in earnest around them.

This is a short novel, but a very powerful one, with an even more powerful message, about the difference between the horror of war and the naïveté of the main character. Cicely Hamilton wrote this novel sitting in a khaki tent during the war, so she understood as well as anybody the emotions that the war created. William’s despair as the novel goes on is almost palpable. I loved seeing the contrast between the pastoral, idyllic Ardennes, and the battlefront, and seeing how William reacts to it. I get the impression from reading this book that the author was rather angry while writing it; but it’s a controlled anger, that seethes just on the surface.

The other tragedy of William’s life is his physical size; he’s 5’5 (which isn’t that short, actually, just too short for the British military at the time she tried to enlist), and that emphasis on his physical size is what makes him all the more pathetic in the reader’s eyes. In all other ways, he is completely average. But given the way that life treats him in this book, you almost want to reach out and give him a hug. I loved watching William’s transformation; one that seems completely plausible. The author does jump from the beginning of the war to nearly the end; but she does it mostly to show how much the war has affected William. In all, this is an excellent novel—albeit a dark one.

This is Persephone no. 1. Endpaper below:


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