Cicely Hamilton’s William: An Englishman Persephone No. 1 (1919)
Persephone Books, 1999

When I finish my current Persephone read, Monica Dickens’ Mariana, I’ll have read one-fifth of their books, but it was the announcement of their Forum‘s launch that took me to the first of their publications.

My orderly nature must have insisted on the first volume, however, for William has sat on my Persephone shelf for a long time; perhaps it was its position of primacy alone that intrigued me, else the link with the suffrage movement. In 1908, Cicely Hamilton founded (with Bessie Hatton) the Women Writers’ Suffrage League (with a group of women whose names we might readily and excusably confuse with a listing of Virago Modern Classics, including Ivy Compton-Burnett, Sarah Grand, Violet Hunt, Alice Meynell, Olive Schreiner and May Sinclair).

Certainly the wartime setting would have discouraged me at the time that I purchased this novel. However, with my earlier success this year with Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy and my Persephone Week, In Wartime experience, I no longer run scared from wartime works. Nonetheless, I do dawdle with them, and it took me longer than usual to read Cicely Hamilton’s novel.

But when I started to read last week, I had no idea what to expect. When I take a Persephone with me, I remove its dove-grey cover, and so had removed the temptation of reading its blurb as well. I had expected to read it quickly (as I had, say, Making Conversation, in a couple of days, if not as speedily as I had Duff Cooper’s novel, which only claimed a couple of hours). But I carried this slim volume with me for a full week, finishing other novels in the evenings surrounding it, leaving it at home alone for one entire commute and opting for a magazine instead. I definitely dallied.

Part of this, I think, is that Cicely Hamilton was not a novelist first; the bulk of her writing experience lies in non-fiction and dramatic works and I think that shows in William. Her prose style is blunt and episodic and I responded to it as I do to journalistic prose; I divided it into chunks and sat myself down with the book and an incentive program (in the form of double-shot americanos and wild blueberry scones) and I read with an eye to being informed.

And part of it, I think, was due to my reading some other non-fiction alongside (a literary biography and Raj Patel‘s latest, both of which require a slower pace) and two slim-but-demanding fictional works (Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude (1976), translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim (1990) and Barbara Comyns’ The Vet’s Daughter (1959)). These did not make good bookish bedfellows for Cicely Hamilton’s novel, and I felt rather distanced from my reading that week in general.

So I was surprised to find myself a bit teary at the end of William, because I didn’t think I had a strong emotional connection to the story.

I did perk up at this scene, about 50 pages into the story, which suggested an irony that I appreciate in a novel: “If they had but known it, they were the last tourists of their race who for many and many a day to come were to look on the scene before them. Had they but known it, they would certainly have scanned it more keenly; as it was, they surveyed the wide landscape contentedly, but with no particular enthusiasm.”

And then of course the tension does build in the narrative from the moment that William and Griselda go to the farm and find the freshly dug grave. When they returned, I was expecting a heightened interest in the narrative and, to an extent, that was true.

“While they supped, their ears were always on the alert for a footstep or a hail from without; and perhaps for that reason they noticed as they had never noticed before the faint ghostly noises of the country — the night-calling bird and the shiver of leaves when the air stirred and sighed. They talked with effort and frequent pause, and with now and again a glance thrown sideways at the open window and the forest blackness behind it….”

But just as William and Griselda realize the dimensions of their predicament, I, as the reader, realize that their uncomfortable night in the cottage is likely to be but a minor inconvenience when viewed against the backdrop of the historical reality they are venturing into as I turn the pages of their story.

And then the strongest emotion I felt was guilt, guilt for having wanted a stronger narrative thread when obviously now I’d got one and how unfortunate for William and Griselda. It’s not that I was unsympathetic. Cicely Hamilton does an admirable job of describing William and Griselda’s experiences, capturing the paradoxical nature of wartime, events that seem both petty and insurmountable, and depicting the acts of small-scale and large-scale horror on the individual and national scales (though the latter are sketched only briefly and indirectly).

But I experienced these at a distance. Partly because that’s the way that the author intends (she doesn’t sketch the scene of Griselda’s most intimate violation directly; we learn of it through implication and her visible devastation and William’s gradual comprehension of what is left unsaid). “He sat holding Griselda’s hand and staring into the blackness, a man dazed and confounded; who yesterday was happy lover and self-respecting citizen and to-day had suffered stripes, been slave and fugitive, learned the evil wrought on his wife.”

Also, partly because her naturally journalistic style puts a reader on the other side of a print publication, there to be educated and enlightened. “Only by some such reasoning can one account for the fact that the aggressive and essentially militarist type of political enthusiast so often runs to pacifism where the quarrels of others are concerned.” (But how interesting to contrast this sentiment with the complex consideration of this theory in Pat Barker’s Regeneration.)

And, yes, I’m willing to admit that it may have been, partly, too, that I built in the distance myself, if only by fragmenting my reading, so that I had some distance to protect myself from the literary horrors of wartime writing.

Nonetheless, while I was busy reading (and not so busy reading, but busy procrastinating), Cicely Hamilton was pulling me into this story.

It may have been because I had grown more attached to William and Griselda than I realized. Or it may have been because the author raises such a universal issue of individualization. As one of the characters pronounces: “When you live in a crowd…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.”

But, whatever the reason, I was unexpectedly touched by the ending of William. So perhaps I need to reconsider whether Cicely Hamilton was not, first, a novelist, but even if I set that question aside, I am glad to have read this story, pleased to have found myself more engaged than I had expected.

Have you ever found yourself surprised by your emotional reaction to a book that you thought you were observing rather than experiencing?