It’s a rare event for Persephone Books to publish a book by a man, so you know that when they do it must be a very carefully thought through choice. And in many ways Jonathan Smith’s retelling of the real-life romance of Wilfred Willett and Eileen Stenhouse (simply called Wilfred & Eileen) is reminiscent of another excellent Persephone book - William, An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton.
Both books are carefully considered constructions of young men in England on the eve of the First World War, set against a backdrop of women’s suffrage, while focussing on a crushing an all-consuming love affair. I’ve written about William - An Englishman before (review here), and heartily recommend it.
In Wilfred & Eileen, we meet ambitious medical student Wilfred Willett as he is graduating from Cambridge University in 1913… and where he meets the enigmatic Eileen at a formal dinner. Although he is just setting off for a placement in a London hospital, Wilfred can’t get Eileen out of his head and despite working hard at the hospital under two equally demanding surgeons, Wilfred spends his spare time falling in love with Eileen. Much to the dismay of both of their families who think the pairing unsuitable.
As the love affair grows, so does the spectre of the First World War which creeps up quicker than either suspected, and despite the shrugs of society it refuses to blow over as quickly as everyone hoped. With Wilfred sent away to France, all Eileen can do it pace around at home, getting increasingly frustrated with her family… waiting to hear news of her beloved from the Front.
What results is a compelling and nerve-wracking story of love in a miserable climate. Wilfred & Eileen is only a short book, but it tells an important story of how war crushes not only romantic passion but also academic passion. The fact it is based on a true story makes it all the sadder, as does the fact it surely echoes a million other young couples and their curtailed love affairs in the same period.
Wilfred & Eileen was adapted into a four-part BBC series in the early 1980s, which would be fascinating to see. Perhaps we can collectively persuade Persephone to arrange a screening event for all the people who loved this book, especially with the centenary of the First World War looming.