Friday, 21 October 2011

William – An Englishman, by Cicely Hamilton

I harp on about Persephone Books a lot, but deservedly so. Since 1999, this independent publishing house has been reprinting long-forgotten or neglected books (which deserve to be classics), mostly by women writers, and doing so with beautiful grey covers, elegant endpapers, matching bookmarks and a sympathetic introduction to each volume. While I’ve read maybe 40 Persephone titles (from their 96 books to date), I’d never read their first one… so I’ve now corrected this.

First published in 1918, suffragette Cicely Hamilton’s book William – An Englishman is a confrontational tome in the most complex of ways. Lulling you into a false sense of security as a charming account of everyman William’s humdrum life and gentle new marriage, the characters suddenly realise World War 1 has erupted around them while they are on honeymoon, and chaos and brutal violence dominates.

While conceivably a book about the horror of war, William is much more than that. As a Socialist, William is also a staunch supporter of the suffrage movement and marries a militant suffragette, Griselda. Read in 2011, and having visited the London Stock Exchange occupation at St Paul’s last Sunday (and seen the Bristol occupation progress all this week), it is interesting to compare the socialist actions of William and his comrades in 1914-1918 with the current grassroots uprisings springing up all over the UK (and further afield). The stark tones of futility with which Hamilton describes the movement in the 1910s is perhaps depressing to read alongside the current actions and how they may fare, but it’s also interesting to draw comparisons with almost a 100-year gap of retrospection.

William is a difficult book. I read much of it while traveling on long train journeys and at one point was gulping sobs at a twist in the story, while trying to pretend in a typically British fashion that all was well (but in an equally British fashion, my fellow passengers ignored me). But it’s an excellent book and an important one. With its views on socialism, suffrage and war, William is a book of its time that also resonates across history.

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