“William – An Englishman” by Cicely Hamilton

This is the best book I’ve read so far this year, and I had no idea what it was about before I started it. It’s the first book in the Persephone catalogue, and that’s the only reason I’d bought it.

It tells the story of William Tully, who we meet at the start of the book where he is working as a clerk in 1910s London. After the sudden death of his mother, he finds himself comfortably off and is able to use his new freedom to find his place in society, and begins to follow his Socialist ideologies, where he meets Griselda, fighting for the Suffragette cause, and the two marry. Their honeymoon takes them to the Belgian Ardennes on the eve of the first World War, and their lives change forever.

The writing is superb. It’s clean, crisp, and describes with vivid realism the futility and horror of war from the perspective of ordinary people. I can’t tell you the impact it’s had on me, but I can’t stop thinking about it. Although there is a certain detachment in the prose, you can feel the anger of the author coming through, and after finishing the book, I’ve looked up a bit more about it and found out she was a suffragette herself before working in a hospital in France during the war, and wrote this novel in 1918, so she has first hand experience of the war itself.

The protagonist starts the book as an innocent having lived under his mothers influence, and is malleable enough to be drawn into the socialism movement, and initially I felt he was quite weak willed, but as the story progresses, you being to see how the experiences shape him, and in particular how one day changes his life and his outlook forever, and how he matures as a man. The conclusion of the story is sudden but fitting, and I found the final paragraph incredibly moving.

I’ve read more war books this past year than I’ve probably ever read, both fiction and non-fiction, but this one stands head and shoulders above the rest. An outstanding novel.

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