Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

William – an Englishman

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We all know people like that. They glom onto ideas without question or understanding. They spout out the dogma with conviction, as the one true path. They hang out only with those who share their outlooks. They read views that support their own and eschew any critique.

Meet William Tully. At 23 he lives with his mother and works as a nondescript clerk in a London insurance company. When his mother dies suddenly, she leaves him a sizable inheritance and the means to escape his existence as “the underling and creature of routine.” (ch I) Under the tutelage of a colleague, he becomes a Social Reformer.

William meets Griselda Watkins, “his exact counterpart in petticoats; a piece of blank-minded, suburban young womanhood caught into the militant suffrage movement and enjoying herself therein.” They share views on the Movement, the Voice of the People, the Woman Question, the Cause, Democracy Internationalism, Pacifism, the Folly of Militarism. (Yes, their beliefs are in Upper Case.) They marry (Griselda omitting the vow of obedience, of course) and honeymoon in an isolated cottage in the Belgian Ardennes.

Throughout, we are reminded of the date, creeping steadily toward August 1914. The newlyweds find themselves in a war zone, oblivious to the fact that war has been declared. (One wonders about the viability of internationalism when the proponents understand only one language. But I digress.)

The atrocities of war befall them – they are captured by German forces, Griselda is raped, William is forced into hard labour. In the early chaos of the war, he manages to find her and escape with the throng of Belgian evacuees. When Griselda perishes, William abandons his naïve beliefs. “(H)e shrank into himself and avoided, as far as possible, any contact with those whose very presence would remind him of the busy, self-satisfied life he had passed in their company, of the vanished, theoretical world where he had met Griselda and loved her.” (ch XVI) Revenge is his new mantra. But when he enlists, he is fit only for routine, mind-numbing clerical work: “a man in uniform was not necessarily a man of blood.” He has been deceived. Again.

Cicely Hamilton wrote William – an Englishman while working near the front. An actress, writer and suffragette, she volunteered with the Scottish Women’s Hospital Committee when the war broke out. Later, she formed a repertory company that toured to entertain the troops.

So what is her message here? Hamilton pillories the ideals of William, Griselda and their ilk with funny, satirical jabs – views she herself held. William’s disillusionment in the face of a life or death struggle might seem like an apology for the war. Yet the depiction of the brutality of war – its psychological impact on people ill prepared for it – can leave no doubt that this is an anti-war novel. Ultimately, it is an appeal to have a mind of one’s own.

“When you live in a crowd,” he said at last, “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.” (ch XVII)

William – an Englishman was published in 1919 and won the Prix Femina-Vie Heureuse Anglais in 1920. It was republished in 1999 by Persephone Press. The text is in the public realm, so free digital versions abound. Some are better than others … the free ebook on the Persephone Press website, for example, is a scan of the 1919 book with some pages missing. I used the copy on Gutenberg.org.


Full circle: I remember watching Shoulder to Shoulder, a 1970s BBC mini-series about the women’s suffrage movement at the turn of the century in the UK. It was a good program, but the theme song actually made the longest impression. Ethel Smyth’s March of the Women has been a random earworm over 40 years. Click! This is the Cicely Hamilton who wrote the lyrics.

Welcome to more new followers! I look forward to your part in the conversation.

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Author: greatwar100reads

Canadian crusader for equality and justice. Connoisseur and creator of the written word. Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books and monuments. Read more at greatwar100reads.wordpress.com.

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