William – an Englishman by Cicely Hamilton is the first book Persephone Books published. So to kick off the Persephone Readathon, I decided I’d read it.
It is the story of William Tully, a “mild-mannered, pale-faced, and under-sized” young clerk. He comes to a small fortune when his mother passes away, but having spent his life under her thumb, he doesn’t have the first clue on how to spend his inheritance! So he turns to his new friend Faraday for advice, and under Faraday’s guidance William blossoms into a Social Reformer.
The politics ideologies William fight for brings out a fiery passion in him that wasn’t there before. Not only that, through their common platform he meets Griselda, a suffragette and “his exact counterpart in petticoats” who later becomes his wife. So even their three-week honeymoon at a secluded cottage in Ardennes, Belgium is spent on discussing their cause and imagining a world where they would leave their mark on. But in that summer of 1914, when they casually dismiss the news of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, they have no idea that their world will soon be turned upside down.
When I first started reading William, I didn’t like either of the Tullys. They were fierce champions of pacifism who did not believe for a second that a war would break in Europe! I felt like they were parroting what their mentors were saying without taking a moment to think things through themselves. While we must strive to settle conflicts in a peaceful way, I don’t think it always work, and when compromise is not an acceptable solution it is inevitable that people will have to take arms like in the case of American Civil War and stand up for what they believe in. So I was annoyed by the Tullys sheer conviction that their beliefs somehow made them superior!
But once the war broke, and they were stranded in a country where they didn’t even speak the same language, I sympathized with them. When they came face to face with an actual war and its harsh realities – not the war that they were trying to wage against ‘evil’ governments – they lost their innocence within a matter of hours. It was both ironical and sad to see the Tullys having to face the atrocities of war to realize pacifism, even though it may sound good in theory, is an illusion indulged by those who haven’t suffered.
Although William – an Englishman is not one of my favourite Persephone novels, it is undoubtedly thought-provoking. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys WWI fiction.