William: An Englishman

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The first book published by the Persephone imprint was as good as I expected it to be (having discovered Persephone by way of Dorothy Whipple). Cicely Hamilton penned this book in tents at the front in France between 1916 and 1918. We meet William Tully who became a mild-mannered, pale-faced little adult from being a mild-mannered, pale-faced under-sized boy, a docile clerk who hands over his weekly earnings to his mother. When she suddenly dies, he finds that she’s rich and he can chuck his job completely, which sets him adrift until he finds a calling doing social work like campaigning for suffrage and anti-war. He becomes a politician and a paid speaker and meets Griselda, an ardent suffragette. They marry and honeymoon in a rural spot in the Arden forest of Belgium for weeks, while WWI breaks out at their doorstep unbeknownst to them. Captured by Germans, Griselda is raped, but they both escape during shelling, and then Griselda is hit by a carriage, eventually dying on the long march through France. William speaks none of the languages around him, but finds rescue in the form of an Englishwoman who takes him under her wing and gets him back to England. He immediately tries to join the army but discovers he’s too short. He gives up the flat that was waiting for him and his wife, finds refuge in the Free Library, reading French history, war tactics, anything he can get his hands on. Eventually, the army allows shorter folks to join up, but he can’t hack the physical rigors so ends up a clerk again, full circle. He’s killed by a bomb dropped by an aerial attack one night when the paperwork was getting out of control.