William – an Englishman by Cicely Hamilton

Is a book a classic when no one has heard of it? I looked on Goodreads and reportedly only about 55 people have rated/read it on that website. A classic should not defined by notoriety, but by its relevance over time. Does this book warrant that title?

I added this book to my Classics Club selection and my Spin List. I had bought it at least four or five years ago at a used book fair. It was only $1 and it was a well made little book that came with a dust jacket. The book was originally published in 1919, authored by someone I had never heard of, but I really bought because the binding was so lovely. It didn’t look like anyone had read more than once if at all.

The book was republished in 1999 by Persephone Books, an independent publisher based out of London. It reprints “neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly women) writers. Each one in our collection of 102 books is intelligent, thought-provoking and beautifully written, and most are perfect presents or a good choice for reading groups.”

This was the first in their series. Persephone Books wrote:

In our view William is one of the greatest novels about war ever written: not the war of the fighting soldier or the woman waiting at home, but the war encountered by Mr and Mrs Everyman, wrenched away from their comfortable preoccupations – Socialism, Suffragettism, so gently mocked by Cicely Hamilton- and forced to be part of an almost dream-like horror (because they cannot at first believe what is happening to them)… The book, which won the Prix Femina-Vie Heureuse in 1919, is a masterpiece, written with an immediacy and a grim realism reminiscent of an old-fashioned, flickering newsreel.

I was very intrigued when I learned more about why they chose to publish this book and the life of Ms Hamilton. According to Wikipedia, Cicely Hamilton was “an English actress, writer, journalist, suffragist, lesbian and feminist.”

Things I inferred about the novel from this pre-research as follows: it was from the modern period, involved gender studies/feminism, and possible antiwar sentiments. Things I generally like in books. So just before reading this book, I started building expectations from a book I and no one else I knew had even heard of.

The introduction to the book stated that Hamilton wrote the novel while in France during the war. I am amazed by this, but it lends the air of intensity and realism about the book.

The novel starts out slowly and with a slight mocking tone, but then it gets dark. Actually, it was more dismal and bleak than I anticipated. It’s been awhile since I read a war novel from that time that showed the grim realities of the Great War. It reminded me of All Quiet on the Western Front that way.

I must agree that this book should be more famous. It has political commentary of the time with some satire, but it does write about the Everyman of the time. It shows the disillusionment of the time, but it’s a classic because people still feel the same way about things. She writes beautifully about young people in particular are grippe in extremism. The war is not good, but at the same time, one can not be unaffected by it. There are definite nuances to how she writes about how such change affects people at the most personal and individual level.

After William’s harrowing ordeal, he returns home and realizes he has naught to live for. I can understand this existential crisis especially at the time and even now, I wonder if people were put into his situation, what would they have done?

My one quibble is that while Hamilton is an observant and insightful writer about people, I can understand why she wrote mainly plays while alive. She has excellent dialogue throughout. Sometimes, I felt her paragraphs were too long. This is a very minor criticism to an overall well crafted book.

I am very glad I picked up this book for its cover. It seems to me that I read two forgotten modern classics this week, and I am very pleased by the quality of books not as celebrated in their time. I hope that if you get the chance and if you have an interest in modern or World War I novels, I’d recommend it.

Read June 22 2013.

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