William—An Englishman is a pitiless book. “Pitiless” is not a word I often use, but it came to me when reading this tale of a couple of ordinary bourgeois bohemians on honeymoon in Belgium in August 1914. Hoping for a quiet three weeks, they avoid the papers until it is too late: the War breaks out and William of the title and his bride are caught behind German lines. It’s the first Persephone Book and remains a bestseller for them.
William and Griselda’s first encounters with violence are pitiless and painful to read. The young couple are so appealing, so naïve, so idiotic, and so very like many of us who have never experienced war. It’s an uncomfortable reading experience, and I oscillated between thinking that this discomfort was a gimmick and thinking that it made the book deeply moving and effective as war literature.
A moment that struck me as particularly terrible is also one of the subtler moments of the book. William and his wife have been taken prisoner, forced to witness the assassination of several Belgians, and then separated. Forced to repair the railway lines, William breaks free during a moment of chaos and goes house to house in search of his wife. He finds her, terrified, cowering in the upper room of one of the village houses, a shadow of her formerly brave, suffragette self:
His heart cried out to him that she had struggled merely as a captive, had been restrained by brute force from escaping—but his own eyes had seen that she turned from him as if there was a barrier between them, as if there was something to hide that she yet wished him to know…
And suddenly, as Hamilton writes a few sentences later, seeing the effect of a sexual assault on his wife, the phrase “licentious soldiery” takes on meaning.
I cannot quite say, with Nicola Beauman (the publisher & author of the preface), that this is a masterpiece. I will say that it held my attention, disturbed me, made me think about war and how we talk about war from our safe home. The satire on Bloomsbury socialism and the way that suffragettes spoke of their struggle as a kind of Civil War is pretty devastating.
The book falls apart at the end. And yet, even there, William’s upsetting encounter with a traumatized soldier who must narrate all that frightens him about the air raid they must endure together is terrific and terrifying and claustrophobic in all the right ways.
Plus, the fact that Hamilton wrote this in her tent during war service (after a few years as a volunteer in a Scottish hospital, she became an organizer for concerts at the front) adds much to the book: I share Beauman’s sense that the book is full of an amazing, quiet intensity.
Some of the writing is very beautiful. All of it is strong—although I occasionally wished she would cease explaining and essaying, I almost never flinched at a misstep.
I do not know if I will teach it in the fall in my World War One class or not.
For a new course this fall on the Literature of World War One, I’m reading around, looking at chestnuts worth a fresh glance (and yes, I’m working my way through Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth  with great pleasure) and some less-well known texts that offer a new perspective on the war.
Yesterday and early this morning, I read Francis Marion Beynon’s Aleta Day (1919; Broadview Press). It’s an autobiographical novel about a pacifist woman’s experience of the war, set entirely in Winnipeg. The opening chapters about a prairie childhood with strict parents (and an abusive father) are really terrific, lovely spare prairie prose (like Munro or Cather or Mildred Walker). From the first page:
It is wonderful how early one can be made into a coward. I was one at five. I remember a golden summer morning when the milk pans were all about the kitchen and flies were buzzing between them and the window. Jean was tugging at my hair and I slapped her hands and said, “Darn you, stop that.”
Mother’s portly figure revolved until she was facing me. “What did you say, Aleta?” she demanded sharply.
The scene goes on—it makes up the whole of the first chapter in this very short, many-chaptered book—to give an account of her beating and her false apology for saying “darn”: “I was still ashamed to meet the big wind when I went out to play, and I tried to show him I was not a coward by shaking my little fist at the house and shouting, ‘I’m not sorry, and I hate you—I hate you—I hate you.’”
About halfway through the book, the war breaks out, testing her blossoming romance with a fellow journalist, a Scotsman and a Tory. The writing is less good here, but the book is just as interesting, even as the plot shades into melodrama (McNair drinks; McNair has a wife from a youthful marriage; he enlists; he disapproves of her suffragism). What’s valuable, is the pains that Beynon goes to to give an account of the hounding and public shaming her heroine faces as a pacifist. (According to the too-brief preface, Beynon herself was forced to resign from the newspaper she worked for because of her views.) The preservation of the taunting rhymes and Aleta’s pained and sincere efforts to write to her lover, at the front, an explanation of why, though she loves him dearly, she must speak out against war, are terrific:
Said the Pacifist, ‘He only killed my brother, and Resistance isn’t right!”
Said the Pacifist, “He only kicked my mother, and it’s very wrong to fight!”
I think it’s wicked rather, to defend an aged father, for it might end in a quarrel.
If a Hun assaults your sister (said the gentle Pacifister), turn you other sister to him and be moral.
Isn’t that stunning? I’ve seen the scenes—in Downton Abbey, for a start—of women passing out white feathers, but this offensive little bit of doggerel captures something of the rage against the pacifists that I haven’t read much of, so steeped in Bloomsbury pacifism have I been.
As it happens, my daughters, 8 and 11, are reading about him now. Sharon Creech’s novel in poems Love that Dog is about a reluctant reader and writer who comes to see the power of poetry by reading Walter Dean Myers’ poem, “Love that Boy.”
Just this morning, my older daughter was telling me, again, the plot of the book. She’d been enthusiastic about it three years ago when she read it in school and not, reading it to her sister, a less precocious reader, she’s enjoying it all over again.
The story hinges on a boy forced to write poetry in a unit in school. Walter Dean Myers work lies at the heart of his transformation from reluctant reader into proud poet.
The best tribute on a writer’s passing is to read his work, so do that first. Then, if you have a young reader in your life, I recommend Love that Dog.
Or, we can just start here (the poem, which I grabbed from here, is reprinted in Creech’s book):
Love That Boy by Walter Dean Myers
Love that boy,
like a rabbit loves to run
I said I love that boy
like a rabbit loves to run
Love to call him in the morning
love to call him
"Hey there, son!"
He walk like his Grandpa,
Grins like his Uncle Ben.
I said he walk like his Grandpa,
And grins like his Uncle Ben.
Grins when he’s happy,
When he sad, he grins again.
His mama like to hold him,
Like to feed him cherry pie.
I said his mama like to hold him.
Like to feed him that cherry pie.
She can have him now,
I’ll get him by and by
He got long roads to walk down
Before the setting sun.
I said he got a long, long road to walk down
Before the setting sun.
He’ll be a long stride walker,
And a good man before he done.
Apparently the presence of a clergyman of the Church of England in her morning-room was consolation enough, as though, like some moral vinaigrette he had but to be filled by a Bishop, introduced, unstoppered, and gently waved about the room, to diffuse a refreshing atmosphere.
When I write books, I think, ‘What would Franzen do?’ And he would do whatever the fuck he wants.
If I were a man, she should, I would plunge into dissipation.
What dissipation is to a man, religion is to a woman. Would it be possible to become a Roman Catholic and go to a convent? No, never for her!—of the two alternatives dissipation seemed the more feasible.
'The truth is, I was growing rather alarmed by the way I was acceding to routine; compliance with it felt increasingly like madness. “Now I hang up the tea-cup on the 3rd hook. Now I put the blue plates in the rack.”’