When I was in Lamb’s Conduit Street the other week, I couldn’t pass the Persephone Bookshop without popping in. I came out with a copy of Wilfred and Eileen, first published in 1976, and reissued by Persphone last year. It’s a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while.
Jonathan Smith was a teacher at Tonbridge School (where my aunt used to work as a secretary for some years, by the way). One day, after a lesson on the 1914-18 war poets, a student came up to him and told him: ‘Something really extraordinary happened to my grandparents. Back in the First World War…’
Intrigued, he wanted to find out more, and was given access to ‘considerable autobiographical material’ left by his grandfather. This ‘battered manuscript’ had failed to be accepted by a publisher, and Jonathan Smith could see why, since it was largely ‘an unremarkable philosophical tract, tracing the development of Wilfred’s political beliefs’. Within the verbiage, though, Smith saw a remarkable story, which he decided to turn into a novel (though a novel that keeps close to primary sources, I think).
Wilfred studies medicine at Cambridge, and in 1913 goes to work in a London hospital. He meets Eileen and they fall in love, despite parental disapproval. He is still financially dependent on his parents, and will not earn enough to support his family for some years. Despite this, Wilfred and Eileen marry secretly and meet for furtive afternoons together in a hotel. Then in August 1914 Wilfred (who was in the Cambridge OTC) enlists, not as a medic, but as a soldier. The novel shows how this very pleasant couple cope with war’s challenges, which become extreme.
Spoiler Alert: I’m now going to make some comments on the book that will give away some of its surprises.You have been warned
The great turning point of the novel comes when Wilfred, who has been a conscientious and brave soldier, is severely wounded. The base of his skull is smashed, and there is brain damage. Eileen shows her quality when the non-arrival of his letters indicates that something must be wrong. With tremendous tenacity she first gets the information that he is wounded, and then heads to the Foreign Office to demand a passport, so that she can go to him in the military hospital in Boulogne. What had been a pleasant romance between two likeable young people becomes something deeper as she gets him back to England, and then to the surgeon whom he most respects.
The most gripping part of the book comes when Wilfred, part-paralysed and with difficulty communicating, is aware of his condition, and of the risky operation needed for his treatment. Smith lets us share Wilfred’s fears: he realises that his career as a doctor is over, and is afraid that he will be impotent.
The book ends rather quickly, with Wilfred, partly-cured, discharged from hospital, and heading towards a new life with Eileen in a small house she has rented with help from his parents. then there are two very brief extracts from Wilfred’s postwar diary, marking the births, in 1919 and 1923, of the couple’s two daughters.
This makes a very satisfactory ending to an absorbing story. Perhaps because of its reliance on real-life documents, the novel takes us into interesting territories. I especially liked the description of life in the pre-war London teaching hospital, especially the description of the virtuoso surgeon, Mr Bowman:
He was a short, stout little man with an aggressive brown beard [….] He had a reputation for saying unkind things to the patients and if in the wrong mood he was incompetent. It was even rumoured that he had severed a spermatic cord through carelessness. [….] he operated, though, with a relish as if his life – and not the patient’s – was at stake.
Bowman, ‘the surgeon’s best instruments are his fingers’, and he never wears gloves. Wilfred, seeing him beding low over the patient and ‘thrusting his brown beard into the wound’ surmises that
‘The use of his fingers must have given Mr Bowman more than usual pleasure. He clearly preferred them to a surgical instrument.’
How much of this is Smith, one wonders, and how much the original manuscript that he has adapted? Probably a happy combination of both – yet I can’t help but wonder about Smith’s shaping of the material.
Wilfred Willett’s original document seems to have been a rambling intellectual autobiography, from which the story of his love and of his war wound have been filetted. The result makes, as I day, a very satisfactory novel, but Smith’s afterword (specially written for Persephone in 2013) intrigues me, and suggests that this is only one of the possible novels that could have been made out of these lives. Wilfred became a founding member of the Communist party in in 1920, and remained a Communist until his death in 1961 – through all the vicissitudes of Stalinist era. He was Nature Correspondent for the Daily Worker (and sold the paper every Saturday on the streets of Tunbridge Wells – one of the least propitious towns in England for Communist sales, I’d have thought.)
His politics are no more than hinted at in the 1976 novel. He is a bit sympathetic to the Suffragettes; he is critical of the ways that doctors behave towards the poor; he develops uncertainties about the conduct of the War; but he is more a well-meaning idealist than a radical.
So one wonders – did he have pre-war socialist sympathies that Smith has downplayed in the book? Or did he have a conversion between 1916 and 1920? Should his conversion be linked to Wifred’s post-war ‘depressions and rages’ (mentioned in the afterword, but not in the novel)?
Smith says in his afterword that writing a novel about real people is tricky, and ‘It is much trickier if the direct descendants, the close family, are still living.’ Does this hint at some self-censorship on his part? Or was he just more comfortable happier writing the personal story than writing a political one that would have raised difficult questions?
The afterword hints that the real Wilfred Willett was a little more complicated than the man in the novel, and maybe less likeable.
Those reassuring diary entries about the birth of daughters with which the novel ends are not in fact the whole story. There had also been a son, Denis, born in 1918. Apparently Wilfred fell out so badly with his son that Denis was barely mentioned in the family. When he wrote the book in the seventies, Smith had no idea of Denis’s existence.
This list of things not included in the book does not in any way invalidate it as a novel. It is absorbing, and very well-written. But it does highlight an issue that is relevant to all war fiction, and indeed to all fiction based loosely on fact. This is a good story, but it is not the only possible story. A different author, making a different selection from the Willetts’ lives, shaping the text differently and stopping the story in a different place, could maybe have written a novel equally valid and equally valuable, but expressing something else entirely.
Which is, of course, what makes Great War fiction so eternally interesting (to me at any rate).