Cicely Mary Hamilton was born Cicely Hammill in Paddington, London on June 15, 1872. Her father was an army captain serving abroad, and her mother disappeared from her life when she was ten (it is thought she was committed to an asylum). Raised by foster parents, she was educated at a private boarding school in Malvern and at Bad Homburg vor der Höhe, a small spa town in Germany.

After school, she had a brief stint as a student teacher, which she disliked immensely. In 1897, she found work as an actress with a touring company led by Edmund Tearle, and in 1906 wrote her first play, The Traveller Returns. Also at this time, she  became involved with Emma Pankhurst's Women's Social and Political Union, the leading women's suffrage organization in Britain, and in 1907, Charlotte Despard's Women's Freedom League.

In 1908, the success of her play, Diana of Dobson's (subsequently adapted as a novel), brought her fame, making her an ideal candidate for public speaking. Thus, she became active on the lecture circuits as a popular and well-respected representative of  the women's suffrage movement. That same year, she co-founded the Women Writers' Suffrage League and was instrumental in organizing the Actresses' Franchise League.

Cicely Hamilton (seated) working for the Scottish Women's Hospital Unit

At the outbreak of the Great War, she joined the Scottish Women's Hospital Unit, and in 1917 joined the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps. It was from an army tent, within the sound of guns and shells, where she wrote William, an Englishman: "written in a rage in 1918; this extraordinary novel... is a passionate assertion of the futility of war" (Persephone Books). The novel was an immediate success and earned her the Femina-Vie Heureuse prize for 1919.

After the war Cicely Hamilton became a freelance journalist working for newspapers such as the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express. She was also a regular contributor to the feminist journal, Time and Tide where she campaigned for free birth control advice for women and the legalization of abortion. In 1922, she published her final novel, Theodore Savage, though she continued to write plays and non-fiction. She was a friend of EM Delafield and was portrayed in The Provincial Lady Goes Further (1932) as "Emma Hay." She died from heart failure in her London home, following a prolonged illness, on December 5, 1952.

Endpaper from William - an Englishman, Persephone Book No. 1 

William, an Englishman is the story of William Tully, a "mild-mannered, pale-faced, and under-sized" young insurance clerk turned Social Reformer with "an honest and fiery passion for Justice, Right and Progress." He meets and, on July 23, 1914, marries Griselda Watkins, "his exact counterpart in petticoats; a piece of blank-minded, suburban young-woman-hood caught into the militant suffrage movement and enjoying herself therein."

"Their standard of conduct was rigid and their views were pronounced; those who did not share their views and act in conformity with their standards were outside the pale of their liking. And this not because they were abnormally or essentially uncharitable, but because they had lived for so long less as individuals than as members of organizations - a form of existence which will end by sucking charity out of the sweetest heart alive.

It was well for them, therefore, that their creed, like their code of manners and morals was identical or practically identical. It was a simple creed and they held to it loyally and faithfully. They believed in a large, vague and beautifully undefined identity, called by William the People, and by Griselda, Woman; who in the time to come was to accomplish much beautiful and undefined good; and in whose service they were prepared meanwhile to suffer any amount of obloquy and talk any amount of nonsense. They believed that Society could be straightened and set right by the well-meaning efforts of well-meaning souls like themselves - aided by the Ballot, the Voice of the People, and Woman. They believed, in defiance of the teachings of history, that Democracy is another word for peace and goodwill towards men."

"With regard to what used to be called culture (before August, 1914), the attainments of William and Griselda were very much on a level. They read newspapers written by persons who wholly agreed with their views; they read pamphlets issued, and books recommended, by societies of which they were members. From these they quoted, in public and imposingly, with absolute faith in their statements. Of history and science, of literature and art, they knew nothing, or next to nothing; and, their ignorance being mutual, neither bored the other by straying away from the subjects in which both were interested."

To be perfectly honest, I was ready to toss this book after the first two chapters because William and Griselda annoyed me to no end. However, I decided that since Persephone had declared it "one of the greatest novels about war ever written," I should persevere.

A valley in the Ardennes Forest, Belgium © Pascallacsap

William and Griselda choose an isolated location for their three week honeymoon: a tiny cabin deep in the Belgium Ardennes, entirely shut off from the outside world.  Ironically, the would-be internationalists do not know that war has just been declared.

For a time, all is perfectly blissful, but then they decide that perhaps life is "too peaceful," and that the Cause is calling them back home. They agree on a speedy departure, resolving to leave on the following day. As they set off the next morning, they find the farmhouse of Madame Peys (who had been cooking their meals) abandoned. Slightly disturbed by this, they eventually decide to walk to the nearest village, only to find it occupied by German soldiers. It is then that an English-speaking soldier informs them of the war and they are taken prisoner:

"Neither William nor Griselda had ever entertained the idea of a European War; it was not entertained by any of their friends or their pamplets. Rumors of war they had always regarded as foolish and malicious inventions set afloat in the interests of Capitalism and Conservatism with the object of diverting attention from Social Reform or the settlement of the Woman Question; and to their ears, still filled with the hum of other days, the announcement of Heinz was even such a foolish invention. Nor, even had they given him credence, would they in these first inexperienced moments have been greatly perturbed or alarmed; their historical ignorance was so profound, they had talked so long and so often in terms of war, that they had come to look on the strife of nations as a glorified scuffle on the lines of a Pankhurst demonstration."

The novel continues with their subsequent confrontation of the brutal realities of war, but I won't go into further detail for fear of spoiling the story. I must say that, in the end, I loved this book, and actually found myself feeling enormously sympathetic for William and Griselda. It has remained with me in a way that very few books do, and given me much to think about.

The book is available from Persephone Books, or in the public domain via Google Books. More information about the Battle of the Ardennes, which was fought between August 21-23, 1914 can be found here.

Destruction of a small village by the Germans, from Senlis (1917) by Cicely Hamilton

It was quite interesting to me that the book seemed to criticize or polk fun at many aspects of a cause which formerly was a central part of Cicely Hamilton's life. However, on closer examination, I realized how deeply she identified with the plight of William and Griselda and how this book, "written in a rage," reflected her own anger and disullionment. That involvement in the war caused her significant distress is apparent in much of her writing.

"Those who struggled hardest against the acceptance of the War-Fact of 1914 were, naturally enough, those who had fiery little battles of their own to fight, and whose own warfare was suddenly rendered null and incompetent by a sudden diversion of energy and interest in the face of the national danger. The war was the successful rival of their own, sectional strife, overshadowing its importance and sucking the life from its veins." (William, an Englishman)

She responded to the 1918 Representation of the People Act (allowing British women the right to vote) with a sense of disinterested fatigue. In Life Errant, her 1935 autobiography, she wrote:

"What use was the vote as a weapon against German guns, submarines and Gothas? The problem of the moment was to keep ourselves alive, and while a people engaged in a life-and-death struggle, it is apt to lose interest in matters which yesterday were of sufficient importance to raise it to a fury of dispute...I remember - how well I remember - receiving official intimation that my name had been placed on the register of the Chelsea electorate. I was in Abbeville at the time, and, as the post arrived, a battery of Archies began to thud; an enemy aeroplane was over taking photographs. I remember thinking, as I read the notice, of all that suffrage had meant for us, a year or two before! ...and that now, at this moment of achieved enfranchisement, what really interested me was not the thought of voting at the next election, but the puffs of smoke that the Archies sent after the escaping planes."  (Suffrage Discourse in Britain During the First World War by Angela K. Smith)


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