Having spent about four years working my way towards the completion of Summer in February, Jonathan Smith's novel about the Lamorna artists, I decided to get a move on with another of his novels, Wilfred and Eileen, to be re-published by Persephone Books in April, and with delectable endpapers in a Vanessa Bell furnishing fabric of 1913, 'Maud.' I must also mention what might seem like a minor detail, but Persephone Books, printed and bound in Germany, lie flat when you open them and it matters, I wish all books would do this. No tussle, no spine-breaking, no third hand required when you have a cup of tea in one and a piece of cake in the other.
First published in 1976 Wilfred and Eileen was subsequently made into a four part TV series shown in the 1980s and of which I have no recollection whatsoever. My childbearing years, the 1980s passed me by so nothing surprising there, but how I would love to see it now.
The novel, opening as it does in 1913, promised to segue well with my year of Great War reading, though I sensed there was the mud of gore of the trenches to be traversed en route to learning more about the lives of ordinary people, and how this war affected them, and I wasn't wrong.
Wilfred Willet and Eileen Stenhouse meet at the Trinity College May Ball just as Wilfred, studying to be a doctor, has finished university and is heading for the London Hospital to train as a surgeon. At this point I will just drop in that, like Summer in February, Jonathan Smith's novel is based on a true story written with the family's blessing and with access to papers and archives etc.
Despite his professional status Wilfred is still not considered quite good enough for Eileen's family and there is resistance from all sides to their 'walking out' together, along with hints of impropriety at doing such a thing unless they are engaged. With Walter still dependent on an allowance from his father in order to complete his training marriage seems out of the question, but undaunted the couple 'elope' as far as the Registry Office before continuing to live seperate lives and keeping the plighting of their troth a secret. When the secret is eventually out the couple will be forced into plighting their troth properly in church by both families as the proper thing to do.
Until then the couple are happy in 'a fragile aching way,' Walter charged with a deep vein of idealism and Eileen, tolerant, patient and seemingly submissive, but with little glimmers of the assertive and steely nature that she will need in times to come.
Of course the reader knows there will be a war, but the couple don't and it slowly becomes apparent that Wilfred will have to put his studies on hold and enlist. Heading off to Belgium and the theatre of war at Ploegsteert, fondly known as Plug Street to the Tommies and near to Ypres, Wilfred exchanges countless letters with Eileen. Eileen, not surprisingly comes across as dependent, tearful, and fragile in her replies and is not coping at all....her privileged life had not prepared her for this and as such she seems representative of many women of the time.
This might be the only bit that stymies me in books like this... letters real or letters fictional, and it something that Jonathan Smith addresses in his Afterword...
'I was planning to transform a small part of a largely factual manuscript into a novel...while trying to make the story 'work', I needed to think hard about the issues of freedom and licence. I would have to use my imagination, you can't write a novel if you don't, but I should be wary of taking liberties. Where exactly should I play straight and where could I reasonably embellish?
In order to talk any further about the book a spoiler is inevitable so look away now and come back another day if you don't want to know... though it's not hard to predict...
Wilfred is seriously injured and everything changes for both him and for Eileen. From the depths emerges a tenacious, determined and very single-minded young woman who will stop at nothing to bring her mute and paralysed husband back from the front. Wilfred meanwhile speaks via a terrifying inner monologue that conveys the acute fear of his situation.
The book is somehow written in the style of a novel of the period, it would be easy to imagine it being published in 1920, not 1976....and in a way that felt like a failing until I realised the technique that Jonathan Smith had adopted. A subsequent search of The Times online archive (via my library ticket) revealed that I wasn't alone in that observation; Elizabeth Gray suggests the story of Wilfred and Eileen...
'...is told with direct simplicity and a sort of innocence, featuring those old fashioned virtues integrity, courage, dedication and love....a miniature work of art, full of small authentic details, deliberately written in the slightly mannered style of the period and so convincingly that I was startled to discover that the author is still in his thirties.'
Another quick search and I discovered that the TV series ran in November 1981 (I was busy with a three-month-old Offspringette, all is explained) and it was well received, critic Geoffrey Wansell also expressing some incredulity that the novel hadn't been written by...
'the imaginings of a lady novelist trying to evoke the almost unbearably tragic world of the First World War.'
I can just see Geoffrey being tweeted to infinity and beyond were he to suggest such a thing now.
Wilfred and Eileen certainly comes into a much sharper focus with Jonathan Smith's Afterword which also recounts the rest of the story... and I don't want to spoil any of that for you so am sitting on my hands rather than tell it, however the book has opened up another branch line of reading trails for me.
'It did,' says an indignant Marjorie, 'Wilfred and Eileen were my parents.'
and thus am I led to my next read, Marjorie Seldon's memoir Poppies and Roses.