Two Book Reviews

William: An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton

This book was an utter surprise. When I started the novel I thought I was reading a cynical satire on the out of touch pacifists in pre-World War I England. Instead I found my self enthralled in a cynical novel about the war, suffering, loss, and the loss of the individual in the face of terrifying world changes.

The first quarter or the book led me to believe that I would be reading a stinging satire with overblown, unsympathetic characters. William begins with a description of the protagonist; William is an a clerk of average talents, but a dogged work ethic. His overbearing mother dies leaving him a small sum of money. The money doesn’t make him wealthy, but it allows him to leave his hated clerk position. He then becomes embroiled in politics with his one political friend from his previous clerking job. He protests, he rages, he writes for a newspaper. He is concerned with labor, disdainful of wealth, and champions the rights of women. He and his comrades have noble ideas, but they do not really work in a way to enact systematic change. Rather it is all for some sort of vainglorious sense of being angry and downtrodden. William meets and marries Griselda, a suffragette. The pair have no concept of the world around them, including the incidents leading to World War I. The novel completely changes when William and Griselda leave for their honeymoon in Belgium. Suddenly they are thrust into the atrocities of war. Murder, rape, hunger, violence, slavery, and death.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot as I think Hamilton intends for the reader to be shocked. I will say that in the end William finds him self in a clerical position and unhappy. However, William’s ultimate fate is just a grim reminder of how an individuals can seize to matter in the face of such radical upheaval.

The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin

Clocking in at under 300 pages this fascinating account of an alleged (an probable) relationship between the young actress Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens the famous and married novelist. It is meticulously researched and well-written. I think nearly every modern Dickens scholar can agree that Nelly Ternan was Charles Dickens’ “lady friend,” but the truly controversial parts concern Ternan’s possible pregnancy and the death of a child. What evidence there is is compelling and the story is fascinating. However I had two slight problems reading this:

  1. I read Tomalin’s biography of Dickens a few years ago and so at times this felt like re-reading.
  2. There is so much conjecture (but well-grounded conjecture) that I almost wished Tomalin had written a novelization of the affair. I think it would have been a bit more engaging. There’s a little bit of evidence, and Tomalin at times will admit to imaging what must of happened or what one must have been thinking.

I guess a little too little concrete fact to make it truth, but not enough gray area to render it implausible. I need for someone to get on that novelization of this story ASAP.

The best part of the book has nothing to do with Dickens and not much to do with Ternan as an individual. What is truly fascinating is how easy it is for a Victorian woman to all but disappear from the pages of history. The concept of a biography based on a woman who tried — or had others try — to actively extinguish her existence was really interesting. It reminded me a bit of Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes and how that book is really about the problem of biography; or really, gender and biography.

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