Written by Jonathan Smith
Wilfred and Eileen was well received in the literary pages in 1976. The novel was dramatized on Radio 4 in 1983 and then serialized on BBC TV in four parts in 1984. Eight million people watched it. Yet over the years since this, my first novel, came out I have come to see the story rather differently. When I wrote it I was in my early thirties and I identified with Wilfred, the bold young doctor who was going to change the face of medicine and become a famous consultant, the young officer to whom the men looked up, the ambitious and confident young man with the hooded eyes who had married a beautiful girl against everyone’s wishes. I now see it more as Eileen’s story. My mind is more with her, and not only in the war years.
It was Eileen who, from 1915 onwards, ‘ran’ their life together in The Rosery, their small Georgian house in Matfield, Kent, three miles from Paddock Wood (the nearest station) and five miles from Tunbridge Wells. Matfield was then a quiet village of a dozen or so large houses and several surrounding cottages; there was a village green, the Wheelwrights Arms, the Standings Cross, the Walnut Tree Inn and the Star Hotel, and a few shops (a confectioner’s, three grocery stores, a baker, a post office) and a Baptist chapel. Horses drawing farm carts with loads of hay and ponies and traps were more common traffic than cars. Later a house called Hatherleigh was lived in by the Willetts’ close friends the Sassoons (distant relations of the poet).
After he left hospital Wilfred ‘decided to make use of the life that Eileen had saved. He taught himself to write with his left hand and found he could walk quite fast with a stick. His physical strength enabled him to do many things that others with similar disabilities would not have attempted’ (p.23 of Marjorie’s 1985 book about her parents, Poppies and Roses). ‘All his sufferings, physical disabilities and grief at the casualty lists, which continued to bring news of the loss of many friends and contemporaries at school, Cambridge and London Rifle Brigade had not lessened Wilfred’s Christianity nor his patriotism’ (p.37). Yet he became a founding member of the Communist Party in 1920 and an organizer for the Party in 1925 and remained a committed Communist Party member for the rest of his life.
Meanwhile Eileen was happy that living in the country began to rekindle Wilfred’s interest in nature. At first he lay in his bed or leaned back in his armchair watching the birds pecking at a lump of suet that Eileen tied to a long piece of string and hung on the branch of a tree near the windows. But soon natural history became an abiding hobby and Wilfred began to work in the garden and to record his bird observations. He wrote a novel and short stories (which, alas, did not find a publisher). He bought a pony and trap in order to explore the surrounding villages.
British Birds was published, from 1936 onwards, in the form of twenty-seven pamphlets: Rooks, Crows and Jackdaws, was followed by Magpies and Jays, then Starlings, Thrushes and Blackbirds, and so on, to cover all the birds in Britain. It was brought out as a complete work in 1948.
At the same time Wilfred started to publish a series of six small books about British wild flowers: Flowers of Meadow-Banks and Ditches; Woodland Flowers; Primroses, Cowslips, Pansies and Peas; Cornfield Flowers; Fragrant Flowers; Roses, Pinks and Bellflowers. These came out in 1937 and a collected edition appeared in 1955. He also became a regular contributor to the Communist Party rural journal, the Rural Crusade & Country Standard as well as to the Daily Worker, for which he was Nature Correspondent.
Three children were born, Denis in 1918, Marjorie in 1919 and Anne in 1923. There was not a lot of money but nevertheless there was a nanny and a maid. In the ‘peaceful years’ of the 1920s Eileen saw Wilfred through his depressions. And his rages: all the same, Wilfred fell out so badly with his son that Denis was barely mentioned in any family memories. (Indeed, so much so, I did not even know about him when I wrote the novel.) Later she helped him through the frustrations of his surgical boot and the irons which were intended to take some of the strain off his paralysed leg. She took visitors out to see Wilfred as he sat writing or watching birds in his hut. She drove her disabled husband everywhere in her car, everywhere he needed to go, to Maidstone and beyond, all over Kent, to this National Union of Agricultural Workers meeting, to that role in the War Pensions Welfare Service, as he pursued the political vision she did not share. She helped him to make the very best use he could of the life she had saved for him.
Jonathan Smith, from the Afterword to the Persephone edition of Wilfred and Eileen.
Jonathan Smith, Wilfred and Eileen (Persephone Books: London, 2014). 978-1903155974, 200pp., paperback.
Head over to Fiction to read our review of Wilfred and Eileen.