Reviewed by Rachel Fenn
Wilfred and Eileen, one of Persephone’s new books for the Spring, is also one of their most modern, having been first published in the 1970s. It tells the story of famous British Headteacher Anthony Seldon‘s grandparents’ life before, during and after WWI, thanks to a chance conversation between former English teacher Jonathan Smith and Anthony Seldon, who was Smith’s pupil. Smith was so intrigued by the story of Wilfred and Eileen Willett that he went to see Seldon’s mother immediately, and gained from her all of the information he needed to write this compelling novel about a couple who on the surface were very typical of their time, but actually lived a life far from ordinary thanks to their immense courage and tenacity.
The novel opens in 1913, with Wilfred spending his last few weeks at Cambridge before starting his medical career in London. During these final days of parties and picnics, Wilfred meets the beautiful, sophisticated Eileen Stenhouse, who has been invited to the May Ball by his friend David. Wilfred and Eileen share a dance, and Wilfred is smitten with this sophisticated girl who just so happens to live around the corner from his parents in Kensington. When he returns to his parents’ home, he immediately calls her up, and so Eileen and Wilfred begin a passionate courtship. However, it is not to be a wholly happy time; Wilfred has several years of training to complete and is being financed by his authoritarian father. He is not in a position to marry, and neither his nor Eileen’s parents see their choice of partner as being particularly suitable. Brought up by stuffy, reactionary parents who do not acknowledge their children’s right to an independent life, both Wilfred and Eileen despair of ever being able to escape the suffocating Victorian drawing rooms of home and strike out on their own.
However, the pair are daring and resourceful; they marry in secret, though still living apart, and plan on revealing the news once they are in a position to set up on their own. However, war soon breaks out, and Wilfred, strongly believing it is his duty to fight, immediately volunteers despite Eileen’s passionate opposition. This forces the couple’s hand; should anything happen to Wilfred, Eileen will need to be recognised as his wife, and so they come clean to their shocked parents. Realising there is nothing they can do but accept their marriage, they agree to support them if they have a church wedding. This achieved, Wilfred goes off to a training camp, leaving Eileen behind in London, waiting and worrying. However, neither of them know how deeply their relationship will be tested until Wilfred is sent to the Front, and it is surprising and powerful as to who truly turns out to be the hero.
I found this a very interesting and unusual war novel in that it doesn’t really talk about the war at all. We know, as 21st century readers, that as soon as we open any book set in the Edwardian period, doom is on the horizon. A sense of dread and impending loss settles on us instantaneously. There is an element of dramatic irony in the reading process, therefore; we know more than the characters, and we want to jump in and warn them, to tell them that they better hurry up and do whatever they dream of doing now, before their whole world falls apart. However, like a Greek Chorus, we must sit and watch the horror unfold, knowing that there is nothing we can do that can stop them from hurtling into the abyss. This is the most powerful element of Wilfred and Eileen; the pathos of knowing that their innocent dreams of a happy life together cannot possibly come true, and their complete lack of comprehension that a war that will change their world forever is literally a few months away from breaking out over their heads is heartbreaking. What is also fascinating is seeing the life of an average middle class Edwardian family, and the strict, stultifying life young unmarried people were forced to lead, dictated to absolutely by their parents. No wonder so many thought of war as an adventure, as an opportunity to live a little; now I understand more of what they were leaving behind, I can see why so many were so desperate to sign up. Smith is a sympathetic and stylish storyteller, with an effortless ability to recreate the atmosphere of the period through his language. I thoroughly enjoyed every word, and my only wish was that he had taken their story further, and told us more of the remarkable Wilfred and Eileen’s life together. This really was an excellent choice for republication in the centenary year of WWI, and a refreshing take on the conflict for those wanting something other than the blood and gore of the trenches. Highly recommended!
Rachel Fenn writes at Book Snob
Jonathan Smith, Wilfred and Eileen (Persephone Books: London, 2014). 978-1903155974, 200pp., paperback.
Head over to BookBuzz to read Jonathan Smith on Wilfred and Eileen.