This is Persephone Book 107 and I received my copy from the publisher. It’s unusual for Persephone to reprint a book first published in 1976, whose author is still alive. A little research showed that second hand copies are unaffordable so a reprint makes sense, especially as it’s a book about the effects of the First World War. I was casting around thinking of other books published around the same time. For example, in 1975 Martin Amis published Dead Babies, Malcolm Bradbury The History Man and David Lodge Changing Places. Julian Barnes and Ian McEwen had barely started their glittering careers. These are significant authors of the time. I mention this because the remarkable thing about Wilfred and Eileen is that it reads as if it had been written between the wars. Jonathan Smith was writing a book completely against all current trends, which as an English teacher he must have known. In his Afterword to this edition he mentions his admiration for Siegfried Sassoon’s prose works, especially Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and he has perhaps captured something of Sassoon’s tone in his own writing.
Wilfred and Eileen is a love story based on the lives of real people and it’s an inspiring tale. I was nearly put off the whole book in the first chapter by the tiresome undergraduate chatter of Wilfred and his friends at Trinity, Cambridge but it’s a necessary introduction because Wilfred and Eileen meet at the May Ball. Wilfred is fiercely ambitious, planning to be a famous surgeon. Eileen is rich, bored, and wanting something useful to do with her life. The two fall in love and marry secretly, as both families are against the union. Then comes the war and Wilfred enlists, to Eileen’s distress. He throws himself into military life with the same zeal he previously applied to his medical studies, all the time thinking of Eileen and exchanging letters with her. Then he is shot in the head.
Wilfred isn’t expected to recover but Eileen brings him back from France and gets him into the right hands. Even with the progress he makes, he will never be a doctor. Jonathan Smith says that he now sees the book as more Eileen’s story than Wilfred’s, and I can understand why. Wilfred’s courage and will power lead him to contemplate a different sort of life to the one he planned, but one that will still be worthwhile. He can only do this with Eileen’s help. She’s saved him once and now he will make the most of ‘the life she gave him’. It’s an extraordinary story told in a very matter of fact way.
In this centenary year there are many books out dealing with the First World War. I mentally compared this with the more recent My Dear I Wanted to Tell You which has a similar storyline. Both are well worth reading. I was careful not to read the press release, the Afterword or any reviews before starting Wilfred and Eileen and this made the book all the more surprising. If you look up Jonathan Smith, you find him an interesting person: an inspiring teacher (Dan Stevens was one of his pupils) and also the father of Ed Smith, the cricketer and TMS commentator. What a talented family!