Jonathan Smith’s first novel, Wilfred and Eileen, is quite a rarity among Persephone reprints, for two reasons; the first is that the novel was written by a man, and the second is that that man is still living. Wilfred and Eileen was first published in 1976, and is the 107th book on the Persephone list. It was made into a television mini-series in 1980, and the Persephone reprint contains an afterword written by Smith himself. The book’s endpapers are from a design by Vanessa Bell.
Wilfred and Eileen is based upon true events, telling the story as it does of the grandparents of one of Smith’s former pupils. The novel begins in Cambridge in 1913, and describes the life of protagonist and Trinity College student Wilfred Willett and his fiancee Eileen, who met at the University’s annual May Ball. Their consequent clandestine marriage is well set out, as is the way in which they hid it from their disapproving parents, neither of which thought that their child’s choice of partner was quite good enough. We are told that ‘it is Wilfred’s survival after being wounded in battle that is at the heart of the book’.
At the start of the story, Wilfred is just finishing his degree: ‘Wilfred’s rooms would in a few months’ time be someone else’s. Other pictures would be on the wall, a different Pater and Mater on the mantelpiece… The basketwork armchair, the central throne of the castle, would belong to some insignificant young fellow’. He is determined to become a great surgeon: ‘Despite being tied to his family by the allowance [which they gave him], he hoped Hospital would be a new context, a wider passage. In his blood, in his stomach, he felt the steadiness of the past giving ground to an unsure, vigorous future’. He is a much revered member of Trinity College, and is looked to by other students for both approval and assurance.
Eileen Stenhouse, on the other hand, is said to live ‘a life of ease and abundance’. The two first get to know each other on a walk whilst they are sitting out the thirteenth dance of the evening, an event ‘made possible by a curious set of circumstances – the drink, a strange ethereal light and her superstition’. Eileen is a very determined character – ‘This most adaptable and sensitive girl was revealing the firmness which perhaps had attracted Wilfred that night in Cambridge’ – and she and Wilfred are both portrayed as strong and passionate beings. The second chapter of the novel moves from Cambridge to London, where Wilfred and Eileen both live, and where Wilfred has begun to work at the London Hospital.
The novel has been intelligently written throughout, and Smith has a knack for deftly building scenes. At the May Ball, for example, ‘soon all was bewitching music, tilted heads, glancing eyes and gliding feet’. The third person perspective which the author has made use of works well, and allows the reader to see both Wilfred and Eileen, along with the development of their relationship: ‘She wanted him to go on talking in this lively way, for hours… But she must not keep him from his work, she had no right to do that. As she glanced at him a dark cloud of possession passed over her. No, she must not think of him like that’. Details of the period have been worked in well, from medical advances which were new at the time to the pressure which one felt to join up when war was declared, and from Suffragettes to the writing of wartime letters.
The entirety of Wilfred and Eileen has been very sensitively and believably wrought, and the story is well paced. The novel is a deserving addition to the Persephone list, and it is certainly fascinating at times, and eminently readable throughout. Smith has brilliantly exemplified courage in the face of wartime, and there is not a fan of Persephone’s prints who will not enjoy this novel.