I have read ‘Winifred and Eileen’ before, years and years ago. The details had gone from my mind when I learned that the book was to be added to the Persephone list, but I did remember that I had been very taken with it, and that I looked for a long time, without success, for other books by the same author.
Some time later, when I’d given up looking, I found a copy of ‘Summer in February’ in a charity shop. But that’s another story for another day ….
The story opens in 1913, as Wilfred Willett is coming to the end of his studies at Trinity College Cambridge, and looking forward to taking the next steps towards becoming a surgeon. He meets Eileen Stenhouse at a May Ball, and they begin to talk while they both, superstitiously, sitting out the thirteenth dance of the evening. It would be the beginning of a love affair.
Their relationship met with disapproval from each side of the family. Neither thought that the other was good enough for their child. And so Wilfred and Eileen married secretly, and they planned to keep their secret until Wilfred finished his training and they could be financially independent of both families.
Of course their secret came out, and then a ‘proper’ wedding was forced upon them.
They were happy. He was an idealist and a worker; she was quiet, patient and supportive; they understood each other.
And they were utterly real.
And that wasn’t just because this is a novel inspired by a real story, by a real Wilfred and Eileen. It is because Jonathan Smith; writing made them real. He observes them carefully and sensitively, picking up just the right details to explain their lives, their times, their relationships, without ever seeming intrusive.
These would have been ordinary lives, beautifully illuminated, had it not been for the times.
Wilfred went to war, and Eileen was lost without him. And yet, when Wilfred was terribly injured, she found the strength to fight, to bring him home, and to make sure that everything possible is done for him, to give him a chance, to give him his life back.
The writing is simple and understated, but it has such depth and power that it could not fail to move any reader.
I caught my breath at several points, because I was so caught up in the world of this man and this woman, because I so felt for them and their situation.
Their story could not have been better told. It is beautifully written, perfectly paced, and utterly true to its period.
It speaks profoundly of love, courage and the consequences of war.
And I’m not going to write any more, because I lack the words to do justice to the story – and the real lives – of Wilfred and Eileen
Except to say that is a very fine, and very timely, addition to the Persephone list ….