One night in June, 1921, during the height of the Anglo-Irish conflict, three local nationalists approach the home of the Gaults, an Anglo-Irish family living in one of the Ascendancy Big Houses, Lahardane, in County Cork. Attempting to protect his property, Captain Gault accidentally wounds one of the boys, Horahan, and sets off a chain of accidents that culminate in a family tragedy.
When Captain Gault cannot make reparations to the boy’s family, he is convinced that another attack is imminent and prepares to relocate his family to England. His daughter, Lucy, resenting the prospect of dislocation, runs away, and her distraught parents believe she has drowned in the sea. They quickly move to Italy, leaving no word of their change in plans, while a half-starved and injured Lucy is discovered and nursed back to health by the estate’s caretakers. The novel charts the next forty-eight years of Lucy’s life as she lives alone in the family estate, rejected by classmates, shunning the attentions of a young suitor, and developing into her community’s local legend. Eventually her most ardent wish, the return of her parents, is partly fulfilled after her mother dies and her father visits Ireland. Father and daughter enjoy a few years together before he dies and Lucy is once more isolated.
In its outlines, The Story of Lucy Gault seems rather unprepossessing, the stuff of a domestic melodrama; however, it is anything but sentimental or conventional. This is a remarkably subtle, exquisitely rendered tale of love and devotion and the ability to find beauty in the most distressing of circumstances. The novel, like the other two in Trevor’s Big House trilogy–Fools of Fortune (1983) and The Silence in the Garden (1988)—artfully blends public with private history, suggesting the ways in which the private is often dragged into the slipstream of public, celebrated forces. Ireland in 1921 was in incredible turmoil, as the push for national independence erupted in violence aimed at the British militia and Anglo-Irish citizens, who suddenly became magnets for resentments built up over seven hundred years of oppression. For many Irish those days are often seen as heroic, when a militarily unsophisticated population expelled the world’s greatest power, but for Trevor the story of Ireland’s independence is one filled with pain and confusion. In his hands, the chronicle of national triumph becomes a narrative in which the oppressed are never entirely freed of sorrow and humiliation.
Lucy Gault’s tale in many ways parallels that of her nation in her separation from her parents and her seeming drift into quiet alienation. Shunned by potential playmates and the local townsfolk, she endures a life devoid of healing affection. Her only companions are elderly housekeepers and occasional visits from the family lawyer and a Protestant cleric. Not surprisingly, Lucy, as she warns her one suitor, feels that she is not deserving of love because “loving me will make you unhappy.” In spite of her emotionally undernourished life, she achieves a condition of quiet independence.
In their position as members of a Protestant minority in overwhelmingly Catholic Ireland, the Gaults seem perpetual outsiders. Until the shooting they have no quarrels with their neighbors, yet once enmity takes root, they are not even allowed to make amends for wrongs done to them. They are punished for life’s accidents—Heloise’s birth in England—and a sense of duty—the Captain’s service in the English army during World War I. Even after she has lived her entire life in the community, an adult Lucy exists on the periphery as “the Protestant woman . . . a relic, left over, respected for what she was, not belonging.” Ironically, the only people among whom she enjoys acceptance are the insane in the asylum where she volunteers her time.
In all of Trevor’s novels, the role of the past is paramount, and The Story of Lucy Gault is no exception. While a young girl, Lucy is warned by Captain Gault that the “past is the enemy in Ireland,” and indeed, for people with a long memory, the past stands as an animated, palpable presence in human affairs. The captain worries that his family’s long-standing privileges may have sown seeds of resentment which they must harvest and later that his daughter must suffer as a result of years of neglect. For Lucy, the continual presence of the past makes love and marriage an impossibility.
In many ways, the novel reads like an allegory or...
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