Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5301
SOURCE: "The Truth-Tellers of William Trevor," in Critique, Vol. 21, No. 1, 1979, pp. 59-72.
[In the following essay, Gitzen explores the themes of loneliness and self-delusion in Trevor's work.]
Since the appearance of his first novel, A Standard of Behavior (1958), William Trevor has published a total of eleven volumes of fiction. Despite the popularity of The Old Boys (1964), The Boarding House (1965), and The Ballroom of Romance (1972), extensive analysis of his writing is as yet in short supply. Reviewers, on the other hand, have neither ignored Trevor nor hesitated to classify him. With virtual unanimity, they have labeled him a comic writer, differing only in their terms of reference, which vary from "black comedy" to "comedy of humor" to "pathetic" or "compassionate" comedy. As a satirist, he is most frequently compared with Evelyn Waugh, although Muriel Spark, Angus Wilson, Kingsley Amis, and Ivy Compton-Burnett are also mentioned. Additional points of comparison could readily be suggested: Trevor's ear for humorously banal small talk is reminiscent of Pinter; what has been referred to as "the incredulous, stuffy exactitude … the fustily elegant grammar" of his language recalls Beckett; his ruthless undeviating pursuit of a grubby, shabby verisimilitude evokes the work not only of Graham Greene but of such contemporaries as Edna O'Brien, John Updike, and David Storey. In addition, his interest in psychological questions and his preference for the traditional short story and novel allies him with writers as diverse as Henry James and Saul Bellow.
If Trevor is a comic writer, however, he with Beckett is assuredly among the most melancholy, as reflected in his characters' surroundings, in their situations and activities, and particularly in the theme of loneliness and hunger for love which more than any other feature distinguishes his writing. As a preface to exploring this theme, let us review Trevor's typical locales and representative features of the people who inhabit them. Consistently, his interest has focused on the marginal setting: a gaudy pub in a seedy district being demolished for reconstruction; a threadbare boarding house, its brown wallpaper and cheap furnishings unchanged for forty years; a deteriorating and unfrequented hotel in a Dublin backstreet; a tract house enveloped in tall weeds and grass, smelling of home-brewed beer and home-grown mushrooms. These are appropriate backgrounds for the lonely and forgotten, far removed from centers of purposeful activity and social ferment. Despite feeble resorts to the public media, these characters, described as "survivors, remnants, dregs," find little to which they may attach themselves. They are unenamored of the images on their television screens and cannot or will not be gathered into the collective mindless-ness of popular culture. Most typical are those at the social fringes: the timid and ineffectual middle-aged bachelor reduced to an insignificant job, the homely spinster alone with memories of dead parents, the petty criminal, ever dodging but seldom unscathed. Many are orphans in search of surrogate families; others are so old that they have outlived both family and friends. Though many are married, not a single couple is conspicuously happy or contented; indeed, distorted or frustrated sexuality abounds. With divorce almost epidemic, numerous separated characters drift into solitary middle age. The majority are more notable for weakness or failure than for strength or success, which contributes to the choice they are usually forced to make: either to recognize (and forgive) cruelty or unfaithfulness in those they love or limitations in themselves, or to cultivate comforting illusions, ranging from harmless daydreams and fantasies to compulsive and profound convictions. According to their differing temperaments and needs, some accept the truth, while...
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others find illusions the only bearable remedy. Indeed, furnished as they often are with active capacities for fantasy and reverie, and given to daydreaming or imagining themselves in situations contrary to actuality, Trevor's characters are peculiarly well fitted for creating and sustaining illusions.
With its constriction of form, the short story highlights Trevor's thematic concerns. Each of his three collections of stories centers on a common theme, and the themes of each are notably similar. The first, The Day We Got Drunk on Cake (1967), carries no epigraph, but a fitting motto would be Mrs. Fitch's: in vino veritas. Characteristically, the setting is the pub or cocktail party, where excessive consumption loosens the tongue of one character, causing him to make blunt statements offensive to his companion. Tension increases as the unpalatable truth emerges. Alternatively, the truth about their situations occurs spontaneously to the leading characters, although the reactions of others toward them may trigger their awareness. "The General's Day" is typical, especially since it involves heavy drinking as a medium for truth. At seventy-eight, General Suffolk is among the extremely old people for whom Trevor has a particular fondness, no doubt because of their conspicuous loneliness but possibly also because he considers them the least afraid of truth and, therefore, the most refreshingly blunt of speech. On the day of the story, the General is frustrated in his attempts to carry on his favorite practices of drinking congenially with friends and seducing middle-aged women. Late at night, bitterly disappointed and very drunk, he suddenly realizes that he has grown unwelcome and even repulsive to others and thinks with lucid horror, "My God Almighty, I could live for twenty years."
The Ballroom of Romance (1972) concerns love unrequited, unequally shared, or selfishly taken for granted. Again loneliness becomes a source of anxiety, bringing with it the choice between truth and illusion. The heroine of the title story is thirty-six-year-old Bridie, whose one entertainment through the laborious years on her father's farm has been the Saturday night dance in a building named "The Ballroom of Romance." But romance has eluded Bridie, despite her faithfulness as a customer. At sixteen she fell in love with a young man whom she met at the ballroom, only to see him marry another. Having abandoned her quest for love, Bridie now aims only for a companionable marriage, centering her current hopes on the dance-band drummer. On the evening of the story, however, Bridie becomes conscious of the desperately predatory gestures of Madge Dowding, a spinster three years older; noticing the amusement of younger women at Madge's expense, Bridie realizes that she cannot return again to the ballroom, lest she too become a figure of the fun. Surrendering all further thoughts of the drummer, she resigns herself to eventual marriage to the wastrel, Bowser Egan, whom she will accept—since, after her father's death, she will be lonely. Thus Madge's loneliness betrays her into an illusion from which Bridie escapes in the cause of self-esteem, while recognizing that loneliness will in time drive her to an unpalatable compromise.
"The Grass Widows" elaborates the theme by demonstrating how features of character or age may screen out sudden truth, condemning one generation to relive the mistakes of another until it, too, gradually acquires self-awareness. While on a yearly fishing trip with her husband, the headmaster of a public school, Mrs. Angusthorpe recognizes a kindred spirit in the honeymooning bride, Mrs. Jackson, whose husband is one of Mr. Angusthorpe's former head boys. Seeing the two men behaving so compatibly, Mrs. Angusthorpe realizes that they are similarly domineering, inconsiderate, and selfish. In hopes of sparing Mrs. Jackson an unhappiness like her own, she calls the bride's attention to the "cruelty, ruthlessness, and dullness" of their two husbands. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Jackson rejects Mrs. Angusthorpe's advice that she should leave her husband and loyally protests that he is loving and considerate. With resignation Mrs. Angusthorpe concludes that, just as young Mr. Jackson is the successor to his old headmaster, so Mrs. Jackson is her own heir, locked into the guileless confidence which marked her own entry upon marriage and fated to discover in her own painful way that she is the victim of an unequal love. "An Evening with John Joe Dempsey" and "Office Romances" also treat the premise that the young often repeat the mistakes of their elders.
The Ballroom of Romance is distinguished from the other volumes of stories in offering the additional illuminative device of variations played on the mirror-image. In nearly every story the central figure is confronted by another person whose situation parallels or highlights his own. The protagonist's eventual recognition of such a parallel may engender increased self-awareness; alternately, the failure to perceive a manifest parallel creates dramatic irony. Thus Bridie's sense of her impending resemblance to Madge Dowding inspires her resolution to stop attending the ballroom in a futile search for romance. On the other hand, Mrs. Angusthorpe finds similarities enough between herself and Mrs. Jackson but fails to draw the full moral, for she remains ironically oblivious that her advice to the bride to leave her husband is even more applicable to herself. A third mirror-image appears in "An Evening with John Joe Dempsey," where a fifteen-year-old boy with greater astuteness than Mrs. Angusthorpe draws the latent parallel between himself and Mr. Lynch, the celibate but lustful middle-aged bachelor, a regular drinker at the village pub. Mr. Lynch has never left his jealous and righteous old mother, but he has lived with her at the price of lies and deception, knowing that she would be outraged if he were to act on or even confide to her his secret longings. Instead, he escapes from her to the pub, where he tells melancholy sexual anecdotes, intended, he insists, as a "warning" to lads of the town. Young John Joe, too, lives in the shadow of an overly protective widow-mother from whom already he must conceal his adolescent sexual fantasies and from whom, he wearily recognizes, he must continue to hide his desires so long as he remains, like Mr. Lynch, the willing hostage of a mother's possessive devotion.
In Angels at the Ritz (1975), Trevor's characters continue to be subjected to unpleasant truths, with the opportunity to display strength in accepting or reconciling themselves to them. In the title story, Polly Dillard confronts two bitter and closely related truths: at thirty-six she can never again recapture the exuberant frivolity with which she and her friends celebrated her twenty-second birthday at the Ritz; second, what was unthinkable in those sparkling days is about to happen: her husband will soon sleep with her lifelong friend. These circumstances she accepts as the legacy of middle age. For characters with less sturdy powers of resignation than Polly's, illusions can offer a comforting means of alleviating loneliness and reducing suffering. But as illustrated by "In Isfahan," illusion lacks the "quality" of truth. Iris Smith, discontentedly married to an Indian and living in Bombay, meets the Englishman Normanton on a day-tour of Isfahan. In another instance of in vino veritas, she consumes enough liquor to stimulate the confession that she has no desire to return to India. Clearly, she conceives Normanton as the gallant companion who will reprieve her from an unpleasant fate. Despite her candor, Normanton remains reserved and affects to ignore her tentative advances, though he does not correct her romantic speculation that he is a married architect. After her departure, he inwardly reviews his own unhappy past—including two failed marriages which have discouraged him from trying again. He perceives that their encounter has at least provided her with the comforting illusion of having "met a sympathetic man." She will never know his personal shortcoming, "a pettiness which brought out cruelty in people." Their exchange has been unequal, for his impression of her represents what she actually is, while her memory of him is composed of imagined details. He is deprived of a vital dimension: "He was the stuff of fantasy. She had quality, he had none."
In broad structural and thematic terms, Trevor's novels bear a close resemblance to his short stories. Although loneliness and illusion in dreary circumstances remain his concerns, the greater length of the novels permits him to dispense with the obvious climactic device of the obstinate and unwelcome truth-teller. While Trevor takes the opportunity for elaborate character exploration (particularly in his four most recent novels), he prefers to people the increased space of the novel with a more representative society than can be usefully treated in a short story. Usually these figures vary notably in personality and concerns but are not often blood relatives. While a single figure may emerge as "major," approximately equal attention is ordinarily given various characters. Frequent, sudden transitions shift attention from person to person, maintaining the sense that diverse activities are occurring almost simultaneously, while institutional settings serve to bring the people together. In A Standard of Behaviour the chief locale is Mrs. Lamont's boarding house for artists; the title of The Boarding House speaks for itself; and Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel (1969) features a Dublin hotel. In Elizabeth Alone (1973) the characters temporarily share the convalescent ward of a women's hospital, while a pub is the center of action in Miss Gomez and the Brethren (1971). Boarding houses also provide incidental settings in both The Old Boys and Elizabeth Alone. In taking for its locale a seaside resort town, Children of Dynmouth (1976) departs somewhat from Trevor's normal institutional focus. In terms of character, setting or situation, and theme, his four most representative and typical novels to date are: The Boarding House, Elizabeth Alone, Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel, and Miss Gomez and the Brethren. Like his short stories, all four concern lonely people, most of whom dream, daydream, or fantasize. In addition, all four prominently feature his favorite age-group of the late middle-aged or elderly, while each introduces one of his most convincing and successful character-types, the petty criminal, confidence man, or blackmailer. As a means of distinguishing truth from illusion, each novel introduces a character in whom the others confide, who recognizes the truth about his companions. Like the short stories, the novels avoid easy thematic conclusions. While applauding truth, Trevor repeatedly demonstrates that acceptance of truth requires resoluteness and the power of forgiveness. For those unable to forgive or reconcile themselves to cruelty or suffering, illusion may remain a necessity. Alternately, loneliness and need for love may generate a forgiving nature inspired by religious faith, one transcending straightforward distinctions between reality and unreality.
In The Boarding House, the building and its inhabitants share a shabby, semi-impoverished decorum. In the main ineffectual and undistinguished, the residents have been overtaken by loneliness, as recognized by their landlord, Mr. Bird, who describes them as "solitary spirits. Alone." Their lonely distress accounts for their fantasies and daydreams and for the dreams which visit them in sleep. Very few of Trevor's characters are not dreamers—but those few are seldom commended, since those who do not dream usually scheme; the strong willed, selfish, brutal manipulators never or seldom dream. The Boarding House is furnished with one such unenviable figure in Nurse Clock (whose name perhaps is meant as a reminder of her maddeningly reliable and unemotional efficiency and purposefulness). Her natural enemy is the malicious but inept blackmailer, Studdy, whose name (viewed from any angle) must be ironic. All three attempts by Studdy to collect blackmail payments fail, and one ends in Studdy's being punched. Though not hostile toward the other boarders, who do not threaten him, Studdy bears Nurse Clock a good deal of ill will, which she returns with interest. Nurse Clock's specialty is caring for the aged; she enjoys being able to command their obedience, while profiting financially from their dependence on her. Geriatric work in a Trevor novel requires a thick-skinned constitution, since, despite their pathetic loneliness, his ancients are not merely crotchety but alertly and energetically frank and uncompromising. When informed by Nurse Clock that it is time for her injection, the eighty-nine-year-old Mrs. Maylam replies with spirit. "You can put it up your jumper for all I care. I can look after my frigging self, you know."
Nurse Clock's ambition is to manage a nursing home, and she comes near doing so when, on the death of Mr. Bird, she inherits a half-interest in the boarding house. Unfortunately, her partner in the inheritance is Studdy; the arrangement is, of course, intentionally perverse, reflecting the secret wish of Mr. Bird that his boarding house may not long survive him. He understood the mutual rapacity of Studdy and Nurse Clock and foresaw that their shameless struggle for single ownership would reveal their true characters to their fellow boarders while simultaneously destroying the boarding house as an institution. Though newly dead at the opening of the novel, Mr. Bird functions as the truth-teller, a diarist whose observations about his boarders are invariably profound. One entry reads, "Studdy is a species of petty criminal … Yet how can one not extend the hand of pity towards him? Anyone can see that poor old Studdy never had a friend in his life." Toward Nurse Clock he is less charitable, observing, "Nurse Clock has morbid interests. She is a woman I would fear were it not for my superior position."
After his death Mr. Bird survives as a presence in the minds of his boarders and kitchen staff. He appears in their dreams, a subconscious voice threatening their illusions. Those most jealous of their illusions react most vigorously to these dream-messages. Among them is the Nigerian, Mr. Tome Obd, who after twelve years of furtive courtship, has been rejected by the Englishwoman whom he adores. Mr. Obd dreams that Mr. Bird has risen from the dead and eventually envisions him as a ghost who repeats "Alas, Tome Obd" like an incantation. In a maniacally suicidal effort to eradicate his painful vision, Mr. Obd burns both himself and the boarding house. Thus Nurse Clock's ambition is thwarted, but not before she has been revealed as a ruthless schemer, intent on dispossessing her fellow boarders. As they watch the old house burning and recognize that they must separate, the boarders face once more the loneliness peculiar to those who have no families and virtually no friends.
Elizabeth Alone introduces a change in narrative technique. While in The Boarding House the truth-telling is entrusted to a single person, in Elizabeth Alone individual characters make self-discoveries which they separately confide to another commonly recognized as reliable. The locale of Elizabeth Alone is the Cheltenham Street Women's Hospital; inevitably, the majority of notable characters are women, one of whom becomes the trusted confidant of her fellow patients. Like Mr. Bird, Elizabeth Aidallbery is charitable and compassionate but has put aside illusions in favor of truth. At forty-one she is recently divorced; with her mother in a nursing home and her daughter, Joanna, on the verge of joining a commune, Elizabeth is facing middle-age loneliness. While convalescing from a hysterectomy, she becomes acquainted with three fellow patients: Silvie Clapper loves an unreliable young Irishman named Declan; Lily Drucker is the devoted wife of Kenneth, who is dominated by a crudely possessive mother; and the elderly Miss Samson is devoted to the memory of Mr. Ibbs, late owner of a boarding house for religious persons. Mr. Ibbs, too, kept a diary and further resembles Mr. Bird in being outwardly charitable but secretly pessimistic. Before leaving the hospital, Silvie discovers that Declan is a liar and a thief, but her love enables her to accept his faults. Lily learns that before their marriage Kenneth frequently visited prostitutes, apparently because his mother's jealous dominance prevented him from courting normally. When Lily confides in her, Elizabeth sensibly counsels forgiveness, pointing out that Kenneth's furtive sexual affairs ended with his marriage. Of the confessions made to Elizabeth, the most extended and dramatic is Miss Samson's. After revealing that her discovery in Mr. Ibbs's diary of his atheism has rendered her incapable of prayer, Miss Samson shares with Elizabeth her more recent and surprising realization that she was in love with Mr. Ibbs. She explains that so long as God was associated for her with the benign Mr. Ibbs, then God, too, appeared benevolent. Deprived of Mr. Ibbs's lustre, God seems unkind and unresponsive to human suffering. Unlike Silvie and Lily, Miss Samson appears unable to accept the truth.
Aside from her interest in her fellow patients. Elizabeth maintains a concern for her lifelong friend, Henry, who is the subject of the novel's most extensive psychological study. Though a success in public school, the jovial and well meaning Henry has known only failure as an adult, whether as husband, father, or employee. Naturally, he fondly envisions a salutary self-transformation, assuming that Elizabeth will agree to marry him. While politely refusing his proposal, she secretly entertains a willingness to accept, since, like Bridie of "The Ballroom of Romance," she dreads being left alone. She rejects Henry because she recognizes that he wants help, not love, but is too old to be helped. She considers Henry "still a child" but believes this "an impossible truth to reveal, too cruel and sorrowful, for no one could be a child at forty-one and properly survive." Her prophecy is fulfilled when Henry accidentally (and with childlike carelessness) kills himself, after experiencing the sudden and lucid understanding that, as Elizabeth has said, he is still a child or at least would rather be one. After his happy and successful childhood, adult concerns and enterprises have proven uniformly "dreary and grey," and, deprived of enthusiasm for them, he has gone from failure to failure. Drink has become his refuge, becoming the instrument of his death, when he drunkenly leaves a stove unlit, is overcome by gas, and confirms Elizabeth's judgment that the truth would be "too cruel" for him to bear. Like Tome Obd, Henry is "the stuff of fantasy" and must suffer the fate of fantasies; with the strength to accommodate herself to the truth about her shortcomings and those of others, Elizabeth survives.
Another person for whom the transition from childhood to adulthood proves troublesome is Ivy Eckdorf of Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel, which differs from The Boarding House in focusing unmistakably on Mrs. Eckdorf, a photographer specializing in documentaries. An intuitive impulse based on an anecdote has led her to Dublin in the hope of photographically analyzing a "tragedy in O'Neill's Hotel." Among the people she meets are: Mrs. Sinnott, the ninety-two-year-old owner of the hotel; Eugene Sinnott, her fifty-eight-year-old son, addicted to liquor and horse racing; Philomena, Eugene's estranged wife; and O'Shea, the hotel porter. In general, these characters seem more interested in their illusions than in truth. For instance, the neighborhood prostitute, Agnes Quin, fantasizes about life as Olivia de Havilland, while her friend, Eugene Sinnott, meticulously reviews his dreams in search of possible racing tips. More dramatic is the engrossing daydream of O'Shea: upon Mrs. Eckdorf's appearance, he is seized by the totally unfounded conviction that she intends to buy and restore the deteriorating hotel. Encouraged by the ruthless photographer who realizes that his fantasy provides a plausible excuse for the intimate questions she must ask in uncovering her story, O'Shea blissfully constructs an elaborate and obsessive fantasy of the hotel rising "like a phoenix-bird."
One character who escapes serious illusions is Mrs. Sinnott, whose name (sin-not) reflects the saintly disposition which attracts others to her. Deaf and dumb, she keeps notebooks in which her visitors may write, notebooks which serve a revelatory purpose like the diaries of Mr. Bird and Mr. Ibbs. Encouraged by Mrs. Sinnott's benevolence and by the secrecy of silent communication, her visitors readily confide their frustrations and yearnings. Since Mrs. Eckdorf, in time, associates Mrs. Sinnott with God, since Mr. Bird freely compares himself with God, and since Miss Samson "confuses" Mr. Ibbs with God, some analogies may be in order: like the boarding-house owners, Mrs. Sinnott has created her own self-contained world, peopling it with figures of her own choosing, watching over and governing them; like Mr. Bird and Mr. Ibbs, she has shown particular charity toward lonely and helpless orphans. Second, like the two men, she is trusted by her household and is, consequently, favored with godlike intimate glimpses of their thoughts and affairs. Finally, her speech and hearing handicap causes her to seem divinely remote and inscrutable, while her distance is physically increased by living alone (like Mr. Bird) in a room on the top floor of the building. Eventually, she joins Mr. Bird and Mr. Ibbs in death and achieves the ultimate remoteness. Although Mrs. Eckdorf comes to regard Mrs. Sinnott as a "special servant" of God, her life has been marked by no conspicuously saintly incidents, nor does the wise priest, Father Hennessey, writing a book about women saints in Ireland, think to devote even a footnote to Mrs. Sinnott.
Unlike the serene old woman she admires, Mrs. Eckdorf is driven and tormented. She traces her misery to her parents' separation during her childhood, after which her mother's sexual dissipation instilled in the daughter a disgust for sex. Unwilling to consummate either of two marriages, she has instead become a cruelly voyeuristic photographer, deceptively boasting to be an apostle of truth, "the parent of understanding and love." Her efforts to establish important facts concerning the drama of O'Neill's Hotel are for some time frustrated by the desire of the Sinnotts to maintain their privacy, but at last she finds a willing accomplice in the worshipful O'Shea, who recalls enough of one incident to permit Mrs. Eckdorf's unerring intuition to sketch in the remainder. One night, after drinking heavily. Eugene forcibly seduced the maid Philomena. When she was found to be pregnant, Eugene married her on the recommendation of Mrs. Sinnott. After the pair proved incompatible, Philomena was left to rear her son alone—but under the benevolent eye of Mrs. Sinnott.
Having resolved this mystery, Mrs. Eckdorf finds it applicable to herself. Like Philomena, she has been victimized by selfish and brutal sexual acts; unlike Philomena, she has not forgiven those intent on persuading her to "bear the thought of other people's flesh." In assuming that all of the participants in the drama at O'Neill's Hotel have forgiven each other, Mrs. Eckdorf is once more well served by her intuition. Indeed, "to have felt that sorrow everyday … would have been too much for … them to bear." Mrs. Eckdorf's failure to emulate the Sinnotts in learning forgiveness leads to her nervous breakdown. In a state of childlike simplicity (she has previously lamented that her happiness ended at the age of eight), she entertains an elaborate fantasy concerning the glorious revival of O'Neill's Hotel. O'Shea's vision, once preposterous to her, becomes her solace. She who once spoke of truth as the parent of understanding and love has been unable to act on her own wisdom. Since the inability to forgive is "too much … to bear," she can survive only by rejecting truth and welcoming illusions—and joining the hapless ranks of Henry and Mr. Obd.
Miss Gomez and the Brethren continues and thematically extends the pattern established in the previous novel. Mrs. Eckdorf and Miss Gomez share unhappy childhoods, and unpleasant sexual experiences leave both lonely and bitterly aware of human weakness. Equally gifted with intuitive powers, the women rely on them in uncovering details of "crimes" of sexual origin. The atheistic views of both suddenly give way to intense religious convictions, including the premise that "you can learn to forgive and not to condemn." Their religious attitudes cause both women to be regarded as insane, but only Mrs. Eckdorf actually becomes deranged. Finally, their common experiences testify that, although religious faith may be illusory, it generates a comforting sense of love and harmony.
The Jamaican Miss Gomez begins life in desperate need of comfort. As an infant, she is orphaned by a fire which leaves her the sole survivor of ninety-two persons. Haunted by the event, she finds life lonely and pointless. As an adult, she arrives in London, working as a stripper and prostitute until she discovers devotion-by-correspondence with the church of the Brethren of the Way. Her desire to spread the gospel of her faith brings her to Crow Street, most of whose buildings have recently been demolished. Here she gains employment as a cleaner in a pet shop belonging to Mrs. Bassett, whose assistant. Alban Roche, has served a jail term as a voyeur. The circle of acquaintances necessary to the story becomes complete when Miss Gomez agrees also to clean "The Thistle Arms," a decaying pub whose proprietors are Mr. and Mrs. Tuke. Their daughter, Prudence, is attracted to Alban, but the two young people are emotional casualties, Alban having been loved too much by his mother. Prudence having been unloved by either parent.
Sensing that a "crime" is about to overtake these people, Miss Gomez seeks to establish the relevant facts, for she wishes to try the power of mutual prayer and is proceeding according to the instructions of her spiritual leader: "When the truth is clear before us, then only may we truly pray." She discovers several important facts, among them Alban's secret oedipal yearnings for his mother, set down in his private notebooks. She also becomes aware of Mrs. Tuke's dislike for her daughter and perceives that Mrs. Tuke is "afraid of reality: she cannot bear to see herself as she is. She lives in a mist of alcohol and fantasy." Before her investigation is complete, however, she is suddenly possessed by an alarming vision which (unknown to her) coincides with the death of Mrs. Bassett. Erroneously convinced that Alban is about to rape and murder Prudence, Miss Gomez appeals desperately to the understanding and sympathy of Mr. and Mrs. Tuke. Ignoring Miss Gomez' pleas to join her in prayer, the Tukes call the police. When questioned by a police sergeant, Miss Gomez explains excitedly that only faith can counter the apparent cruelty, disorder, and meaninglessness of existence. She has been taught by the Reverend Lloyd Patterson that "there is an order … of birth and life and death and glory: nothing happens by chance. All people are part of one another, no one is alone." When the temporarily missing Prudence reappears unharmed. Miss Gomez believes her prayers have been answered. Since Mrs. Bassett has willed her money and property to Alban, Miss Gomez sees the pet-shop owner's death as an instance of divine intervention. Now Alban can offer some security to Prudence instead of being frustrated by his inability to live with her. Thus, by ending Mrs. Bassett's life in such a timely manner, God has averted a crime.
Buoyed by the admittedly disputable evidence of the power of prayer, Miss Gomez returns to Jamaica, the headquarters of the Brethren of the Way. Upon arriving, she discovers that the Reverend Patterson is a fraud, who has recently fled with the tithes of the faithful. Hers has been only another illusion, no different than the dreams of Mrs. Tuke. Though posing as a truth-teller, Patterson was instead a dream-merchant who promised his correspondents a heaven where "no one was condemned and no one was looked down upon, in which … there was no loneliness, in which you took the hand that was next to yours." Despite her disappointment, Miss Gomez concludes that only such a dream can forestall widespread madness. Instead of being shattered, her faith is strengthened. The Brethren were an illusion, but—for her—the God of the Brethren is real.
The novel adds a further dimension to the question of truth versus illusion. Physical events may be established as true or false; truth of character or personality can be determined; but what of beliefs for which the demonstrable evidence is inconclusive? Is Miss Gomez' faith a potentially treacherous illusion, or is she correct in assuming that without faith we risk madness? Though intangible, emotional states such as love and loneliness are more readily measurable than metaphysical truths. Emotion shades into faith, however, as with Miss Gomez, whose faith arises from loneliness. In such situations the question of illusion is difficult to resolve. William Trevor not only values and seeks psychological truth but recognizes the point at which it retreats into metaphysical mystery.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 943
William Trevor 1928–
(Full name William Trevor Cox) Irish short story writer, novelist, and dramatist.
The following entry presents an overview of Trevor's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 7, 9, 14, 25, and 71.
Considered one of the premier writers in English alive today, Trevor has earned the highest praise from critics who compare him to fellow Irishman James Joyce. Trevor is known for his skill in describing the lives of unhappy, unloved, self-delusional characters, and evoking sympathy and humor rather than pity or ridicule for his misfits. Although his short stories and novels are not widely known outside Britain, Trevor has consistently won numerous awards and has enjoyed a prolific career.
Trevor was born in Mitchelstown, County Cork, Ireland on May 24, 1928. Born into a Protestant family in a predominantly Catholic area, Trevor moved frequently as a result of his father's job. Attending thirteen schools throughout his youth, Trevor claims that he felt like an outsider and this gave him a greater ability to observe others, a talent he would later use in his writing. He attended Sandford Park School in Dublin and St. Columbia's College in Dublin before receiving a B.A. in history from Trinity College in 1950. In the early 1950s Trevor took a number of teaching posts in Northern Ireland and England while also pursuing a successful career as a sculptor. He married Jane Ryan in 1952, with whom he had two sons, Patrick and Dominic. After becoming disillusioned with sculpting, he published his first novel, A Standard Behaviour, in 1958. Through the early 1960s he worked as a advertising copywriter while simultaneously pursuing his writing career. He quit the advertising job to pursue writing full time in 1965, the same year he won the Hawthornden Prize for literature for his second novel Old Boys (1964). Since then, he has won the Benson Medal in 1975 for Angles at the Ritz and Other Stories (1975), an Allied Irish Bank Prize for Literature in 1976, the Heinemann Award for fiction in 1976, the Whitbread Prize in 1978 for The Children of Dynmouth (1976) and again in 1983 for Fools of Fortune (1983), the Irish community Prize in 1979 and the Sunday Express Book of the Year Award in 1994 for Felicia's Journey (1994). In addition, he was awarded honorary doctorates of literature from University of Exeter; Trinity College, Dublin; Queens University, Belfast, and National University of Ireland, Cork, as well as being awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Many of Trevor's works have been adapted into popular and award winning television movies and radio and theater plays. He continues to live and write in England.
Trevor is known for his short stories and novels about people on the fringe of society, living in old boarding houses and hotels, who are unhappy and lonely. Set in England, novels such as The Boarding House (1965), Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel (1969), and The Children of Dynmouth (1976) as well as his early short story collections deal with "the theme of loneliness and hunger for love …" to quote Julian Gitzen. In his novels and stories his characters search for the truth, although not all of them are willing to accept it. Particularly well known, Trevor's story "The Ballroom of Romance" recounts a young woman's decision to accept her fate and marry an alcoholic bachelor rather than continue to dream of a better life. In the 1980s Trevor turned his attention to Ireland and the political turmoil there. Setting many of his works in the past, he focused on themes of retribution, forgiveness, conflict, and isolation. Fools of Fortune (1983) centers upon a man living in self-imposed exile in Italy after the death of his family in the Anglo-Irish war. The novel links the importance of history, both personal and national, in shaping destiny, as well as the ways in which people create their own isolation. Stories in his collections The News from Ireland (1986) and Beyond the Pule, and Other Stories (1981) such as "Attracta", "Beyond the Pale", "Another Christmas," and "The News From Ireland" explore the conflict between Catholics and Protestants, arguing that while the past cannot be forgotten, forgiveness can bring restitution. After Rain (1996), a collection of short stories, and Felicia's Journey (1994) constitute Trevor's later works. The former centers on revelations of truth in twelve stories which are thematically connected, while the latter focuses on the destruction of a young unwed pregnant Irish girl and the forces who prey upon her.
Critics of Trevor's work contend that he is among the greatest short story writers of the late twentieth century. Compared with James Joyce, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Henry James, and Samuel Beckett, Trevor is praised for his dark humor, his intimate portraits of sad, delusional characters, and his skill at evoking commonplace but lonely settings. Gary Krist writes that Trevor is "arguably the English-speaking world's premier practitioner of a certain brand of artistically distanced fiction …" and Stephen Schiff contends that "Trevor is probably the greatest living writer of short stories in the English language…." Suzanne Morrow Paulson holds that not enough attention has been paid to Trevor's novels. She and other critics assert that within his novels Trevor perfects his character development and merges the tragic and comic. However, others argue that Trevor's work is uneven. James Lasden states: "A faltering muse seems to preside over [Trevor's] work, with the habit of bestowing superb openings, then disappearing, sometimes to return at the last moment, sometimes not." Other critics of Trevor's Collected Stories agree that the quality of his work fluctuates and that some of his characters fail to capture Trevor's interest and falter. However, Lasden concludes that "(w)hat Trevor does have … is something approaching genius for conveying ordinary human unhappiness."
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SOURCE: "William Trevor's Stories of Trouble," in Contemporary Irish Writing, edited by James D. Brophy and Raymond J. Porter, Iona College Press, 1983, pp. 95-114.
[In the essay below, Rhodes examines five of Trevor's short stories concerning the Irish troubles and finds that they share similar characters and themes.]
William Trevor was born Trevor Cox in Mitchelstown, County Cork, in 1928, spent his boyhood in provincial Ireland, and was educated at St. Columba's and Trinity College, Dublin. Since 1958—and mostly since 1964—he has been the author of nine novels, five collections of short stories, and a number of radio and television dramas as well as plays for the stage. A member of the Irish Academy of Letters and the recipient of an honorary C.B.E., an unusual distinction for a non-British writer—although he has lived in Devon for a number of years—he has garnered several literary awards, including the Hawthornden Prize, the Royal Society of Literature Award, the Allied Irish Banks Prize for Literature, and the Whitbread Prize for Fiction. Brian Cleeve's 1967 Dictionary of Irish Writers observes that his works "have won Trevor a great critical reputation as well as popular success in America, Britain, and Europe"; and an August 1981 interview by Elgy Gillespie in The Irish Times notes that "These days he is a very famous writer indeed…."
In addition to the formal honors that have come his way, it is true that Trevor's novels and short story collections have consistently enjoyed favorable reviews, that a number of his books have been reprinted, and that he now appears with regularity in such periodicals as the New Yorker. But it is also apparently and surprisingly true, despite declarations by Cleeve and Gillespie and a growing reputation, that thus far Trevor has been the subject of only two moderate-length critical studies: Mark Mortimer's 1975 "William Trevor in Dublin" and Julian Gitzen's 1979 "The Truth-Tellers of William Trevor."
Given the size of his canon and his putative reputation, it seems only a matter of time before Trevor receives the kind of critical examination that will test the works against the reputation. For the time being, at least, most such attention is likely to focus on Trevor's "non-Irish" fiction—most of which has its scene in England—since only one of his nine novels and nineteen of the fifty-five or so of the readily available short stories are "Irish," which may explain why he is not even listed in such relatively recent compilations as A Bibliography of Modern Irish and Anglo-Irish Literature and Anglo-Irish Literature; A Review of Research. Such omissions are perhaps reason to call attention to some aspects of Trevor's work that fall under the rubric "Irish."
Although Irish characters figure fairly prominently in Elizabeth Alone (1973) and Other People's Lives (1981), only Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel (1969) among the novels takes Ireland—specifically Dublin—as its scene, and except in some fairly conventional ways it is difficult to think of this as an "Irish" novel. Of the short stories, four do not really qualify as "Irish." Of "Miss Smith," Trevor himself has said that it "might perhaps have come out of anywhere, but in fact is set in a town in Munster…." "The Forty-Seventh Saturday" is a rather comical story of the affair of two lovers with Irish names, but the scene is London and there is nothing to distinguish these lovers as "Irish" or, indeed, as different in nationality from many other pairs of lovers in Trevor's stories. The action of "The Grass Widows" takes place in Galway, but the story is about two English couples; and "Memories of Youghal" features a seedy private detective who recalls his Youghal boyhood, but the scene is a Mediterranean resort and the protagonist is really an elderly English schoolteacher.
The remaining fifteen Irish short stories form a moderate-sized but solid accomplishment, a body of work meriting the attention of ordinary discriminating readers and critics alike. Almost all of them deal with rural and small-town Irish life and reveal both knowledge of and sympathy with that life. It is not necessary, of course, to reduce the stories to categories, but it does seem that in them Trevor has played variations on a handful of themes that have unusual significance for those who would use the artist's insights to understand contemporary Irish life; repression, coming of age or failing to come of age, parent-child relationships, and love—usually thwarted.
Five of the readily available Irish stories that have appeared since 1975 show that Trevor has addressed himself to a subject that very few Irish writers have been able to avoid: the renewal of Ireland's ancient Troubles in Northern Ireland since the late 1960s and the impact of that violence on people in the North, in the Republic of Ireland, and in England. That Trevor's attention has been increasingly riveted by the Troubles is suggested by the fact that his first full-length stage play, Scenes from an Album, which opened in Dublin's Abbey Theatre in August 1981, clearly takes its motive from the history of the Troubles. Writing in The Irish Times, Elgy Gillespie notes of the play, "Once again … it will allow him to examine the interfaces between cultures, between Protestant and Catholic and English and Irish and Planter and Gael, toying [with] the ambiguities of their mingled lives," and she quotes Trevor as saying. "Because I do feel the countries are inextricably dependent on each other, and it's what I still want to write about." Add to these views Trevor's own Protestant background and his many years of writing about the English in England and he seems particularly suited to have written the five stories we will examine here: "The Distant Past," "Saints," "Attracta," "Autumn Sunshine," and "Another Christmas."
On the whole, the protagonists in these stories differ markedly from those in Trevor's other Irish stories, and differ in ways that are significant both for their own lives and for the insights Trevor offers through their dramas.
First, there is a significant age difference. In the other stories, protagonists range from age seven to age thirty-seven at the time of significant action, with most of them being under twenty, two in their early twenties, and two in their early thirties. On the other hand, all of the protagonists in the Troubles stories are clearly older and generally well set on their life courses. Only the couple in "Another Christmas"—who also differ in other ways from most of these protagonists—are identified only as "middle-aged," the rest ranging from sixty-one to sixty-nine and in one case perhaps to the early seventies.
Essentially well set on their life courses by their ages, they are further defined by their religious backgrounds. Almost all the protagonists of Trevor's other Irish stories come from often repressive Catholic backgrounds. To the contrary, only the protagonists of "Another Christmas" and important characters, though not protagonists, in "Attracta" and "Saints" are Catholic. The rest are clearly identified as Anglican or Anglo-Irish; indeed, one is a Church of Ireland rector, and protagonists in two other stories define much of their position in Irish society by their Protestantism. In words that to some degree apply to most of these protagonists. Trevor writes of the titular character in "Attracta": "Within the world of the town there was for Attracta a smaller, Protestant world. Behind green railings there was Mr. Ayrie's Protestant schoolroom. There was the Church of Ireland, with its dusty flags of another age, and Archdeacon Flower's prayers for the English royal family."
Furthermore, most of the protagonists of Trevor's other Irish stories belong to a socio-economic stratum somewhat lower than that of protagonists in stories about the Troubles, a condition that may be related to their Catholicism. With few exceptions and even these cannot be called unusually prosperous—the Catholic protagonists and their families are working class people: a farmer, a shop assistant, a butcher, a mechanic, for instance. Conversely, again with the exception of the protagonists of "Another Christmas," the protagonists come from at least moderately affluent backgrounds that confer certain social distinctions. If the elderly brother and sister of "The Distant Past" are only shabby genteel relics of the Ascendancy Big House tradition. The protagonist of "Saints" is a wealthy and cultivated inheritor of the same tradition; and the other protagonists are a respectable teacher in a Protestant school and a Church of Ireland rector.
In short, by age, religious persuasion or probable inclination, and socio-economic status, the protagonists of these stories are insulated from the imperatives that often drive their younger, poorer, Catholic neighbors: sexual desire, the search for identity, establishing places for themselves in their communities. Furthermore, though these are indeed stories of the Troubles and therefore of lingering animosities, latent danger, and explosive violence, these protagonists when we first meet them are neither obvious perpetrators nor immediately personal victims of violence. While there may sometimes be some mild disharmony, on the whole their relationships with their Catholic countrymen have been amiable and sometimes affectionate. Despite their distinct minority position, they are people who seem to have achieved some kind of equilibrium in the business of living. Essentially impregnable in ways the young are not, even as members of minority in a troubled place and time, they seem capable of emerging unscathed from their contact with the renewed British-Irish conflict of the present. Still, they are victims of the past as much as Irish Catholics.
While the youthful protagonists of Trevor's other Irish stories characteristically inhabit two worlds, the everyday world and the world of fantasy or imagination, and sometimes seek harmony between them, Trevor's older protagonists, at the outset, typically seem to have left a conflict between two worlds behind or at least to have resolved such a conflict satisfactorily. Very often, however, this is because they have put the past to rest. What shatters the illusion of safety and impregnability and forever alters their worlds is the renewal of outright violence in the late 1960s and the recollection of past violence and its relationship to present violence. Sometimes it is a personal past, too, but, if so, it is bound inextricably to the violent English-Irish past that eventually and inevitably merges with today's violence. In short, the past not only repeats itself but is a continuation of what for the Irish has been "the cause that never dies" and for the protagonists results in almost every case in increased loneliness and isolation.
The title of "The Distant Past," perhaps the earliest of Trevor's Troubles stories, signals what has become his continuing exploration of the ways in which apparently dead events of past conflicts obtrude on the present and shape the future. "The Distant Past" and "Saints," one of Trevor's most recent stories, have as protagonists survivors into the 1970s of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy and, in particular, survivors of the burning of the Big Houses and the killing of their occupants during the 1920–1922 period.
The protagonists of "The Distant Past" are a brother and sister now, in the early 1970s, in their mid-sixties, the sole survivors of the Middletons of Carraveagh. Sixty miles south of the border separating the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland, the once splendid Carraveagh, built during the reign of George II, now barely shelters the Middletons as its roof suffers continued neglect and rust eats at its gutters, apt reminders of the straitened circumstances of brother and sister and of the dwindled importance of the tradition they represent and doggedly uphold. Reduced to a few acres, four cows, and some chickens, the Middletons believe the local story that their father had mortgaged the estate in order to maintain a Catholic Dublin woman, so that on his death in 1924 the two children inherited a vastly diminished estate. Consistent with their attitudes toward the new order in Ireland, "they blamed … the Catholic Dublin woman whom they'd never met and they blamed as well the new national regime, contriving in their eccentric way to relate the two. In the days of the Union Jack," they believe, "such women would have known their place: wasn't it all part and parcel?"
Following the middle course suggested by their name, brother and sister have achieved—on their own terms—a modus vivendi for holding onto their version of the British presence in Ireland and for living with their neighbors, who know they are anachronisms. They achieve a delicate balance by the rituals of their Fridays and Sundays. On Fridays, they visit the town to sell eggs and to deliberately cultivate social intercourse with tradespeople in their shops and with other townsfolk over drinks in the bar of Healy's hotel. On Sundays, they attend St. Patrick's Protestant Church and say prayers for the king. What is symbolized by their Sunday ritual is borne out by their quietly voiced loyalty to pre-Treaty Ireland; their rising when B.B.C. plays "God Save the King"; their display of the Union Jack in the rear window of their car when Elizabeth II is crowned; their declaration that the revolutionary regime won't last—green postal boxes and a language no one can understand, indeed!
So successful are the Middletons in establishing an equilibrium that the townsfolk cherish them and their eccentricities. Visitors to the town are impressed that the Middletons can keep the old loyalties and still win the town's respect and affection, so much so that they and town are pointed to as an example that old wounds can heal and that here at least people can disagree without resorting to guns. The one nagging reminder that the revolutionary past has brought irrevocable change to Ireland and has done so with blood is the joking reminder by Fat Driscoll, butcher, that he and two others had stood in the hall of Carraveagh in the days when they might have burned it and slaughtered its occupants and instead waited with shotguns ready to kill British soldiers.
This delicately balanced situation continues during the post-World War II prosperity in the town created by an influx of tourists, and starts to end only in 1967, when news comes that sub-post offices in Belfast have been blown up, news that leads Fat Driscoll to say, "A bad business. We don't want that old stuff all over again," and Miss Middleton lightly to remind him, "We didn't want it in the first place." As British soldiers arrive in the North and incidents in Fermanagh and Armagh and in Border towns and villages multiply and create fear in the hearts of tourists, despite assurances that the trouble in the North has nothing to do with the Republic, the town's prosperity begins to wane and with it tolerance of the Middletons. Now Fat Driscoll wishes that people would remember that he had stood in the Middletons' house fifty years earlier ready to kill British soldiers instead of knowing that he has given them meat for their dog, and brother and sister are pointedly cut by former friends, even the local Catholic priest.
The resurgence of violence in the present brings to the surface not only an awareness by all that the present violence is a renewal of past violence but a sharp reminder that the specific event at Carraveagh fifty years earlier took place in the home of those who, in Irish Catholic eyes, were responsible for violence in the first place. In mourning for the end of their modus vivendi rather than in fear of their lives, the Middletons remove from the walls of Carraveagh the icons of their distant past: a portrait of their father in the uniform of the Irish Guards, the family crest, and the Cross of St. George, and prepare "to face the silence that would sourly thicken as their own two deaths came closer and death increased in another part of their island…. Because of the distant past they would die friendless. It was worse than being murdered in their beds."
If there is something quixotic about the Middletons' version of the proper relationship between England and Ireland and their choice to remain in a town that thinks otherwise, inhabit the crumbling Carraveagh, and patch together a relationship with their neighbors, there is also something gallant about their efforts to stave off isolation and loneliness, and it is not difficult to think that their efforts to create and sustain friendship—even on an illusory basis—are more admirable than their neighbors' denial of friendship because of the cash nexus, loss of income from the tourist trade, and that they deserve better than exile at home.
Contrary to this, it is difficult at first to rouse much compassion for the nameless sixty-nine-year-old narrator of "Saints," inheritor of the Big House of Kilneagh, near Cork, and of enough revenues in Ireland to have been able to spend forty years in luxurious self-imposed exile in Italy in the Umbrian town of Sansepolcro. However muddled the Middletons may be about their national identity, they at least win our understanding and perhaps our compassion for seeking friendship, for dealing with the past as best they can in the home place, and for enduring a cheerless exile they neither choose nor deserve; whereas, this protagonist confesses without apparent regret that "In national terms. I've become a nothing person." Reluctant to visit Ireland, he has not returned to Cork for forty years, and when he does visit Ireland it is strictly on business and he is always glad to leave. Nor has Italy been a place of friendships or commitments to the living. Here, he confesses, he has indulged himself in drink, music, women, and the wonders of the Italian Renaissance, and we easily conjure up a cross between an old-time absentee landlord and a Roman sybarite, more a figure for contempt than compassion. But this is a story of how the Troubles reach from Ireland to Italy and from past to present to touch a life seemingly on a steady course.
And so the first impression is undercut at the very time it is being made because Trevor piques our curiosity about the reason for his protagonist's fierce rejection of Ireland, and he early on whets our curiosity further with at least three clues about the past. First and most obvious is his receipt from Cork of a telegram saying only "Josephine is dying. Hospital of St. Bernadette," and his reactions: pleasure that he has been sent for, determination to go to Ireland on a personal affair, and immediate departure. Second is his observation that he has been lost in the world of Ghirlandaio and Bellini, "preferring its calmness to the pain of life," and third is his reflection that at sixty-nine he still indulges himself as best he can, "continuing to redress a balance."
The truth as we come to discover it is that he and the devoutly Catholic Josephine—his family's domestic-of-all-work sixty and more years ago—are the sole survivors of the burning of Kilneagh and the murder of the protagonist's father, sisters, and three domestics by die-hard republicans in 1922, and of his mother's subsequent suicide by slashing her wrists with a razor ten years to the day after the events at Kilneagh, the despairing act which finally drove him to make financial provisions for Josephine and to leave Ireland for Italy.
With Trevor's characteristic method of revelation, we do not learn all of this at once; and neither we nor the protagonist learn until later that Josephine had endured her own forty-year exile as a result of the burning and deaths. Trevor so designs his story that the journey from Italy to Josephine's bedside in Cork, which takes fully half the story, must be made by bus, train, taxi, plane, train, and taxi, with temporal cross-cuttings between the present journey to places associated with the painful past and the story of why those places and that past are painful. It is as if the narrator were delicately peeling back layer after painful layer of still tender scar tissue to fully expose to himself—as well as to us—for the first time in many years the horror that drove him from Ireland. As he sits by Josephine's deathbed, he realizes that she, too, is remembering the experience:
Tears oozed from her eyes and I could tell from the contortion in her face that she was remembering not just my mother's suicide but my sisters and my father burnt alive and Mrs. Flynn [the cook] burnt also. The fire had started in the middle of the night and we were all trapped except O'Neill and John Paddy [the gardener and his son], who lived in the yard, though they always ate in the kitchen. They hauled us out the best they could, but only my mother and Josephine and myself survived. We had not been murdered when the men returned because we were not conscious, but O'Neill and John Paddy, faced by the men, were instantly shot. After my mother's burial, ten years later, Josephine said to me: "You and I are what's left of it now."
So completely has the narrator effaced his human Irish past that it is only now, after his forced recollection of that past, that he learns that he and Josephine have shared more than he knew—that in 1932, the year of his mother's suicide and the beginning of his exile from Ireland. Josephine began her own very different forty-year exile as an inmate of St. Fina's insane asylum, driven there by her memories of the burning and deaths. As Sister Power tells him what she knows of Josephine's years there, the starkest of contrasts with the narrator's exile emerges. Whereas he was driven to self-indulgence in a foreign land to redress, as he has put it earlier, a balance—the losses he had suffered in Ireland—Josephine has devoted her life to prayer for others and has come to be regarded as a saint by her fellow inmates, who attribute miracles to her. Unlike the protagonist, Josephine has neither forgotten nor tried to forget the massacre and suicide; indeed, in words that reveal Trevor's intention to underscore the continuity of the Irish Troubles into the present, Sister Power says, "She hardly ever ceased to pray. She was confused, of course. She confused the tragedy you spoke of and your mother's death with what is happening now: the other tragedies in the North. She prays that the survivors may be comforted in their mourning. She prays for God's word in Ireland."
After a brief visit to Kilneagh, "windowless and gaunt, a hideous place now", and Josephine's death and funeral, the narrator, glad as always to leave Ireland but in isolation and loneliness and trailing bitter introspection about his failures in human relations, rejects the claim of Josephine's sainthood and miracles on rational grounds. But irrationally and under the influence of considerable wine, he meditates on a long procession of saints and sees with certainty the story of Josephine taking its place with them in scene after scene in the work of Fra Angelico, Giotto, Lorenzo di Credi, and Ghirlandaio, a pageant culminating in
the miracle that crowned them all: how she had moved that embittered man to find pleasure in the wisp that remained of a human relationship. On her deathbed she prayed that Ireland's murders might be forgiven, that all survivors be granted consolation, and rescued from the damage wrought by horror. Josephine of the Survivors they called her, Ghirlandaio and all the others.
Before I fell asleep, I wept on the terrace, the first time since my mother's death. It was ridiculous to weep, so old and wrinkled like a crab, half drunk and even senile. And yet it wasn't in the least ridiculous: it was as right and fitting as the sainthood imparted by the inmates of St. Fina's. For a moment she stood in glory on my terrace and then she disappeared.
What are we to make of this conclusion, so close to sentimentality, skirting bathos with a narrator whose vision may be only alcohol-inspired? To put the worst construction on it, it is both sentimental and bathetic, an alcohol-induced and therefore unreal acceptance of the past. On the other hand, without this or a similar conclusion, the protagonist would remain essentially unchanged by his return to the past and the past's intrusion on his present and future, and Josephine's life of prayer and forgiveness would mean no more than the narrator's life of self-indulgence and denial of others—one survivor driven to nearly total isolation, the other to madness by the Irish Troubles. This grim possibility may be Trevor's intention. But to put the most hopeful construction on the ending, the conclusion, appropriately in a section of the story devoted to a litany of the saints, can also be read as an exemplum of the power of prayer and forgiveness, which may depart from the reality of the situation, but which softens the narrator's bitter self-reproaches, lessens his isolation, holds out some mild hope for regeneration, and in the larger context of the Troubles points beyond political and military solutions. That the story ends as it begins, in Sansepolcro—Holy Sepulcher—only adds to the ambiguity of Trevor's conclusion.
"Attracta" and "Autumn Sunshine" are recent stories dramatizing the themes of betrayal, violence, revenge, guilt, forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation in past and present. They are also stories in which the Anglican Protestantism of the protagonists figures more prominently than in any other of Trevor's Troubles stories, Attracta being the only teacher in the one-room Protestant school in a small town near Cork; Moran being the rector of St. Michael's Church of Ireland. Because of the authority derived from both their positions and long tenure in them, Attracta and Moran might have been but have chosen not to be aggressively Protestant in their work with their charges. Both are peaceable people who as adults have remained apart from religious and secular disputes and have no serious differences with their Catholic neighbors. But in the face of past violence renewing itself in the present, both depart from prepared teaching-preaching texts and counsel their small flocks to reconciliation in place of the revenge that has again become part of their human environment—a message their listeners find odd.
"Attracta" is Trevor's most complex examination of religious and sectarian allegiances. In present action that occurs in about 1975, Attracta, in her sixty-first year—after forty-some years of untroubled teaching and happiness—is haunted by a newspaper account of the death of a British army officer and the subsequent suicide in Belfast of his English wife of twenty-three, Penelope Vade. Attracta is strangely moved by these deaths, particularly Penelope's, for two reasons. First, this is a notably grisly tale of murder, vengeance, and suicide in contemporary Ulster:
It was Penelope Vade's desire to make some kind of gesture, a gesture of courage and perhaps anger, that caused her to leave her parents' home in Haslemere and go to Belfast. Her husband … had been murdered in Belfast; he'd been decapitated as well. His head, wrapped in cotton-wool to absorb the ooze of blood, secured within a plastic bag and packed in a biscuit-tin, had been posted to Penelope Vade. Layer by layer the parcel had been opened by her in Haslemere. She hadn't known he was dead before his dead eyes stared into hers.
Her gesture was her mourning of him. She went to Belfast to join the Women's Peace Movement, to make the point that somehow neither he nor she had been defeated. But her gesture, publicly reported, had incensed the men who'd gone to the trouble of killing him. One after another, seven of them had committed acts of rape on her. It was after that that she had killed herself
by swallowing a bottle of aspirin. Second, Attracta is haunted by this story because it both parallels and differs from her own story, one with its beginnings in the Black-and-Tan phase of the English-Irish conflict nearly sixty years earlier.
When Attracta was three, her parents, nonmilitant Irish Protestants, had been killed in an ambush meant for the Black-and-Tans, British military terrorists. That the architects of these deaths were an Irish Protestant guerrilla and his adulterous Catholic mistress, Devereux and Geraldine Carey, suggests the complexity of loyalties Trevor brings to this story.
Thus, for example, Devereux and Geraldine, who had not stopped at any violence in the Irish cause against the British, are guilt-stricken at these innocent deaths. They stop their guerrilla activity and devote much of their lives to seeking redemption. For Devereux, this means unusual devotion to the child Attracta—elaborate birthday presents, spending Ions hours with her, visiting her at her Aunt Emmeline's house, for example—until, ironically, when Attracta kisses him good night she imagines it is what having a father is like. For her part, Geraldine remains in Devereux's home as housekeeper and undergoes a sea change from violent revolutionary and adulteress to the quietest and most devout person Attracta has ever known:
Geraldine Carey was like a nun because of the dark clothes she wore, and she had a nun's piety. In the town it was said she couldn't go to mass often enough. "Why weren't you a nun, Geraldine?" Attracta asked her once…. But Geraldine Carey replied that she'd never heard God calling her. "Only the good are called," she said.
The story of her parents' death is not revealed to Attracta until she is eleven and the relationship with Devereux and Geraldine well established. Then the story is told to her by Purce, whose aggressive Protestantism and bigotry embarrass the town's few other Protestants. By telling Attracta and trying to sever her relationship with Devereux and Geraldine, Purce seeks revenge against Devereux, a Protestant who never goes to church and is thus a betrayer of his faith; a renegade for having fought against the British Black-and-Tans, for having been responsible for the deaths of two Protestants, and for endangering Attracta's Protestantism by allowing her contact with the formerly adulterous but now piously Catholic Geraldine Carey.
Because they have won redemption, Purce does not gain revenge against Devereux and Geraldine, which would have destroyed Attracta, too. Instead, she survives because of those she might have hated, develops an affection for the town and is happy there: "There'd been tragedy in her life but she considered that she had not suffered. People had been good to her."
Now, in 1975, Attracta, realizing that she has survived and been happy because of the goodness of those who had harmed her nearly sixty years earlier, realizes that Penelope Vade did not survive because of the continued violence of those who had killed her husband when she, instead of seeking revenge, sought reconciliation by joining the Women's Peace Movement. Realizing these things, she meditates on her life as a teacher, wondering if she has not taught the wrong things:
She was thinking that nothing she might ever have said in her schoolroom could have prevented the death of a girl in a city two hundred miles away. Yet in a way it seemed ridiculous that for so long she had been relating the details of Cromwell's desecration and the laws of Pythagoras, when she should have been talking about Devereux and Geraldine Carey. And it was Mr. Purce she should have recalled instead of the Battle of the Boyne.
In a mood of black guilt, she reflects that in a lifetime she has neither learned nor taught anything and, in atonement for not having taught her pupils the lesson from the past that had led to her own happiness, she reads to them the account of Penelope Vade and her husband and asks what they think of it. Faced with their puzzlement, she tells her own story, identifying in the telling with Penelope in detail after painful detail, and explaining further that Penelope was also like Devereux and Geraldine in offering peace and friendship. But because they have grown calloused by the horrors of the new Irish Troubles, the children only stare and wonder what on earth Penelope Vade has to do with anything, and think that Attracta does not "appear to understand that almost every day there was the kind of vengeance she spoke of reported on the television. Bloodshed was wholesale, girls were tarred and feathered and left for dead, children no older than themselves were armed with guns."
At the last, then, Attracta, named for an Irish saint of the fifth or sixth century, succeeds only for herself but fails with others and so begs ironic contrast with Josephine of "Saints," who in bringing an otherwise bitter and lonely old man some consolation might be said to have some sort of success. They have both suffered grievous personal losses at about the same time in the past: but because she has never forgotten the past, Josephine brings it into the present and is able to console an old man; whereas, ironically, Attracta, who was able to forget the past because of the goodness of others, cannot bring the lessons of the past into the present for anyone but herself. Not only does she fail to teach the lesson to her pupils, but because they report her peculiar behavior to their parents she is eased into retirement—and thus loneliness and isolation—at the end of the term. Instead of defending her eccentric lesson, Attracta offers words that underscore the necessity of bringing the lessons of the past into the present: "Every day in my schoolroom I should have honoured the small, remarkable thing that happened in this town [i.e., that people can change for the better]. It matters that [Penelope Vade] died in despair, with no faith left in human life."
In "Autumn Sunshine," Canon Moran of St. Michael's Church of Ireland is probably the oldest and most parochial protagonist of this set of stories. At the time of present action—September 1978—he lives alone in an eighteenth-century rectory, standing alone and looking lonely, two miles from the village of Boharbawn and eight miles from the town of Enniscorthy, County Wexford. Ministering to a small flock, a man abstemious and unambitious, he has for the most part been content, though the ordinary mild melancholy of the season is now deepened for him by the recent death of his wife of fifty years, Frances, and because his youngest and favorite daughter, Deirdre, has been in England for three years and did not return home or even write at her mother's death.
Not only is Moran rather isolated in his home, he has also always been insulated from even the mild conflicts of an Anglican pastor in a predominantly Catholic area. A man who has always disliked disorder, he had relied on Frances to resolve skirmishes with neighboring Catholics; for example, the ticklish situation of a girl in his parish made pregnant by a Catholic lad was settled when Frances had a chat with Father Hayes and the girl's mother.
Furthermore, Moran is largely at peace with his personal past. True, Frances's death is still difficult for him because it is not truly past and she has yet to become a ghost for him. True, too, he is troubled that Deirdre, always somewhat rebellious, had gone off to England without telling her parents, but she is too much the favorite to have alienated them by this. So on the whole Moran is not a man much troubled by his own past.
Nor does Trevor allow him to be very aware of the historical past of County Wexford, a past that perhaps should have engaged his attention more than it has; for, during the unsuccessful Irish rebellion of 1798 against the British, the Wexford rising was largely religious and animated by Catholic sentiments; Wexford held out against the British forces longer than any other section of Ireland; and Vinegar Hill, headquarters of the Wexford insurgents and scene of a famous Irish defeat, is only eight miles away in Enniscorthy. But the historical past is to be forced on Moran in a personal way and is to be the source of conflict, pain, and loss that are ultimately resolved only at the cost of denying to himself the truth of his own perceptions.
In this September, Deirdre returns, needing, she writes to her delighted father, to get back to Ireland for a while. She is soon followed by her English young man, Harold, too thin, wearing a black leather jacket; an electrician with dirty fingernails, bad manners, and a cockney accent. His face bears a birthmark, an affliction almost belligerent and that comes to symbolize his birth into England's lower orders and his rebellion against any establishment. It is Harold who forces the violent Irish past and an awareness of a violent Irish present into Moran's consciousness and compels him to connect the two.
For Harold is a radical who supports the Irish cause against England or any established social order. His pronouncements—he seldom converses, and in this and other ways Trevor has made him nearly a caricature—are largely cant: England has been "destroyed by class consciousness and the unjust distribution of wealth," "the struggle is worldwide," and "I'm not answerable to the bosses," for example, and his favorite catchcry, "the struggle of the Irish people." That Deirdre—named for the heroine of Irish legend's greatest love story, of whom it was prophesied at her birth that she would bring Ireland bloodshed and death—appears to be in love with him distresses Moran, and all the more when it seems possible that she is Harold's "Irish connection." that is, that he may have formed his liaison with her because she is Irish and possibly even because she is from Wexford.
If Moran is innocent of Irish history, Harold knows a great deal, including the story of Kinsella's Barn. There, in 1798, a Sergeant James, as an example to the countryside, burned in the barn twelve men and women accused of harboring insurgents; and Kinsella, innocent of either sheltering rebels or the executions, was murdered by his own farm workers. Returning from a visit to the site with Deirdre, Harold vents his hatred against James, a man who boasted that he had killed a thousand Irishmen and who had amassed great wealth at Irish expense, and further declares that Kinsella got what he deserved. When Moran protests gently that it was all two hundred years ago—implying that the past is past and best forgotten, certainly not to be dragged into the present—and that in any case Kinsella was innocent of any complicity, Harold automatically interjects that in two hundred years nothing has changed, that "The Irish people still share their bondage with the twelve in Kinsella's Barn," and that as for Kinsella, "if he was keeping a low profile in a ditch, it would have been by arrangement with the imperial forces."
So virulent is Harold's hatred and so determined is he to cast his lot with Ireland's new revolutionaries that Moran is forced to connect past and present in two ways. First, when he addresses his small flock the following morning he departs from his prepared text and. in a spirit not unlike Attracta's when speaking to her uncomprehending pupils, "tried to make the point that one horror should not fuel another, that passing time contained its own forgiveness" and that Kinsella was innocent of everything. He thinks:
Harold would have delighted in the vengeance exacted of an innocent man. Harold wanted to inflict pain, to cause suffering and destruction. The end justified the means for Harold, even if the end was an artificial one, a pettiness grandly dressed up…. He spoke of how evil drained people of their humor and compassion, how people pretended to themselves. It was worse than Frances's death, he thought, as his voice continued in the church: it was worse that Deirdre should be part of wickedness.
He could tell that his parishioners found his sermon odd, and he didn't blame them. He was confused, and considerably distressed. In the rectory Deirdre and Harold would be waiting for him. They would all sit down to Sunday lunch while plans for atrocities filled Harold's mind, while Deirdre loved him.
The kinship between past and present is yet more specific that evening when Deirdre and Harold announce their departure for Dublin the next day, but Harold, reading a book about Che Guevara, is evasive about their exact movements. Certain that Harold intends to meet others like himself in Dublin and that Deirdre has turned her back on the rectory to join a man who plans to commit atrocities, Moran thinks:
Harold was the same kind of man Sergeant James had been; it didn't matter that they were on different sides. Sergeant James had maybe borne an affliction also—a humped back or a withered arm. He had ravaged a country for its spoils, and his most celebrated crime was neatly at hand, so that another Englishman could make matters worse by attempting to make amends. In Harold's view the trouble had always been that these acts of war and murder died beneath the weight of print in history books, and were forgotten. But history could be rewritten, and for that Kinsella's Barn was an inspiration: Harold had journeyed to it as people make journeys to holy places.
Returning to the rectory the following morning from delivering Deirdre and Harold to the Dublin bus and deep in gloom because he believes Deirdre to be a befuddled girt under Harold's influence, Moran connects all that has happened with Frances, who had always resolved conflicts for him. Conjuring her up in the autumn sunshine, he hears her say, "Harold's just a talker. Not at all like Sergeant James," words that Moran clings to as truth because they take the curse off what he had clearly perceived to be so. In this mood of new hope, he hears Frances laugh,
and for the first time since her death seemed far away, as her life did too. In the rectory the visitors had blurred her fingerprints to nothing and had made her a ghost that could come back. The sunlight warmed him as he sat there; the garden was less melancholy than it had been.
On the one hand, the conclusion of "Autumn Sunshine" is similar to that of "Saints," with the spirit of a dead woman bringing comfort to a lonely old man who has been dispirited by an excursion into the past. On the other, while the protagonist of "Saints" appears, in one interpretation, to undergo a change that allows him to deal, perhaps ineptly and at a distance, with the reality of a violent Irish past, Moran's change is only to put the past firmly into the past once again and to determine not to accept and to deal with the reality he had earlier perceived: that Harold is really a contemporary Sergeant James. When he calls up Frances, it is for her to do what she has always done—resolve his problem for him, here by denying that Harold is like James. As Frances is now properly dead, so is his probably accurate discernment of Harold and Deirdre.
Although "Another Christmas" dramatizes similar themes and arrives at not dissimilar resolutions, it differs in several ways from other Trevor stories about the Troubles. The protagonists, Dermot and Norah, are a middle-aged Irish Catholic couple. They are working-class people, Dermot having been a gas company meter-reader for twenty-one years, during which time they have rented the same small terrace house from the same landlord, Mr. Joyce. What is most important for Trevor's purpose is that this middle-aged, working-class Irish Catholic couple have lived in London since the early days of their marriage in Waterford. Thus, Trevor here reverses a familiar pattern. Instead of giving us Anglo-Irish Protestants in a distinct minority position in predominantly Catholic Ireland, he gives us Irish Catholics in a distinct minority position in predominantly Protestant England, and wonders, perhaps, if they'll behave any differently from their counterparts when faced with the same violent past renewed in the present, in this instance, about 1976. On the whole, this is another story in which apparently firm human relations unravel under pressures from the renewed past.
Initially, at least, it appears that Dermot and Norah have achieved about the same modus vivendi in their community as that reached by the Middletons in "The Distant Past." Although there are several reminders in the opening pages that their background is Irish Catholic—two pictures of Waterford scenes and a picture of the Virgin and Child on the living-room walls, for instance—most of the opening pages are devoted to establishing that Dermot and Norah are at home here and doing what most English couples are doing at the same time: decorating the house for Christmas and drinking tea and talking about past Christmases, their five children, and the joy and peace of the present Christmas. On the other hand, as if showing that Dermot and Norah are simultaneously content and yet rather isolated, Trevor confines present action almost entirely to their living room. Later in the story, this suggestion of isolation becomes more sinister as Norah thinks of their entire situation in England as a trap,
the trap they'd made for themselves. Their children spoke with London accents. Patrick and Brendan worked for English firms and would make their homes in England. Patrick had married an English girl. They were Catholics and they had Irish names, yet home for them was not Waterford.
At the opening of the story, too, it appears that Dermot and Norah have achieved a personal modus vivendi that is not simply a reflection of the warmth of the Christmas season. They have not had a serious quarrel in all their married life. She recognizes that he is "considerate and thoughtful in what he did do, teetotal, clever, full of kindness for herself and the family they'd reared, full of respect for her also", and he knows how to compliment her for managing things so well. But there are also intimations in these early pages that their equanimity has cost Norah something. She is a plump, cheerful, easygoing woman whose Catholicism is relaxed and practical, and she has always deferred to Dermot, who is her opposite in mien and manner: "thin and seeming ascetic, with more than a hint of the priest in him …", a man who gives much time to pondering religious matters while on his meter-reading route; a slow and deliberate man who, having arrived at a position, will not change his mind. As Norah well knows, "it was his opinion that mattered."
The catalyst for a serious rift between them and their English neighbors is an issue that has developed between Dermot and their landlord, Mr. Joyce. Ironically, despite his name, Mr. Joyce is not Irish but thoroughly English. This fact has not mattered for over twenty years because Mr. Joyce, now a frail and bent old bachelor, has established his own warm and human relationship with the couple and their children, spending every Friday evening with them, kissing the children good night, joining them every year for Christmas, bringing presents for the children and small gifts for themselves. More than his tenants, Norah and Dermot are his friends; and to judge from the evidence of the story, he seems to be the sole valued long-time friend they have in England.
When the I.R.A. first started bombings that took civilian lives in England, Mr. Joyce did not stop his Friday evenings with Norah and Dermot, believing, perhaps, that their friendship was not based on religious or political considerations. However, perhaps assuming that for Dermot and Norah the friendship also transcended such lines, Mr. Joyce had not hesitated quietly to condemn the I.R.A. bombers, and they had not contradicted him until one Friday night in August when Dermot had shaken his head in agreement with Mr. Joyce over the latest outrage and
had added that they mustn't of course forget what the Catholics in the North had suffered. The bombs were a crime but it didn't do to forget that the crime would not be there if generations in the North had not been treated like animals. There'd been a silence then, a difficult kind of silence which she'd broken herself. All that was in the past, she'd said hastily, in a rush, nothing in the past or the present or anywhere could justify the killing of innocent people. Even so, Dermot had added, it didn't do to avoid the truth. Mr. Joyce had not said anything,
and he had stopped coming Friday evenings.
Now, in the midst of Christmas preparations, the issue of Mr. Joyce hangs unspoken between Norah and Dermot, and she delays until halfway through the story to say to Dermot that she is not counting on Mr. Joyce being with them for Christmas. Certain that he has been right in his condemnation of the treatment of the Catholics in the North and that Mr. Joyce would understand the justice of the I.R.A. bombings in England, Dermot insists that Mr. Joyce will come, that he has missed his Friday evenings because of illness, and that he wouldn't let the children down by not coming. Dermot refuses Norah's plea that he try to make it up with Mr. Joyce and instead says that he will pray that Mr. Joyce will come.
What emerges strongly in the second half of the story is what has been latent in the first. There is Dermot's deadly calm—he never displays emotion—and certitude that he is right; his conviction that they must keep faith with other Catholics; his belief that his position is God's position and that he has done his Catholic duty. Invoking the need for good will at the Christmas season, he repeats that one wrong leads to another wrong and that perhaps Mr. Joyce has seen this by now, failing on the one hand to see the bitter irony of his statements and on the other that Norah is tormented by the fact that seeming to condone what Mr. Joyce has condemned—the killing of innocent people—is to appear to condone the bombings.
For her part, Norah's conviction that Dermot is dead wrong and must be challenged is betrayed by manner and feelings never before associated with him: the increased impatience in her voice, her unusual edginess of manner, her raised voice, her feeling of wildness—as if she should rush into the streets to harangue passersby with her belief that the bombers are despicable and have earned hatred and death for themselves—and her impotent will to strength to pour out her rage at him:
She looked at him, pale and thin, with his priestly face. For the first time since he had asked her to marry him in the Tara Ballroom she did not love him. He was cleverer than she was, yet he seemed half blind. He was good, yet he seemed hard in his goodness, as though he'd be better without it. Up to the very last minute on Christmas Day there would be the pretense that their landlord might arrive, that God would answer a prayer because his truth had been honoured. She considered it hypocrisy, unable to help herself in that opinion.
At the end of the story we know that the relationship between Dermot and Norah has changed irrevocably. Seeing him guilty of a cruelty no one would have believed of him, she knows that he will be as kind as always to the children on Christmas Day but that Mr. Joyce's absence—the seal on the end of a cherished friendship—will be another victory for the bombers. And she thinks that "whenever she looked at him she would remember the Christmases of the past. She would feel ashamed of him, and of herself."
Despite differences in characters and setting, "Another Christinas" does not differ significantly from the other stories in its conflicts and resolutions, except, of course, to parcel out approval and condemnation to Irish Catholics, too. Except for their nominal tags, Norah shares much with the Middletons, Attracta, and Canon Moran; and Dermot is brother under the skin with Fat Driscoll, Purce, and Harold. In simpler terms, both Dermot and Norah understand how the past renews itself in the present; but where Dermot blindly perpetuates that past, Norah is willing to break the circle of violence begetting violence by forgiveness. In even simpler terms, he wants justice; she wants mercy.
As reported in The Irish Times, William Trevor's first full-length stage play, Scenes from an Album, takes photographs, so to speak, of a Tyrone Anglo Irish family from Jacobean times to the present, and takes their home from castle to the present "decaying heap in which the occupants find themselves caught between the Orange Order and the IRA." If this is not precisely the situation of the protagonists in most of Trevor's Troubles stories, it is near to the spirit of those stories, an approximation whose meaning deepens when Trevor says that this Tyrone family is "the kind of Anglo-Irish family that I would have great respect for, not being that kind of Anglo-Irish myself …," that is, more Irish than the Irish themselves rather than his "own kind of small-town Protestant bank manager's background…."
The Anglo-Irish protagonists of Trevor's stories, rather than being caricatures that might serve some propaganda, have his understanding and compassion, sentiments not withheld from the Irish Catholics of "Another Christmas," either, though, on the whole, their problems seem less provocative. This is because the situation of the Anglo-Irish, deep-rooted in Ireland but retaining at least traces of a different heritage and withal often more Irish than the Irish themselves, is so anomalous that their dilemmas generate greater and more complex and more subtle conflicts and thus more opportunities for insights than the situation of either Irish Catholic nationalist or British imperialist. The arena for conflict in Trevor's stories thus opens up more than most Troubles fiction has human issues that time has not solved and that cannot be solved by merely partisan positions. Upon reflection, Trevor's Troubles stories sometimes seem so open-ended that one must hesitate before pronouncing judgment on their collective "meaning"; but if there is one consistent view, it seems to be that the past cannot be forgotten but that with resolution and forgiveness it need not be perpetuated.
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A Standard of Behaviour (novel) 1958The Old Boys (novel) 1964; (play) 1971The Boarding House (novel) 1965The Love Department (novel) 1966The Day We Got Drunk on Cake and Other Stories (short stories) 1967Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel (novel) 1969Miss Gomez and the Brethren (novel) 1971The Ballroom of Romance and Other Stories (short stories) 1972Going Home (play) 1972Elizabeth Alone (novel) 1973The Fifty-Seventh Saturday (play) 1973A Perfect Relationship (play) 1973Marriages (play) 1974Angels at the Ritz and Other Stories (short stories) 1975The Children of Dynmouth (novel) 1976Old School Ties (short stories) 1976Lovers of Their Time and Other Stories (short stories) 1978The Distant Past and Other Stories (short stories) 1979Other People's Worlds (novel) 1980Beyond the Pale and Other Stories (short stories) 1981Scenes from an Album (play) 1981Fools of Fortune (novel) 1983The Stories of William Trevor (short stories) 1983A Writer's Ireland: Landscape in Literature (nonfiction) 1984The News from Ireland and Other Stories (short stories) 1986Nights at the Alexandra (short stories) 1987The Silence in the Garden (novel) 1988Family Sins and Other Stories (short stories) 1990Two Lives: Reading Turgenev and My House in Umbria (novellas) 1991The Collected Stories (short stories) 1992Excursions in the Real World: Autobiographical Essays (autobiography) 1994Felicia's Journey (novel) 1994Ireland: Selected Stories (short stories) 1995After Rain (short stories) 1996
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SOURCE: "Short Satisfactions," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXVII, No. 8, May 17, 1990, pp. 38-9.
[In the following review Towers argues that while some of the stories in Family Sins are skillfully told, the collection does not measure up to Trevor's earlier work.]
Readers of William Trevor's earlier story collections, six in all, will find in Family Sins, as before, that the Irish settings—mucky farms, shabby genteel boarding houses, schools, convents, hotel barrooms where more than a few drinks are taken—are coolly but sympathetically observed. So are his characters—foolish, blustering, guilty, touching in their various predicaments.
In "The Third Party," Boland, who runs a small-town bakery, meets Lairdman, who is in the timber business, in the bar of Buswell's Hotel in Dublin. Boland recognizes him as someone who had attended the same school and remembers that Lairdman had once had his head held down in a lavatory while his hair was scrubbed with a lavatory brush. But they have met for a reason that can only be humiliating to Boland: his wife Annabella and Lairdman have fallen in love, and Lairdman wants Boland to relinquish Annabella and, if possible, to give her a divorce. Boland, for whom the situation is no surprise, more or less agrees, but as he tosses back drink after drink of John Jameson's (while Lairdman sticks to lemonade, which he is too stingy to pay for), he can't help taunting his rival about the bullying episode at school. He also reveals something that Lairdman does not know and that Annabella would passionately deny: that she is unable to have children.
Trevor is particularly skillful in showing the mixture of slyness, abjection, and cruelty in Boland. Driving the fifty miles back home after having sobered up a bit, Boland broods over his wife's longstanding unhappiness with him. "'Poor Annabella,' he said aloud … Poor girl, ever to have got herself married to the inheritor of a country-town bakery. Lucky, in all fairness, that cocky little Lairdman had turned up." Then he realizes that he has effectively prevented Lairdman from taking Annabella away from him—and wonders why he has done it.
It hadn't mattered reminding Lairdman of the ignominy he had suffered as a boy; it hadn't mattered reminding him that she was a liar, or insulting him by calling him mean. All that abuse was conventional in the circumstances, an expected element in the man-to-man confrontation, the courage for it engendered by an intake of John Jameson. Yet something had impelled him to go further: little men like Lairdman always wanted children. "That's a total lie," she'd have said already on the telephone, and Lairdman would have soothed her. But soothing wasn't going to be enough for either of them.
"Honeymoon in Tramore" takes us several steps down the social scale. Davy Toome, an orphaned farm worker, and his pregnant bride, Kitty, who is the daughter of the farm owners, have come to spend their honeymoon at a seaside boarding house, St. Agnes's, run by a Mrs. Hurley. Kitty is pregnant by another man; she planned to have an abortion but lost her nerve in a fit of religious panic, and Davy, the poor orphan, saw his opportunity and asked Kitty to marry him. Trevor finely describes the details of high tea at the boarding house and the way in which the honeymooners spend their late afternoon in the drab resort, which offers as its leading attraction a motorcycle arena called the Wall of Death. That night Kitty, who has been brushing off Davy's physical advances, drinks a great many bottles of stout and loudly boasts to the Hurleys about the heartbreak she has caused Coddy Donnegan, the probable father of her child, by marrying the lowly Davy; she even makes up another suitor, the cousin of the local priest. But Davy doesn't mind. He doesn't even mind when, back in their bedroom, she vomits and then passes out. We again are made aware of the complex mixture of detachment and sympathy Trevor brings to the revelation of a hardly admirable person's inner life:
Davy stood up and slowly took his clothes off. He was lucky that she had gone with Coddy Donnegan because if she hadn't she wouldn't now be sleeping on their honeymoon bed. Once more he looked down into her face: for eighteen years she had seemed like a queen to him and now, miraculously, he had the right to kiss her…. Slowly he pulled the bedclothes up and turned the light out; then he lay beside her and caressed her in the darkness…. He had been known as her father's hired man, but now he would be known as her husband. That was how people would refer to him, and in the end it wouldn't matter when she talked about Coddy Donnegan, or lowered her voice to mention the priest's cousin. It was natural that she should do so since she had gained less than he had from their marriage.
At least five of the stories in Family Sins confirm Trevor's mastery. But the collection as a whole strikes me as a little tired, a little too reminiscent of situations and effects that we have encountered before. The work for the most part lacks the energy of the stories in Beyond the Pale (in my view Trevor's strongest collection) or wonderfully sardonic vision that animates such early novels as The Old BoysorThe Boarding House.
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Beards, Richard D. A Review of Fools of Fortune and The Stories of William Trevor. World Literature Today 58, No. 3 (Summer 1984): 416-17.
Praises Trevor's skill as a story teller.
Bonaccorso, Richard. "Not Noticing History: Two Tales By William Trevor." Connecticut Review XVIII, No. 1 (Spring 1996): 21-7.
Considers the role of history in Trevor's short stories "Beyond the Pale" and "The News from Ireland."
Coad, David. A Review of Felicia's Journey. World Literature Today 69, No. 3 (Summer 1995): 585.
Praises the style and structure of Felicia's Journey.
Doherty, Francis. "William Trevor's 'A Meeting in Middle Age' and Romantic Irony." Journal of the Short Story in English, 16 (Spring 1997): 19-28.
Compares Trevor's short story "A Meeting in Middle Age" with James Joyce's story "A Painful Case," arguing that while Joyce presents tragedy, Trevor offers comedy.
Haughey, Jim. "Joyce and Trevor's Dubliners: The Legacy of Colonialism." Studies in Short Fiction 32, No. 3 (Summer 1995): 355-65.
Argues that although Trevor and James Joyce wrote during different periods in Irish history, they arrive at similar opinions concerning the source of Irish problems.
Lasdun, James. "A Genius for Misery." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4878 (27 September 1996): 23.
Reviews After Rain and argues that while Trevor exhibits many faults as a short story writer, he is unrivaled in his portrayal of unhappiness.
Mittleman, Leslie B. A Review of The News from Ireland and Other Stories. World Literature Today 61, No. 2 (Spring 1987): 286.
Compares Trevor's work with that of James Joyce.
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SOURCE: "Saints of the Ascendancy: William Trevor's Big-House Novels," in Ancestral Voices: The Big House in Anglo-Irish Literature, edited by Otto Rauchbauer, Lilliput Press, 1992, pp. 257-72.
[In the following essay, Larsen explores shared themes in Trevor's two novels Fools of Fortune and The Silence in the Garden.]
With the spatial awareness of a sometime sculptor, William Trevor has from the start shaped the physical environment in his fictional worlds as the tangible expression of intangible human concerns. In his earlier writings, hotels and boarding houses acquire distinctive symbolic significance as the favored arenas for petty power struggles among petty predators: dingy interiors reflect dingy lives. Trevor's penchant for black humor is particularly at home in houses for the homeless, where lonely paralyzed souls act out illusory relationships and nurture grotesque fixations. In the course of his preoccupation with marital relationships, Trevor has gradually been led from the tragicomic space of boarding-house affairs to the more sombre symbolic space informing his two major Big-House novels: Fools of Fortune (1983) and The Silence in the Garden (1988). Always fascinated by the frigid intricacies of a passionless marriage. Trevor here exposes the relationship of Irish domestic life to that peculiar species of Irish erotic fervor known as fanatic class violence: indeed, his treatment of marriage in the Big-House novels tends to suggest a political hieros gamos.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind Cannot bear very much reality. T.S.Eliot, 1943
Having slain Tybalt to avenge Mercutio's death, Romeo exclaims as he flees into exile, "O I am Fortune's foole!" Young Willie Quinton in Fools of Fortune might have echoed Romeo's sentiments when a violent act of revenge sends this lover, too, into exile. Trevor's novel, like Shakespeare's play, relates the fortunes of two houses whose bonds of marital union are tried by the ancient curse of factional hatred. Reconciliation comes for the families of Romeo and Juliet through their deaths; reunion for Willie and Marianne in the fool's paradise of a reduced idyll. The title of the novel suggests a view of history that is fatalistic, again recalling the "misadventured" love of the rival houses of Verona, but the "fools of fortune" formula attributed to the elder William Quinton expresses none of the passion to be found in Shakespeare's tragic lovers; it is rather the good-humored sigh of a kind man confronted with an unkind world. For Trevor's book is not shaped by the precise ironies of malicious cosmic powers, but is rather controlled, in structure and in diction, by an enveloping sentiment of passive suffering, by an elegiac tone that laments lost wholeness. Fools of Fortune is a novel of sensibility, whose characters instinctively resist the personal communications that could lead to action and renewal.
Some of Trevor's fools do tend to become victims of the inevitable course of historical events, or think of themselves as such, lending the elder Quinton's tag tragic overtones he had not entertained: Marianne becomes increasingly fatalistic and Willie's mother succumbs to despair. There are, however, other kinds of fools abroad, such as those who imagine they are wise while being victims of their own fixations and lusts—namely, the professional teachers: Miss Halliwell, Professor and Mrs Gibb-Bachelor, the Scrotum and Mad Mack. Yet another kind of fool, and a different sort of teacher, is represented by the defrocked priest Father Kilgarriff, whose meek spirit and Christ-like rejection of violence make him a fool in the eyes of Christian Ireland. Finally, that most frightening form of foolishness, insanity itself, emerges ironically triumphant. Just as "the lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact", so does Imelda tread the lonely path created by the power of her imagination and her love for her unknown father; it is a path that leads through the valley of the shadow of destruction to a place of peace known only to saints and fools—the heart of Kilneagh. The concluding segments of the novel thus develop a kind of fool's paradise regained, in which the old order with its long shadow of carnage has been displaced by ambiguous gifts of the imagination, renewing the link to primal scenes of value.
The prologue to Trevor's tale of two houses suggests that the love story of Marianne and Willie contains an allegorical message about the historical relationship of England and Ireland. In drawing parallels between Woodcombe Park in Devon and Kilneagh in Co. Cork—the one reduced to making a noisy living from selling its past to tourists, the other sunk into economic and cultural silence, its past alive only in the elegiac voices of the narrative—Trevor anticipates the differing histories of the Big House in the two countries. The three-fold pattern of marital alliance connecting the Woodcombes and the Quintons over four generations ironically recapitulates the historic bond joining England and Ireland. The emotional focus of the relationship is provided by Kilneagh, built in 1770 as the seat of the Quinton family estate. Kilneagh is present throughout the book as the primal home or emotional center of being for the three narrative centers of consciousness—Willie Quinton, whose childhood was spent there and who inherits the estate; Marianne Woodcombe, his English cousin, who identifies Kilneagh with Willie and whose love for him holds her there in spite of pressures to leave; Imelda, their daughter, whose life at Kilneagh epitomizes the horror and the glory of its history. The predominantly elegiac tone of the narrative expresses the feeling shared by the three main characters of belonging to a disrupted house. The content of the narrative is, then, an account of three childhoods in which Kilneagh exerted a decisive formative influence.
Willie's share of the narrative is motivated by his wish that his early life might have been shared with Marianne, a wish that is identical with her imagined presence in Kilneagh.
I wish that somehow you might have shared my childhood, for I would love to remember you in the scarlet drawing-room, so fragrant in summer with the scent of roses, warmed in winter by the wood Tim Paddy gathered. Arithmetic and grammar books were laid out every morning on an oval table, red ink in one glass inkwell, black in the other.
Kilneagh before the raid embodies the sense of order, security, and harmony that determines Willie's character. The heart of the house is the scarlet drawing-room, warm and fragrant the year round, the room in which he begins to learn the lessons of history. The comfortable aura of a pastoral idyll reinforces his sense of belonging to an intact world in which agricola, his first word of Latin, reminds him of his own place in life ("'Now there's a word for you.'" In particular, the emblematic scene on the brass log-box preoccupies him with its mystery:
On the sides of the brass log-box there were embossed scenes, and the one I liked best was of a farmhouse supper. Men sat around a table while a woman served, one of them reaching behind him to seize her hand. You could tell from the way he had twisted his arm behind him that it was a secret between them.
The intimations of wholeness in the scene—round the board, round the years, the secret love uniting servant and master—express the original indwelling spirit of Kilneagh. It is a humanistic spirit of compassion and social concern that had found its most memorable expression in the efforts of Anna Quinton to help the victims of the Great Famine of 1846, but whose continuing influence upon the history of the house was not altogether commensurate with the aims of the saintly matron Father Kilgarriff venerates so highly.
When Anna Quinton gave her life to alleviate the suffering caused by injustice and greed, her spirit remained at Kilneagh as genius loci, prompting her widower to carry on with her struggle.
When she died of famine fever her dog-faced husband shut himself into Kilneagh for eleven years, not seeing anyone. It was said that she haunted him: looking from his bedroom window one morning he saw her on a distant hill—an apparition like the Virgin Mary. She told him that he must give away the greater part of his estate to those who had suffered loss and deprivation in the famine, and in his continuing love of her he did so.
Anna Quinton had tried to reduce the burden of guilt that membership in the landlord class placed on her family and was accorded a fool by her English relations for her trouble (thus a fool of "fortune" in another sense of the word). Her ghostly instructions to her widower to stop the guilt at its source was a first step in the direction of an ultimate solution to the foolishness of the Ascendancy system of fortune, namely the dissolution of the estate itself. But the curse of property ownership was to make itself felt in a different way in the course of the Troubles. The next English mistress at Kilneagh, Willie's mother, was the daughter of an English army colonel and united in her person the traditional Kilneagh support for Home Rule and Irish independence with a demand for militant action; her admiration for Michael Collins seemed to border on attraction. Even after the murder of her husband and daughters, Eva could not renounce the use of force to resolve conflicts but slowly killed herself with hatred, bitterness, and despair. Her successor at Kilneagh, her niece Marianne, similarly defended the justice of blood revenge and the need for armed violence, while fatalistically maintaining that the "shadow of destruction" was inescapable. As a visible symbol of the power and dominion of the Anglo-Irish landlords, the Big House was a just target for attack by revolutionaries during the Troubles; for a Big House to be burned by the British Black and Tans would have been unusual, in the case of Kilneagh a telling commentary on the dangers of becoming involved in any way with the use of armed force and a sad memorial to the family's betrayal of the spirit of Anna Quinton.
It is fitting that matriarchal dominion should be associated with the history of a Big House, for houses are, in fact, essentially female structures that embody the principles of order, security, and stability and create meaningful space for birth, nourishment, sleep, and death. The household of Kilneagh was directed by its women, beginning to our knowledge with Anna Quinton's dominion over her "dog-faced" husband, who planted a lane of birch trees as a memorial to her and retired in mourning for eleven years following her death. The dominion of Willie's mother over his father seems to have been not less complete. "She presided over the household with untroubled authority, over my father and myself and my sisters…." After the raid, Aunt Fitzeustace assumed authority for the surviving resident household, the constellation of two single elderly sisters and a defunct priest recalling, with Joyce's "The Sisters", the archetypal Irish matriarchy. Marianne's advent strengthened the pattern: lacking a husband, she married a house. Viewed from a higher perspective, Kilneagh appeared quite beautiful to Marianne, but on closer inspection she found the harsh desolation of its ruined parts repellent. Even so, her love for the young man in the distant past remained untroubled by the constant signs of unrepaired destruction impressing themselves on the development of their child. The line of female ascendancy at Kilneagh ends appropriately with the deformed yet dominant life of Imelda, who bears a miraculous power of inner resurgence.
The men of Kilneagh lead quiet lives complaisantly devoted to the wishes of their more dynamic wives; it is Willie's father who moderates his wife's enthusiastic support of Michael Collins and it is the men's role to connect the realm of the house with that of the mill, the latter being their own domain. The story of Willie's childhood shows the boy uneasy in his dual attachment to house and mill, mother and father. In the prepubertal world of unbroken emotional security, Willie identifies positively with both spatial realms, experiencing pleasure in the prospect of one day assuming his father's position in the mill:
I knew that one day I would inherit this mill. I liked the thought of that, of going to work there, of learning what my father had had to learn about grain and the machinery that ground it. I liked the mill itself, its grey stone softened with Virginia creeper, the doors of lofts and stores a reddish brown, paint that over the years had lost its shine due to the sun; in a central gable the green-faced clock was always a minute fast. I loved the smell of the place, the warm dry smell of corn, the cleanness even though there was dust in the air. I enjoyed watching the huge wheel turning in the mill-race, one cog engaging the next. The timber of the chutes was smooth with wear, leather flaps opening and falling back, then opening again. The sacks had Quinton on them, the letters of our name arranged in a circle.
In addition to Willie's sensuous attachment to his patrimony, the deep love between father and son has another objective correlative in their walks together from house to mill, in which two poles of significance, separated by a hill, are joined in an emotionally charged ritual act. Willie's innocent wish to perpetuate the unity of house and mill in his own person is disturbed by the prospect that he must first be sent off to boarding school: to assume the mantle of the father, he must pass through the puberty rites of his class. As it turns out, the time Willie spends at the boarding school strengthens his ties to his dead father: he resolves to renew the pattern of his father's life, to rebuild Kilneagh, and to take up his hereditary position at the mill. His love for Marianne, which flourishes together with his discovery of his father's school years, is the central emotional expression of his fledgling renewal of his father's truncated life. Both developments are interrupted when the innate rivalry between father and mother in Willie's sense of self comes to a climactic confrontation. Repressed bitterness towards his mother's self-willed decline explodes in a denunciation that is the negative emotional corollary to his constructive plans for Kilneagh and Marianne. His father had exemplified the conciliatory nature of kindness, capable of understanding the "difficult position" of a man like Doyle; his mother was more absolute in her judgments and demands. Her final act of suicide, perhaps partly motivated by her son's open abuse, was her most effective act of retribution, impelling Willie to commit the deed of vengeance she had so long yearned for. Willie construes his mother's suicide as a silent commission to complete a pattern: Doyle's tongue was cut out, his mother cut her wrists with a razor blade, and so Rudkin must be slaughtered with a butcher knife. Throwing over the years of preparation for the rebuilding of Kilneagh in his father's stead, turning his back on Kilneagh and Marianne, Willie follows his mother's example. To the curse of guilt and exile, he adds the self-imposed punishment of silence, cutting himself off, inwardly renouncing all ties to Kilneagh and the living connection to his own fatherhood.
Like Anna and Eva before her, Marianne initiates significant change in the life of a male Quinton—she makes a father of Willie, coming to him with a lamp in his night of despair, offering him the comfort of a light leading out of the long shadows of destruction. Thus, at the crossroads of maturity Willie is confronted with two paths and two rival goddesses—he must choose between the young messenger of new life and the dead messenger of destruction, the virgin's sacrifice for love and the mother's sacrifice for hate; forced to choose between sonship and fatherhood, Willie claims the former and rejects the latter. For her part, Marianne holds the ruins of Kilneagh in trust for Willie, and raises their daughter there in conjugal commitment as the truncated hope of their truncated heritage. The mother's razor or the lover's lamp? The former provokes the slaughter of revenge and the curse of exile, the latter engenders the inward light and final blessing of peace in the ancestral home.
The murder of Rudkin is the one active deed in a life otherwise distinguished by passivity and shyness, fearful of its own passions and constantly withdrawing into reserve and silence. So, too, Willie's love for Marianne consists of the poignant memory of an unspoiled past; it is told for the melancholy pleasure of the telling, after being repressed for some fifty years until old age has reduced it to fading echoes. Significantly, Willie's first return to Ireland and Co. Cork in 1972 does not include a visit to Kilneagh; the dying servant from his childhood is more important than his own daughter and her mother. The trip to take leave of Josephine, his mother's last companion, is an act of homage to his mother and to the painful memory of the distant past—paradisiacal and desecrated.
A large part of Foots of Fortune is devoted to the place of schools and teachers in the lives of the protagonists. The scenes at institutions of learning—especially the pretentious boarding schools in the hills of Dublin and Lausanne—are peopled with seedy hypocrites and petty rogues reminiscent of Trevor's early grotesque novels. Here the audacious school escapades in the middle section of the book provide comic relief from the sombre elegy of the main plot, underscoring along the way Kilneagh's more serious reality by means of numerous bathetic parallels: Willie's loving thoughts for Marianne are segmentally juxtaposed with his school friends' mockery of love; when lecherous Professor Gibb-Bachelor lectures to the girls he would like to seduce about the literary significance of landscapes, Kilneagh's despoiled space provides a tacit counterexample of erotic and poetic desolation; when a disgraced teacher takes revenge on Mad Mack by urinating on him in his sleep, the act is called a "slash", anticipating Willie's murderous slashing of Rudkin.
The schools are grotesque because they fail to initiate the three young protagonists into the strange and terrible reality in which they must live. Miss Halliwell's erotically oppressive pity for Willie is counterproductive, the nuns' professional pity for Imelda ineffectual. In a novel of education, conventional schools are a foil for the existential encounters that matter. As Marianne writes, admitting in her old age the truth of Father Kilgarriff's wisdom:
He was right when he said that there's not much left in a life when murder has been committed. That moment when I guessed the truth in Mr Lanigan's office; that moment when she opened the secret drawer; that moment when he stood at his mother's bedroom door and saw her dead. After each brief moment there was as little chance for any one of us as there was for Kilneagh after the soldiers' wrath. Truncated lives, creatures of the shadows. Fools of fortune, as his father would have said; ghosts we became.
Reactions to existential encounters may not be as deterministic as Marianne came to believe. The heart of learning, at least for Willie, took place in the heart of Kilneagh, in the scarlet drawing-room. It was here that gentle Father Kilgarriff introduced the boy to pacific precepts; it was here that his mother challenged those precepts with stories embodying heroic ideals; and it was here that his father demonstrated his quietist response to the teachings of books and dangerous current affairs. Like Doyle and like Willie, his father was "in a difficult position", worried that Father Kilgarriff was not teaching his son enough, yet uncomfortable himself with the substance of what his son was supposed to be learning. In the end, the crucial learning experience, the crucible in which all preliminary learning is tried, is the personal experience of deadly sin. That "strange reality" Marianne refers to is entered into by breaking taboos—here committing murder. The changed state of consciousness following the epiphanies Marianne mentions imbues the space of Kilneagh with its peculiar significance.
Imelda's fate reproduces the fate of Kilneagh. Like Willie she is raised with the contending philosophies of life that have shaped the fortunes of the estate: Father Kilgarriff's Christlike compassion and Marianne's fatalistic justification of heroic violence. While her mother keeps Imelda's curiosity and expectations about her father alive (feelings tantamount to belonging to Kilneagh), Father Kilgarriff tries to protect Imelda from participating in the cursed history of the Big House. Gifted with extraordinary powers of imagination. Imelda pursues the reality of her father embodied in Kilneagh. Literally fascinated by intimations about the traumatic events connected with her own birth, Imelda burrows into the secret compartments of Kilneagh's past, ferreting out details that she experiences with uncanny intensity and empathy. As obsessive fantasies take control of her consciousness, she withdraws completely from the outside world and suffers without respite the horrors of ceaseless slaughter. Fortunately, the career of her madness moves beyond the incessant scenes of terror, coming to rest at the serene heart of the Big House. The harmonious world of the scarlet drawing-room, with its fragrant surrounding gardens and its enigmatic secret lovers forever turning and touching, grants Imelda a beatific vision of Paradise Regained. Her peace is construed by the Catholic populace as a sign of divine favor, a token of her saintly namesake, with whom she is explicitly compared. For Imelda had longed for her father's homecoming, and she was granted it in visions of his life's horrors and of his life's Edenic origins—the Sacred Host of her miraculous communion with Kilneagh. Her beatific vision is equally inspired by W. B. Yeats's idyllic lyric "The Lake Isle of Innis-free", which Trevor has elsewhere glossed as follows: "Heartache was soothed in Sligo, the world's weeping held at a distance by its waters and its wild, evenings were full of the linnet's wings." In Imelda the family's guilt is resolved through the combined power of mythic patterns: the quest for the father, the homecoming of the lord, and the peace of the blessed fool.
This positive interpretation of Imelda's final regression is anticipated, and perhaps implanted in her soul, by Father Kilgarriff's efforts to help her fly a kite on her ninth birthday. What she considers the happiest experience of her life is an exhilarating feeling of high flight and of shrinking to a point in the sky. The flying kite is an emotionally constructive symbol, ultimately triumphant, for Imelda's emotionally destructive urge toward personal reduction, repeatedly imaged by insects.
Imelda did not speak. She watched a fly on the wax fruit in the centre of the table. How disappointing it would be, she thought, when it discovered that the fruit had no juice…. 'That lady thought I shouldn't have been given life.'
The wax fruit Imelda here associates with a cruel denial of life is, in the novel's affirmative closing image, displaced by a burgeoning harvest of mulberries. In the end, the mulberry orchard planted by Anna Quinton as a reminder of her English home is the only vital symbolic agency left intact in Kilneagh, just as the orchard wing was the only part of the building to survive the fateful raid. The mill being defunct (perhaps the loss of income was one reason for Willie's homecoming, so strangely lacking in ardor), the fruitfulness of Kilneagh has attained a purely spiritual state; here landscape has become literature, whereas in Woodcombe it has become a source of museum income. Like Imelda's visions of the scarlet drawing-room and the poetic peace dropping from linnet's wings, the fruit of the mulberry orchard embodies the quiet beauty of the primal ancestral spirit, now purged of the pain and guilt inflicted by the historical logic of violence. The last of the Quinton-Woodcombe families are happily dependent on the good graces of their neighbors, taking their meals in the kitchen as their servants had done years before. A special kind of salvation seems to be granted to the beggar and the suffering servant, as indeed the most admirable figures in the book are the servants—brave Tim Paddy, who saved Willie's life; saintly Josephine, her life consumed with selfless prayers for consolation; despised Father Kilgarriff, the true servant of God; the wise butler Fukes, the most competent councilor at the boarding school; and Anna Quinton herself, the paradigm of the mistress as suffering servant. If the remnant family at Kilneagh are by grace or good fortune permitted to enjoy their last days in peaceful communion with an ideal past, a harvest of mulberries (Gk. moros) is fitting praise for these blissful fools (morias encomion).
O see the poles are kissing as they cross. Dylan Thomas, 1934
Trevor's most ambitious Big-House novel, The Silence in the Garden, describes the decline and fall of a prominent family of Anglo-Irish landlords and their island estate off the coast of Co. Cork. Where the central love story in Fools of Fortune focuses on the suffering caused by the intrusion of political violence into an idyllic Ascendancy world, the latter novel uses a constellation of paralyzed love relationships to suggest a more extensive range of social, even mythic implication. Its chief concern is no longer stoically endured suffering, but rather self-inflicted suffering. The Silence in the Garden thus moves beyond the largely sentimental appeal of Fools of Fortune and develops with its texture of symbolic realism a more complex picture of the mystery of human guilt.
The narrator informs us that Carriglas, which means "green rock", is "a deceiving name, as the island was very fertile." It is the deceptive quality of the island and of the Rolleston estate lodged upon it which provides the novel with its primary source of suspense. We learn early on that there are bats in the cellar of the grand old house, and there are repeated allusions to a terrible secret hidden in its past, a family sin that mysteriously paralyzes the last generation of a once proud and powerful dynasty. If the text uses traditional Gothic elements to create narrative suspense, it exploits their inherent thematic tensions as well, for the book is ultimately about the intransigent paradox in the name Carriglas.
The island bears silent signs of its former lords, various stones recalling layers of the past. The oldest markers are the standing stones located at the summit wilderness, remnants of a pre-Christian culture that had made the island a burial ground for their kings. Then there are the ruins of a medieval abbey located near the remains of a saint's cell, where a holy well containing moist clay and a stone the saint had once used as a pillow are the objects of occasional pilgrimage and veneration. Finally, the stones of Rolleston manor itself were taken from the castle ruins of earlier overlords. The Big House of Carriglas is thus planted in a context of monuments to former tenants, spiritual and temporal, and the final phase in its history is tacitly traced against the background of sacred significance the island had possessed in the distant past. Inexorably, the silent stones of the past point to the silent garden of the future and the inevitable end of human affairs. After years of unbearable tension, after the crazed tumult of the human comedy and its frantic fleeting concerns, the paradoxical "green rock" of Carriglas signifies a return to the only peace possible—nature freed from human ambitions and vanities. Paradise is a bit of wilderness, not a residence.
As the Anglo-Irish heirs of Carriglas, the three Rolleston children have distinctly different areas of emotional attachment to their ancestral island. John James, the elder son, shows no particular feelings at all for the space of his home and consumes himself in vague and pretentious posturings towards the Irish mainland. The younger brother Lionel, on the other hand, is most at home working the land itself and puttering in the sheds; no Abraham, his life is a pastoral idyll spoiled by the shyness that prevents his union with Sarah.
Their sister Villana, by contrast, is the natural mistress of Carriglas: beautiful, clever, and willful, she had clearly been the dominant child and assumed a position of leadership over her two brothers. Thus it is Villana who habitually visits the ancient standing stones at the summit of the island, her affinity for them suggesting both her own regal nature and her need to comfort herself with the inevitable loss of every mortal sovereignty.
In the crucial year 1931, which marks a visible turning point in the history of Carriglas and to which the bulk of the novel is devoted, Rolleston manor is in a state of reduced splendor, the opulently appointed sitting room no longer representative of the economically deflated estate. The formative spirit of the House of Rolleston is nonetheless represented by the evergreen trees standing at either side of the main entrance way. Like emblematic badges for the genius loci, the strawberry trees and the monkey puzzle suggest that the family history is determined by the combined forces of compassion (the strawberry tree has red heart-shaped fruit, traditionally the token of martyrs and Christ's blood) and entanglement (the monkey puzzle has intricately entwined branches and stiff, sharp-pointed leaves). As we learn from the knowledgeable amateur historian Finnamore Balt, the family's economic decline began with its exercise of compassion in the years following the Great Famine: "'The Famine Rollestons were widely renowned for their compassion. A most remarkable generation, but alas disastrous in terms of the effect on the family fortunes.'" Finnamore Balt does not, however, realize that the puzzling refusal of the family he marries into to oppose their own ruin is likewise rooted in a kind of compassion: secret guilt and shame demand their self-denial in a life-long act of expiation. The emblematic trees remind us that compassion as well as cruelty lead to the downfall of the estate and its ordered world. If the strawberry trees and the monkey puzzle are outward signs for the fate of the Rolleston family—their ineluctable entrapment in compunction—the two tree species might equally suggest the poetic workings of the novel itself, whose appeal derives largely from the combined effects of sentiment and suspense.
Ancient Mrs Rolleston is the living embodiment of the conscience of Carriglas. Quietly, with irresistible moral authority, she compels her grandchildren to live out the consequences of their past deeds and to recompense the surviving victim as best they can. Despite her revulsion at what she thinks is Villana's emotional exploitation of Finnamore Balt, despite her suspicion about the legitimacy of Kathleen Quigley's requests for money, despite her anguish about the circumstantial nature of her family's guilt and victimization, Mrs Rolleston is committed to a moral order of humanitarian justice. If Mrs Rolleston speaks for the spirit of Carriglas, her last wish that the myrtle and hebes be protected in the garden suggests an unbroken desire for marriage and children that is thwarted by Villana's farcical marriage. Similarly, Mrs Rolleston's opponent at Villana's wedding, the Bishop of Killaloe, speaks as the voice of the bridge (the sight of which prompts him to "ponti-ficate", which is the symbol of sterile union, victorious over the fertile garden of Mrs Rolleston's desire. And yet, the logical end of her efforts will be the revision of the estate to the laboring native Irish and the reduction of the house to its working core:
Alone in the kitchen's spaciousness, she would admire the windows and wallcupboards that so gracefully accommodated the faint concavity of the walls. The range and the long, scrubbed table formed a trinity with the dresser, the range the kitchen's heart, as the kitchen was the household's.
As Mrs Rolleston is the heart of the family, so is the kitchen the heart of the Big House: it contains the primal trinity of natural life that will survive the passing of the foolish "trinity" of the Children of Carriglas.
Mrs Rolleston's terse judgment about the key event of the novel, the wedding of Villana and Finnamore Balt, aptly describes the overriding theme of the novel as a whole: "This wedding is an occasion of farce." As a record of various thwarted, stunted, and frustrated marriages between individuals and between classes, The Silence in the Garden describes not one, but many farcical weddings. Mrs Rolleston deplores Villana's decision to marry Finnamore Balt because the union fails to fulfill the usual criteria for marriage: Villana does not love the man, who is old enough to be her father, erotically; she makes it clear to him from the start that they are to have no children; far from marrying for money—as most townspeople suppose—she suppresses his efforts to recover lost lands for the Rolleston family estate. Villana's union with Finnamore is not the act of cruelty Mrs Rolleston suspects, but rather an act of regressive self-comfort: the trustworthy companionship Villana expects from Finnamore is for her an escape into her early untroubled childhood. The space sacred to her passionate love of Hugh, the ice house, has become an empty temple of memories; but her nursery can be resurrected in its innocence as a nuptial bedroom. Together with her natural mate, Hugh, Villana sacrifices love and mutual fertility to atone for ill-fated childish cruelty; together with her marital companion, Finnamore Balt, Villana covenants a life of mutual care in a childless nursery. Theirs will be the kindness of a long death watch, repeating the pattern of Villana's care for an ailing speckled hen in the same room; one is led to suspect a mysterious blend of care and cruelty in her handling of both relationships.
For the inhabitants of Carriglas, 1931 is memorable as the year of Villana's wedding and the year of Cornelius Dowley's bridge. The coincidence of these two acts of union significantly reflects their common origin in Villana's fateful feral games. As a child she had taken the lead with Hugh and her brothers in hunting a poor native boy across the island like a rabbit, thus acting out a children's version of the great historical game of Ascendancy rule in Ireland. Villana's antagonist, the red-headed boy Cornelius Dowley, grows up to take revenge on his tormentors and, uniting in his person political and private terrorism, helps to initiate with revolutionary acts of violence the later union of Carriglas and the mainland. Villana's sadistic hunting game is a courtship ritual for a wedding of violence that is consummated by a bombing and then officially sanctified by the dedication of the bridge bearing the bridegroom's name. In the eyes of Catholic revolutionaries the bridge might symbolize the annexation of Anglo-Irish dominions by native Irish culture, but from the narrator's perspective the bridge has the character of an ugly shotgun wedding, justly reversing the pattern of Villana's cruel shotgun courtship. Aesthetically, the symbol for the marriage of two social worlds through violence, indeed, the very celebration of that uniting violence, is a sordid affair: the Cornelius Dowley Bridge is depicted as a callous violation of the landscape, the tall steel supports an ugly mockery of the inscrutable standing stones crowning the island. In the last chapter of the novel, the bridge has become a static part of a drab, bleak landscape, recalling in contrast the personally conducted movements of the discarded ferry boat with its humanly responsive rhythms and positive emotional aura.
The physical union of island and mainland is one objective correlative for social and political marriage, the physical union of John James and Mrs Moledy is another. The illicit love affair of the heir of Carriglas and the proprietress of the rose of Tralee boarding house is at once a realistic comedy of manners and a grotesque allegory illustrating the uneasy and sterile intercourse between two key segments of Irish society. John James's entanglement with Mrs Moledy is a counterpart to Villana's entanglement with Cornelius Dowley, and both relationships characterize the bedeviled entanglement of Anglo-Irish landlords with the Catholic Irish tenancy. John James is, at 35, a retired officer with a minor limp and no accomplishments. His identity is defined by his condescending relationship to his motherly mistress, an affectionately accommodating Catholic widow, and by his daunting relationship to his dead father, of whom John James feels that he is himself a lamentable parody. Like his father before him, John James is remarkably tall, an attribute suggesting nobility (again the regal standing stones of Carriglas) and virility. Mrs Moledy admires both qualities in her "soldier boy". Their sexual relationship is an extended metaphor for the political relationship of their respective classes before the revolution. Mrs Moledy explicitly refers to John James's "genitals" as her "king" (the "castle" he enters being hers, and it is the gentleman's genitals that are meant when he stands before her naked "on his honour", for John James has the honor of primogeniture to bestow. The genital king does not, however, generate new life in Mrs Moledy, suggesting little future for the social union they represent. Like all Anglo-Irish landlords, John James wants to enjoy the vital substance of the native Catholic mother, but certainly not to unite their flesh in marriage. Sweet as the Rose of Tralee, the great Irish mother gives her body and her money to her proud lover, not in servility, but in the knowledge of her own superior strength. Benignly supportive of the Ascendancy, Mrs Moledy is a rather vigorous specimen of the Old Woman of Ireland, who gladly shares with her adored king the warm bulk of her canny flesh and presses him to use her savings to purchase a motorcar. Periodically the exclusive island had paid a visit to the common mainland; but now the connecting bridge has eliminated the privileged condition of the island and has, moreover, made the continuation of the gentleman's visits dependent on the financial help of the woman of the mainland. The ancient castle still desires the comforting glamor of its habitual lord and is willing to pay the price. Mrs Moledy puts down John James's attempt to resist the implication that he is prostituting himself by sitting up in bed and declaring there is no interest to be paid on her money—the real interest being paid is exposed in the falling of the bedclothes from her upper-body. Mrs Moledy's burlesque wedding with John James is a financial union consummated at the garden party and confirmed on the altar of her bed:
The apologies that had been written down poured again from her lips. She would kneel before him if he required it…. He attempted to count the banknotes into her hands, so that there could be no argument afterwards. He tried to be exact and businesslike, but the notes dropped to the floor and he was obliged to go down on his hands and knees to retrieve them…. She sprinkled eau de Cologne on to her sheets, telling him not to be silly when he shook his head.
Sex, money, and politics—the triumvirate of power blend happily in the fruitless mutual bondage of John James and Mrs Moledy. Finally, Mrs Moledy's visit to the garden party—a Trollopean farce—is yet another counterpart to the erection of the bridge and to Cornelius Dowley's return visit to Carriglas: the uninvited wedding guest brings money to support her Ascendancy lover; the heroic ambusher brings a bomb to destroy his Ascendancy suitor. The connections of murder and of marriage equally wreak havoc in the social body of the ruling class.
The deeper issue informing the dominant wedding motif is the act of touching. The central figure of the novel is a boy who learns to eschew marriage and whose learning experience embodies the controlling issue of the book. Tom is taught by the Catholic establishment that he, born tragically out of wedlock, is a marginal member of society, even of the human race. Holy Mullihan repeatedly instructs Tom about the evils of carnal lust and makes Tom feel that he is the morally blighted fruit of deadly sin. Tom experiences his peculiar innate guilt primarily in terms of touching; most of the Catholic community are afraid to touch the boy, as if his flesh were contaminated with the heinous sin of his origin. When Tom happens to observe what he believes to be a near counterpart to his own conception, he adds another aspect to his understanding of the taboo of sexual touching—he sees that it includes an element of torment, even violence.
'God, you'd torment a man!' Briscoe, the bank porter, was there with the girl from Renehan's who'd told Tom she said prayers for him. They were lying on the grass by one of the tumbled-down walls, Briscoe with his jacket off…. All the time he was continuing to pull at her skirt and she was trying to stop him, even though she had one arm round his neck…. 'God, you have the fine legs,' he said, his voice thickly slurred, like Drunk Paddy's when he was shouting at the seagulls. 'God, you're great!'… She covered herself. She sat up on the grass, buttoning her blouse…. 'You're a right bitch,' Briscoe shouted at the girl…. 'A right little convent whore!' Briscoe's voice shouted, and in the same rough voice he swore at the girl, calling her names Tom thought only the boys at the Christian Brothers' used.
Briscoe's unconscious deification of the sexual tormentor passes without comment in Tom's thoughts. The inherent sadism in sexual relationships is less explicitly presented to the boy's emotional imagination in the performance of the Zodiacs. The overt thrill of the act is the titillation of playing with death, but the thrill of ritual violence is equally sexual, as the man blindly outlines the female figure with knives that must not touch her flesh. The knife-throwing act of the Zodiacs is a grim entertainment that mimes the force of destiny. Outlining the body of his wife with twelve knives, the husband performs a symbolic act of sacrifice (recalling Hugh's sacrifice of Villana) which torments without touching. Similarly, Briscoe and the girl from Renehan's torment each other sexually by not consummating their touching, and Ireland's social classes torment each other with the struggle for power and guilt; sexually and politically, everyone is tormented by contingencies. The act of touching in all its forms assumes in the political and religious world of 1931 ominous implications. For the guilt of union, whether sexual or political, stems from the inevitable violence attending it and the consequent violence it engenders. The long train of carnage in Ireland is alike a long train of carnal corruption. Touching is most often the prelude to suffering, whether as sexual torment, political violence, or the burden of ownership—and fertility itself seems to be the vanity of vanities.
The marital garden falls silent with the deaths of the three fruitless children of Carriglas, but in the long preceding generations the unsilent garden has been the scene of human intercourse fallen from grace, the living space of suffering impingement. Mrs Rolleston's dream reveals this deeper reality when she sees the multiple identity of the red-haired boy who is frantically chased across the island:
'That boy was killed at Passchendaele,' Finnamore Balt said, but she contradicted that, reminding him that it was Villana's father who had been killed at Passchendaele. 'Then he was killed on your avenue,' Finnamore Balt said, but she knew that was wrong also. 'Mr Balt asked me to marry him,' Brigid said, looking up from the bread she was making, her face delighted in the kitchen.
In the garden of Carriglas the players in the human comedy are interchangeable, finally identical all modes of interhuman connection—killing and marrying, crossing and touching, amount to the same breach of silence, the same suffering entanglement marked by the emblematic trees of the Irish Big House.
The central theme of touching acquires additional focus and intensity through the stylistic prominence of the word cross (as verb, adjective, noun) and its derivatives in the diction of the novel. The crossing motif embraces a multitude of meanings, all of which reinforce a core element in Trevor's vision of the human condition. Some examples: The expression for being angry or annoyed is invariably "cross", as when Mrs Moledy urges John James not to be "a crosspatch" or when she accuses him of being "cross about that bridge." The bridge itself is described as a "criss-cross of girders"—thus resembling the monkey puzzle—and the most illustrious exploit of the man it is named after was the ambush at Lahane crossroads. In her last moment alone before beginning married life, Villana crosses her legs while sitting on her bed, suggesting that her personal cross is to be a fruitless marriage. Throughout the novel the overall effect of the blended implications of crossing—transition, confusion, thwartedness, anger, piety, suffering, and crucifixion—is to suggest a world in need of purgation, a world in the throes of self-punishment. Tom learns from Holy Mullihan that his very existence is an act of blasphemy, as if his mother had walked up to "the Cross" and spit on the Savior. If, in consequence, people "cross a street" to avoid coming near him, Tom "crosses" to Mrs Rolleston's bedside and receives her kiss. Tom's crossed life in Catholic society, his status as an "untouchable" among his own people, is redeemed by the Rolleston cross of responsible self-sacrifice: Mrs Rolleston's kiss of moral adoption betokens Tom's inheritance of the estate.
John James's dominion over Carriglas thus devolves upon the servant king Tom. Like the Old Adam, John James has fallen from his first estate, having traded his birthright for the itinerant kingship of the Rose of Tralee. But Carriglas will be redeemed and transfigured through the humility of the New Adam, the Suffering Servant. Often called "the gate-lodge boy" by the Rollestons, Tom's life represents the space of ritual passage, the sacred space of birth and death for the Big House. Tom suffers for the guilt of the House and of the country, and, gentle as a Iamb, his life puts an end to the thread of carnage and carnality. Tom's story is the quest of an innocent to understand the prejudice directed against him. With a character free from resentment, bitterness, and hatred toward his tormentors, his path is a pilgrim's progress to secular hermitage; drawing more than Catholic piety from touching the holy clay of the hermit's well, Tom there communes with the symbol of his own deeper self and his own destiny. Only the passive humility of the atoning hero, who knows neither rebellion nor self-pity, can ultimately overcome the fanatic influence of the populist hero, Cornelius Dowley, whose fame is forged of cruelty, bitterness, and vengeance. For Tom it is enough to be pleased that "Lashaway", the horse he placed his money on, wins when he knew it would; the amount of the win is as unimportant as the bronze plate, dulled by time, honoring his violent antagonist.
The safest route of escape from the damning contingencies of power and sexuality is that of abstinence. Tom and the three Rolleston children choose to live in sterile relationships that lead away from the multiplication of contingencies and back to the garden that is silent. Rejection of estates, powers, and dominions—with their attendant guilt—also leads to the withdrawal of man from nature; the island that is shaped like a snail outlasts the passing gardens on its back, perhaps in time devouring them. The alternative to sinful touching that Tom finds most attractive is not the holy sacrament of matrimony but rather the safe haven of the confirmed bachelor.
'I'll tell you one thing,' the ferryman was saying on the ferry when. Tom climbed on to it. 'Ireland was always famous for its bachelors.'
All celibates, religious and secular, prefer ferries to bridges, prefer living in a silent garden. Tom's spiritual exercises at the well and his forced education in the taboo of touching lead him to reject the prospect of wedding fertile Esmeralda Coyne (one of eleven daughters) and to affirm his own kind of no-touch "marriage" with Patty: Tom saves Carriglas from meretricious resurrection as a hotel and confirms the silencing of all sorrows' source, the peaceful end of all touching and all crossing. Having been constantly enjoined by a concerned Catholic community to touch the holy clay, Tom unites himself with the "green rock" of Ireland in a kind of contemplative hermitage that rejects commercial renewal and allows instead the garden wilderness to renew its primal silence. For Tom's "bewilderment" at the awesome self-inflicted punishment of the House of Rolleston is the soul's counterpart for the literal be-wild-erment of Carriglas, that deceptively named "green rock" of Ireland, for which fertility must be a miracle of grace, given the crossed nature of man. In his humility, the Suffering Servant is exalted by the divine paradox of grace—like "the green rock".
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5597
SOURCE: "'They Were as Good as We Were': The Stories of William Trevor," in The New Criterion, Vol. 11, No. 6, February, 1993, pp. 10-17.
[In the following review Tillinghast examines Trevor's treatment of Irish culture in The Collected Stories.]
American readers of William Trevor's fiction may find themselves at something of a loss to decide precisely what nationality or ethnic identity to assign to this acknowledged master of the short story. The usual epithet for Trevor is Anglo-Irish, which, particularly for readers unfamiliar with Ireland, roughly places him, because he was born and raised in Ireland, went to school there, attended Trinity, College, Dublin—and because a quarter of the eighty-odd pieces in his Collected Stones are set in Ireland or are peopled by Irish characters living abroad, usually in England. He himself has for many years lived and written in Devon.
The term "Anglo-Irish" usually either embraces the members and descendants of the Protestant Ascendancy like Yeats, Synge, and Lady Gregory—prime movers in the Irish Literary Revival; or it brings to mind the fiction written by that wonderful team of cousins who called themselves Somerville and Ross, authors of the "Irish R. M." stories, whose masterpiece was the novel The Real Charlotte. A somewhat imprecise Celtic mythologizing tendency is evoked in the one case; decrepit country houses, hunt balls, and a Faulknerian preoccupation with lineage in the other.
To associate Trevor with the milieu conjured up by the term "Anglo-Irish" would be a mistake. For one thing, the Anglo-Irish tradition itself has since the nineteenth century become increasingly attenuated. As early as the 1860s, Gladstone's disestablishment of the (Protestant) Church of Ireland, his Land Acts—and later those of Balfour—in response to the agitations associated with Parnell, together with Conservative adoption of land reform policies, drastically liberalized the landlord-and-tenantsystem that had ruled the island since Henry VIII and Elizabeth I revoked the legitimacy of the native Irish nobility, making them swear fealty to and draw their legitimacy from the Crown.
The history of Ireland after the land reform movement was one of Protestant return to England in the face of an Ireland that increasingly defined itself, especially under DeValera's Irish Republic, as Gaelic, agrarian, and Catholic. The Protestants who have remained in the Irish Republic are an isolated remnant. (For readers unfamiliar with Irish life, the terms Protestant and Catholic imply social distinctions as much as matters of faith.) Trevor's understanding of the lives of Irish Protestants hints at a broader identification with an element of humanity psychologically marginalized, passed-over, alienated. And since Trevor's characters and settings are in fact more often English than they are Irish, he might be more accurately though more long-windedly identified as "Protestant-Irish and English."
On this side of the Atlantic we are accustomed to seeing the Emerald Isle through a haze of sentimentality which Irish-Americans have led us to feel for the country which they, usually for very sound reasons, have left. The reality, of course, is that life for the majority of those who live in Ireland, particularly in the provinces, has been an unending struggle to make ends meet within a farming economy which offers little diversion. Bridie, in Trevor's early story "The Ballroom of Romance," cares for her widowed father, who is handicapped with an amputated leg, on a small farm like so many in the country. The narrowness of this life, particularly back in the Forties and Fifties, is from an American point of view almost impossible to grasp.
As drab as life in the nearby town is, Bridie still fantasizes about it: "The town had a cinema called the Electric, and a fish-and-chip shop where people met at night, eating chips out of newspaper on the pavement outside. In the evenings, sitting in the farmhouse with her father, she often thought about the town, imagining the shop-windows lit up to display their goods and the sweet-shops still open so that people could purchase chocolates or fruit to take with them to the Electric cinema. But the town was eleven miles away, which was too far to cycle, there and back, for an evening's entertainment." Instead she cycles once a week to a grim little place called The Ballroom of Romance, dancing and socializing with the same crowd of bachelors and spinsters who frequent the place, trying to attract the attention of the drummer in the band, Dano Ryan. Dano is not interested, however. "Once, at the end of an evening, she'd pretended that there was a puncture in the back wheel of her bicycle and he'd concerned himself with it while Mr Maloney and Mr Swanton waited for him in Mr Maloney's car. He'd blown the tyre up with the car pump and had said he thought it would hold."
While there is plenty of humor in Trevor's writing, he seldom condescends to his characters, but pays laconic tribute to their stoicism and decency. Bridie's evening at The Ballroom of Romance is revealed, but only at the end of the story, to have been her last night there. When the dance hall closes, she allows the old bachelor Bowser Egan to accompany her and even to kiss her in a field along the way, after he has, in the reticent and even coded manner of these tradition-bound people, indicated he would marry her once his mother had died, leaving him the small farm where mother and son live. Marriage, as is often the case in these Irish stories, represents a sort of resigned acquiescence in the social realities of a very constricted way of life. After the chaste and sad little exchange in the field, Bowser and Bridie mount their bikes and part. Without any flourish of either exultation or self-pity, Bridie has set into motion a major decision in her circumscribed life. "She rode through the night as on Saturday nights for years she had ridden and never would ride again because she'd reached a certain age. She would wait now and in time Bowser Egan would seek her out because his mother would have died. Her father would probably have died also by then. She would marry Bowser Egan because it would be lonesome being by herself in the farmhouse."
In "The Property of Colette Nervi," a story published some twenty years later, another rural Irish marriage of convenience—between a farmer and the daughter of a shopkeeper—is made affordable with money the farmer has stolen from a purse some French tourists have left sitting on top of their rental car. The French people have come to look at the little settlement's one touristic claim to fame, Drumgawnie Rath, "a ring of standing stones that predated history." One irony in the story is that people will come from all over Europe to see these unimpressive stones, though "a visitor who had spent the whole afternoon examining them and had afterwards returned to the shop to verify the way to the Rossaphin road has stated that they were the most extraordinary stones of their kind in the whole of Europe. 'I think he was maybe drunk,' Dolores's mother had commented, and her father had agreed." The stolen money will allow Henry Garvey, who will inherit a rundown old farm, to marry the crippled Dolores, who will inherit the shop at the crossroads, in a marriage ceremony where the arm-support of the crutch will be decorated in white lace. "Dolores thought she'd never seen a crutch look so pretty, and wondered if it was a marriage tradition for crippled brides, but did not ask." This last phrase is emblematic of so much in the repressive society that Trevor chronicles, where much is understood and little is spoken.
"An Evening with John Joe Dempsey" gives an insight into the life and mind of a character thoroughly out of sync with the pieties of his town. The story begins with John Joe's being sent by his widowed mother on an errand to the combination pub/grocery store that one still finds in rural Ireland—the kind of place where Himself drinks a pint while Herself does the shopping. "Mr Lynch, now a large, fresh-faced man of fifty-five who was never seen without a brown hat on his head," who works as a clerk in a meal business, lives with his seventy-nine-year-old mother, and spends his evenings drinking in Keogh's public house, buys the fifteen-year-old boy his first bottle of stout and decides to give him some advice, starting off with some stories about the "glory girls" of London, where he was stationed while serving with the British Army. The preamble of Mr. Lynch's words of wisdom would capture any boy's attention:
"If your daddy was alive today, he would be telling you a thing or two in order to prepare you for your manhood and the temptations in another country. Your mother wouldn't know how to tackle a matter like that, nor would Father Ryan, nor the Christian Brothers. Your daddy might have sat you down in this bar and given you your first bottle of stout. He might have told you about the facts of life."
John Joe knows exactly what he wants to hear about: "Did one of the glory girls entice yourself, Mr Lynch?" To John Joe's intense disappointment, though, and in one of the wry twists that William Trevor specializes in, the point of the story is that, faced with the "glory girl," Mr. Lynch has a vision of the Blessed Virgin! "As soon as the glory girl said we'd drink the beer before we got down to business I saw … the Holy Mother, as clear as if [she] was in front of me." "I couldn't repeat," he adds, "what the glory girl said when I walked away." But the reader can guess.
What a bring-down for the young man! Typical of Trevor's comic sense is Mr. Lynch's summing-up remark: "The facts of life is one thing, John Joe, but keep away from dirty women." Not to worry. John Joe has at fifteen learned to say what is expected of him.
"You have pimples on your chin," said Mr Lynch in the end. "I hope you're living a clean life now."
"A healthy life, Mr. Lynch."
"It is a question your daddy would ask you. You know what I mean? There's some lads can't leave it alone."
"They go mad in the end, Mr Lynch."
John Joe's mother and everyone else wonders why the lad spends so much time in the company of the town idiot, a dwarf named Quigley. Brother Leahy questions him sharply about the dwarf: "Tell me this, young fellow-me-lad, what kind of a conversation do you have with old Quigley?" They talked, John Joe said, about trees and flowers and hedgerows. He liked to listen to Quigley, he said, because Quigley had acquired a knowledge of such matters. But not even Mr. Lynch is dumb enough to fall for that one. John Joe's private view is that "Quigley, a bachelor also, was a happier man than Mr Lynch. He lived in what amounted to a shed at the bottom of his niece's garden. Food was carried to him, but there were few, with the exception of John Joe, who lingered in his company." Like John Joe himself, Quigley spends most of his time thinking what it would be like to have sex with the ladies of the town, spying on them, and spinning fabulous tales about their intimate lives: "Quigley's voice might continue for an hour and a half, for there was hardly a man and his wife in the town whom he didn't claim to have observed in intimate circumstances. John Joe did not ever ask how, when there was no convenient shed to climb on to, the dwarf managed to make his way to so many exposed upstairs windows. Such a question would have been wholly irrelevant."
In a series of hilarious vignettes, Trevor retails John Joe's fantasies, each of which, simmering just beneath the surface of his imagination, involves being seduced by one of the married ladies of the town. When his mother gives him his father's old fountain pen as a birthday present, he finds himself writing, as a way of testing the pen, It's hot in here. Wouldn't you take off your jersey? "That's a funny thing to write," his mother says. "It came into my head," is his reply.
The end of "An Evening with John Joe Dempsey" follows the boy to his room, where he "looked with affection at his bed, for in the end there was only that." Our sympathies are with the boy, because in the face of the town's repression and compromise, his fantasy life embodies his only sanity: "He travelled alone, visiting in his way the women of the town, adored and adoring, more alive in his bed than he ever was at the Christian Brothers' School, or in the grey Coliseum [the cinema], or in the chip-shop, or Keogh's public house, or his mother's kitchen, more alive than ever he would be at the sawmills. In his bed he entered a paradise: it was grand being alone."
The closest Trevor gets in his short stories to an atmosphere that might be called, in the terms I have delineated above, "Anglo-Irish," is in a poignant piece called "The Distant Past," which tells the story of an old brother and sister who live on in their dilapidated Georgian manor house, with its leaky roof and family crest and Cross of St. George displayed in the front hall—all that remains of an estate call Carraveagh. "The Middletons of Carraveagh the family had once been known as, but now the brother and sister were just the Middletons, for Carraveagh didn't count any more, except to them." On the day of Queen Elizabeth's coronation in 1952, they drove into town with a small Union Jack displayed in the rear window of their car.
The Church of Ireland (Anglican) Middletons have always enjoyed affectionate relations with the Catholic Irish of the town, their loyalties to the imperial past being smiled on as harmless eccentricities. Of the display of the flag on coronation day: "'Bedad, you're a holy terror, Mr Middleton!' Fat Cranley laughingly exclaimed, noticing the flag as he lifted a tray of pork steaks from his display shelf." Part of the irony is that Fat Cranley, during the Irish War of Independence, actually fought against the British, showing up at Carraveagh with a shotgun in expectation of a battle with British troops, and locking up the family in an upstairs room. But as the Troubles of the Easter Rising and Civil War period faded into memory the town could laugh about those events, the Middletons amiably taking their place as "harmlessly peculiar," cobwebby museum pieces who give the town a bit of tone. Everyone has been able to accept this transition through which the Middletons have gone from being part of the ruling class to being two old relics of the past. "On Fridays, when they took seven or eight dozen eggs to the town, they dressed in pressed tweeds and were accompanied over the years by a series of red setters, the breed there had always been at Carraveagh."
As the older brother and sister have declined in the world, the new Ireland has prospered, becoming less a poor province of Britain and more a part of Europe, with a growing tourist trade: "the wife of a solicitor, a Mrs Duggan, began to give six o'clock parties once or twice a year, obliging her husband to mix gin and Martini in glass jugs and herself handing round a selection of nuts and small Japanese crackers." Trevor effortlessly sketches a three-paragraph history of the newly prosperous Irish Republic. As for the Middletons: "Dimly, but with no less loyalty, they still recalled the distant past and were listened to without ill-feeling when they spoke of it and of Carraveagh as it had been, and of the Queen whose company their careless father had known.
The trouble arises when the distant past stops being distant. "We can disagree without guns" was the gospel here, "the result of living in a Christian country." "That the Middletons bought their meat from a man who had once locked them into an upstairs room and had then waited to shoot soldiers in their hall was a fact that amazed the seasonal visitors." Then the new Troubles begin, with Protestant attacks on Catholic neighborhoods and the rebirth of the old IRA as a brutal revolutionary force; the rise of the Protestant paramilitaries—as bad or worse than the IRA; and the murders and retaliations. Since the town lies a scant sixty miles from the Ulster border, tourism falls off and the town's hard-won prosperity starts to ebb. The Middletons start being snubbed: "It was as though, going back nearly twenty years, people remembered the Union Jack in the window of their car and saw it now in a different light. It wasn't something to laugh at any more, nor were certain words that the Middletons had gently spoken, nor were they themselves just an old, peculiar couple." The humor, the affection, the very human accommodation between old antagonists—all of them caught between conflicting social forces over which they have no control—disappear now, in a past that has suddenly become present. "Because of the distant past they would die friendless. It was worse than being murdered in their beds."
Historians and political commentators, particularly on the left, like to speak of the Irish condition since Independence as "post-colonial"; and Irish society does exhibit some of the signs of a people still shaking off the shadows of foreign domination. Attitudes toward government and toward secular authority figures, for example, are strikingly ambivalent. But the English and the Scots were always too close to the Irish to be thought of as colonizers in the classic model. Trevor brings a subtlety of insight to the relations between Ireland and "the other island." Take Norah and Dermot of "Another Christmas." Irish by birth, they have emigrated shortly after their marriage and are now permanently settled in England. "Their children spoke with London accents. Patrick and Brendan worked for English firms and would make their homes in England. Patrick had married an English girl. They were Catholics and they had Irish names, yet home for them was not Waterford." In this they typify many Irish people who live in England.
The crisis of the story arises from the unspoken understanding that their landlord, Mr. Joyce (an Irish name, though the man seems not to have Irish sympathies), will for the first time in years not be coming to Christmas dinner. Norah is planning to deliver a present to him, sensing he won't come—though Mr. Joyce has not said no, and Dermot insists, "I'd say there was no need to go round with the tie, Norah. I'd say he'd make the effort on Christmas Day." (Trevor has a wonderful ear for the Irish conditional tense.) The estrangement has come about because of words spoken while the three were watching a television news report of "another outrage"—an IRA bombing. When Mr. Joyce said that he "couldn't understand the mentality of people like that … killing just anyone, destroying life for no reason," Dermot had countered that "they mustn't of course forget what the Catholics in the North had suffered. The bombs were a crime but it didn't do to forget that the crime would not be there if generations of Catholics in the North had not been treated as animals."
Can anyone who knows his history disagree with that? The story dramatizes how the lives of these London Irish are impinged upon by the Troubles. Norah, caught between two nations, "felt she should be out on the streets, shouting in her Waterford accent, violently stating that the bombers were more despicable with every breath they drew, that hatred and death were all they deserved." At the same time her husband faces the possibility of losing his job as a meter-reader for North Thames Gas because men with Irish accents make people nervous these days. Still Norah resents his statement about Irish history because "[t]heir harmless elderly landlord might die in the course of that same year, a friendship he had valued lost, his last Christmas lonely." We can see how families, friendships, lives are affected by the continuing butchery in the North, a conflict that dates back over many centuries.
Politics, history, and social class engage Trevor's imagination not in and of themselves, but because of the way they affect people's lives. Though Northern Ireland or even Ireland is certainly not an obsession for him, Trevor has written other stories that get right into the belly of the beast. In "Attracta," the title character, a Protestant schoolteacher, has somehow managed to put into the back of her mind the death of her own parents when she was three years old—they were shot down by mistake in an ambush the Nationalist insurgents had planned for the Black and Tans. In the aftermath the man responsible for the ambush has become Attracta's protector, and Attracta only learns of her parents' death when she is eleven, from a bitter, somewhat deranged old man in the town. She has managed somehow to repress all feelings toward the Troubles of the 1920s until by chance she reads in a newspaper of the suicide of an Englishwoman whose husband, an army officer, was murdered by the IRA, who decapitated him and sent his head to her in the mail. Then Attracta loses control of what she has repressed all these years, goes off her head a bit and begins to talk to her pupils about the horror that lies just beneath the surface of Irish history, the horror that most people successfully ignore. The next day the Protestant Archdeacon kindly convinces Attracta to take early retirement.
In "Beyond the Pale," Cynthia, an Englishwoman on vacation in Northern Ireland with her husband, his mistress of many years, and her husband's best friend, becomes hysterical after hearing the story of a local Irishman's former girlfriend who has been killed in England in some obscure plot between the rival terrorist groups. The man drowns himself in the sea just outside the hotel where the foursome vacation, because this is where he and his girlfriend had come as children. This sends Cynthia off on a mad ramble about Irish history, in the course of which she spills the beans about her husband's affair. His mistress, who narrates the story, is more upset about this revelation than about the tragedies of Irish history: "Why couldn't it have been she who had gone down to the rocks and slipped on the seaweed or just walked into the sea, it didn't matter which? Her awful rigmarole hung about us as the last of the tea things were gathered up—the earls who'd fled, the famine and the people planted. The children were there too, grown up into murdering riff-raff."
The stickiest problem of Irish history is, writ large, the same impulse that Trevor worries relentlessly in many if not most of his stories—the impulse to hide, to suppress, to lie. I have dwelt on the specifically Irish and Irish-English sides of Trevor's work, but his preoccupation with repression and with loaded secrets is by no means limited to the national and ethnic context. He gives human nature a wide berth, sometimes turning an amused eye to our duplicities, but more often adopting a rather severe if not bitter tone. Disillusionment is the characteristic mode of this most acute observer of the human condition.
The seasoned reader of Trevor's work, upon opening a story called "A Happy Family," braces himself for the "attitude adjustment" that is surely waiting in the wings, even at the moment when ordinary human contentment is being masterly evoked in passages like this: "I remember sitting in the number 73 bus, thinking of the day as I had spent it and thinking of the house I was about to enter. It was a fine evening, warm and mellow, the air heavy with the smell of London. The bus crossed Hammersmith Bridge, moving quite quickly towards the leafy avenues beyond." In a house in those leafy avenues lives a woman who will soon begin receiving phone calls from a Mr. Higgs, who uncannily knows all the secrets of her life: a caller who turns out to be imaginary—the midlife version of an imaginary childhood figure. When the woman has to be "put away" for her mental illness, her husband cannot help being disconcerted by the fact that their daughter also has an imaginary friend. "I stopped the car by our house," the story ends, "thinking that only death could make the house seem so empty, and thinking too that death was easier to understand. We made tea, I remember, the children and I, not saying very much more."
In the world inhabited by William Trevor's characters, the happy family is either transitory or illusory, or simply does not exist. In one of my favorite stories, "Mr McNamara," Trevor creates over the space of four pages a golden picture of childhood in an Irish town in the Midlands, content despite having come somewhat down in the world. "As a family we belonged to the past. We were Protestants in what had become Catholic Ireland. We'd once been part of an ascendancy, but now it was not so. Now there was the income from the granary and the mill, and the house we lived in: we sold grain and flour, we wielded no power. 'Proddy-woddy green-guts,' the Catholic children cried at us in Curransbridge. 'Catty, Catty, going to Mass,' we whispered back, 'riding on the devil's ass.' They were as good as we were." The family: a son and three daughters, "and Flannagan in the garden and Bridget our maid, and the avuncular spirit of Mr McNamara."
The parents are as good a pair as one could hope for: "when they disagreed or argued their voices weren't ever raised. They could be angry with us, but not with one another. They meted out punishments for us jointly, sharing disapproval or disappointment. We felt doubly ashamed when our misdemeanours were uncovered." The father is a large, "bulky" man who drinks from an extra-large teacup. And what is the significance of his having a special knife and fork, "extra-strong because my father was always breaking forks"? Throughout the narrator's childhood there are the father's visits to Dublin, a regular feature of which would be his visits in the bar of Fleming's Hotel with his friend Mr. McNamara: "The whole thing occurred once every month or so, the going away in the first place, the small packed suitcase in the hall, my father in his best tweed suit, Flannagan and the dog-cart. And the returning a few days later: breakfast with Mr McNamara, my sister Charlotte used to say"—because during breakfast the morning after he returned, the father would recount all the Dublin news, along with Mr. McNamara's views of it all, and the endlessly complicated though rather ordinary stories of Mr. McNamara's family, who lived in a house "in Palmerston Road, and the dog they had, a spaniel called Wolfe Tone, and a maid called Kate O'Shea, from Skibbereen."
Mr. McNamara even sends the boy a thirteenth-birthday present. Trevor has a delightful way of making a detail stand out: "One by one my presents were placed before me, my parents' brought from the sideboard by my mother. It was a package about two and a half feet long, a few inches in width. It felt like a bundle of twigs and was in fact the various parts of a box-kite. Charlotte had bought me a book called Dickon the Impossible, Amelia a kaleidoscope. 'Open mine exceedingly carefully,' Frances said. I did, and at first I thought it was a pot of jam. It was a goldfish in a jar." How much these details tell us of the care with which life was managed in this household! "Open mine exceedingly carefully" is redolent of the long-vanished rectitude and precision of language of the cloistered Anglo-Irish provincial middle class. Mr. McNamara's gift, though, is the best of all: a little dragon made of brass, with "two green eyes that Frances said were emeralds, and small pieces let into its back which she said looked like rubies." The boy is enjoined to write a thank-you note. "Give me the letter when you've done it," his father says. "I have to go up again in a fortnight."
But his father dies the next day—"a grim nightmare of a day, during all of which someone in the house was weeping, and often several of us together." Interestingly, Mr. McNamara, through the mother's intercession, is not informed: "My father and Mr McNamara had been bar-room friends, [Mother] pointed out: letters in either direction would not be in order." From then on, the boy's mission in life is to grow up and replace his father as owner of the granary and mill, and to further his education he is sent to a Protestant boarding school in the Dublin mountains. Eventually he works up his courage to make up an excuse to go into Dublin—"'An uncle,' I said to the small headmaster. 'Passing through Dublin, sir.'"—so that he can see Fleming's Hotel for himself.
The inevitable occurs. In one of the most exquisitely bittersweet scenes in fiction, the boy cycles up to Fleming's Hotel and goes in. "A tall grandfather clock ticked, the fire occasionally hissed. There was a smell of some kind of soup. It was the nicest, most comfortable hall I'd ever been in." He proceeds into the bar, empty except for the barman and "a woman sitting by the fire drinking orange-coloured liquid from a small glass. Behind the bar a man in a white jacket was reading the Irish Independent." The boy manages to order a bottle of ale, his first encounter with the stuff, and as he drinks it, waiting for Mr. McNamara to appear, he notices that the woman is looking at him, and he wonders in his naïve way if she might be a prostitute: "A boy at school called Yeats claimed that prostitutes hung about railway stations mostly, and on quays. But there was of course no reason why you shouldn't come across one in a bar … Yet she seemed too quietly dressed to be a prostitute."
Eventually the woman gets up and leaves, "and on her way from the bar she passed close to where I was sitting. She looked down and smiled at me." After she has left, the boy asks the barman who she is. And when the man says, "That's Nora McNamara," the reader finds he is really not surprised, remembering the little brass dragon—which is more a woman's gift than a man's—and the mother's insistence that Mr. McNamara not be notified of her husband's death, suggesting that she shared with him the fiction of "Mr." McNamara's identity.
What is perhaps even more absorbing for the student of human nature than this discovery is the boy's bitter reaction to it. As much as the boy resents his father's having given the other woman's gifts to his children, "yet somehow it was not as great as the sin of sharing with all of us this other woman's eccentric household, her sister and her sister's husband, her alcoholic aunt, a maid and a dog"—the violation of the family's sanctity that comes from the intrusion of another reality into their midst, introduced under false pretenses. He relives all of it at home on Christmas morning:
I hated the memory of him and how he would have been that Christmas morning; I hated him for destroying everything. It was no consolation to me then that he had tried to share with us a person he loved in a way that was different from the way he loved us. I could neither forgive nor understand. I felt only bitterness that I, who had taken his place, must now continue his deception, and keep the secret of his lies and his hypocrisy.
To be an adult is to be able to keep a tough secret. The boy has become a man.
William Trevor's keen eye illuminates the lives of the Irish, the Anglo-Irish, and also the English. The sequence of stories called "Matilda's England" is perhaps the best treatment of the English experience of World War II that I have ever read. But his vision transcends, as I have suggested, the various contexts within which he places his stories. Taken as a whole, his fiction makes a strong assertion about human nature, as an observer of which Trevor is unsparing, not given to the epiphanies we associate with other great Irish short-story writers such as James Joyce and Frank O'Connor. There is humor here, and certain moments that glow with the enjoyment of life, perfectly rendered into beautiful prose. But reading these stories one after the other can be a sobering and chastening experience. They have kept me awake at night. The reader is not advised to read consecutively, as I have done over the past several months, the twelve hundred pages of The Collected Stones. These are meant to be absorbed one at a time. But once the stories become part of one's mind and life, there's no shaking them.
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SOURCE: "A Lifetime of Tales from the Land of Broken Hearts," in New York Times Book Review, February 28, 1993, pp. 1, 25-7.
[In the following review of The Collected Stories, Price argues that Trevor's short story writing is consistently strong but that his novels are better.]
The voices of extraordinary writers like William Trevor are almost as quickly recognizable as those of great singers. Any lover of song will know a Pavarotti, a Leontyne Price, in an opening phrase—often in a single note. The genuinely sizable writers of fiction announce their presence almost as early. Some, like Conrad or Hemingway, speak in timbres distinctive enough to declare their markers in a single sentence. More often the novelist or short-story writer quietly names himself or herself, not by actual words or syntax but by an almost immediate revelation of what might be called his primal scene.
Even the voices of writers as wide-gauged as Tolstoy or Proust are grounded in a single scene, most often a lingering sight from childhood or early youth. And that scene is almost always one that a seasoned reader may well suspect lies near the start of a given writer's reason for writing—the physical moment in which a single enormous question rose before a watchful child and fueled the lifelong search for an answer.
In Tolstoy, it's the terrible moment in a bright country house when a boy barely 2 years old hears the news of his mother's death and senses that he stands alone, doomed to the orphan's endless starvation for perfect love. In Proust it's the scented and breathless young man poised at the bolted thick glass door of a salon teeming with human monsters he's powerless not to adore and struggle to capture, though he knows they'll despise him if he breaches the threshold that rightly divides them. In Virginia Woolf it's the silent instant in a high-ceilinged room when, after her first attack of madness, a beautiful, lean girl understands that in all her world no other person shares her eyes and the other senses that make the world so uniquely dazzling and awful a sight for her alone, demanding her witness.
And though William Trevor is very much alive and at work—his Collected Stories, consists of more than a thousand pages, many of them recent—it's seldom possible to move past the first page of any story from his broad array without detecting a boy, of 12 say, at the edge of a lush field or patchy lawn in a country far from the great world's noise, his gray eyes fixed in a just and merciless (though not unkind) gaze at a family in evening light some yards beyond him, thirsty faces taut with the pain of hiding their most urgent needs and the dread of losing their long-hid yearnings.
As with most large writers, that primal scene with its set of fixed eyes and its destined angle has proved to be Mr. Trevor's most valuable gift and his only impediment. Long before he sensed his profession—he spent long years as a painter and sculptor before deciding to write his first story—that half-concealed boy's eyes and mind had stored several remade worlds as rich in meaning as the actual earth. They'd likewise broken his heart too soon. For his one great lack as a writer is hope, the clear stream, however slight and easily stemmed, that runs on past private loss and ruin in the worlds of writers even as near desperation as Kafka or James Joyce, Mr. Trevor's huge predecessor.
William Trevor was born in 1928, a son of the troubled marriage of middle-class Protestant parents with roots in the farmland of Catholic Ireland. He moved restlessly in childhood about that small, cold, white-hot country, smaller than most American states. The atmosphere of a miserable home and the rootlessness of a vagabond childhood may have saved him from an ordinary career of balked melancholia. Mr. Trevor's distinctly alien qualities as a Protestant child without firm grounding in a particular village or city may have rescued him from the curse of self-loathing that might otherwise have silenced him or, worse, sent him forward as one more pale ventriloquist's doll worked by the strings of his dead ancestors—such giant figures as Shaw; Synge, the protean Yeats, O'Casey and the coiled reptilian exile Joyce, all natives of the same small room and perilously near at the time of his birth.
It was a peril of birth that Mr. Trevor shares with many of his fellows in other brands of fiction—American Southerners born in the wake of Faulkner, Porter, Welty and O'Connor; American Jewish males in the wake of Bellow, Malamud and Roth; most of the dozens of hapless souls born lately in any big Western city—the atmospheres of Paris, London, New York and Los Angeles that are now as nearly worked out as a sharecropper's cotton field in south Alabama or a beauty parlor in suburban Nashville.
But Mr. Trevor's apparently effortless triumph is to have taken a world worn nearly smooth by long and splendid handling and through pure intensity of attention and care to have found a nearly endless new set of subjects and tones. Almost as surprising, he has managed the greater part of his work in an all but total avoidance of the sourness of spirit, the meanness of outlook and the treacherous grandiloquence that has often afflicted those writers who inherit the bitter divisions of a small and brutally torn homeplace—Yeats and Joyce, even Faulkner in the wake of our Civil War, are not as free as William Trevor of that blight.
Yet Mr. Trevor has found a deeper chill, a core of defeat as pure and compelling in its ultimate sadness as that at the heart of Euripides—the unbroken spectacle of worthy men, women and children frozen by genetic inheritance and the warp of history. Among these 80-odd stories from 30 years, the most haunting, in their range of knowledge and depth of feeling, all focus on an action that with nearly invisible speed moves a small clutch of figures toward the instant when fate uncovers before their eyes in a silent rush the bleak denying future that they've either earned or been endowed with by family and home.
For me, among the stories that promise to last are the famous "Ballroom of Romance," "An Evening With John Joe Dempsey," "O Fat White Woman," "Death in Jerusalem," "The Paradise Lounge," "Honeymoon in Tramore," "In Love With Ariadne" and "Kathleen's Field." Of these best, only "O Fat White Woman" is set outside Ireland (in rural England); only "In Love With Ariadne" is set in a city; all the others are deeply socketed in the Irish countryside of small towns and villages.
Such a hard limitation on place and type of character might, in different hands, threaten monotony and quick exhaustion. But just as a reader thinks "He's told me this more than once already; he's badly stuck," Mr. Trevor's sheer intensity of entry into the lives of his people stalls the complaint and proceeds to uncover new layers of yearning and pain, new angles of vision and credible thought—layers that most readers would never have guessed in men, women and lone unassisted children whose home and history would seem to have left them as mute as Galway ponies in the rain.
The father and daughter in "Kathleen's Field" have frames of reference as narrow as paleolithic man's, but the depth of their hunger for that very life eventually lends them a sturdy heroism of pain endured. In "In Love With Ariadne," the medical student who falls for the daughter of his Dublin landlady is almost literally ignited by the heat of his need for union with the beautiful girl and so fails to guess how terrifying his courteous longing is for someone with a past where love has proved truly lethal; yet the texture of the student's need and Ariadne's fear are brought as close to the reader's face as deep-cut words on a stark gravestone.
"An Evening With John Joe Dempsey" comes as close as Mr. Trevor allows himself to affectionate hope for a character's life—a boy just turned 15 and trembling on the brink of sex—but by the end of a simple happy, evening, we hear again the barely audible leak of sadness assert itself and press in on him, now and for good: this boy's chances of meeting a mate to his own patient sweetness are virtually nil.
Such pain and defeat are so clearly drawn in the best of Mr. Trevor's stories, so memorably sounded in a prose as plain and natural as daylight, that reading them in quantity would take those appetite for suffering than most readers bring to a book. If, that is, Mr. Trevor weren't offering abundant parallel compensations—the invisible nearness of eyes and a mind as watchful as his own, as steadily concerned with human feeling; the lucid prose that works its aims with no obvious effort; and almost everywhere the faintly rising scent of laughter.
For like most other sizable writers who choose country life as the field of their work and whose brand of country is stocked with people—the farmers of Ireland and, say, our own South—who've endured the forces of nature firsthand, forces more exacting than the dangers of cities, Mr. Trevor's vision is deeply, though never entirely, comic. However bleak the present and future of a given human life, the salient nearness of a vital ongoing world of rocks and fields, ocean and shore, will throw an enormous inhuman yardstick up against that one sad life and let us see the unreadable smile of time and fate that shines through even a child's unanswerable hope or need.
Only in his urban stories—and most of them are set in an England populated by the upper middle class—does Mr. Trevor's comic sense go savage. In a story like "Raymond Bamber and Mrs. Fitch," in which he starts with a character whose beingness has a gruesome charm, the thrust of vicious laughter is turned at the final moment, and a comprehending tolerance rises. But in an awful excursion like "The Teddy-Bears' Picnic," no single person from a group of young wealthy twits persuades Mr. Trevor inward for a closer look; and the story itself ends in a mocking laughter that praises itself as it executes the prose equivalent of a mass death sentence on all in sight (and none too soon).
That shallowness—Mr. Trevor's only recurrent fault but a luckily rare one—proceeds from both the vapidity of so much urban life, its hectic obsession with saving one's face in an endless string of pointless social risks, and from what seems Mr. Trevor's refusal or inability to wade as deeply into city life as he always manages when he stands on home ground. Confined as the meanness is to his English urban stories, a reader may wonder if the well-to-do English aren't the only possible resting place for Mr. Trevor's considerable powers of hate and destruction (he's lived in England for many years). With Irish countryfolk, even Anglo-Irish gentry, his perfect sense of pitch and sympathy can lay out the full implications of tragic on merely foolish choices; but a native tenderness spares them his malice.
In whatever country—and he's often written about Italy—his crafty skills never desert him, and now and then be manages a city story of airless dry brilliance to equal Maupassant or John O'Hara. In his novel Other People's Worlds, he has enough space and a big enough cast to string a web of masochism, psychopathy, eager self-delusion, and pathos (but only in the very old and young) that awaits readers with the horror of a Jacobean melodrama—but, as well as the horror, the shallowness of a well-made teaspoon precisely filled to the rim with water, then frozen hard.
The little that Mr. Trevor reveals in interviews about his life suggests that his desert years of work in England from the early 1950's on as a teacher and sculptor, then—of all things—as an advertising copywriter in a London agency may partly account for the sharp division of feeling in the fiction he finally turned to a decade later. That and perhaps a natural scorn for the people whose ancestors lorded over Ireland for more than three centuries. More crucially, I suspect, and despite the lean results they've brought him, he's continued his sporadic raids on the heartless English because he only encountered them in numbers after his childhood and because the short story permits him to do a quick turn at their expense and exit grinning.
In the hands of a writer as practiced as Mr. Trevor, occasional failures are far more likely to be the results of dangers inherent in a chosen form than of some weakness in the writer's equipment—a good writer's short stories fall, when they fall, mostly because the form is short. It can often deprive the writer of time and space in which to burrow beneath the gloss of worlds that don't lie near his old knowledge or engage his care; it goads him into quick and readily salable effects that do slim credit to him or his subjects.
Again such stories are a small minority of what Mr. Trevor offers; and a serious look at the best of his novels confirms that when he works nearer home and gives himself sufficient room, his hand will almost automatically feel its way very deeply indeed into minds and actual summoned places (towns and houses) that open at his touch and show their intricate, amazing cores—an Irish village on market day in a William Trevor story can come to life with the crowding abundance of Dickens's London: For despite the wider fame of his stories and his own recent and thoroughly wrong remark to The New Yorker that his novels are "a lot of linked-up short stories," it's in the later novels of the 10 he's published that Mr. Trevor stakes an unimpeachable claim for the size and very high value of his work.
No novels written in British English since the final trance-intensities of Virginia Woolf feel more likely to hold a long-term claim on human attention than William Trevor's most recent three—Fools of Fortune, The Silence in the Garden and Reading Turgenev (which he calls a novella in the volume, "Two Lives," though it has both the length and weight of a novel).
Each of the three is set in Ireland; each studies an ample stretch of time, a life span at least; two of the three are grounded in the wake of the murderous rebellion of 1919–21 that expelled British power, unseated a resident English gentry (most of them stayed on in their ample holdings) and left a vital continuing legacy of sworn vendetta by the native rebels or the loathed Black and Tans. Such arcs of history are hardly fit subjects for short fiction, though Joyce embalmed scraps of the early struggle in his "Dubliners"; but Joyce's genius, like his understanding; was for the overwhelming moment of bleak revelation or the vast tessellated mosaic in which sharp fragments form a larger scene for the reader prepared to donate a large part of life and time to dogged decipherment.
Mr. Trevor's knowledge—despite his disclaimer—proves deeper, broader and longer-winded than Joyce's, yet far less showy in its calm refusal to follow Joyce in the strangling pursuit of a handmade new tongue able to do more than language can. And the language of Mr. Trevor's best work, of whatever length, proves its modest but entire adequacy in telling us all he seems to know or means to tell us (he most frequently inhabits the mind of women, plainly because for him women possess the more complex and subtle thoughts and feelings). And in lean and audaciously elliptical prose, he makes wide leaps over years and actions that often seem too urgent to skip; then he lands in the darkened room of the present to lay out quietly all the years have failed to tell us, such awful truths as:
Your father waited in silence for decades, then crossed the Irish Sea to England, killed the man who'd killed his own father in the time of the Troubles and now must live in anonymity, far from us. That fact explains the agony of your life till now.
You've entered a loveless village marriage; your husband will prove to be kind but impotent; your in-laws are vicious. You'll turn to the cousin you loved in school; the two of you will flourish in secret till he dies young. Then at last you'll face a literally unlivable life. Choose long years of madness instead; then return to your changed home, peaceful at last.
You'll live a whole life in the presence of lovers yet never know love. Many millions of humans, for thousands of years, have done just that. Expect no pity. Bear your load.
There are living writers, in the United States and Latin America (to go no farther), who possess a more complicated knowledge of a wider range of human life and of how that life enacts itself beneath the hand of individual will and the weight of a wider history. There are living writers of the short story to contend mightily with the recent claims of literary couturiers that Mr. Trevor is now the premier story writer in the language—in the United States alone we have Eudora Welty, William Maxwell, John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates, to name an irresistible few. Each of these four has matched the breadth of Mr. Trevor's skills and, what is more, has found occasions for glimpsing feasible routes through the real world's thickets toward at least a modicum of human fulfillment.
But crowns on garlands in the world of fiction—howeverfervently readers and journalists fling them at this head or that—are meaningless to the point of hilarity. No two good writers have ever agreed to enter the same race. Some admittedly enter more races; some enter races that are more worth winning. Occasionally one performs with a grace that's overwhelming and momentarily blanks the field, as the thrillingly beautiful late work of Raymond Carver briefly held the local scene.
With this new immense collection, William Trevor has filed in serene self-trust the results of years of work of impeccable strength and a piercing profundity that's very seldom surpassed in short fiction. Seasoned admirers of his stories alone should know, however, that his long fiction is stronger still—not merely for length but resonance: the sound of a voice that with near-inaudible dignity earns its place in the narrow circle of excellence, that ragged secular communion of saints who watch our lives with unblinking care, then give us our human names and ranks, our just rewards.
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SOURCE: "Irish Drift," in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 6, No. 267, August 27, 1993, pp. 40-1.
[In the review below, Craig praises Excursions in the Real World as an insightful social commentary, but argues that it is not reveal enough about Trevor.]
The real world as opposed to the world of fiction, that is; these enjoyable essays by William Trevor provide a series of glimpses into the novelist's past. He was born in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, in 1928, a Protestant in a Catholic culture, and without even the eclat that ownership of a "big house" might have conferred. His father was a bank clerk, and his childhood peripatetic: after Mitchelstown came Youghal and Skibbereen, and that was only the start.
The family curtains, he notes, "were altered to fit windows" all over the place—windows, moreover, looking out on a not entirely hospitable vista. De Valera's Ireland didn't provide much sense of community for its non-Catholic inhabitants, whom it treated without animosity but without a great deal of comprehension. These small-town southern Protestants never found themselves completely assimilated. Trevor, as a writer, may have been lucky in this respect, and in his family's constant moves. Both accorded him an outsider's perspective, allowing his powerful gift for observation to flourish.
The essays in this book (snippets, really) don't by any means lay bare the writer; William Trevor is, and remains, "a very private person" to whom autobiographical disclosure doesn't come easily. They do, however, both isolate and illuminate the backgrounds to his novels and stories. Cork, Tipperary, Wexford, Dublin … then London, the south of England, Venice, and back to famine-stricken Ireland in the 1840s. Trevor rightly disclaims nostalgia in his excursions: his cast of mind is altogether tougher.
True, these pieces have more in the way of charm, and rather less bleakness and irony, than Trevor's fiction; but they don't come without a pleasing precision and idiosyncrasy to give the charm an edge. The novelist's characteristic engagement with foibles of social behaviour is greatly in evidence, particularly in the sections on school life, which—in his experience—seems to have been abundant in boys' and masters' eccentricities. ("He had been known to sit on the ledge of the mantlepiece in the masters' common room to see if anyone would notice.")
Trevor may have been unconsciously assembling his material during these years, but it wasn't until the publication of The Old Boys (his second novel) in 1964 that he acquired a settled purpose. Before that, it was a matter of drifting—through 13 schools, through Trinity College, Dublin, various schoolmastering posts (calling to mind, in their seedy, throwaway comedy, Decline and Fall) and a stint as a copywriter with Notley's in London, in the company of some poets. Gavin Ewart, Peter Porter and Edward Lucie-Smith were earning a living in this way too; and Ted Hughes crops up later.
Towards the end of this collection, toned-down autobiography merges with some seductive travel writing and literary comment, including a piece on Somerville & Ross—which seems to me altogether too tolerant of the fox-hunting antics and amazed amusement of these ladies when confronted by the ever-thickening consonants and headlong illogicality of their social inferiors. As writers, they're at the opposite extreme from William Trevor, in whom elegance and accuracy are matched by the strongest appreciation of the social climate, in Ireland and elsewhere. We should be grateful for the selection of events and images in the real world that have elicited an inspired response from the storyteller.
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SOURCE: "Kilneagh and Challacombe: William Trevor's Two Nations," in Eire-Ireland, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 114-29.
[In the following essay, Hildebidle contrasts Fools of Fortune to "Matilda's England" as he discusses Trevor's views on Ireland and England.]
William Trevor has baldly asserted that "There is no such thing today as an Anglo-Irish novelist," which will, among other things, come as a great shock to Molly Keane. Of the supposedly nonexistent species, Trevor himself is an apparently unequivocal example. And the question arises: can one be an Anglo-Irish writer and not, sooner or later, address the peculiar embrace which so painfully joins Britain and Ireland? A reading of The Stories of William Trevor (1983) suggests that Trevor—born in County Cork, educated at Trinity College, but long resident in Dorset, a member of the Irish Academy of Letters and also a commander, Order of the British Empire—has tried for some years to resist the perhaps too automatic questions of nationality and Irish revolutionary politics. Indeed, he has insisted that although "I always call myself an Irish Writer,… the struggle in Ireland, and the sorrow, is a very good backdrop for a fiction writer, but I don't think, certainly not for me, that it is any sort of inspiration." As I will argue shortly, I think Trevor's resistance to national labels is more than an accident of biography. But when questions of national loyalty enter in, as for instance in the story "Beyond the Pale" and more recently in "News from Ireland," they seem to do so with apparently tragic and violent force.
When it appeared, Fools of Fortune (1983) seemed to mark a shift in the world of Trevor's fiction, toward what we might for convenience call "The Modern Matter of Ireland," that complex of personal and political loyalties that leaves its essential mark on such contemporary works as Julia O'Faolain's No Country for Young Men (1980), Jennifer Johnston's Railway Station Man (1985), and Benedict Kiely's Nothing Happens in Carmincross (1985). But more recently, in Two Lives (1991), and especially "Reading Turgenev," Trevor has returned to the bleak grey-green world of the Irish provincial bourgeoisie, to what John Stinson has neatly characterized as the "grindingly dull small-town atmosphere" which is the world of so many of his stories and of his longer works from Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel (1969) to Nights at the Alexandra (1987). In a sense, Fools of Fortune presents a kind of parable, explaining why Trevor had for the most part avoided the harsh political realities of twentieth-century Ireland, and, if so, it has as a knotty precursor Trevor's much and deservedly anthologized "Beyond the Pale," and a sequel in the title story of his 1986 collection News from Ireland.
Read one way, "Beyond the Pale" confronts the violent conditions to be found in contemporary Northern Ireland, and records the shocking intrusion of romantic and political passions into the almost pathologically genteel world of "Milly," or Dorothy Milson, its narrator. But the story refuses quite to resolve its own mysteries, and is it not at least possible that it records the imaginative construction of Cynthia? The story's narrator makes Cynthia seem an unlikely person to be offered the kind of deeply personal confession she says the dead Irishman has presented only to her. She is, as we are told by Milly, and not in a complimentary way, an "imaginative woman," and one who knows almost too much Irish history and Irish myth, or to put it more exactly, Irish historical myth. Two lovers separated by the terrorist violence of Belfast, reunited—in a sense—by the murderous, obsessive devotion of one of them, which ends in an act of self-destruction. It is an odd amalgam of the story of Diarmuid and Grania and the headlines from the Irish Times.
But it would seem that the apparent shift of manner and ground announced by Fools of Fortune is temporary, at most. The painfully complex interconnections between England and Ireland are played out in that novel in some detail, both in the plot and in the genealogies of the major characters. What I hope to do briefly here is to consider Trevor's account of the two cultures, and especially his diagnosis of the crucial role of memory in keeping England and Ireland so inextricably and so violently linked. To do so will require a look at another of his works, the set of three linked stories entitled "Matilda's England."
Fools of Fortune begins with the description of two houses: "the great house at Woodcombe Park" in Dorset, which "bustles with life," albeit of a touristic variety and "the more modest," indeed, largely ruined Kilneagh, in County Cork. The two places are linked by the genealogical complexities of the Quinton family, of which Fools of Fortune will recount the most recent and seemingly final chapter. The opening suggests that Trevor, adding one more item to the long list of "Big House" fictions, wants us to take his novel as an account of the two nations. But this is something of a deception. The Dorset house will appear almost not at all thereafter, except as Willie Quinton imagines it. He has, at best, a cursory and second-hand knowledge of the place. Kilneagh, by contrast, is the dominant setting of the book. Indeed, the novel can be read as an account of how this devastated place comes to conquer, or at least supplant, her native Woodcombe in the mind of the English Quinton, Marianne. She is the one character who comes to know both landscapes well, and yet she rarely talks about Woodcombe. If there is to be some sort of analogy drawn, one side of the parallel is oddly absent in the book.
But it may be in part deducible by way of "Matilda's England." Indeed, we might make the parallel more striking if we immodestly revise the title of Trevor's novel from Fools of Fortune to "Marianne's Ireland." The earlier story—taking it, for convenience, as one narrative rather than three—is suggestively parallel to the more recent novel. Both are built around characters whose fullest life seems to have been lived in the past, at the far side of some cataclysm. The burning of Kilneagh by the Black and Tans and Willie Quinton's act of revenge in Fools of Fortune thus play the same role as the Second World War in "Matilda's England." Both narratives recount lives haunted—perhaps willingly—by the past and especially by the period just after the First World War. Both are concerned with houses which die and then—albeit with mixed results—return to life. Both narratives are considerations of memory and of the power of memory to transform actual landscapes into symbolic ones and thereby at least to attempt to recreate some supposedly "happy" time.
"Matilda's England" portrays Matilda's gradual possession of and by the manor house of Challacombe. Matilda is raised on what had been the home-farm of the manor, before the estate fell into the hands of Lloyd's Bank. She meets the last of the ancestral owners, the aged Mrs. Ashburton, whose husband had been a shell-shocked "survivor" of the Great War and who connives to have Matilda and her two older siblings restore the tennis court of the estate. The first phase of Matilda's "life" at Challacombe ends at a grand tennis party which revives, but only approximately and temporarily, the social life of the manor. The party takes place in August, 1939, and is thus darkened by the approach of another war. A second phase takes Matilda through the war, and through adolescence, a period during which the manor house falls empty and into some decay, and during which time Matilda's father and then her brother are killed in battle. The third phase, which we are told is being written, as apparently have been the first two, in the drawing room of Challacombe, describes Matilda's marriage to the son and heir of the new owners of Challacombe, and thus her transformation into the new lady of the manor and into a new Mrs. Ashburton, aging and reclusive.
Matilda's increasing enclosure in the house and in the past is signaled by the titles and predominant settings of the three stories which make up the narrative: "The Tennis Court," "The Summer-house," and "The Drawing-room." Matilda is quite clearly warned, by her old teacher Miss Pritchard, that her apparent rise in the world is baneful and wrong, because it is an attempt to make the past come back. But Matilda, while acknowledging that she hates the present, insists "It'll be all right.'" The "It" in this case includes a sexless marriage and, as her husband quite credibly argues, feigned madness which drives him, her family, and indeed all living humans away. Matilda is rather bitter toward her husband Ralphie, in part because of another "odd feeling" that "he'd married [her] because [she] was part of an idea he'd fallen in love with." Ralphie himself rebuts this charge: "'I married you out of passion and devotion.'" Significantly, Matilda never admits what Miss Pritchard knows and most of her family seems to sense: that she has married Ralphie not because of physical or emotional passion, but because of devotion to an idea, and the idea is not really hers. "'What memories of Challacombe can you have?'" Matilda asks, aware that Ralphie has never seen the house in its glory. The second-handedness of her dream makes the terrible isolation of her life all the more chilling. We leave her sitting at Mrs. Ashburton's desk, living out her own version of that older woman's existence.
The oddity of Matilda's memory is not only that it is, at bottom, borrowed, although it is worth remarking that Trevor has a keen sense of how we may find ourselves living out other people's dreams, even their obsessions. The power, or at least the recreative power, of Matilda's memory grows in direct proportion to the distance in time between the present and the moment being remembered. Of the events—at least a quarter-century old, by the time she sits down to write—of the summer of 1939, Matilda has an exact recollection. Of her more recent life, as wife and then as recluse, her memory is much less reliable. "The Drawing-room" is full of repetitions of the phrase "I remember," but the words are usually linked to events in the life of the long-dead Mrs. Ashburton. There are in the story a roughly equal number of things "I can't recall," especially the steps in the decay of Matilda's own marriage and the onset of her "madness."
What is left moot, and necessarily so, given Trevor's decision to present the story wholly through Matilda's voice and eye, is whether this oddity of mind is intentional or not; whether, in order words, Matilda is the unwitting but not, in her own view, unhappy victim of obsessive madness, which her family had apparently feared, or whether, as Ralphie insists, and as the cool precision of her narrative voice suggests, Matilda is feigning madness for her own icy ends. In either case, the dominant figure is Mrs. Ashburton. "'She twisted you, she filled you full of hate. Whatever you are now, that dead woman has done to you'," is the way Ralphie puts it. Whether Matilda's isolation is her conscious choice or not—and the issue of intention is one we will have to return to when we look at Fools of Fortune—it leaves her impossibly trapped. Her last words are "Nothing is like it was."
I am suggesting that we take Matilda not only as a case-study but as the, or at least a, soul of England trapped in nostalgia, self-isolated, and devoted to something that may never have existed in the first place, the happy, domestic, ordered, gracious, Edwardian England of the sort captured in brief in Philip Larkin's line "Never such innocence again." Part of Matilda's affection for Mrs. Ashburton arises from the sense that the older woman had, as unequivocally as her husband, been "a victim of violence." In that, of course, she resembles Matilda herself, who has never recovered from the terrible price exacted on her family by the Second World War. England as a whole, as Paul Fussell has persuasively argued in The Great War and Modern Memory, may fairly be said to have the victim of the Western Front, never having recovered from the losses on the Somme.
If we read Challacombe as a symbol, we are only following the example of Matilda herself, who has invested the house with an order and significance that it may well never have had. The process at work seems to be something like this: given a landscape of which symbolic readings are likely—and is there an English region without its manor houses, shrines, cathedrals, and the like?—and given the presence of outside forces, both personal and historical, the individual imagination readily undertakes to "remember" the meaning of the place, even if that act stretches beyond the actual experience of the imagining mind. This sort of "memory" is in fact a form of imagination, not an alternative to it. Once "remembered" in this way, the symbol exerts a force which is quite actual and nearly physical. At such a point, the question of human will, or of whether the individual is mad or a victim or both, seems nearly beside the point. Matilda may well be mad, but her devotion to Challacombe seems incurable, perhaps because it is only an exaggeration of the attention which almost everyone pays to the place. Challacombe dominates the jokes of Matilda's beloved father. It is the object of the wealthy attentions of Ralphie's parents, and it is the "idea" to which Ralphie is himself devoted. His intention to reconstitute the manor by buying up farmlands round-about falls victim to Matilda's stronger and—both geographically and physically—more focused obsession.
In Fools of Fortune, this symbol-making memory is complicated not only by the violence of the outside forces—for death, in this novel, occurs very nearby, not on some distant battlefield—but also by the addition of human and sexual relations. Once again there is a "happy" moment, localized in the house of Kilneagh, and in the summer of 1918, a summer of agreeable lethargy, easy domesticity, and comfortable preadolescence. The novel recounts three distinct efforts to "remember" this time on the part of Willie Quinton, who at least actually experienced the interlude first-hand; of Marianne Quinton, who has only heard of that summer from Willie, and wants to relive it to make up for the absence of the actual Willie; and finally, of their daughter Imelda Quinton, whose imaginative "memory" is altogether secondhand, but so forceful and detailed as to constitute a form of hallucinatory madness. That the person furthest removed in time is the one most possessed by the "memory" parallels the peculiar way in which Matilda's memory of Challacombe becomes in the end more powerful than Mrs. Ashburton's. And it suggests as well they way in which "memory" attains a cumulative, incremental force.
Imelda is the biological heir to Kilneagh and apparently the last of the curiously mixed Quinton line, long characterized by Analo-Irish intermarriage. She is also the heir to the common memory, Irish and Quinton. Indeed, though like all the Quintons she is herself Protestant, she is quite literally driven mad by the force of political symbolism, which made her father a hero of the struggle against the Black and Tans; by the force of Catholicism, since she is ridiculed by her classmates for being the only Protestant in her school and is told by Father Kilgarriff the story of St. Imelda, her patron, who like her experienced a vision at the age of twelve; and by the force of Irish cultural nostalgia, since her final steps into madness coincide with her attempt to memorize Yeats's "Lake Isle of Innisfree."
The first two sections of Fools of Fortune, told or written by Willie and Marianne respectively, emphasize the role of remembrance, as well as the limitations of memory. Willie sees Woodcombe and Kilneagh as places full of "the sense of the past." Ironically, considering the story which is to follow, he sees in Woodcombe something of an ideal: the commercialization of memory, since the house is now open to tourists, is to him a sign that this sense of the past is, in Dorset, "well preserved," while only "echoes" remain in Kilneagh, "in the voices of the cousins." Yet, as the novel will show, those echoes dominate the lives of family retainers like Father Kilgarriff and the maid Josephine, of the cousins Willie and Marianne, and of the children of cousins. What bothers Willie, for all the warmth of this recollection of the summer of 1918, is the fact that Marianne is not there. He says to her "I would love to remember you in the scarlet drawing-room" of which she will only ever see the burned ruin. But the facts will not allow it.
And of the facts Willie has a remarkably detailed recollection. Rather like Matilda's. Willie's memory seems all the stronger the further back in time he goes. Thus, his description of the scarlet drawing room is full of detail and number:
Carved into the white marble of the mantelpiece were one hundred and eight leaves, in clusters of six. Four tall brass lamps had glass globes shaped like onions; the Chinese carpet was patterned with seven shades of blue. My great grandfather, framed in gilt above the mantelpiece, had most of his hair on the right-hand side of his head, and looked like a spaniel.
Already, however, the forces of the past—the echoes, if you will—are at work, in that family portrait. For one characteristic of the Irish world in the novel is that it is drenched in memory. The Quinton family has its own ghosts. An earlier English Quinton cousin was so moved by the Famine that she become a living ghost whose spirit lives on Haunt Hill overlooking the house—a distinct counterpoint to the confused governess in "News from Ireland." Broadly construed, the "family" includes the defrocked Father Kilgarriff, a walking historical consciousness, full of the memory of lost battles and ever willing to recount the story of Willie's youth to the young Imelda.
What the boy Willie has no way of knowing is that he is about to begin being made into a symbol of himself, first by the violent work of the Black and Tans, who destroy his house and much of his family, then by the vengeful memory which dominates his mother's last years, then by his own acting out of vengeance on the person of a Black and Tan sergeant, and finally by those who remember him, both in the neighborhood and in his own family. He chafes a bit under the demands of the new role. He is uncomfortable, for instance, with the pity offered by his teacher Miss Halliwell, who sees in him the perfect tragic victim of the "Troubles." It seems almost impossible to disentangle the personal will, historical circumstance, and familial pressure, which work together to drive Willie to his act and to the exile which necessarily follows it. Having at last acted, Willie disappears almost entirely from the novel, to be replaced by his remembered image.
Memory is the subject of Marianne's narrative which, in its first pages, exactly parallels Willie's by summoning up Woodcombe and by similarly invoking remembrance. What can in this tale, however, be "vividly remembered" is not the blissful summer but the death some years afterwards of Willie's mother. That death might seem to release him from the grip of her sad and drunken spirit, but in fact it prompts him to take his vengeance. Like Willie's, Marianne's recollection is partial, for it includes Willie himself but it necessarily excludes Kilneagh before its destruction. Willie and Marianne meet only long enough for Willie to take her on a tour, which works as a kind of initial reading of the landscape, and for him to father her child. Marianne, returning to bear that child, will knowingly cut herself off from England, just as the earlier Anne Quinton had done during the Famine, by so wholly adopting as her own the plight of the Irish that she offended her English cousins. That lesson, in turn, she passes on to Imelda, along with the acknowledgment that it is the "reading" or symbolic reimagining of the place, not the place itself, which is so powerful:
… [Marianne] suggested [to Imelda] a walk, and at the end of it she pointed at the tree the man [a Black and Tan informant] had been hanged from, as though her answer lay in that.
'Just an ordinary tree, Imelda. You could pass it by and not know a thing.'
Left to themselves, trees might once again be trees, not icons. But Marianne has spent a lifetime learning the iconography of this place, and Imelda is to grow up under Marianne's tuition. The initial significance of the tree is not, of course, a matter of imagination at all; it is an act of ritual murder. Yet, insofar as that murder, a part of the Troubles, is in itself both sign and result of compounded memories, and compounding violence, of long centuries of Anglo-Irish history, there would seem to be no hope that the making and reading of symbols may stop. Certainly Marianne's effort to learn and to transmit the symbolic topography is conscious and intentional, a labor of love, in fact. Convinced when first they meet that Willie—as yet still the "victim" and not yet the avenging "hero" of the tragedy of Kilneagh—hates her because she is English, Marianne, like all the English Quinton "wives," remolds herself into the purest Irishry she can imagine. As she says to the family solicitors:
'You think I'm extravagant in my Irish fancies? Father Kilgarriff thinks so, and the others too. Yet I am part of all this now. I cannot help my fervour.'
Rather like Matilda, she invokes her own fancies as the inescapable force in her life.
Imelda, at first, seems not so entrapped in remembrance. Her story is not a remembrance at all. Told in the third person, it does not begin with a leap back in time. Both the prior sections of Fools of Fortune open with the date 1983 but then move back fifty years or more. Instead, Imelda's story opens with a present event, a birthday picnic. It is not until some five or six pages have passed that the first ominous sign appears: a nightmare, "the same nightmare as always, the children and the flames", the nightmare of the long-past destruction of Kilneagh.
Imelda's story records the ways in which the details of the Quinton history are passed along to her by her mother but, since he is in exile, not by her father Willie. Imelda, like Matilda, comes to imagine things which occurred before her time. But instead of willingly learned and consciously preserved memory, what takes over Imelda's mind are the uncontrollable forces of nightmare and hallucination. Strictly speaking, Imelda has no "memory" of the dark event of 1918, or of her father's act of vengeance some years later, but she has imagination and, in the end, madness. She is the victim, in terms of the narrative, of her family's effort to see the world as a landscape of symbolic memory.
But then, in his way, Willie too is a victim. He is driven from his home by violence, driven to vengeance in large measure by his mother's memory of that violence, and driven from Ireland by his own act of vengeance, to wander for half a century among towns which no one can quite pronounce or locate on the globe. The memory which dominates Willie's life is at least his own memory, and he cannot be accused of indulging in fancies. But Marianne, by her acts of "love," for she went unbidden to Willie's room, produces a child. And then, by the acts of love which make her Irish, she plays a large part in condemning that child to madness. She seems to realize this. A page from her diary imagines what Imelda might have been, had she not been raised at Kilneagh. It is Marianne who is at the center of the novel, and at the center of the tragedy it describes.
Like Matilda, Marianne takes another's circumstances as her own. Like Matilda's and rather like Father Kilgarriff's as well, Marianne's memory is one that creates rather than recalls. Marianne's "fortune" of which she is the "fool," her symbolic landscape within which she is entrapped, is chosen, like Matilda's, and even self-created. Marianne insists to the end that it is the ancestral history of murder which ruins all their lives:
Father Kilgarriff died today, no trouble in his great old age. He was right when he said there's not much left in a life when murder has been committed—After each brief moment there was little chance for any one of us as there was for Kilneagh after the soldier's wrath. Truncated lives, creatures of the shadow's. Fools of Fortune, as his father would have said: ghosts we became.
That is both true and false. True, so many lives in the novel are ghostly and truncated, and not by acts of memory, either. But it is the way in which "moments" so fix the lives of Willie and Marianne—whose affair is little more than momentary—that the possibility of delusion enters. They are "moments," often, of violence or discovery. But, in Marianne's case, the moment exerts an unpredictably determining force. What deflects our judgment, more fully than in the case of Matilda, is both the awfulness of some of these moments and the motives of love which, however imperfectly, provoke the acts of memory.
If there is a parallel between Matilda's England and Marianne's Ireland, it lies in the victimizing and imprisoning forces of the symbols which the characters themselves create out of circumstance, history, and myth. The "embrace" of England and Ireland is, thus, an embrace of similar beings—or, at least the embrace of the Irish and the Anglo-Irish is. Marianne's story, and its clear similarities to the lives of earlier English Quintons who crossed over the Irish Sea to marry, acts out the seduction, or really self-seduction, which captures and holds the "alien" English Protestant culture of Ireland. By the time the full price is known—a ghostly life, a mad daughter—it is of course much too late to learn from experience.
And it would not do to exaggerate the unpleasantness of this life. Just as Matilda is, in her way, happy at Challacombe, Marianne shows no clear sign of regretting her choice to abandon Dorset for Kilneagh. What we see of her alternatives—primarily a seedy Swiss boarding school—suggests that Kilneagh, with all its dangers, may well be a sensible choice. Fools of Fortune ends with the Quintons reunited, at Kilneagh, in a sunny autumn. An "elderly couple" observed by a madwoman who does not seem to realize they are her parents—that is the final tableau. The old people can now share their memories. It is a grim ending, but for once there is talk of the future: an expedition to pick mulberries. The future, however, will be brief—"Wecannot wait beyond tomorrow," Willie and Marianne agree. Years earlier, Marianne, pregnant, lost, and searching for Willie, had seen some cattle and envied their "drear complacency." It would seem that she, at last, has her wish. To our eyes it may seem far less than would justify all that has gone before, and far less than would defend these people from the accusation, leveled at Matilda, of luxuriating in a mad nostalgia. To Marianne and Willie, it may seem all that could be expected. And to William Trevor as well?
The toll exacted by imagination is considerable. The landscape is full of symbolic equivalences which, in the minds and the lives of Trevor's characters, take on the power of natural, predestinating powers. A reader can observe that it is the mind which had made these forces. No longer the healing act that it was to the Romantics—and still is so accounted, if only in the milder form of nostalgia—the act of memory here breeds violence and self-imprisonment. Fools of Fortune as a whole is a remembrance taking the place of an affair or even of a life. Yet, the contents of Trevor's compendious Collected Stories suggest that "drear complacency" is the most to be hoped for by anyone. Irish or not. Any interruption of the tedium of life, be it the Troubles; a knock at the door as in "The Penthouse Apartment," "The Hotel of the Idle Moon," and "A Happy Family"; an invitation to dinner, as in "Kinkies"; a meeting with a stranger in an out-of-the-way inn, as in "Beyond the Pale"—no matter how apparently small, an intrusion can have vast, sometimes comic, but generally painful consequences. Consequently, the world of memory and even illusion constructed so carefully by Marianne and Matilda may be less a sign of madness and more a necessary defense against the inevitable shocks of existence.
Let me hazard a proposition: the close similarity between the Irishness of Fools of Fortune and the Englishness of "Matilda's England"—the similarities between provincial Ireland and lower-middle-class England throughout Trevor's fiction—implicitly rebuts the whole question of national labels. Trevor has no qualms about calling himself an "Irish" writer, although he is careful to define his "Irishness" further—he is, he says, a "small-town Irish Protestant" and therefore, in a way, an "outsider" on that island. "Are you an Irish writer, Mr. Trevor?" Well, by birth, surely. But his speech is hardly melodious "Irish" speech of Frank O'Connor or Benedict Kiely. Still, his grim, yet often simultaneously comic, view of the unpalatability of life seems to make Trevor a thoroughly Irish writer, a close cousin in all but style to John McGahern and Edna O'Brien, and to link him to the Joyce of Dubliners and to Samuel Beckett. After all, as Joyce was surely convinced, to write about Ireland is to write about the world and what more can we ask of a maker of fiction?
But the more directly political slant of Foots of Fortune has not been entirely forsworn by Trevor. "The News from Ireland" represents Trevor's only venture into the other great and tragic Irish story, that of the Famine. That story is, in one sense, a view of that cataclysm from the Anglo-Irish side—a perspective from which it makes little sense at all. But, considered in the light of some of the issues about imagination I have been trying to raise, the story works, in brief compass, as a consideration of the effects of imagination and of its absence. Emily, we are told, "imagines" readily a colorful past represented in the ruined monastery near the house, but she gains little, if anything from it. As the puzzled English governess observes, and as the rather cynical Protestant butler Fogarty demonstrates, "families and events are often seen historically in Ireland—more so, for some reason, than in England." The unprepossessing and rather bitter Fogarty is, surprisingly, full of such a vision, as we are told on the very first page of the story where he "thinks of other visitors there have been" to the estate now in the hands of the Ipswich Pulvertafts.
Fogarty's imagination—if that is the word for it—is surprising. In part, he is ready to pass off local "superstitions," like the infant with the stigmata which figures so unpleasantly in the story and, despite his staunch Protestantism, such legends as the Story of the True Cross, more often identified with Catholic lore. But he is capable of one rather astounding act of imagination: Fogarty can, by way of dream, foretell the future with eerie accuracy—a future of neglect of the estate, bitterness and violent action by the tenants, a dream which predicts the work of the Land League and the revolution of the 1920s. But, arising out of whatever mixture of motives, his effort to pass on this dream-knowledge is doomed; he cannot inform Miss Heddoes, whose bafflement is, perhaps, impenetrable, and can only shock and dismay her.
But the story suggests that the "news" is what is conveyed through Miss Heddoes. And, sadly, her imagination is utterly unable to encompass the Famine occurring around her. Perhaps the story serves to account for the way in which England, in spite of an absence of what the story calls "wickedness," and the landowning classes, in spite of such public-works projects as road-building which the Pulvertafts undertake, simply cannot understand Ireland, its ways or its disasters, and that incomprehension, to say the least, seems to persist into the England of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Miss Heddoes can record, in her diary, and transmit, in her letters, the "news from Ireland," but no communication results, nothing to pierce the bafflement of Pulvertafts and Heddoes or the angry credulity of the Irish tenants. If Miss Heddoes is a kind of protowriter, the story almost comes across as a rebuttal to the idea most recently reasserted by the Field Day group that writing has a political role to play.
And it is the question of imagination more than any political issue which continues to fascinate Trevor, as the recent pair of novellas Two Lives (1991) makes clear. There, Trevor has returned to familiar and apparently nonpolitical terrain. "Reading Turgenev" could almost be a sardonic sequel to "The Ballroom of Romance." But "My House in Umbria" endeavors, like "Beyond the Pale," at least to confront a world in which political violence is proximate and frequent. That the story occurs in Umbria rather than in County Derry is almost beside the point, for there is, sadly, no part of the world where terrorism may not flourish, after all. And indeed, Trevor himself insists that he is "as horrified about a bomb in Bologna as I am about a bomb in Derry." Yet, in fact, "My House in Umbria" is a variation on "Beyond the Pale," in which the impact of violence is direct, central, and present in the story, and in which the action of memory and imagination—a crucial factor, given the protagonist narrator's career as a romance novelist—are anything but consoling. It may be that her own way of reassembling the "fragments" of her life is a way she has of overcoming the trauma of an abandoned and abusive childhood and an adult life that has, to say the least, been colorful and full of betrayals. But that reassembling simply will not work and, although her memory does not make her draw monsters or scream aloud, like the child Aimée, it has a nagging way of recovering the malfeasances of the unpleasant Mr. Chubb and the truly loathsome stepfather, Mr. Trice. Indeed, the sad fact, as she discovers, is that her thoughts—compact of memory and imagination—regularly betray her. The child's illness is explicitly diagnosed as an overactive imagination, which has "consumed her."
The romance novelist retains a faith in her imagination—which, not surprisingly, can both recover a past that is not hers and predict a future for the rather mysterious Professor Riversmith, who comes to provide a home for the orphaned Aimée. Mary Louise, whose sad life is the substance of "Reading Turgenev," is apparently a much less imaginative creature, but, in fact, imagination saves her—the imagination of a love affair with her cousin Robert, sustained by the reading of the works of Turgenev, which can sustain her in a loveless marriage and long after the death of Robert. At first glance, the last view we have of her, through the eyes of an Anglo-Irish clergyman—"a fragile figure, yet prosperous in her love"—seems bitterly ironic. That the clergyman can quietly promise a funeral and a burial with her beloved Robert seems like a bleak hope indeed, but it is a chance for the lovers at last to "lie together" as they never have done, and never will do, in life. For once, imagination is not the complicating force it is elsewhere in Trevor's fiction, it is not the powerfully seductive force which draws Emily Delahunty into the lives of strangers seen for a moment on a train in "My House in Umbria." Rather, imagination is a force of comfort and love—rare commodities in the fictional world of William Trevor, who insists that his view of the world is "not an entirely pessimistic view … In fact, it's even faintly optimistic." Yet, even Trevor cannot wholly rebut the charge of "hopelessness" in the lives he portrays, although he insists he himself is not "a melancholic." Perhaps Trevor would agree with Kafka: "There is hope, but not for us." If hope remains, it is tied up somehow with imagination; but that same force may be what denies hope to us as well.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5039
SOURCE: "Belonging Nowhere, Seeing Everywhere: William Trevor and the Art of Distance," in The Hollins Critic, Vol. XXX, No. 4, October, 1993, pp. 1-11.
[In the following essay, Core provides an overview of Trevor's work, discussing recurring themes and Trevor's critical reception.]
As a writer one doesn't belong anywhere. Fiction writers, I think, are even more outside the pale. Because society and people are our meat, one doesn't really belong in the midst of society. The great challenge in writing is always to find the universal in the local, the parochial. And to do that, one needs distance.
—William Trevor (1993)
No one has had a closer vision, or a hand at once more ironic and more tender, for the individual figure. He sees it with all its minutest signs and tricks—all its heredity of idiosyncrasies, all its particulars of weakness and strength, of ugliness and beauty, of oddity and charm; and yet it is of his essence that he sees it in the general flood of life, steeped in its relations and contacts, struggling or submerged.
—Henry James, "Turgenev" (1897)
At the age of sixty-five William Trevor has written some twenty books of fiction that for range of effect—philosophical density, exactness of style and idiom, variety of character, comic depth, and tragic intensity—have been unequalled among contemporary writers of English fiction since the death of Patrick White. Trevor is a precise workman, as befits the sculptor that he was in early life; his fiction does not sprawl and heave and occasionally founder as does that of, say, White or Faulkner; and because he does not take huge risks and gamble his literary capital on big, ambitious, and complicated novels such as Riders in the Chariot and Absalom, Absalom!, he probably won't win a Nobel prize despite the considerable measure of his achievement. Trevor has earned continuing recognition in Ireland and England, including a C.B.E.; but he remains relatively neglected in the United States, despite having been awarded a Bennett prize by the Hudson Review in 1990 and having regularly appeared in the New Yorker and Harper's for some years.
In the thirty years of his publishing career Trevor has never lacked an audience. The Old Boys (1964), his first novel, was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and it won the Hawthornden prize in England. The ensuing years have brought more honors and a growing critical recognition, but it puzzles me that Trevor's star is not in a still greater ascendant. One reason is that he isn't a flashy writer, nor a self-promoter. And he hasn't reached his proper audience in this country partly because the English dramatizations of his fiction have seldom, if ever, been broadcast on PBS.
Trevor's second collected stories (1992) did make a great impression in the U.S. The Times Book Review ran a long and brilliant piece by Reynolds Price in February 1993. This big book, which contains about ninety stories, deserves a place on the same shelf of short fiction with Frank O'Connor and Elizabeth Bowen, Ernest Hemingway and Eudora Welty, A. E. Coppard and V. S. Pritchett. Now that Miss Welty and Sir Victor have quit publishing fiction, Trevor stands as the best writer of short fiction in the English language. ("The modern short story deals in moments and subtleties and shadows of grey," he has written. "It tells as little as it dares.")
No one in his right mind would argue that, say, John Updike is William Trevor's equal; and his countryman John McGahern, who has occasionally rivaled Trevor in such superb stories as "The Country Funeral," is much more uneven in his short fiction, which hiccoughs from sketches and anecdotes to fully realized stories. McGahern's collected stories (1992) include only a dozen or so works that measure up to Trevor's consistently higher standard and achievement.
This brings us to the matter of William Trevor's nationality. There would be little question of where his real sympathies lie, even had he not settled the matter. "I am Irish absolutely to the last vein in my body." Ireland, he continues, is "the country you put first, the country you feel strongest about, the country that you actually love." But, he adds, "If I had stayed in Ireland …, I certainly wouldn't have written. I needed the distance in order to write."
William Trevor began his writing career with two splendid comedies about London—The Old Boys (1964) and The Boarding-House (1965). These were struck in the vein of Jonsonian humor that runs through Dickens to the early Waugh. Trevor hasn't abandoned this mode, which in his hands never descends to caricature; but he has moved a great distance from it in the succeeding decades. The reason that his characters have grown more complex and sympathetic may be inferred from an observation he made with asperity to Stephen Schiff when Schiff was writing about Trevor for the New Yorker (January 4, 1993). (This piece is itself Jonsonian in its maker's delineations of Trevor's physiognomy.) "The thing I hate most of all is the pigeonholing of people…. I don't believe in the black-and-white; I believe in the gray shadows, the murkiness, the not quite knowing, and the fact that you can't ever say 'old spinster' or 'dirty old man.'" (What Trevor has said of Pritchett's characters applies equally well to his own: "As real people do, they resist the labels of good or bad; they are decent on their day, some experiencing more of those days than others do.") Although many figures of this kind—apparent stereotypes—appear in both The Old Boys and The Boarding-House and although they are flat characters for the most part, their portraits, limned thirty years ago, do not violate the axiom that Trevor has recently declared, for he has followed it from the beginning.
To say, for instance, that any of the unmarried women in The Boarding-House—Nurse Clock, Rose Cave, Gallelty, Miss Clericot—is simply or only a spinster is to do great violence to Trevor's delicate portraiture, especially the characterization of Nurse Clock. The same applies to the more numerous cast of ageing men, from Studdy, a petty blackmailer and thief; to Major Eele, whose taste for pornography far outruns his impulse for romance; to Tome Obd, a mad Nigerian; to Mr Scribbin, whose only delight is listening to records that reproduce the sounds of trains. This teeming cast of eccentrics and misfits, male and female, could comfortably and believably have appeared in Jonson's Bartholomew Fair or Dickens's Bleak House.
Trevor, like most first-rate writers, often takes risks that would stop a lesser and more finicky artist in his or her tracks. In The Boarding-House he has written a novel without a protagonist—unless, and mark this, that figure is the owner of the boardinghouse, William Wagner Bird, who is the presiding intelligence in this novel (through the agency of his journals—and through his ghostly presence). What is remarkable about that, you may be thinking. The oddity is that Bird dies in the opening scene of the novel. He leaves the boardinghouse to Nurse Clock and Mr Studdy, who are enemies and are completely unalike and greatly at odds. But for a long period they are forced to become confederates to circumvent Bird's will and change the boardinghouse into a toney nursing home—after they have sacked most of the boarders. Studdy, a wretch and a parasite, is the closest figure to the novel's antagonist. After absorbing a few setbacks, he comes off nearly scot free as the action ends. Mr Obd, after being thwarted in his protracted courtship of an English woman and having experienced Blakean visions of his late landlord, kills himself and very nearly incinerates all the other boarders. The comedy turns very dark and ends in pathos, which is the way a story or novel by Trevor usually concludes, regardless of how light-hearted or hilarious its action has been earlier.
One lingers in considering a character like Studdy because, as Trevor has said of Pritchett's similar figures, "from their modest foothold on the periphery they rarely inaugurate events, and influence their own destiny through occasional, glancing swipes." It is such people who fascinate Trevor—seemingly ordinary folk who become uncommon when he takes a long hard look at them and reveals their natures to us. The flat characters of the early novels have much in common with the more complicated and complex people who regularly populate the stories because as Trevor develops as a writer he accomplishes what he says of the good story—that it" economically peels off surfaces." He hit his natural stride by the seventies as the stories reprinted in The Ballroom of Romance (1972), Angels at the Ritz (1975), and Lovers of Their Time (1978) abundantly demonstrate. In such first-rate stories as "In Isfahan," "Angels at the Ritz," "Matilda's England," and "Torridge" Trevor shows his mastery of the form. "He manages to stuff a short story with as much emotional incident as most people cram into a novel, without ever straining the tale's skin," Schiff shrewdly remarks.
The complexities and complications of Trevor's characters have tended to multiply and thicken as the years have passed. Consider, for example, Mrs Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel (1969), which naturally proceeded from The Boarding-House and is a darker and richer version of the same experience. Reduced to its essentials and oversimplified, that experience involves the overlapping lives of people living on the margins of society—and thrown together in the urban version of a drydocked ship of fools. In a boardinghouse or a hotel like O'Neill's the sad voyage of life for a long-term resident may not end until insanity or death has done its work.
Trevor is still more fascinated with the effects that a boarding school exerts on its masters and pupils, as The Old Boys makes plain. None of the old boys in that novel has grown up; and the protracted adolescence of Jaraby, Sole and Cridley, Nox, Turtle, Ponders, and the others is at first amusing but becomes pathetic. This theme regularly recurs in Trevor's fiction: sometimes, as in "A School Story," "Torridge," and "Children of the Headmaster," it is the principal theme propelling the action; on other occasions, as in "Going Home," "The Grass Widows," and "The Third Party," the boarding-school theme is more nearly a leitmotif, a matter playing in the story's background, not generating its action, as the principals endeavor to struggle through the day and find a modicum of satisfaction.
Within the boarding school lurk many possibilities that illumine the complications of life in the wider—and, one might presume—the more responsible world of action and liability. But the preoccupations of boys often carry over into mature life—or what passes for it, as a story such as "Torridge" dazzlingly reveals. (Schools are incubators for infantilism and protracted adolescence.) Torridge, an unlikely butt but one all the same, has been endlessly patronized and satirized and belittled by three of his fellow students. Years later, when these "normal" chaps get together with their families for a regular reunion, one of them impulsively invites Torridge. It turns out that he, who volunteers that he is homosexual, is also the most nearly normal and human of the whole sorry lot of old boys. His series of revelations about the school leaves the other men and their families deeply shaken. "The silence continued as the conversation of Torridge haunted the dinner table. He haunted it himself…. Then Mrs Arrowsmith suddenly wept and the Wiltshire twins wept and Mrs Wiltshire comforted them. The Arrowsmith girl got up and walked away, and Mrs Mace-Hamilton turned to the three men and said they should be ashamed of themselves, allowing this to happen."
Here, as usual, the quiet understated style of Trevor secures the dramatic point better than a gaudier and more assertive prose would. It would be instructive to dwell upon Trevor's exact idioms of conversation and of description, the way that he marks his characters with conversational tics (Torridge keeps saying "As a matter of fact" as he reveals one unpalatable fact after another in rapid-fire succession), the simple but precise diction, the occasional clinching metaphor, the representative items and details. Let us consider this descriptive passage from the same story: "Mrs Arrowsmith was thin as a knife, fashionably dressed in a shade of ash-grey that reflected her ash-grey hair. She smoked perpetually…. Mrs Wiltshire was small. Shyness caused her to coil herself up in the presence of other people so that she resembled a ball. Tonight she was in pink, a faded shade. Mrs Mace-Hamilton was carelessly plump, a large woman attired in a carelessly chosen dress that had begonias on it. She rather frightened Mrs Wiltshire. Mrs Arrowsmith found her trying." Note how easily and exactly the description moves into drama, which is to say that Trevor here shows us not merely three women together but a geometry of relations.
We are reminded of the old-fashioned novelists like Dickens and Hardy, but such a Victorian novelist would be much more lavish and pile up far more details. Trevor's details are those of the sculptor and painter that he once was: they are chosen to be representative, not comprehensive or exhaustive. He is so sure of himself and so practiced and easy in his execution that he can deliberately repeat such commonplace words as ash-grey and carelessly. And even here, in a passage that would seem neutral, humor creeps in, with Mrs Wiltshire's ball-like dimensions contrasting with the carefree plumpness of Mrs Mace-Hamilton upholstered in her frumpy dress patterned with begonias. It is the formidable Mrs Mace-Hamilton, not her vulnerable counterpart, who reproves the three old boys and bullies, one of whom is her husband.
Homosexuality of every stripe appears in Trevor's fiction. We are not surprised that it is especially important in the stories and novels about public schools, but it threads its way through much of his other fiction as well. For instance the old commander in The Children of Dynmouth (1976) is a repressed homosexual, and the antagonist of this novel, who is but an adolescent boy, realizes this fact although the commander's wife has not. This is one of Timothy Gedge's most startling revelations as he inveigles himself into the lives of the citizens of Dynmouth, including those of Commander and Mrs Abigail; and having no identity or life of his own, Timothy spies upon various families. Timothy, however, is not a reliable observer, for he thinks that he witnessed a murder which in fact was an accident—or, more probably, a suicide.
When the Anglican priest in Dynmouth, Quentin Featherston, puts together everything of significance involving Timothy's knowledge and his delusions about what he has witnessed, including the rogering of his own mother, Featherston explains to one of Timothy's victims, Kate, a younger child: "There was a pattern of greys, half-tones and shadows. People moved in the greyness and made of themselves heroes or villains, but the truth was that heroes and villains were unreal. The high drama of casting out devils would establish Timothy Gedge as a monster…. But Timothy Gedge couldn't be dismissed as easily as that…. [He] was as ordinary as anyone else, but the ill fortune of circumstances or nature made ordinary people eccentric and lent them colour in the greyness. And the colour was protection because ill fortune weakened its victims and made them vulnerable." (Timothy, who always wears yellow, is the victim of bad luck and is very vulnerable.) But Kate, the strong and intelligent little girl, does not believe the priest. Before we too dismiss Featherston as a sentimental psychologist or sociologist, we should remember that his beliefs about human nature are close to Trevor's own. Such sympathy as Featherston's enables this author to respond to every shade of humanity and inhumanity, including homosexuals, voyeurs, obsessed and demented souls, misfits and failures of every kind and station, and outright criminals (blackmailers, arsonists, thieves, murderers).
Such a figure appears in "Gilbert's Mother" (Harper's, May 1993). In our advanced times he would be called dysfunctional, but that is not the half of it. Gilbert, who has murdered several young women, could be an older version of Timothy; but Timothy is estranged from his mother while Gilbert has been cosseted by his. (Both characters have lost their fathers at an early age.) This story turns on the mother's dawning awareness of her son's criminality as he has gone from car theft to murder. Gilbert is an English version of the Son of Sam—and a thief and arsonist as well. Gilbert's nervous mother agonizes about whether she should report him to the police, but we—and she—know that she will not. "No one would ever understand the mystery of his existence," she thinks, "or the unshed tears they shared."
Murder of a different sort drives the action of both Fools of Fortune (1983) and The Silence in the Garden (1988), both of which devolve from the continuing sectarian violence in Ireland from the Easter Rising until the present day. Trevor reveals the barbarities of the Black and Tans as well as the IRA; but, far more important, he also reveals the festering psychic wounds that senseless barbarity leaves in its wake. "Vengeance breeding vengeance." Such, too, is the theme of "Attracta," one of his most powerful stories: indeed Pritchett thinks it the best in Lovers of Their Time. Attracta, an elderly Protestant schoolmistress whose life has been all but ruined by her parents' accidental deaths in an ambush—and by her reflecting upon their deaths and those of a young English couple in Belfast—gradually but inexorably runs off the rails. The Englishman, a soldier, is decapitated by his murderers, who send his head through the post to his young bride, who, until the package arrives, knows not of his death. She, having gone to Belfast, is raped by his murderers and kills herself. As the story ends, Attracta has lost her livelihood for trying to awaken her charges' moral awareness. The story powerfully conveys "what is going on in the backs of the minds of all the people in the town, of whatever faction: of how all. except one or two bigots, are helplessly trying to evade or forget the evils that entangle them," as Pritchett perceives. Attracta, in contrast, sees in a moment of searing revelation: "In all a lifetime I learnt nothing. And I taught nothing either." The pathos is wrenching and recalls similar moments in Fools of Fortune and The Silence in the Garden, neither of which succeeds so well as "Attracta."
In both novels and elsewhere (as in "Beyond the Pale") Trevor seems off his form when he becomes enmeshed in the coils of the troubles endlessly unfolding in Ireland, as Bruce Allen has complained in "William Trevor and Other People's Worlds" (Sewanee Review, winter 1993). Although Allen overstates his case, one is inclined to agree that Trevor is at his best when he writes about "the individual at war with himself, his nearest and dearest, his community, and what, in a more innocent time, we might have called his soul."
In any event most readers will agree that William Trevor's essential country is the Irish village. "An Irish village on market day in a … Trevor story can come to life with the crowding abundance of Dickens's London." as Reynolds Price observes. I do not agree, however, with Price that Trevor's stories of London life tend to be shallow and vapid. He writes persuasively about London as well as Dublin and various foreign places, especially Italy. As is by now well known, Trevor grew up in a long succession of small towns and villages in Ireland, where his father worked as a bank manager; and he knows this life with minute exactness. He seems even more sympathetic to and at home with farms and farming communities than with the small town, as one of his best stories, "The Ballroom of Romance," demonstrates vividly.
The irony of Bridie's situation is that she is stuck with her father, a crippled widower, when she would like to be in town. In the town she talks with old acquaintances who are married or working. "'You're lucky to be peaceful in the hills,' they said to Bridie, 'instead of stuck in a hole like this.'" But Bridie is trapped in her narrow round, just as they are. "The Ballroom of Romance" illustrates Pritchett's acute insight that "Trevor quietly settles into giving complete life histories, not for documentary reasons, but to show people changing and unaware of the shock they are preparing for themselves." In this situation Bridie is more self-aware than the usual figure in Trevor's fictive world. As the story closes, she sees herself marrying Bowser Egan, even though "he would always be drinking" and would be "lazy and useless" and profligate. It is a bleak revelation about a life teetering on the edge of defeat; yet we admire Bridie for her steadfast loyalty to her father and for her ability to deal with life's privations and reversals, of which she has confronted more than her share. This Saturday night will be her last at the Ballroom of Romance: now she will wait for her father to die and Bowser Egan's mother to die and Bowser himself to court her at last, not merely run into her at the dance hall on Saturday night.
In Trevor's fiction, romance is ordinarily this bleak and unrewarding. The artificiality of dance halls and the snatched moments within them, whether in the city ("Afternoon Dancing") or the country, is frustrating for all concerned. Seldom does romance flower there or anywhere else in Trevor's world; and rarely does romance, no matter how urgent, have its way for more than a summer's day. That is but one moral of "Lovers of Their Time," my favorite of Trevor's many splendid stories. Norman Britt and his lover, Marie, carry on their affair of some years in the grand second-floor bathroom of an opulent railroad hotel. "Romance ruled their brief sojourns, and love sanctified—or so they believed—the passion of their physical intimacy. Love excused their eccentricity." But, finally, the romance grinds to a halt: Norman returns to his promiscuous wife, and Marie marries another man after she and Norman have lived with her mother, who treats Norman as a boarder. In the background we hear the jejune songs of Elvis Presley and the Beatles "celebrating a bathroom love." The unnatural romances adumbrated in "Office Romances" are even harsher—and in "Mulvihill's Memorial" still more wretched. And in Trevor seldom does romance flicker more than occasionally in even the best marriages, as "Mr McNamara," "Angels at the Ritz," "Mags," and The Children of Dynmouth reveal with chilling finality. The respite from the taxing realities of single life that marriage seems to promise evaporates quickly, so quickly in fact that in Trevor's fiction marriages often go unconsummated even though they may quietly continue, like so many bad habits, for years until a reversal occurs.
In "Mags" a middle-aged couple painfully discovers that her childhood friend Mags, who has come to help her with the children and stayed until death, has consumed their marriage, leaving little besides her own dowdy clothes. Mags, the "innocent predator," has changed their marriage forever. In Reading Turgenev (one of the paired novels of Two Lives) the young wife is driven to madness by her cold unmarried sisters-in-law and her inept husband, and romance for her is but a sad interlude with her cousin, a dreamer who dies early after living a life of fantasy. The woman herself gradually retreats into fantasy and then is institutionalized. Yet that is not the whole story: the other side is that Elmer Quarry and his sisters believe they were nearly poisoned by that young woman, Elmer's trying wife, Mary Louise—and that they, for all their failings, are far from being wicked. In the end we sympathize with them, particularly Elmer, whose many domestic frustrations have made him an alcoholic. He continues to coddle his wife as she returns to live in his attic and persists in her singular love affair with the memory of her cousin Robert. Reading Turgenev is Trevor's most acute study of madness, but that subject runs through much of his fiction, beginning with The Boarding-House and Mrs Eckdorf and running through "The Raising of Elvira Tremlett" to this new novel. Madness in Trevor's fiction could easily be the subject of a Ph.D. thesis in English literature—or, better yet, in abnormal psychology.
The failure of romance, the theme of Other People's Worlds, need not always lead to madness. Julia Ferndale, a likeable widow, is bilked by Francis Tyte, a smooth confidence man, after their wedding when in middle age she foolishly risks all for love. Francis is by no means an innocent predator, even though he is another of Trevor's halfhearted villains and parasites. Julia sensibly cuts her losses and returns to her good life in a village. The startling contrasts between the village life of Julia and the seedy world of Francis, a member of the homosexual demimonde in the city, are as strongly presented as nearly anything that Trevor has published. This novel stands, with both parts of Two Lives, as one of his best, which is to say one of the most ambitious and fully realized. The early novels are far more limited, and some of the later ones, particularly Fools of Fortune and The Silence in the Garden, are too cramped and crowded within the narrow space that Trevor allows himself. The reader who wants to sample William Trevor's fiction might well begin with Angels at the Ritz and Other People's Worlds.
My unabashed advocacy of Trevor's fiction (which extends to his other writing, especially A Writer's Ireland) is seldom tinged with negative criticism such as I have just declared. I do wish that he were less casual about his titles. Reading Turgenev is a silly title for a novel otherwise so artful and subtle, and his editor should have said so. Mrs Eckdorf at O'Neill's Hotel is merely descriptive, and many of his stories bear such mechanical titles. I am bothered by his run-on sentences: save for these comma splices, his punctuation neatly registers the nuances of his insight into suffering humanity. Obviously I am not the person to carp about William Trevor but the one to celebrate his tender and ironic depiction of character caught in the vise of circumstance.
The critics of the future will investigate William Trevor's characters, situations, places, and themes; they will linger over the subtleties of his unvarnished prose, the old-fashioned and innovative techniques that he employs, including the great chances that he takes (such as sudden and jolting shifts in point of view and in time); they will wonder about his religion and politics; they will speculate about the unhappiness of his parents and wonder if that wound drove him to bend the bow of his art; they will ask themselves if his natural mode is the story or the short novel or the novel (I cannot answer this simple question); they will marvel that a traveler has learned foreign cultures and customs so well and ask how Trevor can write almost as surely about, say, Umbria as London or an Irish village; they will chronicle the use of Irish legend and history in his fiction; they will scratch their heads about the names he assigns to his figures, major and minor; they will try to discover the sources of his art and, in doing so, they will be forced to consider Henry James, F. M. Ford, Joyce Cary, and Elizabeth Bowen among many others; they will make weather almost as heavy of his use of popular culture, especially films and music; and they will have to measure his range as a man of letters—as critic, editor, and dramatist as well as fictionist.
Few, if any, of them will be so intelligently responsive as the best of his critics to this point, critics who include not only those I have cited, especially V. S. Pritchett and Reynolds Price, but Elizabeth Spencer, Graham Greene, and still others who have responded to him with great sensitivity and insight. Consider Price once more: "Trevor's vision is deeply, but though never entirely, comic. However bleak the present and future of a given human life, the salient nearness of a vital ongoing world of rocks and fields, ocean and shore, will throw an enormous inhuman yardstick up against that one sad life and let us see the unreadable smile of time and fate." Let the last word be Pritchett's: "As his master Chekhov did, William Trevor simply, patiently, truthfully allows life to present itself, without preaching; he is the master of the small moments of conscience that worry away at the human imagination and our passions."
Postscript: Since I wrote this essay in May, two books by and about William Trevor have been published. Suzanne Morrow Paulson's William Trevor appears in Twayne's Studies in Short Fiction series. Part 1 is devoted to her readings of various stories; and although the critic cannot resist indulging herself in such foolishness as gender codes and intersubjectivity, the commentaries are usually helpful. Part 2 contains two good interviews and a little criticism by Trevor himself; in part 3 some sound criticism of his fiction is reprinted, but such hands as V. S. Pritchett and Elizabeth Spencer are missing in action. The bibliography is solid and useful.
Trevor's Excursions in the Real World appeared in London bookshops in August; it will be published in the U.S. by Knopf. This collection contains some of the superb pieces that have been seen recently in the New Yorker, especially "Field of Battle." Most of these occasional essays are struck in the reminiscent mode, but there are a few critical pieces such as a wonderful celebration of Somerville and Ross. The most memorable pieces are the sketches of actual people that constitute the bulk of the book—such personal reports as "Miss Quirke" and "Old Bull." Trevor is not so good an essayist as a maker of fiction, but his essays are well worth reading and rereading, especially for the insight they afford into his fiction—and, less often, in this retiring man's own temperament and life.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1947
SOURCE: "De-colleenizing Ireland: William Trevor's Family Sins," in Notes on Modern Irish Literature, Vol. 5, 1993, pp. 28-33.
[In the essay below, Fitzgerald-Hoyt analyzes "Kathleen's Field" and "Events at Drimaghleen" to support of her argument that Trevor breaks typical stereotypes of Irish women.]
The identification of Ireland with female icons—Hibernia, Erin, the old woman, the colleen—has for centuries been a potent and pernicious tendency. Curiously, these stereotypes historically have been embraced by Irish and English alike: the metaphor of Ireland as oppressed woman or occasionally as militant standard-bearer fueled Irish nationalist posters and political cartoons. Conversely, the image of weeping, pliant Hibernia was juxtaposed with the simian-appearing Fenian to indicate to English Victorian audiences the difference between good (i.e., tractable) Irish and bad (i.e., rebellious) ones.
As the diverse women in the 1988 documentary Mother Ireland point out, whether the image be of the poor old woman with her captive four green fields, the sorrowful Erin awaiting rescue from English oppression, the defiant Hibernia urging rebellion, or the sweet colleen beckoning the romantic tourist, such reductive images are false and unfair, bearing little resemblance to real Irish women. As Professor Lorna Reynolds has observed,
… the women of my generation and of the preceding generation were more than able to hold their own in a man's world, and I cannot recall a single, simple colleen among them … the women of Ireland, whether we look for them in legend, literature, or life, do not correspond to the stereotypes that have, so mysteriously, developed in the fertile imaginations of men.
Contemporary Irish women writers Eavan Boland, Anne Devlin, Julia O'Faolain, and many others have labored to free Irish women of restrictive stereotypes and given eloquent voice to the female experience in Ireland. But in studies of contemporary Irish literature little has been made of William Trevor's realistic, sympathetic portrayals of Irish women in his fiction of the last two decades.
In his most recent collection, Family Sins, Trevor offers complex and credible portraits of Irish women: Ariadne, whose self-assumed guilt about her father's shameful past drives her into a dreary, loveless life; Maura Brigid, psychologically bullied by a rigid family into rejecting the husband she loves; Grania, who daringly remedies the childlessness of an otherwise happy marriage. In these stories, as in all his fiction about Irish women, Trevor provides an often bleak account of lives constricted and thwarted by poverty, political injustice, religious intolerance, and domestic tyranny. Yet in two of the finest stories of the collection. "Kathleen's Field" and "Events at Drimaghleen," Trevor takes a bolder step and explodes Ireland's long-cherished female icons.
As Kristin Morrison has pointed out in her review of Family Sins, the very title of "Kathleen's Field" carries strong emotional associations: one thinks of Cathleen ni Houlihan pleading for the rescue of her four green fields. Trevor's title functions ironically here, however, for as Morrison observes of the story's protagonist: "… this girl is not a queen or a countess in a parable where one national group or class exploits another; her oppressors are themselves Irish." More specifically, Kathleen Hagerty is doomed to an unhappy, victimized life primarily because her culture, for all its veneration of mythical women, undervalues real ones.
"Kathleen's Field" depicts a woman trapped by poverty, religion, and family loyalty. Kathleen Hagerty's father is already in debt but longs to buy another field that will ensure financial security for his family. His only collateral is Kathleen, whose services as a maid are exchanged for a loan of money. The bargain is at once monstrous and complex: Kathleen's wages will be applied to the debt, so she will have nothing to show for at least ten years of work. At the same time she is all too aware of her family's plight: seven of the ten children have emigrated, leaving herself, her retarded sister, and her brother Con, who without the additional field will be unable to marry and to support his sisters after their parents' deaths.
Kathleen's life as maid to the Shaughnessy family is miserable: not only is she homesick, she is bullied and ridiculed by Mrs. Shaughnessy, ignored by the son, and worst of all, subjected to Mr. Shaughnessy's unwelcome sexual advances. Her emotional turmoil is great: her Catholic upbringing has made her both acutely aware of sin and ashamed to talk about sexual matters, so she can neither tell her parents nor determine whether she is guilty of sin in tolerating Shaughnessy's sexual exhibitionism. Haunted by her loving father's gratitude to her and her mother's calm argument that she is fortunate to have such an employment opportunity, Kathleen ultimately keeps silent, even though her misery will last for years. To Shaughnessy's public teasing about her possibly marrying someday, she thinks sadly that her plain looks have attracted no one except her unpleasant employer: it does not seem that Kathleen will be accorded the escape of marriage, either.
Part of what makes "Kathleen's Field" such a horrifying story is that the Hagertys are inherently good people, but economic constraint and worry about the future render them capable of viewing the sacrifice of their daughter's life as a boon rather than a blight. The inherent sexual inequality of their world, exacerbated by their poverty, deems their son's inheritance to be more important than their daughter's freedom.
But "Kathleen's Field" is more than a sympathetic portrait of a powerless woman. The mythical associations conjured up by its title assume a pointed irony here. No rescue is imminent for Kathleen Hagerty, and her plight is not the stuff of high tragedy but rather a chronicle of "quiet desperation." Though the Hagertys' poverty may be historically rooted in English injustice—the evils of colonialism—in this case the predominant evil is sexual inequality. Kathleen is exploited by an employer who assumes that because she is female and economically dependent upon him, she is by rights his sexual victim. Likewise, the Hagertys assume that because she is female, she will sacrifice her own desires for her family's sake.
In "Events at Drimaghleen," Trevor undermines the very roots of Irish female stereotypes. Not only are we left in no doubt about the injustice of such reductive images, we are given female characters who defy any easy definition.
Maureen McDowd, youngest daughter of a farming couple, falls in love with the ne'er-do-well son of a possessive widow. The McDowds deplore what they see as a hopeless entanglement for Maureen, and when their daughter is missing from home overnight they assume she has eloped with Lancy Butler, a belief that causes McDowd to refer to her as "a little bitch." But when the McDowds arrive at the Butler farm they discover an almost unimaginable horror: Maureen, Lancy, and Mrs. Butler dead of gunshot wounds. Police and community alike conclude that Mrs. Butler, who "had been obsessively possessive, hiding from no one her determination that no other woman should ever take her son away from her", killed Maureen in jealous rage; her son "by accident or otherwise" then killed his mother and in despair ended his own life.
Though Maureen is dead at the story's beginning, through her parents' grief we are made acutely aware of how unnecessary, how wasteful her death was. But Trevor gives this rural tragedy another twist, for Maureen's bleak story goes beyond her death. The McDowds reluctantly agree to be interviewed by an unscrupulous journalist, trusting that she will be honest, and tempted by a much-needed payment of 3000 pounds. To their dismay, the journalist transforms their daughter's tragedy into a lurid tabloid distortion. The journalist concludes that Maureen herself was the murderer, "a saint by nature and possessing a saint's fervour, (who) on that fatal evening made up for all the sins she had ever resisted." The terrible irony is that the McDowds have unwittingly destroyed their daughter's reputation, and because they have accepted payment from the journalist must now live with a guilt that makes them wretched.
Trevor cannot resist another ironic twist, however; Hetty Fortune, the journalist, is English, and her story is colored by anti-Irish bigotry. Trevor has elsewhere provided biting accounts of English prejudice; here he likewise exposes bigotry's insidiousness. At the journalist's hands Maureen becomes a stereotypical pure Irish maiden of notable piety. Furthermore, the investigating policeman is rendered dim and inept, a bumbling "Mick"; the Drimaghleen community becomes threateningly self-protective. Fortune intimates that fear of reprisal prevented the Gardai from uncovering the truth: "The Irish do not easily forgive the purloining of their latter-day saints."
Through the collusion between her parents and Hetty Fortune, Maureen McDowd is "colleenized" into an unreal, reductive image. We bridle at the injustice of this process even as we pity the bereaved McDowds.
Robert Rhodes has pointed out that in "Events at Drimaghleen" Trevor deliberately withholds information: ultimately, no one will ever know the truth. Though forensic tests could probably have eliminated some of the confusion surrounding the crime, apparently no tests were performed—are the Gardai at fault, as Fortune suggests? Furthermore, Trevor is silent about such telling details as the placement of the bodies at the crime scene and the locations of the wounds—details that would surely rule out one set of conclusions about possible culprits.
Just as Trevor leaves us bewildered about the identity of the murderer at Drimaghleen, he leaves us wondering about the real characters of the dead, particularly about Mrs. Butler and Maureen McDowd, women whom others too readily explain away by stereotypes. Mrs. Butler is characterized by her neighbors as the possessive, overprotective mother of an only son, but this too is a familiar stereotype of Irish women, too easy a dismissal of a life. We are told that Mrs. Butler had miscarried frequently before giving birth to Lancy, that she was widowed when the child was only two, that their farm is located in an isolated spot. These bald statements both tease and trouble us, for they bespeak a life of pain and loneliness, a life that in death becomes grossly oversimplified. Immediately thereafter we are made privy to Garda O'Kelly's speculations about rumors that "… Mrs. Butler had been reputed to be strange in the head and given to furious jealousies where Lancy was concerned." He concludes, "In the kind of rage that people who'd known her were familiar with she had shot her son's sweetheart rather than suffer the theft of him."
The problem is, of course, that O'Kelly draws his conclusions from rumors, not facts. Because the possessive Irish mother is a familiar stereotype, it takes little to convince the Garda that he's reached a viable solution to the crime. Concerned as he is with the shock and suffering the killings have caused in the community, he looks no further for an explanation.
The mythologizing of Maureen McDowd is even more disturbing. Hetty Fortune's characterization of Maureen, unlike her description of Mrs. Butler, apparently has little foundation in reality, but her readers, familiar with the stereotype of the colleen, have little difficulty transferring it to a real woman. But Trevor has raised too many questions in our minds for us to be capable of accepting this characterization.
In this deliberate ambiguity Trevor deals a subtle yet critical blow to the stereotyping of Irish women. The events at Drimaghleen disturb us, rouse out perennial human hunger for the security of certainty. But certainty is precisely what Trevor withholds here: in fact, he discredits the misguided desire for certainty that finds stereotyping a comfortable means of explaining away troubling complexities in human behavior.
Ultimately, in both "Kathleen's Field" and "Events at Drimaghleen" Trevor attempts to de-colleenize Ireland by demonstrating the damage wrought by those who would deny Irish women the dignity of individuality.
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SOURCE: "Introduction," in William Trevor, Twayne, 1993, pp. 1-8.
[In the following excerpt, Morrison discusses Trevor's Irish nationality and recurring themes within his works.]
From some perspectives William Trevor might seem to be a British author: he lives in Devon, on the southwest coast of England; his publishers are two important British firms, Penguin and the Bodley Head; he has been awarded an honorary CBE by Queen Elizabeth II for his valuable services to literature. His work usually occupies a foot or two of shelf space in major bookshops throughout the United Kingdom. And his speech is accented by an urbane mix of various regions of Britain. Even so, William Trevor remains an Irish author—Irish by birth and by owned identity. That simple fact is essential to any full appreciation of his fiction.
In a 1976 interview with Jack White on Irish television (RTE), Trevor stated that Irish history is "the only academic subject I've ever been the least interested in" and described himself as a young man being "very, very nationalistic, intensely Irish." Going on to consider the transition from his early work as a sculptor (in his teens and twenties), deliberately using Irish motifs, to his early work as an author (in his thirties), wherein Irish elements are not immediately apparent, Trevor speculated that he "must have used something up": contrary, he says, to standard advice given fledgling authors, he began by writing about what he did not know—England—rather than about what he did know—Ireland. Yet it is clear, throughout this early interview and in subsequent ones, as well as throughout Trevor's fiction itself, that his fascination with Irish history, Irish motifs, and his whole Irish heritage did not actually get "used up" but rather went underground for a time, only to manifest itself later as a profoundly important component of his mature work.
Born in 1928 as William Trevor Cox, in Mitchelstown, County Cork, Trevor spent his childhood in various towns in the south of Ireland, moving frequently because of his father's work as a bank official. In his RTE interview Trevor speaks at length about his vivid memories of the towns and the countryside in which he grew up and his own youthful activities there: Youghal, Skibbereen, Enniscorthy; the seaside, the fishermen, people being drowned; his going to school for the first time; "the enclosed claustrophobia of small town life" that, he says, permeates so much of his fiction; his going often into Cork to the pictures ("Clark Gable in Too Hot to Handle, then tea at the Savoy"); his wandering off on his own, lost in the usual childhood fantasies; his immersion in books (all of Dickens, Edgar Wallace, Agatha Christie). Because of his living as "a migrant inside Ireland" (to use Jack White's phrase), and belonging to a minority religious group (Protestant), Trevor says he early developed the sense of being "outside looking in," so that when he came to be a writer, he took up his role "as a spy." Throughout the interview, however, Trevor gently resists White's tendency (more implicit than stated) to see him as not really rooted in Ireland, perhaps not really Irish. Yes, Trevor agrees, he lived in many separate spots in the south, but they all seemed similar to him; he had a sense of continuity. Yes, "the minority thing" of being a Protestant has stayed with him, but his schooling also included the (Roman Catholic) Christian Brothers. Yes, his early fiction did focus on England and the English, but as a people and a place quite different from his own, as oddities ("I found English people … their rules, laws, and obsessions very interesting"). And, yes, as a matter of fact he does, even now, feel foreign in Devon, yet he experiences no conflict because "the Devon countryside and people are very like the south of Ireland where I grew up." The touchstone is always, ultimately, Ireland.
After a childhood of frequently interrupted and patchwork schooling—with some stability supplied by two years at Sandford Park School and two years at St. Columba's College in Dublin—Trevor attended Trinity College, Dublin (getting to know the city very well, especially, as he told Jack White, its night people), and was awarded a B.A. in history in 1950. His subsequent move to Northern Ireland and then to England (where he taught history and art at various schools between 1951 and 1955) in no way constituted a rejection of Ireland, no Joycean or Beckettian deliberate expatriation. As he explained to me after his reading at the Book Fair at the Edinburgh Festival in 1985, he left quite simply because there were no jobs available for sculptors in Ireland but there were in England.
Of his career as a visual artist Trevor told Jack White that he became seriously interested in sculpting at age 16 while at St. Columba's and remained a sculptor until 1960. He exhibited his work and earned his living as a professional sculptor in England, chiefly with work on churches, using Irish motifs taken from his intense study of the Book of Kells (he carved four saints from the Book of Kells for a church in Rugby, "which is rather nice—a piece of Imperialism I rather like"). His fascination with Irish crosses and other structural and decorative forms in Celtic art, along with his own intense nationalism and "desire for art to reflect the past," led eventually to his decision to give up sculpture because, as he explained in his RTE interview, "my sculpture had become wholly abstract" and "I just didn't like the look of it."
The "humanness" absent from his later sculpture was perhaps, he speculates, rediscovered in his writing. In 1958 he published his first novel, A Standard of Behaviour; in 1964 his second novel, The Old Boys, won the Hawthornden Prize. Since 1965 he has lived by his pen, publishing a novel or volume of short stories every year or two and winning most of the significant literary prizes.
The Irish strain in Trevor's artistry may have gone underground during the early part of his writing career but nonetheless remains discernible. Particularly interesting is the fact that Trevor himself finds Irish elements in work that on the surface seems not to be Irish at all. As Trevor talks on videotape with Jack White about characteristics of his use of language, he illustrates its Irish cast by citing one of his English characters (the fey/pathological adolescent nemesis Timothy Gedge, from the entirely English The Children of Dynmouth). Replying to White's question as to whether his work contains echoes of Ireland, Trevor first responds with an emphatic "Oh, yes"; he goes on to indicate that not only does he have a number of short stories with Irish characters or settings, as well as a novel that is "wholly Irish," but even his English, French, and American characters "speak in an Irish way." He amplifies this assertion by stating that he inevitably writes "Irish patterns of speech" and notes that there is something characteristic about "the way the Irish decorate a phrase, make it slightly funnier than does the more down-to-earth English person." Such language patterns are "a technical thing," he says, but not something he does for special effect; quite simply, "It's the only way I can write." Although Trevor has mitigated this "Irish speech" somewhat, even here in this mid-1970s interview he affirms that his use of the English language has a specifically Irish form to it. This, he says, accounts for some critics finding his characters' speech eccentric or odd, not realizing the Irish cast he has inevitably given to his non-Irish characters.
Climaxing this relatively long portion of the interview with his single specific example, Trevor points out that Timothy Gedge in The Children of Dynmouth "speaks with the ring of a Cork boy." Whether or not Timothy's unusually frequent use of personal names in direct address ("D' you ever go to funerals, Kate?" / "Funerals?" / "When a person dies, Kate"); whether or not his repetitions of key nouns ("I'm looking for a wedding-dress. I have an act planned with a wedding-dress") and his building his paragraphs incrementally using such repetitions, with key words often placed oddly in the phrase ("You didn't mind me looking in at the window, Stephen? Only I was passing at the time. Your dad was packing his gear up. He took the wedding-dress out of the trunk and put it back again. A faded kind of trunk, Stephen. Green it would be in its day"); whether or not that "only" and "green it would be" are distinctively or exclusively "Irish" is not the point: what is important is that Trevor hears Timothy Gedge speaking with the ring of a Cork boy, despite his English surname, origin, and milieu. Elsewhere in the interview, responding to the question as to which novel is his favorite, Trevor states, "I'm very fond of my Dublin book, Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel," which White agrees "has a strong smell of Dublin about it." Persistently, the strong smell, the ringing echo of Ireland—these permeate Trevor's sense of his work and his working.
Just as Trevor first wrote about England from the vantage point of an outsider, so later he began to write more and more about Ireland only after the years spent in England, Switzerland, and Italy had provided necessary distance, allowing him "to look back from someplace else." The word back is important in that assertion, indicating as it does an affirmation of his sense of continuity with his homeland (and not foreignness, such as he feels with England). The linguistic link was always there. Then, later, that abiding fascination with Irish history began to surface once again, prompted perhaps by the renewed Troubles in Northern Ireland from 1968 on. Certainly Trevor's increasingly frequent use of Irish settings, characters, and political issues dates from about that time, culminating in his masterpieces of the 1980s, Fools of Fortune, "The News from Ireland," and The Silence in the Garden.
The gardens featured in Trevor's latest novels provide important images for all his work and function as the chief recurrent metaphor, at once a lost Eden and a possible Paradise, a whole flourishing and blighted world. And very often that garden is Ireland. By a conceptual "system of correspondences," frequently expressed through a rhetorical strategy of "significant simultaneity," this metaphoric equation of Ireland and garden, with all its attendant images and related themes, shapes Trevor's entire body of fiction into a remarkable coherence. That polished coherence with its interesting complexity is the subject of this book. Through careful examination of Trevor's fiction, through close reading of the published texts, this study discovers the various elements of complexity and artistry that make Trevor's work such an elegant whole, centered on the metaphor of the garden and the important ethical question of whether that postlapsarian garden is essentially waste or can be reclaimed.
The intellectual framework of all Trevor's fiction is provided by his "system of correspondences." According to the concept that dominates his work, past and present are actually the same moment; apparently separate realms (the public and the private, the political and the domestic) inevitably overlap. The various elements of space and time are intrinsically interrelated, together constituting an elaborate and powerful set of relationships, a system of correspondences, that shapes his world. This conceptual system—with its chief recurrent metaphor, the garden—is well illustrated by an important short story, "The News from Ireland," and by one of his most powerful novels, Fools of Fortune.
Trevor's system of correspondences raises a significant question: What is the origin of evil in such a world and how does it operate? Trevor invokes an ancient theory (that Adam's sin in the primal garden, Eden, taints all his descendants) but transforms it by the way his characters participate in their own wounding. In Trevor's account of the genealogy of evil, sin originates not only in the past but also continuously in the present, each man his own Adam, inheriting Original Sin and contributing to it capriciously, even unwittingly. Children are particularly interesting to him, simultaneously both victims and victimizers, making evil a game they are unwilling to relinquish, playing it into adulthood and old age. A variety of short stories and novels, spread across the whole of Trevor's career, illustrate these points, showing how personal, domestic, public, and political realms are mutually affected by any given act of cruelty or violence, however trivial.
Nationality and the violence it occasions are an important aspect of the political issues Trevor's later work regularly addresses. The linkage between political violence and personal cruelties develops gradually throughout Trevor's work, emerging finally as a concatenation of suffering that binds together all persons from all times and all places. Only in the last half of his writing career do nationality and national allegiance become an explicit issue, focused sharply on Ireland. The earliest fiction of this Anglo-Irish writer is set almost entirely in England with English characters; most of these novels and stories of the 1960s are comic in manner, grotesque in characterization and plotting, and generally apolitical. From the 1970s on, humor is softened by pathos; more Irish characters and settings are used; and political and domestic problems interconnect. In the 1980s and early 1990s all but one of the novels and most of the stories are Irish in setting, characterization, and subject matter; events and manner of presentation are usually serious, the tone often despairing. The earlier work shows Trevor perfecting his craft and developing those distinctive techniques and configurations of thought which ultimately lead to Fools of Fortune and The Silence in the Garden, an odyssey that moves through the city back to the garden, back home to Ireland, from a comic view of life to a much darker one in which the mutual correspondences between public and private realms are seen as some of the chief conduits of evil.
The philosophical problem of evil and specific political evils associated with nationality are joined in Trevor's fiction in a shocking metaphor: child murder used as an emblem of colonial exploitation. To highlight Trevor's treatment of this difficult subject, it is useful to juxtapose The Silence in the Garden (1988) with two other novels containing similar material, one by an American of very different background, Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987), and the other by a fellow Corkonian, Mary Leland's The Killeen (1985). Though child abuse and murder have occasionally been mentioned in fiction, they are rarely described in any detail; by contrast, these three novels, written within a few years of one another, are surprisingly horrifying in their explicitness. Beloved is, however, ultimately optimistic, while the two Irish novels significantly show a much more diffuse stain of guilt and responsibility, a more negative view of the future as a place necessarily scarred by present evils.
Summary statements about Trevor's often shocking subject matter and the interconnected evils he depicts can make his work seem sensational. But Trevor's writing is, to the contrary, subtle and finely crafted; he makes skillful use of a variety of rhetorical strategies to establish the workings of his system of correspondences and its chain of evil. Among the more important strategies are his persistent visual images, implied puns, literalized metaphors, incremental references, and significant names. Persistent visual images serve to show personal and political worlds mirroring each other, as illustrated in the story "Attracta," with its parallels between the peaceful schoolteacher in County Cork and her former pupil murdered in Belfast. Implied puns supply a single word that ramifies from its obvious denotation in context to the analogous meanings it suggests throughout the rest of the text, as in the story "Beyond the Pale," where deceptions in the plot are mirrored by deceptions in language. Literalized metaphors function in Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel, for example, to indicate the reciprocal power and folly of both words and images. Incremental references—repeated items, such as trees, orchards, and fields—take on additional weight and meaning as they recur throughout Trevor's work, beginning initially as isolated references and then, through repetition and association, gradually acquiring the density and resonance of a symbol, suggesting various points of correspondence to other elements in Trevor's world and supporting his major metaphor of the garden. Finally, names and naming constitute profound indicators of identity, everything from obvious tags to inner sources of power, showing the extent to which even language participates in the sense of linked relationships that pervades Trevor's fiction.
Genre too is made to serve Trevor's system of correspondences. Trevor alters the traditional Bildungsroman to make it a political novel as well: the protagonist's process of maturation in both Fools of Fortune and Nights at the Alexandra is affected by political events that shift his quest away from the traditional goal of social integration and toward discovery of and reconciliation with his deepest self. Novels by John Banville and Brian Moore provide useful contrasting examples of contemporary Bildungsroman with similar concerns.
The question inevitably arises as to whether Trevor's view in his fictional world is optimistic because of his frequent comic elements or is pessimistic because of his focus on what seems an endlessly multiplying series of evil events—or, to put it another way, using Trevor's own metaphor, whether or not the garden can be redeemed, reclaimed. I conclude this book by considering the extent to which Trevor's work provides resolution for the intricate evil it explores originating in the Garden of Eden and permeating the many gardens found in his short stories and novels. From the beginning of his fiction to his latest stories, such as "Lost Ground," Trevor has included three kinds of persons—some comic, some tragic—who in various ways both manifest evil and transcend it: children, celibates, and holy fools. In the 1976 novel The Children of Dynmouth the paradoxicality of Trevor's response to the problem of evil is most explicitly presented: apparent monsters are not outside the community but part of it, just as the snake was part of Eden; at every point goods and evils touch and mirror each other; loss may be gain; the same earth is both garden and wilderness. Placing this work against another contemporary Irish novel—Jennifer Johnston's Shadows on Our Skin (1977), set in Belfast and dealing with specific, recognizable political violence—helps highlight the paradoxicality of Trevor's view, a view that itself can provide redemption for that wilderness/garden of Ireland with which his work is preoccupied.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2210
SOURCE: "Preface," in William Trevor: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne, 1993, pp. xi-xviii.
[In the following excerpt from her Preface, Paulson argues that Trevor is one of the finest modern short story writers and that he is not appreciated adequately in the United States.]
My sense of tragedy probably comes from childhood—the source, I think, of both tragedy and comedy. The struggle in Ireland—and the sorrow—is a good backdrop for a fiction writer, but it is not for me any sort of inspiration…. What seems to nudge me is something that exists between two people, or three, and if their particular happiness or distress exists for some political reason, then the political reason comes into it—but the relationship between the people comes first.
William Trevor's reputation as a major modern writer is well-established in Europe but not in America. No one has yet focused attention on his short-story masterpieces—lost, as they are, in an overwhelming amount of attention paid his numerous fine novels. This Irish storyteller and ex-sculptor of nearly 17 years considers his short stories his most important art, and most critics see the short story form as best suited to Trevor's genius.
Trevor's short stories deserve much more critical attention than they have so far received. His short-story masterpieces belong on the shelf alongside those of Chekhov, Dostoyevski, Joyce, Conrad, James, Faulkner, and Flannery O'Connor. Brilliantly rendering the pain of adolescence, the agony of courtship and marriage in an emotionally barren terrain, and the narcissism of destructive parenting, Trevor continues a long tradition of British and Irish literature about men, women, and society. He writes a personal sort of fiction yet transcends the personal because his art encourages sympathy for even the most ridiculous of grotesques.
The depth of Trevor's understanding of people is rare in this age of perpetual violence between nations and regions, within cities and within the family. Reviewers have acknowledged what Richard Eder calls Trevor's "prophetic power." V. S. Pritchett has declared Trevor "the master of the small movements of conscience that worry away at the human imagination and our passions." Ted Solotaroff points to Graham Greene's favorable comparison of Trevor and Joyce because "both Trevor and the early Joyce are geniuses at … the deeper realism: accurate observation turning into moral vision."
This Irish shape-shifter deftly renders the perspective of an elderly woman worried about senility, a young wife betrayed by an unfaithful husband, and a middle-aged spinster/schoolteacher distressed when terrorists in Belfast murder a British army officer, decapitate the corpse, and send the head to the officer's wife in a "biscuit tin." Focusing on the vagaries of personality and the more disturbing circumstances of modern life, Trevor, with his psychological and moral insights, individualizes his characters and dynamically depicts their struggles to endure personal hardship. He writes powerful prose because he masters the comic as well as the tragic impulse. His stories cannot be read indifferently, even when they make us laugh. Like other modernists he writes tragicomedy; his work renders the grotesque aspects of human nature under stress. R. Z. Sheppard rightly notes that Trevor "understands as well as any contemporary writer that the defeated, the shelved, and the slightly batty make [good] fiction."
Regressively willful men, women, and children in Trevor's stories disrupt the lives of everyone around them. Tricksters victimize the vulnerable. Traumatized wives, sensitive men, and psychologically abused children suffer because they are at the mercy of cruel authority figures. A rush into a personal relationship meant to console a wounded heart somehow falls into the soundless abyss of indifference, miscommunication, and short-circuited good intentions. The ridiculous, contemporary Everyman/woman cannot overcome a terrifying sense of alienation from Society and self. Yet few stories are tragic from start to finish.
The comic tales, such as "Mulvihilll's Memorial" and "The Day We Got Drunk on Cake," appear at times more funny than tragic; like Trevor's other masterpieces, however, they encourage what J. Hillis Miller, Robert Scholes, and others designate as an essential experience of "intersubjectivity"—that is, a reading experience reaffirming our humanity and expanding our understanding of others. When I interviewed Trevor in 1989, he declared that his primary interest is people, who, he said, "don't really change all that much." Later in the interview he said, "When you write about anyone—man or woman—there has to be some affection."
Trevor is at his absolute best in those stories expressing his sympathy for women, sensitive men, and adolescents who suffer from destructive stereotypes of feminine and masculine behavior. Whether set in urban England or rural Ireland, these stories depict women who seek autonomy but are forced to serve the interests of the farm, the country estate, or the commercial enterprise in communities demanding that men be aggressive, never nurturing, and that women be nurturing, never aggressively working to solve community and world problems.
There are exceptions, such as the aggressive wife Hilda in "Lovers of Their Time," who is far from nurturing; the nurturing fathers found in "Matilda's England"; Agnes's nurturing husband/father in "Teresa's Wedding"; and the holy father in "August Sunshine." For the most part, however, Trevor's wives, mothers, daughters, and sensitive sons are terribly limited by society and oppressed by patriarchal authority—sometimes yielding to insanity. The politics of gender is an important aspect of Trevor's art.
Confrontations between men and women in love are especially poignant when lovers struggle for meaningful relationships—for example, in "The Forty-seventh Saturday" and "Lovers of Their Time"—but meaning is measured in dollars and cents. Alert readers must sort out the authorial voice from that of the unreliable narrator, whose shifting moods and fuzzy perceptions serve as a window to the world; readers must sort out moments in the text when the discourse of business-as-usual promotes the materialistic values of advertising and the mass media.
Replete with slogans and jingles from radio, television, and movies, commerce diminishes love in these stories. Usually, however, Trevor resists the comic writer's temptation to be satisfied with caricature. His short-story masterpieces in this vein treat with compassion those who struggle in the industrial wasteland. Anthony Glavin points out that Trevor makes "us care about people we don't especially care for," and Derek Mahon notes that his "severe [yet] compassionate judgments [are] handed down more in sorrow than in anger." This sorrow is conveyed by masterful manipulations of style rendering inner landscapes or surrealistic dreams such as those found in "The Ballroom of Romance," "The Raising of Elvira Tremlett," and "The Blue Dress."
Nevertheless, the reader may feel revulsion given the vast range of human foibles so poignantly rendered in Trevor's stories. William Cole complains about what he sees as Trevor's "gloom, gloom," Robert Towers about his "gleeful misanthropy." The criticisms that Trevor represents too much suffering in his stories may suggest the reviewer's confusion between the character's outlook and Trevor's.
Trevor's short stories convey his wise bewilderment over life. He master-minds puzzles of experience that happen to be stories. Like Joyce and other modernists, he works almost entirely by indirection, understatement, and very subtle implication—sometimes relating horrific events in a deadpan tone, sometimes developing volatile perspectives that leap forward and backward in time and in and out of assorted characters' minds. While discussing reasons the Irish "have taken to our hearts the breathless gallop as opposed to the marathon," the short story rather than the novel, Trevor points to suffering owing to oppression by the British and then declares that the "ability to slip effortlessly from mood to mood [is] … the hallmark of the real short story writer." Trevor conveys an incredible range of moods—from tragic despair to comic hilarity.
A 1981 Newsweek review, however, calls Trevor a "Master of Malevolence." This is but one example of a reader equating the author's perspective with that of his less reliable narrators. These readers miss Trevor's humanity. John J. Stinson argues that critics assume compassion is lacking in the stories because they do not carefully sort out the many different "voices" in his work. Nor do they consider the modernist methods of the author's style and the modernist tendency to focus on the dark side of human nature. Stinson concludes that "Trevor's carefully controlled and deliberately understated stories are alive with implication…. Readers discover a slightly strange world full of eccentric personalities and small quirky events that remain, for all that, very much the world we know."
Trevor in fact reveals the mindscapes of a plethora of eccentric characters. Usually the reader can determine which character's mindscape is being represented—for example, in such first-person narratives as "Beyond the Pale"—because the passage focuses on that character, shown looking at a scene or pondering an idea. Maybe the reader is expected to identify who belongs to what stream of consciousness because it matches behavior established previously in the story as particular to that character. This latter case requires an extremely alert reader, especially when unreliable narrators reveal their own appalling natures.
Trevor's fiction is indeed difficult when an unreliable or omniscient third-person narrator—with shifting moods and fuzzy perceptions—serves as the only window to a complex world. No critic should fail to heed M. M. Bakhtin's argument that modern fiction is "multi-voiced," reflecting socio-cultural and historical contexts. Besides being alert to differences between the narrator's and the author's voices, readers must sort out moments in the text when various community voices intrude—the voice of authority reflecting Catholic or Protestant church dogma; feminine communal voices rebelling against pub-crawling husbands and fathers; conforming voices of spinsters and bachelors; alienated schizophrenic voices of adolescents struggling for self-definition; and phallocentric voices of men training their sons to become fanners, auto mechanics, butchers, or various knights of industry (hotel proprietors, storekeepers, boarding school taskmasters, etc.). These voices invariably represent communal values determined by gender, class, and nationality—values that amount to powerful forces dramatically determining the course of a given life.
Trevor understands well the biological, psychological, and social forces that may undermine the best of human intentions—deterministic forces represented in the fiction of such English naturalists as George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Joseph Conrad—all writers Trevor mentions when talking about his work. To define Trevor's work as "naturalist" would not be inappropriate. Like both nineteenth-century naturalists and twentieth-century modernists. Trevor adopted a pessimistic attitude toward the industrial world, although his view is far less bleak than some critics suppose.
Modernist writers' pessimistic questioning of God and human nature is best represented in double fictions. Trevor's fiction is not unlike that of E.T.A. Hoffmann, Kafka, Dostoyevski, Dickens, Conrad, Joyce, Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, James, Faulkner, and Flannery O'Connor—all writers depicting Jekyll-Hyde sorts of double figures, mildly or outrageously schizophrenic protagonists with uncertain identities and a hypersensitivity to suffering in a seemingly godless world. The fragmented self struggles for meaning, longs to communicate with others, and feels lost because it is unable to integrate the finite and the infinite, as the Christian philosopher Kierkegaard sees it; the id and the superego, as the agnostic psychoanalyst Freud sees it; the anima and animus, as the mystic Jung sees it.
Moral judgements in the modern age demand difficult choices independent of mindless conformity to religious doctrines—difficult choices that force us to be divided within ourselves and against one another. Neither Catholics nor Protestants have managed to stop the atrocities perpetrated by both sides in Belfast. Joyce criticized the Catholic Church because of disparities between doctrine and the practices of particular Church representatives—disparities that further shake the foundations of religious faith. In Ireland, of course, a particularly dogmatic and stern form of Catholicism was associated with the Christian Brothers' schools. The teacher-brothers lack humanity as Trevor depicts them in his stories—Trevor being, like Joyce, a modernist in his critique of the Church. Trevor did, however, declare in a letter to me that he believes in God. His stories certainly acknowledge spiritual emptiness, materialism, and alienation in the modern age, but they affirm the importance of community, the importance of "connecting" in the Forsterian sense—as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, and members of society.
Trevor, then, must be considered modernist in terms of his style, his focus on the dark aspects of human nature, and his skeptical attitude toward some representatives of the Church. He should be related to the nineteenth century, however, when considering his emphasis on deterministic forces undermining human will and the ability to "connect." And let us hope that his compassion and humor prefigure the twenty-first century and a future when his tales will be more fully appreciated.
Most of Trevor's stories convey a genuine optimism and a love of people—a love based on a profound understanding of suffering, a sympathetic acceptance of human weakness, and shrewd insights into social hierarchies. His interest in the more ludicrous aspects of human nature, alienation, identity, and insanity are best expressed by tragicomedy, and his most brilliant short stories borrow from this genre. He writes an intensely poetic, understated, and ironic fiction—the hallmarks of the modern short story.
What I mean to do here is spotlight representative masterpieces of human insight—masterpieces demanding that Trevor be recognized in America for his singular understanding of personality and his major contributions to the short-story form.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2530
SOURCE: "A Thunder of Hooves in the Drawing Room," in The Hudson Review, Vol. 47, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 655-60.
[In the following review, Krist argues that if readers give Excursions in the Real World a careful reading, they will learn a great deal about the author.]
Any rich and active writing life creates by-products—reviews, essays, travel articles, profiles, and other occasional pieces—that accumulate in the odd corners of a writer's opus until they take on substantial heft. If the writer is good enough, these pieces, while perhaps not originally intended to appear between hard covers, may eventually be gathered into a collection and published. If the writer is better than good enough, the collection may even represent a significant literary achievement, the whole cohering despite the varied nature of the parts.
In his latest book, Excursions in the Real World, William Trevor (certainly a writer who can safely be described as "better than good enough") has achieved this kind of organic-seeming miscellany, though one with a difference. Trevor has taken pieces written at various times and for various occasions in his life, supplemented them with new work, and fashioned them into a memoir. The result is a curious hybrid, a memoir not so much of the writer himself or of his milieu, but rather of the various bits of life and art that have somehow left a lasting impression on him. In fact, the person whose life is ostensibly being recalled in these gathered pieces, far from being an overwhelming presence, is actually discernible in them only by an act of inference.
One could have predicted, I suppose, that a writer like Trevor—arguably the English-speaking world's premier practitioner of a certain brand of artistically distanced fiction—would create this kind of elusive autobiography. His work has always seemed to me at odds with the confessional subjectivity of a lot of contemporary literature. In Trevor's fiction, one never senses the author grinding personal axes behind the scenery. A Trevor story represents, above all else, an act of sympathetic imagination, in which the author's sensibility is present only as a tool to bring to life the sensibility of his characters, who are always his true subject. What I've read of Trevor's fiction rarely if ever has the feel of autobiography, so I suppose it makes sense (though a somewhat ironic sense) that the same can be said of his memoirs.
While the book does contain several pieces of conventional autobiography—accounts of the small towns of the author's youth, portraits of his parents and tutors—the bulk of these Excursions would find no place in the reminiscences of a more self-involved artist. What Trevor gives us are mostly what he calls "personal fascinations and enthusiasms"—the places, people, and situations that somehow have remained "snagged in the memory." He doesn't write about how these various stimuli affected him or his work. Nor does he draw parallels or contrasts between other characters and himself. In fact, the word "I," so prominent in most literary memoirs, appears with remarkable infrequency here.
But in a chronicle like this one, as the author himself admits, "the recorder cannot remain entirely in the shadows, much as he might wish to do so." And so we do find tantalizing hints of Trevor here and there—in, for instance, the choice of writers he profiles. His selection goes beyond the obvious Irishmen (Joyce, Yeats, Sean O'Casey, and Beckett) to include Somerville and Ross—a pair of upper-class Victorian ladies who collaborated on a travel book called Through Connemara in a Governess Cart ("On a dull day, they embellished," he claims)—as well as William Gerhardie, a failed sort of genius who seems to have been his own best reviewer:
He was ravenous for praise, fearful of even a hint of criticism. Other writers of the time, sensing the considerable promise of his novels as soon as they appeared, were generous. But this generosity is noticeably most lavish when Gerhardie himself reports it. "What do I hear? Gerhardie? The very man I always wanted to meet," cooed H. G. Wells. "You're a genius," pronounced Shaw.
It's tempting, of course, to try to find hints of self-revelation in these selections. For instance, Trevor writes of Somerville and Ross that
… it was isolation again—the very distance that lay between two upper-class women and the Ireland they wrote about—that permitted their talent to breathe and develop. By chance, or accident of birth, they discovered the perspective that art demands.
Reading these sentences in the venue of a memoir, one can't help wondering whether Trevor is describing himself here as much as he is Somerville and Ross. Is he hinting that his own art has been possible only as a result of a distance kept from the subjects he writes about? Knowing what we know about Trevor's fiction, the answer would seem to be yes. But it's difficult to say for sure, and Trevor is certainly not one to tip his hand in such a matter.
And really, it's only when one decides to give up trying to find the author subtly encoded in these pieces that many of them can be fully enjoyed. Trevor tells some wonderful stories—of pitiful, lost faculty members at the private schools of his youth, of car-battery salesmen trying to make merry in off-season Sussex, of lavishly eccentric toilers in the advertising industry of the early 1960s (Trevor wrote for a while in the offices of Marchant Smith, "one of the greatest copywriters of his time" and the originator of the immortal slogan "Top People Take The Times"). Trevor is as entertainingly deadpan as ever in this book, as when he reports that:
Briefly I had received a modest weekly wage in return for calling for a designated brand of beer in selected Northside public houses, whether as an encouragement to others or in an effort to establish if the beer was being stocked I never fully ascertained; and since inebriation invariably prevented me from accurately completing the forms I was provided with by the brewery, my assistance was soon dispensed with.
But the tone of the book is by no means universally light. In "Field of Battle," Trevor grapples with the unhappy marriage of his parents, the details of which can only be read between the lines of youthful memory:
The marriage of parents is almost always mysterious: the sensual elements scarcely bear thinking about, the romantic past can only be guessed at, and all such curiosity invariably comes too late…. The cold facts, all that is known, tell nothing: what happened, or did not happen, is private territory, a disappointment guarded in life and death.
Trevor does manage, however, to recreate the unseen elements of their marriage—extrapolating the early, innocent entry into romance, the silent discord hidden behind the noise of everyday life, the toll taken by constant moves around the Irish countryside. His parents stayed together through these years solely for the sake of the children, he concludes, and when the children were grown up, they separated, never to meet again—a sad, almost archetypal story in which Trevor finds a kind of heroism:
[I]n retrospect there is something gallant about their efforts to hold together the family their one-time love had brought into existence. Their perseverance was full of a self-sacrifice that was not apparent while they were making it; and there was a courageous honesty in their refusal to hide from their children the plight their marriage had become. They did not cover up; there was no hypocrisy….
Sometimes Trevor finds in a character from his past an expression of an entire era. "Assia," for instance, begins with a flurry of pop sociology that would undoubtedly have pleased Trevor's old advertising mentor, Marchant Smith:
The sixties in London had the flavour of a dream. After the drabness of the previous decade, in which nothing more exciting happened than Ban-the-Bomb marches, the Suez fiasco and a dog propelled into space, all of a sudden there was the razzmatazz of Carnaby Street and the E-Type Jag, and smart Mary Quant bringing fashion they could afford to shopgirls and typists. Flower people ran barefoot in the park, James Bond pushed aside the fuddy-duddy heroes who still trailed a Bulldog Drummond sense of decency and a stiff upper lip. Cannabis was in, LSD if you were daring. Sex set up its stall. Jesus Christ is alive and well, the graffiti said, and working on a less ambitious project.
Fantasy arrived in London in the 1960s. "It's fantastic!" was the cry as wives were swapped at parties and there was dancing without steps…. In 1962 a young man in a lounge bar won a wager of a shilling by kissing on the lips a girl who was a stranger to him: she'd have slapped his face in the nineteen fifties, and taken him to court in the nineties. But in the sixties—mid-century breathing space between the World Wars and AIDS—everybody laughed and anything went.
This is not great prose, perhaps (sometimes even excellent Homer nods, as Horace complained), but it serves as the backdrop to a character sketch of remarkable complexity and mystery. Assia, "tall and beautiful, her features reminiscent of Sophia Loren in a tranquil moment," is an elusive figure—of Russian abstraction, with hints of Israel and Canada mixed in, though no one has quite been able to pin her down about her background. She arrives on the scene married—happily, one supposes—to a poet named David Wevill. "Charming, attractive, unobtrusive, they were Scott Fitzgerald people sixties-style, their innocence brushed over with sophistication, their devotion to one another taken for granted." Assia would do spontaneous, sixties-style things like order roses to be sent to the new wife of her ex-husband (billing them, of course, to her ex). And, though not a liar, she would nevertheless fabricate bountifully: "Liars lie in order to obscure." Trevor writes; "Assia exaggerated only in the interests of what she saw as a greater veracity and, as her voice continued, doubts slipped away."
She tells him of meeting that other remarkable sixties couple—Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath—and being invited over to tea. One thing leads to another, and soon she is the Other Woman in that famous relationship. It's a typical thing to have happened in that time. Trevor implies, but Plath is hardly a typical person for it to have happened to. She killed herself shortly thereafter—a staggering blow to Assia. And, alas, the times were already changing:
When Lee Harvey Oswald did his thing it wasn't so good. Nor when Brady and Hindley did theirs. Steven Ward's loveliest lovely was in gaol, the osteopath himself was dead…. The seeds of Europe's Vietnam were germinating in Belfast and Derry. With half the decade to go yet, the fun fair was sleazy at the edges.
Much later, Trevor sees Assia again. She is divorced, the mother of a small child, talking of marrying yet again. Trevor advises against marriage—some people seem not to be made for the institution—but she still seems game, still telling her fabulous, half-believable tales. There is, however, a sense of defeat now to her storytelling. And Trevor catches a glimpse of something else underneath:
"Actually I'm afraid," she murmured, before she smiled again and went away.
A month or so later Assia killed her child and then herself.
But the most revealing portrait here—revealing, that is, of Trevor and his work—is that of "The Warden's Wife," one Mary née Savery (we never learn her married name), spouse of the headmaster of St. Columba's school, where Trevor was a student. "In all sorts of ways," Trevor writes, "it was at St. Columba's where I first became aware that black and white are densities of more complicated grays." And certainly the Warden's wife qualifies as a complicated shade of gray. A shadowy and inscrutable figure on the periphery of school life, shy to the point of mortification, she nonetheless acquires a reputation as a kind of sensualist:
Tongue-tied among her husband's prefects at the lunchtime High Table, she was quoted as having once referred, out of the blue, to breast-feeding. So the rumour began that beneath an unprepossessing exterior, and perhaps related to her beauty in the past, this woman was more than a little aware of sex, her reference to her breasts as much evidence of it as her interest in "what went on" between her daughter and her followers. That she was allied to a man who was the declared enemy of the sensual life in all its aspects struck none of us as tragedy.
It's the very unlikeliness of her alliance with the headmaster—a cockney buffoon who is an object of fun among his students—that intrigues Trevor about her. She is obviously a serious, intelligent woman. So he wonders about her: "Did she, as she pondered in her flowerbeds, shuffle through her regrets, or wish she had her life over again?"
The answer—if it is an answer—comes only years later, when he reads her obituary in the Old Columban. In it he discovers, to his amazement, that during her years at St. Columba's she had become an expert on horse-racing, and regularly attended race-meetings. The realization comes to Trevor as sheer aesthetic delight:
No one had ever said the Warden's wife was good for a tip; no one had ever imagined her laying an on-course bet. She did not seek inside information from Cog Chapman, whose father had a stables…. Yet this woman, who on the face of it had been smudged away to nothing, dwelt profitably on form among the callous prefects at High Table lunches, while her husband held forth about potatoes or recalled the day he met de Valera.
In Trevor's fascination with this woman we can trace the roots of his distinctive vision. Here we find a classic example of his extraordinary ordinary characters, with their extravagant internal lives that serve as refuge from the exterior blandness. If Mary Savery hadn't really existed, I suspect, Trevor would have created her. And it's this aspect of his sensibility—his perception of the outrageous abundance that exists beneath the most mundane surfaces of life—that, to my mind, lifts his work far beyond the limits of a safe and decorous classicism.
This is, in fact, the central irony of Trevor's work—this cosmic joke about the wild opulence lying at the heart of everyday life. And nowhere is the joke more slyly told than in the incantatory conclusion to this most unmemoirlike memoir, in which Trevor imagines Mary Savery's musings during one of her husband's dreary afternoon teas:
Tea is poured and sponge cake cut, the teacups passed about. Deaf in her solitude, the Warden's wife muses among gaudy silks enriched with hoops and diamonds, half-moons and stars. Held-back wagers are placed, trainers offer a final word, and then the old-faced jockeys leap sprightly to the saddle. In the drawing-room the precious metal pouch is declared once more to have been the repository of holy writings. In the drawing-room there is the thunder of hooves.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1237
SOURCE: "Never Did Spider More Hungrily Wait," in New York Times Book Review, January 8, 1995, pp. 1, 22.
[In the following review of Felicia's Journey, McGrath praises Trevor's ability to create memorable characters and a satisfying resolution to a dramatic story.]
William Trevor is an Irishman who lives in England and writes often about the English. He is a moral realist who possesses a deliciously dry wit, a nice sense of the macabre and a warm sympathy for the flawed and suffering characters he creates with such fine psychological precision. There is a conviction implicit in all his work that people divide into predators and prey, that the human condition is marked by secrecy, shame, deceit, blindness and cruelty, and that evil not only exists but also can be understood, and can even be vanquished by unpredictable eruptions of grace.
Human sexuality, with all its vagaries, is one of Mr. Trevor's preoccupations, as is the victimization of the weak. In his new novel, Felicia's Journey, which won the 1994 Sunday Express Book of the Year Award in Britain, he plays a deceptively simple variation on these themes. In the process he creates a subtle, plausible and infinitely pathetic portrait of a monster.
Felicia's Journey is about an unmarried Irish girl, adrift and friendless in the industrial English Midlands. Felicia has crossed the Irish Sea to search for the young man who made her pregnant before he disappeared. If ever there was a soul at risk, it is Felicia's. With her possessions stuffed into two shopping bags and her heart filled with naive confidence in the empty promises of the rogue who seduced her, she presents an enticing prospect both for those who would save her and those who would destroy her.
With every passing day her tiny store of money diminishes, and the fetus grows in her womb. She trudges about a landscape of grim industrial parks, knowing only that the man she loves works in the storeroom of a lawn mower factory. As her hopes die, she becomes increasingly vulnerable. She is a weakling, limping lamely behind the herd; it must be only a matter of time before some hungry creature picks her off.
Enter Mr. Hilditch. William Trevor is unsurpassed at creating such characters. Mr. Hilditch is a large, genial, unmarried, middle-aged man who thinks and talks in platitudes and takes great satisfaction in his job as catering manager of a factory. His special pride is the canteen, with its hot meals and puddings for the workers. Mr. Hilditch is the type who spends his Sunday afternoons visiting stately homes and engaging strangers in the sort of mindless chat the English are so good at. He is, it appears, a man of stultifying banality, respectability and mediocrity.
What tips us off to the existence of concealed depths in his psyche—and the possibility of something rather unwholesome going on down there—is his eating. Mr. Hilditch eats constantly. He is very fat as a result. Powerful and massive energies are being sublimated.
So it is with no little alarm that we watch this enormous man begin to focus his attention on the hapless and miserable Felicia. Mr. Hilditch has obviously done this sort of thing before, since he doesn't try to befriend the girl; he is much too cautious to risk frightening her off. Instead he allows her to glimpse the possibility that he might help her, and then, secure in the knowledge that sooner or later she will come to him, he waits. Never did spider more hungrily anticipate fly.
By this stage, the reader is utterly engaged in Felicia's plight and feels frantic but helpless, wanting to cry out to the young woman not to go near this man—to go home, to go anywhere, to flee him. But of course, Felicia does not know the danger she is in. And curiously, neither do we, precisely. For although Mr. Trevor has skillfully persuaded us to believe that Mr. Hilditch is a monster who intends to do Felicia serious harm, he has not been at all specific.
This, in part, is what makes Felicia's Journey such a good read: its vague, tantalizing suggestion of unspeakably evil acts being hatched in the black, foul-smelling cellars of Mr. Hilditch's mind and the pleasurable frustration aroused by the fact that we cannot know, at least not yet, the form these horrors will take.
But were the novel merely an account of Felicia's struggle to avoid the clutches of a man who means to hurt her. it would not sustain such interest. The contest would be ill matched, and Mr. Hilditch would too easily overwhelm his prey. Felicia needs a friend, an ally, if she is to put up a fight and escape being devoured—and she gets one. This ally takes the improbable form of the improbably named Miss Calligary, a black woman who goes door to door with her Bible, spreading news of the "paradise earth" and the wonderful future in store for "the one who dies."
In his fiction Mr. Trevor has always displayed an amused and somewhat ambivalent attitude toward priests and vicars and others of God's representatives on earth. Miss Calligary and her companions at the Gathering House are no exception. Like Mr. Hilditch, they want to lay hold of Felicia and gather her in. With their appearance, therefore, the drama begins to take on the classic outline of a battle for a soul, waged between the forces of good and evil. It's in his human fleshing of these conflicting forces, in his bestowal of these awesome roles to as unlikely a pair as Mr. Hilditch and Miss Calligary, that Mr. Trevor shows just how wise and wry and funny and morally astute an observer of the human comedy he is. Yet despite the absurdity of the antagonists, we never lose sight of the fact that the stakes they are fighting for could not be higher. Felicia is the prize.
At this point Mr. Trevor does something unexpected, and the story becomes much richer than a mere moral chess game, with Felicia as the white queen. Part of the great charm and pleasure of the book is the way it changes form, shaping up at the outset as a Gothic drama in which the uncertain nature of the monster—or, rather, of his projected acts—seems central, then turning into a sort of passion play, with angels squaring off against a demon, before finally settling to explore its true theme. This is the depiction of a severe and terrible personality disorder, and the question of whether one so afflicted might find, if not redemption, at least a scrap of saving grace.
Mr. Trevor does answer this difficult question, and his answer is suitably complicated and dramatic. For this is a story in which not only innocence and aggression are pitted against each other, but also terror and a sort of hope. There is much darkness here, but it is not unrelieved; nor do these characters and the bizarre string of events that entangles them strain credulity for a moment. Rather the reverse. They are frighteningly real.
The resolution the novel arrives at, the answer to its central question, is deeply right and satisfying. Felicia's Journey confirms the maxim that to understand all is to forgive all, and it demonstrates as well that in hands like Mr. Trevor's, fiction is a tool without equal for creating such understanding.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1345
SOURCE: "An Improbable Monster," in National Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 4, March 6, 1995, pp. 67-8.
[In the following review, Bowman argues that despite Trevor's romantic depiction of the homeless, Felicia's Journey is well written.]
In Britain, William Trevor's 13th novel and 21st book of fiction won the Sunday Express "Book of the Year" award and the Whitbread Prize. Now published in the U.S., Felicia's Journey should be taken as stating a most persuasive case on behalf of its 67-year-old Irish author, who has long lived in England but continues to write about both his native and his adoptive countries, as one of the two or three best living writers of fiction in English. If you haven't read him yet, you should read him now.
The Felicia of the tale is an Irish girl of 18 who lives with her father and three brothers. She shares a room with and looks after a centenarian great-grandmother widowed in the Easter rising of 1916. Unemployed and not remarkably bright or pretty, she is seduced by a young man called Johnny Lysaght who soon after goes off to England without leaving an address. Her Irish patriot father thinks he has joined the British army, but she believes his story that he works in a lawnmower factory in the Midlands. Learning she is pregnant, she leaves home to seek him there without telling anyone. Mr. Hilditch, the fat, middle-aged bachelor who is the catering manager in the first factory she tries, offers to help her, and it soon emerges that Felicia has more to worry about than being seduced and abandoned.
That Hilditch is an improbable monster emerges only very gradually during the course of this improbable thriller. For the most part his twisted psychopathology is invisible, and, absent the Grand Guignol accoutrements of the Hollywood serial killer, he becomes a study in the banality of evil. To Felicia he "isn't a man you can be alarmed about for long" because he is so reassuringly bland and ordinary—albeit with a kind of ordinariness that is new to her, on her first trip out of Ireland. She finds the mind-numbing cliches of the lower-middle class English demotic, for which Trevor has an incomparable ear, fresh and comforting, as he tells her about himself:
"I've had a regimental career myself. The army's in my blood, as you might say."
"You're not in the army now?"
"I came out when Ada was first ailing. She needed care, more care than I could give, having regimental duties. No, I still help the regiment out, but it's office stuff now."
"At the factory where I met you—"
"Oh, no, no. No, not at all. I happened to call in there to see a friend. Well, as a matter of fact, to tell him Ada was going into hospital. People like to know a thing like that. No, I keep things straight for the regiment on the bookkeeping side now. Gets me out of the house, Ada says."
Again Felicia nods.
"You'd stagnate if you didn't, Felicia. You'd stagnate in a big house, caring for an invalid wife, nursing really."
"Your wife's an invalid?"
"Best to think of Ada as that. Best for Ada, she says herself, best for me. It's what it amounts to, as a matter of honest fact, no good denying it, no good pulling the wool. You follow me, Felicia?"
"Yes, I do."
"If you face the facts you can take them in your stride. I had a sergeant-major under me said that, top-class man. You meet all sorts in a regimental career."
Everything here is a lie—Ada, the invalid wife, the nursing, the hospital, the regimental career, the friend at the factory, the sergeant-major. But somehow it is rendered retrospectively plausible by leading up to that humbly respectable moral resolve to "face the facts." That is how Trevor's characteristic irony works. When, later, Hilditch squeezes out a few tears for the imaginary death of the imaginary wife, Felicia is ashamed for being mistrustful of him. "No one else had been so concerned" for her plight, she reflects. And with a jolt we realize that she is right.
It takes a writer with the highest gifts to do things like that. Or delicately to anatomize Felicia's reminiscence of Johnny and her feeling of
a call to account for the happiness she had so recklessly indulged in. "Don't worry about that side of things," he had reassured her once, as they hurried through the Mandeville woods. "All that's taken care of by myself." Her face went red when he said it, but she was glad he had. "There's nothing wrong in it," he murmured, saying more, "nothing wrong in it when two people love one another." Yet the night she wrote the letter she felt that maybe, after all, there had been: the old-fashioned sin you had to confess if you went to Confession; the sin of being greedy, the sin of not being patient. And why should she have supposed that the happiness his love had given her was her due, and free?
That is magical writing. The direct quotation breaks off after Johnny is remembered to have said "There's nothing wrong in it" and the prose itself takes on the shyness of the girl as it pauses a moment ("saying more") before it can proceed to the hugely significant use of the word "love." We know at once that this is the only time the boy used it. Felicia's preoccupation with the past gives her something in common with her ga-ga great granny who lives, as Philip Larkin puts it, "not here and now but where all happened once." It helps her go on believing that "only being together, only their love, can bring redemption."
The novel can be read as an account of competing romanticisms. Besides Felicia's mooning over the worthless Johnny, there is her father's romance of the Irish revolution and the part in it taken by the now helpless old lady in her unimaginably remote girlhood. "Not much older than yourself she was," he tells Felicia, "when the lads went off, knowing the color of their duty. Three days later and she's a widow. She wasn't married a month and he was gone. Don't talk to me of some back-street romance, girl." Mr. Hilditch, too, is a romantic who listens to the love songs of the Forties and Fifties on his gramophone of an evening. His everyday sentimentalism is capable of appalling acts at the same time that it inspires trust in victims like Felicia: victims who now inhabit in his mind a macabre "Memory Lane."
The only flaw in this subtlest and most beautifully written of thrillers is that Trevor has his own streak of romanticism—particularly about the street people whose lives Felicia drops into and out of again. It seems to me a weakness in the book, a stretch to ask us to accept that Felicia, without the following wind of drugs, alcohol, or disease, should have made such haste to join those so without resources of intelligence or industry as to have identified themselves (at ages well in advance of hers) as life's big losers. They make a convenient symbolic association for poor Felicia, but they do not ring true, except as very temporary companions when she is at her lowest and unluckiest.
Perhaps their purpose is to prevent the novel from committing itself too completely to the slow but inexorable working out of a species of divine retribution for the sins of Mr. Hilditch. With typically well-judged irony, Trevor shows him maddened by the continued importunities of the "God-botherers" among whom Felicia briefly sojourns—though it is only in his guilty imaginings that they have any ulterior motive beyond converting him to their weird cult, the Gatherers. As a tale of justice it would otherwise be too neat for modern tastes. But William Trevor is too good a writer not to make it a tale of justice as well as a compassionate, melancholy meditation on human wretchedness and the dark places in the heart.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1135
SOURCE: "A Most Improbable Beauty," in Commonweal, Vol. CXXII. No. 10, May 19, 1995, pp. 31-2.
[In the following review, Maitland faults the conclusion of Felicia's Journey, but still finds the work powerful and engaging.]
William Trevor is an eminent British writer, claimed—very properly—by the British literary establishment; winner of many of the most prestigious British literary awards. But importantly, Trevor is not British, but Irish—he was born in County Cork in 1928, brought up in provincial Ireland, and educated at Trinity College, Dublin. He is a member of the Irish Academy of Letters. He is a very Irish writer.
I simplify—there are, of course, many kinds of Irish writers. Ireland has produced some of the finest English prose writings and it would be ridiculous to try and claim that they all shared some profound Celtic singleness of style or intention. Nonetheless there is a strain in contemporary British writing which can fairly be called "Irish" and Trevor belongs in that tradition. It is above all a strain of an intense, lyrical emotion—a determination to make the reader feel; be moved by mundanity, by careful concentration on the little details of daily life.
Trevor is the most wonderful writer: the experience of actually being in the act of reading Felicia's Journey is extraordinary. "Page-turning" usually applies to plot but that is not what kept me utterly inside this novel—it was something about having to pay attention. Felicia's Journey is both demanding and exhilarating, frequently almost unbearable; sometimes even, the more intellectual part of this reader at least wanted to resist so blatant an attempt to have her heart wrung. It is more like the experience of reading poetry or the works of certain spiritual writers—a profound emotional engagement, coupled by a driving sense that something extremely important is going on.
Is that not enough? In the light of such a literary experience it may be unreasonable to mention that after you have staggered out from under this enchantment you may find yourself wondering whether it was all worth it.
Felicia's Journey is a novel about innocence. Felicia is, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, "simple." Pregnant, motherless, she leaves her small, dead-end Irish town in search of the father of her child who she faithfully believes loves her and has failed to learn of her plight only through the evil machinations of his mother. She has no address and rather inadequate clues. Her doomed journey takes her through the once industrial and now decayed heartland of northern England, where pathetic people live broken lives.
Trevor has the ability to present these lives without any tone of superiority—he neither minimizes nor sentimentalizes the individual brokenness, the structural despair and the darkness that both breed. But even here, he argues with passion, even at the extremes of human experience there is sweetness, there is kindness, generosity, and—by implication at least—grace.
Felicia comes from a background of harsh but clear values; formed and shaped by the heroic violence of Ireland. Her father's pride in his bedridden grandmother—the wife of a dead activist of the Easter Rising—strips Felicia of the ease of normal youth. Her father half-hopes her unemployment and consequent narrowness of aspiration will continue so that the old lady can be cared for properly. He hates his daughter's lover, not so much because of his morality but because of a rumor, neither denied nor proven by the story, that the man has joined the British army. Felicia's consciousness is filled with a mixture of a longing for love and life—but a life within the structures of this society—and a strange assortment of Catholic religious images.
She is thus totally ill-equipped to confront or even manage the destabilized, fragmented social reality in which she finds herself in England. The contrast here is finely managed: neither the rigidity of her Irish hometown community nor the complete loss of community, the sense that people can and do disappear forever in the wastelands, are offered to the reader as good, merely as different, contrasting sorrows. Nonetheless, everyone Felicia encounters has an agenda of manipulation and madness, while she is "pure" in her quest and in her heart.
Inevitably she enters hell, not a hell of her own making, but a hell provoked by her own simplicity (or, one might think, though Trevor would not say so, her stupidity). It is impossible to describe the harrowing—in all senses—of this hell without giving away the plot; and as Trevor almost manages not to do so himself (the unfolding is elliptical and mysterious and known only to the insane and the deluded), it would be mean of me to do so. But at the heart of the novel is a genuine darkness, a man so truly dreadful that one is moved weirdly to compassion for him. Trevor, with a moral integrity that is quite extraordinary, manages to explain this terror without ever "explaining it away" or minimizing or excusing. It is still ghastly, yet it is not beyond compassion, beyond our recognition of the cruelty of chance, the arbitrary nature of evil.
By the end of the novel "a terrible beauty is bom." Felicia has become a street person, and has found there a calm, an almost joyful serenity and acceptance of herself and of her life. Felicia's fate, or redemption, if it is a redemption, if she needed redeeming, is so profoundly unacceptable that it is deeply disturbing, moving, touching. Disturbed, moved, touched, I still wanted to protest: to protest at Trevor's apparent acceptance that this is good enough—good enough for Felicia, good enough for any young innocent person. By claiming, through the mystery-weighted intensity of the prose, that there is a deep spiritual truth here. Trevor forces himself into a corner—a solution that might just be good enough for the individual he has described, has become a universal proclamation. Political busy-bodies like me have to protest at the magical loveliness of the end. I cannot believe it. I cannot believe that the "lost" in this sense—those lost without consent, through evil and the indifference of society—are or should be contented; or that we, in the comfort of our literary sensibilities, should be allowed to find this place of desolation so beautiful.
Felicia is as a lamb to the slaughter. This may be true, it may be how the lives of too many innocent and not very bright women are, but it should not be held up as beautiful and lovely.
Trevor makes it beautiful. As reader I cannot but admire this. As moralist I must protest. Which frame of reference should I bring to such a novel? To this novel, which forces the question more powerfully than anything I have read in a long time?
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1382
SOURCE: "The Casualties of Deception," in New York Times Book Review, October 20, 1996, p. 15.
[In the following review, Lesser considers the concepts of truth and self-knowledge in After Rain.]
The great novels draw you in entirely, it seems, so that while you are reading them you forget you ever had another life. But the great short stories, in my experience, keep you balanced in midair, suspended somewhere between the world you normally inhabit and the world briefly illuminated by the author. You see them both at once and you feel them both at once: the emotions generated in you by the story carry over instantly and applicably to the life outside the book. This is why the best short stories can afford to be inconclusive. You, the reader, complete them by joining them back to your life—a life that, because it too is inconclusive, enables you to recognize the truth of the fictional pattern.
Everyone will have his own list of the best short stories. Mine includes most of Chekhov, one or two by James Joyce, a dozen or more from D. H. Lawrence and—in this same vein—a healthy selection from William Trevor. This Irishborn, English-domiciled writer, who is also an excellent novelist, gave us his Collected Stories a few years back. Now, as if to assure us that the well is far from dry, he offers a luminously disturbing new collection, After Rain.
Each of the 12 stories in this volume hinges on lying or concealment or omission of the truth. Deceptions and evasions permeate the book, from the brilliant opening story. "The Piano Tuner's Wives"—in which a blind man's second wife lies about reality in order to obliterate the visual memories left him by his first wife—to the final "Marrying Damian," in which an elderly couple doesn't quarrel "because ours are the dog days of marriage and there aren't enough left to waste: a dangerous ground has long ago been charted and is avoided now."
Both lying and its evil twin, excessive truth-telling are linked in these stories to various acts of cruelty—little cruelties (like a grown son's failure to attend the birthday dinner planned for him by his doting parents) as well as more significant crimes, ranging from burglary and fraud to sectarian violence and random homicide. But deception's major casualty, as might be expected, is the covenant of marriage. Sprinkled among these dozen stories are seven divorces, six cases of adultery, five instances of explicit sexual jealousy, two or three enduring but loveless marriages and four children from broken homes.
Mr. Trevor, though, is no simple-minded advocate of "family values," and what he does with this material is entirely other than what an indignant sociologist or a preaching moralist would do. If these stories are mainly quite sad, lacking the dark, ironic, Graham-Greene-style wit that colors most of Mr. Trevor's novels, they are nonetheless open-ended. And that absence of closure gives them something approaching optimism—if not the optimism of hope, then at any rate that of fairness. People suffer deeply in most of these stories, and many of them suffer unjustly, but Mr. Trevor never allows us to see only the victim's viewpoint. There is always another perspective, another interpretation, and with that distance comes the possibility of release, not only for us but for the suffering character as well. In a way, these stories are like a complicated, infinitely subtle, delicately inflected rendering of the Freudian notion that self-knowledge might bring freedom. But for this to be a Trevor truth, it must remain conditional.
The most overt example is the title story, "After Rain," which follows 30-year-old Harriet (one of those four children of divorce) on her solitary vacation in Italy. The title phrase itself refers to her brief but intense moment of revelation about the failures in her emotional life: "The rain has stopped when Harriet leaves the church, the air is fresher. Too slick and glib, to use her love affairs to restore her faith in love: that thought is there mysteriously. She has cheated in her love affairs: that comes from nowhere too."
Not content with giving her this degree of insight, the author intensifies Harriet's discovery by allowing her to connect it with a painting she has just seen in the church. "While she stands alone among the dripping vines she cannot make a connection that she knows is there. There is a blankness in her thoughts, a density that feels like muddle also, until she realizes: the Annunciation was painted after rain. Its distant landscape, glimpsed through arches, has the temporary look that she is seeing now. It was after rain that the angel came."
"After Rain" is more schematic than most of Mr. Trevor's stories, and as such is not one of my favorites. But what it beautifully illustrates is his usual ability to be both inside and outside the character at once. Here he gives that gift of double perception to Harriet herself: she experiences "blankness," "muddle," and then an annunciation. Elsewhere he gives it only to us—a strategy that is less therapeutic for the characters, perhaps, but somehow more moving.
I'm thinking for instance, of the last paragraph in "The Piano Tuner's Wives," where the authorial voice comes in from the outside to adjudicate between the first wife, Violet, and her jealous successor, Belle. Commenting on the second wife's lying contradiction of the first wife's descriptions of reality, Mr. Trevor calmly concludes: "Belle could not be blamed for making her claim, and claims could not be made without damage or destruction. Belle would win in the end because the living always do. And that seemed fair also, since Violet had won in the beginning and had had the better years."
This is not information that is available to any of the principal characters in the story: the piano tuner is blind and therefore cannot perceive the lies; Violet is dead and cannot dispute them; Belle is the sort of person who is incapable of stepping this far back from her situation. And yet something in the language of the observations—the past tense specificity of "that seemed fair," the colloquial formulation in "had the better years"—works directly against the all knowing voice of "claims could not be made without damage" or "Belle would win in the end." The implication is that Mr. Trevor's authorial knowledge is somehow contingent on the thoughts and expressions of his fictional creations, not self-sustaining and absolute. Like the blind piano tuner, he needs to listen to what his characters tell him: he may draw his own conclusions from their lies or truths, but he can have no direct, supervisory access to their reality.
Because of this gap, this space between author's knowledge and character's perception, William Trevor's stories have room to breathe. They are like something alive, shifting and changing each time you read them. The first time you read "A Day," about an alcoholic wife and an adulterous husband, you may blame him for her condition. The next time you may listen closely to the story's last line—"He is gentle when he carries her, as he always is"—and see him as the daily victim of her routine heavy drinking. The third time you may wonder if she has imagined the infidelity, or at least the extent of it. The fourth time you may decide that his gentle, tacit encouragement of her oblivion is in fact the worst aspect of his cruelty. And so on.
To free one's characters from the wheel of determinism is the greatest gift an author can give, and one of the rarest. It can't be done with any deus ex machina tricks, or we wouldn't believe it. The release, when it comes, needs to be true to the tragic reality of the story—and by extension, to our own tragic reality. The emotion we are left with can contain resignation but can't be limited to it, it can include hope, but not at the risk of denying pain. William Trevor knows all this. What is more remarkable is the way he infuses this authorial knowledge into his stories, so that his own role in their creation fades to invisibility, leaving us in the presence of something very much like life.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 893
SOURCE: "Wonderment and Serenity" in Irish Literary Supplement, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring, 1997, p. 4.
[In the following review, Fitzgerald-Hoyt agues that Trevor achieves a coherency in the twelve stories about revelations contained in the collection After Rain.]
In the title story of William Trevor's stunning new collection, After Rain, a young woman who has traveled to Italy to come to terms with a failed love affair as well as a troubled family past reflects upon a painting of the Annunciation in the church of Santa Fabiola:
The Virgin looks alarmed, right hand arresting her visitor's advance. Beyond—background to the encounter—there are gracious arches, a balustrade and then the sky and hills. There is a soundlessness about the picture, the silence of a mystery: no words are spoken in this captured moment, what's said between the two has already been spoken.
The scene is echoed on the book's dust jacket: a detail from a fifteenth-century Annunciation by Fra Bartolommeo and Mariotto Albertinelli focuses upon the angel's serious face and upraised, faintly minatory finger; the Virgin's hand seems to attempt to ward him off, to reject his message. Behind these poised figures stretches an Italian landscape of subdued beauty, the watery sunlight unable to illuminate the suppressed drama of the clustered buildings and distant hills.
Annunciation is an appropriate trope for these twelve stories, for all contain moments of revelation for reader and character alike. But, as implied in the Virgin's reluctant hand, annunciations can be wrenching experiences, their news unwelcome.
Ten of these stories previously appeared in magazines, yet the collection is nevertheless cohesive. Their varied settings—Ireland, England, Italy. Northern Ireland—and their diverse characters have in common a theme that pervades all of Trevor's fiction: people's abortive attempts to love and their success in damaging each other. The "annunciations" they undergo are often bitter and painful revelations. The eponymous "Gilbert's Mother" is convinced that her mentally disturbed son is a murderer, but without evidence, she is stymied. The parents in "Marrying Damian," who were once amused by their philandering, manipulative friend, realize their insensitivity to his victims only after it becomes apparent that their own daughter will be his next. The physically blind husband of "The Piano Tuner's Wives" must depend on his wives to describe a world he cannot see, but his second wife, who becomes a bride at 59, is so resentful of and threatened by her deceased predecessor that she attempts to obliterate her husband's memories. Her descriptions of the places he has visited with his first wife are deliberate falsehoods that challenge and undermine his cherished recollections.
The displaced children, disaffected spouses, and alienated souls that inhabit so much of Trevor's world are much in evidence in After Rain, but this collection offers fresh perspectives, new characters. "The Potato Dealer" plays a new variation on such earlier stories as "Teresa's Wedding" and "Kathleen's Field", where Irish daughters become pawns in the face of social convention and economic exigency. Yet here, Ellie, pregnant as the result of an affair with a curate and pressured into a loveless marriage by her rigid family, worsens an already bleak situation. The unromantic potato dealer who has married her in exchange for money and land comes to love her child, who believes him to be her father. Ellie's insistence that the child be told the truth is ultimately selfish, the unburdening of her mind rendering her daughter the object of gossip and wounding her husband's pride and self-esteem.
Since the 1970s, perhaps the major preoccupation of Trevor's Irish fiction has been the consequences of colonialism, including the tragedies wrought by political violence. The finest story in this collection, "Lost Ground," first appeared in The New Yorker in 1992. Its reappearance is both an aesthetic delight and a sad commentary on contemporary Northern Irish history, for in the recent past it seemed that this harrowing tale of an Ulster Protestant family might become historical fiction rather than a installment of the current "news from Ireland". The aptly-named Milton, son of a militantly Unionist family, sees or imagines a vision of St. Rosa, and sets out to "justify the ways of God" to humanity by embarking on a peacemaking mission. But his mission embarrasses his family, who through their silence become complicit when his own brother murders him. At once a haunting tale of a gentle soul's destruction and an allegory of Northern Irish history. "Lost Ground" recalls such Trevor masterpieces as "The News From Ireland" and The Silence in the Garden.
On the back cover of After Rain, the aforementioned "Annunciation" is reproduced in its entirety, and the shift in perspective changes everything: now we see the Virgin's modest face and gentle, downcast eyes; the benedictory presence of God the Father. The landscape that loomed so large in the detail now fades into the distant background. Similarly, when Harriet, the unhappy protagonist in the title story, looks more closely at her painted Annunciation, her perspective shifts: "It isn't alarm in the Virgin's eyes, it's wonderment. In another moment there'll be serenity." This dual perspective is also an appropriate assessment of Trevor's artistry, for his closely observed, deeply compassionate stories winkle out the Virgin's reluctance, the myriad doubts, fears, and petty dishonesties that define our daily lives. Yet these painful annunciations burst upon us in subtle, ironic, beautifully realized prose. And therein lie both wonderment and serenity.