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The Crack In the China

To open William Trevor’s new novel and begin to read is to step into a rarefied world as of a perfect English garden where tea is served on a golden afternoon. It is easy to be beguiled by its harmonies and its design although after a little while one could begin to find it enclosed and confining. Can life—English country life—be as calm, as orderly as this? one wonders. Even a death, by accident, occurring tactfully offstage so that we are not shocked by anything so unsightly as blood or pain, barely causes a ruffle on the surface. It is no more than a pebble that has fallen into a lily pool and lies there, a tasteful addition to the design.

At the center is the owner of this garden of unearthly refinement, Thaddeus Davenant. He is no more than a shadow cast by a tree, a gray area, unfailingly subdued and restrained. Several women have loved him—his late wife Letitia, the young woman Pettie, and a blowzy character called Mrs. Ferry, who remembers moments in his youth when he rashly lost control. He, however, had not loved his wife although he had honored her for her goodness and kindness, and as for Mrs. Ferry, he cannot understand why she continues to send him letters of appeal from a world from which he quickly chose to disentangle himself.

Then he surprises himself by feeling an impulse of love for his newborn daughter, Georgina. So we are told, by the author, although we never see this love—perhaps a display would be embarrassing, even vulgar. When he reaches out to touch the baby the gesture is no more emotional than patting the dog. The baby, too, never takes on reality by so much as a cry; we never see it fed, bathed, dressed, or cradled: it is as inert as a doll and appears to have no bodily functions (so often unattractive). When Letitia’s mother, Mrs. Iveson, comes to care for it—unwillingly, reluctantly, out of a deeply ingrained sense of duty and propriety after her daughter’s recent death—all she does is sit beside it under a tree with a book—reading, dozing, idle. How can we care about people whose lives are so muted, who seem barely alive?

The world depicted is as exquisite as a cup of porcelain, an heirloom, so delicate that it seems improper to ask if it will hold tea, but such is human perversity, its very perfection makes one long, indelicately, for some hot, dark brew to be poured in and provide satisfaction. Without that, the cup is sterile, it is futile and redundant. But perhaps Trevor is a painter of flowers on porcelain, of pretty pictures, who fails to satisfy such coarse desires?

Of course it is not only the human appetite for the physical, or for the humanly imperfect, that provokes our growing sense of waiting, possibly of impatience. It is because he has been building—although invisibly—a tension that will reach breaking point. The tension is atmospheric; it builds, like a thunderstorm in a cloudless sky, through an intensity of light and heat but nothing so obvious as a crash of thunder. It cannot be spun out any longer, surely. Then, and not a minute before, does Trevor permit a crash—not of thunder but of that rich brew of human failings and imperfections and demands and passions that pours—and pours—into the cup.

It is the outside world that has intruded—the world of Mrs. Ferry who demands attention from Thaddeus long after he is willing to give it by reminding him, inconveniently, of afternoons of passion in the Beechtrees Hotel, and of Blackpool, “time we were naughties there, you and I”; of Pettie the foundling and petty criminal (a pun there?) who has set her heart on being nanny to the motherless child and a comfort and solace to the remote Thaddeus, and of Albert who helped Pettie run away from the Morning Star, a children’s “shelter” from which children had to escape if they were to survive, and who has himself found solace in wiping graffiti from the walls of the underground and caring for Mrs. Biddle with whom he lodges.

These people are neither beautiful nor well-mannered nor attractive. Suddenly, the silence of the perfect world of Quincunx House—of English class, aristocracy, country life, and good taste—is shattered; in their world—untidy, unsightly, intrusive—everyone chatters, and Trevor displays what he could not in the tongue-tied Davenant household: an ear for dialogue and perfect pitch in reproducing it. Here are Albert and Mrs. Biddle:

Yeah, I been down the shops.… I paid the gas.”

You get the woman with the hair?”

Yeah, I got her. Violet she’s called. She has it on her badge.”

I wouldn’t be surprised what she’s called, that woman.”

Albert says it takes all sorts.

And:

You hear of Joseph of Arimathea, Mrs. Biddle?”

Mrs. Biddle doesn’t know if she’s heard of Joseph of Arimathea or not. There was Joseph and Dan Saul, kept a greengrocer’s, Jewish boys. The father was a Joseph, too. The family moved up West, Dan Saul went into jewellery. Flashy he always was.

Time of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea. He took the body. There was another bloke come down out of a tree and carries the Cross.”

And here is Pettie talking with Albert:

She says she gave up the stores yonks ago. Same’s she gave up the idea of getting office skills. Same’s she gave up trying to get work at the swimming-baths.

If there’s a vacancy at the Marmite, you’d go for it, Pettie? The woman said keep in touch.”

Yeah, great, she says, but he knows she doesn’t mean it.

The arbitrary juxtaposition of these two worlds comes about because Pettie applies for a job as the Davenants’ nanny—totally unsuitable, unsavory Pettie. Of course this causes a crack in the china—one sees the jagged line running through the gleaming porcelain like a streak of lightning, and yes, it brings about a violation, but, unexpectedly, this is not what causes the destruction of that delicate, exquisite teacup. No, the Davenant world continues—silent, subdued, well-behaved under stress. Neither Thaddeus nor his guilt-ridden mother-in-law breaks under pressure. The break comes later, from another quarter—and that is Trevor’s masterstroke because only then, so late that one has almost given up expecting it, does one see what he is about.

When he allows the two worlds to clash, it is as if the nineteenth-century world of Galsworthy and Bennett is meeting that of the late-twentieth-century world of Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, and James Kelman. But there is no similarity with either the earlier or the later writers in Trevor; he is uniquely oblique. He keeps his head averted and his eyes lowered, with well-mannered reticence; yet he picks up every detail, visual and aural, as exactly as an insect or a bird whom we do not observe but who observes us. He allows the crack in the porcelain to occur by showing us the fault line between the two worlds—one polite, controlled, almost speechless, the other loquacious, uncontrolled, unself-conscious. Of course we expect trouble when they meet, we expect that crack. It culminates, we may think, when the baby is snatched away.

Another author would have treated that as the climax. It is not the climax for Trevor. How banal if it had been. Only a lesser novelist would have been satisfied with what is so obvious. In Trevor’s hands, it causes barely a tremor—Thaddeus Davenant keeps his stiff upper lip, and so does his world, made up of his mother-in-law and his servants. The little protected world of Quincunx House goes on spinning on its axis—not even a mother’s death or a child’s disappearance is allowed to discombobulate it.

This will puzzle the reader, more accustomed to visible emotions and throbbing drama. Trevor is such an accomplished sleight-of-hand artist: he does not disclose his purpose until the final scene. The disclosure is brought about by the unlikely deus ex machina of Albert—the gentle, kindly man with the vacant eyes (“A look of an egg about the face,” the butler thinks, “with eyes that do not express a lot, if anything at all…”) who has been trained by his life in the streets to look out for those in need of help and to give it, whether to a man with elephantiasis who needs help to cross the street and avoid the jeers of schoolboys, or to Mrs. Biddle who spends the day in bed, or to Pettie with whom he shares a history in the same foundling home, in which he will later find the kidnapped baby. Here, briefly, is Albert’s way with Mrs. Biddle:

He places the tray on the bedclothes the way she likes him to do, not too far down, so that she doesn’t have to sit up more.

You having enough there, Albert? You make more toast if you want to.”

No, I’ve enough.”

You don’t want to starve yourself. You take what you want.”

I’m all right.”

I like a pilchard, Albert.”

Thaddeus and his mother-in-law cannot know what Albert is like. Seeing him shuffle up their driveway, they think he has come to be compensated for rescuing the baby, and they give him tea and place some money on the table beside him. The scene that follows is a comedy of manners and Trevor plays it with exquisite restraint. As Albert describes the children’s home, “the drawing-room is invaded by other people and another place, by the faces of children, black and white and Indian,” and his listeners feel pity and sadness. But when he begins to talk about Pettie, how she “took a shine to Mr. Davenant, like,” it exasperates them. Thaddeus’s irritation with the repeated “She took a shine to you” and Mrs. Iveson’s horror at the thought of her grandchild exposed to rats and dirt in the ruins of the foundling home into which Pettie smuggled her—“She goes back to the Morning Star, the time she’s frightened, the time the police is out looking for her”—cause the initial cracks in their gleaming porcelain world, in their stiff and starchy exteriors—but these would not make up the climax of the novel; they are nugatory, almost negligible.

Then Albert delivers the blow that smashes the cup, spills the brew, and causes a sudden, shocking mess. Suddenly they see Albert not as a boring, babbling outsider from the working class, Pettie not as a criminal who inveigled her way into their midst, for Albert has exposed their humanity. It is not pretty, it is not attractive, and Thaddeus and Mrs. Iveson are so shaken by this exposure that finally an acknowledgment is made of failure—not Pettie’s but their own, far worse failure. Therein lies the shock—to confront not others’ failure but one’s own.

That is what Trevor has kept artfully concealed—so artfully that he has misled his reader again and again into thinking his slender novel oddly anachronistic and irrelevant, only so that the impact of the final disclosure may shatter one as it shatters his characters, with the same blunt force. Here, he says to them, these are the people you need to look at, to look up to; these are the saints, the unlikely saints who could lead you to redemption.

Redemption is, after all, Trevor’s theme, and he has never shrunk from showing that it is not the rich and beautiful who will pass through the eye of the needle but the poor and the plain to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs. Deprivation, despair, and suffering and not calm, content, and plenty will pave the way is the message of so much of his work. His manner of preaching this message is so much the opposite of what goes by way of preaching that we may easily overlook his purpose and his theme. The very words sound so blunt and banal that they would embarrass this artist of reticence and subtlety. Our times have grown accustomed to louder voices, cruder terms. That surely does not mean there is no room anymore for, or silence in which to catch, Trevor’s quiet and subdued tone, which conveys infinitely more than it cares to say.

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