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The Saving Remnant

The remnants of the Big House families, those who had chosen not to run away, opened their once-gracious doors—now shabby with flaking paint—to shopkeepers and clerks and poor relations. My memory is of grass growing on avenues, and gardens gone wild, and faded drawing-rooms where cards or bagatelle were played. A Mrs Orpen came from such a house to hear the rugby internationals on our new Philips wireless, and stood when “God Save the King” was played, rigid as a ramrod, to my parents’ bewildered amusement and the giggling of children. Keeping faith with the irretrievable past—no matter how comic a form it took—was often the hallmark of the dispossessed.

This sense of belonging to another time, of making little sense in the contemporary world, seeps into Trevor’s fiction. “We are,” says a Protestant rector’s father in “Of the Cloth,” “a remnant,” left behind when “the great Church of Rome inherited all Ireland.” In Trevor’s story “Mr McNamara,” the narrator is a Protestant boy born in the late 1920s, as Trevor himself was. He places himself in a social context:

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…. 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.

Decline and decrepitude are the stuff of Trevor’s fiction, shaped by a sense of Irish history as a long, inevitable but tragic fall. Trevor studied history at Trinity College Dublin and has remarked of Irish history that it “reads like a good novel.” Historical events hover around some of Trevor’s narratives: the bloody uprising of 1798 in “Autumn Sunshine,” the Great Famine of the mid-1840s in “The News from Ireland,” the 1916 Rising in “Low Sunday, 1950,” the most recent Northern Ireland conflict in many stories. But what really matters in the fiction is not any specific event but the feeling, quite particular to the southern Irish Protestantism of Trevor’s youth, that life after the separation of Ireland from Britain is the mere aftermath of a tragedy. Its saving grace, for Trevor, is that it makes a good story. A character in “Autumn Sunshine” claims that Irish history interests him because “it had a good story to it, its tragedy uncomplicated.”

Trevor’s people do not live the tragedy, but live in its unheroic aftermath. The violence of 1922 has been replaced by something even more corrosive—an amused tolerance. They no longer matter enough to inspire hatred. In Trevor’s story “The Distant Past,” the old Big House Protestants have been so thoroughly defeated that even the violence they experienced has become a shared adventure, of no real consequence. Fat Cranley, a local butcher who once joined an armed raid on the home of a Protestant brother and sister, the Middletons, now jokes with them about the event:

Will you ever forget it, Mr Middleton? I’d ha’ run like a rabbit if you’d lifted a finger at me.” Fat Cranley would laugh then, rocking back on his heels with a glass of stout in his hand or banging their meat on to his weighing-scales. Mr Middleton would smile. “There was alarm in your eyes, Mr Cranley,” Miss Middleton would murmur, smiling also at the memory of the distant occasion.

The Middletons are now harmless eccentrics, their ostentatious loyalty to Britain and the Queen tolerated by their Catholic neighbors as a merely personal idiosyncrasy. Things change, however, when the Troubles begin again in Northern Ireland, political attitudes harden, and the Middletons are quietly ostracized. The story ends with their realization that “because of the distant past they would die friendless. It was worse than being murdered in their beds.”

Mostly, though, Trevor’s people take a certain quiet pride in their survival after traumatic events. What defines Trevor as a writer is that he never regrets the historic defeat that formed him. Nostalgia is kept at bay by the realization that the past tragedy is what has made his characters who they are and given them their singular relationship to the present. In “Of the Cloth,” the Protestant rector “did not in any way resent the fact that, while his own small churches fell into disrepair, the wayside Church of the Holy Assumption, with its Virgin’s grotto and its slope of new graves, was alive and bustling.” In “Low Sunday, 1950,” a brother and sister whose father was killed in the aftermath of the Easter Rising of 1916 take a sanguine view of the upheaval that took such a toll:

They did not regret, either of them, the fruits of the revolution that by chance had changed their lives in making them its casualties. They rejoiced in all that had come about and even took pride in their accidental closeness to the revolution as it had happened. They had been in at a nation’s birth, had later experienced its childhood years, unprosperous and ordinary and undramatic. That a terrible beauty had transformed the land they had not noticed.

In “The Time of Year,” a young woman whose lover has drowned is haunted by his death but does not really mourn: “She was as she wished to be…. She did not quite add that the tragedy had made her what she was, that without it she would not possess her reflective introspection….”

In Trevor’s world, resignation is the great virtue and disillusionment is the nearest thing to freedom. In “Teresa’s Wedding,” a woman reflects at the end of her awful wedding day that she and her new husband, whom she does not love, “might make some kind of marriage together because there was nothing that could be destroyed, no magic or anything else.”

This sense that there is nothing left to be destroyed and that therefore there is little to fear is rooted in Trevor’s own Protestant Irish background, but he gives it a general application. In his vision, old houses are usually falling apart. Female beauty is typically faded, its glow the dying embers of a fire. Mrs. O’Neill in “Bodily Secrets” was “a beauty once.” Clione in “A Friend in the Trade” combines the remnants of youthful pulchritude with the knowledge that “cobweb wrinkles have an attraction of their own.” Vanessa Ormston in “Death of a Professor” has “retained her beauty to the same degree that the flowers she presses between the leaves of books have.” In “On the Streets” from A Bit on the Side, Cheryl “had been pretty once and still retained more than a vestige of those looks at fifty-one.” Of Evelyn in “An Evening Out” he writes that “the remains of beauty strikingly lit her features.”

The slow crumbling, the flaws in the structure, are what attract Trevor. His moral universe is not mapped by good and evil but by the various shades of weakness which he regards with a dispassionate sympathy. It is, a character in “Autumn Sunshine” reflects, “weakness in people…that made them what they were as much as strength.” His cool appraisal extends in particular to England. Trevor emigrated there in his mid-twenties, and in doing so perhaps ended the last possibility of nostalgia. The old Irish Protestant idealization of England as the Mother Country could not survive Trevor’s scrutiny of its middle-class life. Attuned as they were to the signals of inertia, his antennae picked up the sounds of post-imperial decline with unusual clarity. England is the parallel universe to Ireland in his work—in A Bit on the Side, the stories neatly alternate between one country and the other—and it is even more obviously entropic. While Irish decline may be granted in Trevor’s vision a certain underlying tragic grandeur, England’s waning can manage at best a comic stoicism.

The pervasive sense of decline may reveal a deeply conservative view of the world, but it also gives Trevor’s writing a deceptive angularity. In their own way, his characters inhabit a universe no less absurd than that of another son of the displaced Irish Protestant professional class, Samuel Beckett. The narrator of “Solitude” remarks that “that is how we live, our conversations incomplete, or never begun at all,” and within their apparently neat structures, Trevor’s narratives are riddled with voids and silences. Trevor tells stories in which stories are untold. People think about expressing what they feel, but then think better of it.

Even the written word is haunted by the possibility that it will be unread. If one of Trevor’s characters is working on a book, it will certainly go unpublished. In “Her Mother’s Daughter,” Helena’s parents have neglected her in order to work for many years on a seven-hundred-page book on lexicography. When they are dead, she takes her revenge:

The cardboard carton containing her father’s work, and her mother’s achievement in completing it, remained in a corner of an empty bedroom. When the house was sold and the particulars completed the estate agents would telephone her …to point out that this carton had been overlooked…she’d say it didn’t matter, and give the instruction that it should be thrown away.

In “An Evening Out” from A Bit on the Side, a man’s lifelong project of documenting the streets of London “would never be completed, much less published.” In “Solitude,” the narrator’s father is an Egyptologist: “His books did not remain unwritten, but he did not ever want to publish them.”

Often in Trevor’s stories, there is an explicit understanding that what has just happened will not happen again, that the story itself is, as it were, being told for the last time. The duped Professor Flacks in “Two More Gallants” realizes that “never again could he hold his head up among the Friends of James Joyce.” Bridie, in “The Ballroom of Romance,” decides that “not ever again would she dance in the Ballroom of Romance.” Eleanor, in “Kinkies,” will “never be able to return to the offices” where she has worked. The priest in “Death in Jerusalem” “wondered if he would ever again return in July to Co. Tipperary, and imagined he would not.”

This sense of conclusiveness returns in the stories in A Bit on the Side. In “Graillis’s Legacy” the protagonist realizes of a fondly remembered friendship that “there was no more, nor would there be.” The narrator of “Solitude” has a premonition that the golden days she spends with her beloved father will end: “There’ll never be the picture gallery again, our favourite picture the picnic on the beach. There’ll never be the café again, there’ll never be the dolls’ museum.” In “Justina’s Priest,” a Catholic clergyman realizes that Ireland has changed and that his influence has “fallen away to nothing.” In “Sacred Statues,” a woman is doomed to remain childless and the “buttercup-yellow room so lovingly prepared” for her children “would never now be occupied.”

Even when the sense of an ending is not so explicit, there is almost always the realization that something is coming to a close. Sometimes, his characters are at the end of a childhood that is killed off by the irruption of sex. In “Nice Day at School,” an innocent English girl almost succumbs to the insistence of her schoolmates that she lose her virginity, and the repellent experience makes her middle-aged before she has even become an adult. Sometimes, as in the “The Ballroom of Romance,” it is youth that comes to an end as the main character, who is in her mid-thirties, gives up all her hopes of fulfillment and settles for a life of frustration. Sometimes, life itself has come to an end, as when in the opening story of A Bit on the Side, “Sitting with the Dead,” the dead body of a horse trainer lies in the house where his widow rails at his memory. Sometimes, a whole family history is running into the sands. In one of Trevor’s first stories, “A Meeting in Middle Age,” the protagonist, Mr. Mileson, is a “bachelor, childless, the end of the line.”

It is this feeling of finality that gives Trevor’s work its depth and dignity. He, too, may be the end of a line, his work a last flowering of nineteenth-century fiction. It is untimely, anachronistic, a remnant of something that lingers on after its world has died. The knowledge that the struggle is over gives it the serenity and composure of utter resignation.3

  1. 3

    The paperback edition of William Trevor: The Collected Stories was published by Penguin in 1993.

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