“Aren’t you the pretty one!” Dirty Keery used to call out, lying in wait in Devlin’s Lane…he said it to all the girls going by, trying to get them to come close to him. And he was blind in any case.
Felicia, at seventeen, has not received many compliments from sighted men. She has, her girlfriends say, “the face for a nun.” Her mother is dead, and she lives in a small Irish town with her father, her brothers, and her great-grandmother, with whom she shares a room. For three months she has been unemployed. She used to work at a canning factory, but it closed down. There’s nothing doing at Erin Floor Coverings, or Hickey’s Hotel, or Maguire Pigs. The way ahead looks bleak, a continuation of thankless drudgery for her family, her unemployment pay going into the common pot and her personal freedom narrowing to vanishing point.
William Trevor is the bard of loss, the poet of failed lives and ruinous impulses. His usual characters are small people, who do not have control over their own lives and who are defined by the words that other people use about them: “Strange when you think of it, how people are given their names. Strange, how people are allocated a life.” In thirteen novels and eight short-story collections he has shown himself a close observer, a fine stylist, a master psychologist. In Felicia’s Journey, which in the UK won the prestigious Whitbread Prize, he brings all these qualities into play, and adds to them a teasing manipulation of the reader’s sensibilities, so that the book has the elegant tensions of a high-class thriller. It is a departure, his publishers claim, and certainly it has brought him a new and wider public; but the preoccupations of the novel are traceable in his earlier work, and the author’s voice is as dry and fastidious as ever.
William Trevor was born in 1928, to a Protestant family in Cork. During his childhood his family moved often, because of his father’s job with a bank, and he has said, “Every town in Ireland feels like mine.” The outsider and the transient visitor, which Trevor has always been, sees the particularity of each community, the tiny features that make it just itself and no other place; so when he describes Felicia’s town, we see at once its public houses, its single coffee shop, its dental surgery with the tarnished brass plate; we see the streets that confine and limit her, yet safely enclose her, and we can identify her place in the family, in the town, in history. Felicia’s great-grandfather was a Republican who died in the 1916 rising, leaving his wife of one month expecting a child. That wife is now barely sentient, an old woman kept in a back room; but in the evenings her grandson, Felicia’s father, turns over scrapbooks with mementos of the dead patriot and his friends, and relives the sacrifice, and reads the words of Eamon De Valera:
“The Ireland which we have dreamed of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as the basis of right living, of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit; a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens; whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of old age. It would, in a word, be the home of a people living the life that God desires men should live.”
That is the dream; the reality, for Felicia, is the watery greens bubbling on the stove, the empty purse, the procession of days. To her amazement, a boy called Johnny Lysaght asks her out for a drink. Johnny works in England, and has come home to see his mother.
Trevor does not present Johnny as a cold-hearted seducer. He is just a normal young man who takes his opportunities in life, and who likes to cover his tracks: who needs to cover his tracks, because in fact he is a soldier in the British Army. Felicia’s father knows this, or strongly suspects it, and tries to warn his daughter off. But Felicia isn’t listening; she has the stubbornness often found in innocent people. Humble, completely lacking in confidence, Felicia is dazzled by Johnny’s attention—and very soon she is pregnant, too.
It is a stock situation, but William Trevor makes us feel quite freshly what it might be like to be as vulnerable as Felicia is now. There is no inward rebellion; she does not fight against her situation, because her expectations are so low: “Why should she have supposed that the happiness his love had given her was her due, and free?”
But the fact of her pregnancy must be dealt with somehow. She is sure that Johnny will help her as soon as he knows. He has somehow—and she believes it’s not deliberate—taken his leave of her without a forwarding address. All she knows is that he works at a lawn-mower factory somewhere in the English Midlands. His sour, lonely mother will not help her; she doesn’t want another woman in her Johnny’s life. Who can Felicia tell? There is a conversation with her father that might have led somewhere, but didn’t.
“You’re no more than a child, Felicia,” her father commented eventually, on his feet and already going from the kitchen. He hesitated by the door, as if about to say something else, and just then her brothers returned from Myles Brady’s and sat down at the table to eat slices of a pan loaf and spreadable cheese, which every night at this time they did. Her father closed the door behind him.
There are passages like this throughout Felicia’s Journey, exquisitely weighted and balanced like intricate little machines. The words are small, ordinary ones, and it is the rhythm, the juxtaposition, the selection that give them their pathos: the slightly Martian quality of the expression “spreadable cheese,” the pushing of the verb to the limit of the sentence. The positioning serves to emphasize the heavy, habitual quality of the brothers’ action, its persistence into the years ahead, as if the boys and their nightly munching are predestined creatures; the sentence’s dying fall anticipates the closing of the door. That door will close again and again, as love and life are denied, as men take their leave with words unsaid; and there is nothing for Felicia to do but what many Irish girls have done before her, and take the boat to England.
Felicia’s Journey now becomes a novel of deracination. The girl has no idea how to negotiate what lies before her. She cannot understand the local accent, and she has never imagined such places as the sprawling conurbations through which she must trail to find her baby’s father; she sees that “there’s never a stretch of empty countryside.” She cannot find a lawnmower factory anywhere near the place she vaguely remembers that Johnny mentioned. Perhaps, then, a shop that sells lawn mowers, or parts for them, or other requisites for gardeners? Or perhaps machines of some other type? Or perhaps she should be looking in some other town? Yet the towns run into one another, and the concerned feed her false clues, and the self-absorbed don’t listen to her. The landscape through which she now moves seems beyond the human scale, not built to be inhabited.
The industrial estate is an endless repetition of nondescript commercial buildings, each with a forecourt for parking. Trade names blazon: Toyota, Ford, Toys Я Us, National Tyre and Autocare, Kwik-Fit, Zanussi, Renault Trucks, Pipewise, Readybag, Sony, Comet. Next to Britannia Scaffolding are Motorway Exhausts, then C & S Roofing, Deep Drilling Services and Tomorrow’s Cleaning Today. At an intersection a little further on, Allparts Vehicle Dismantlers share the corner with OK Blast & Spray Ltd.
The concrete roads of the estate are long and straight. Nobody casually walks them for the pleasure of doing so. No dogs meet other dogs….She tramps wearily back to the town, on the grass verge beside a wide dual carriageway. An endless chain of lorries and cars passes close, the noise of their engines a roar that every few moments rises to a crescendo…
This is the contemporary England that most novelists don’t care for. Here’s no rural calm to be shattered, no smart urban wickedness to relish; they see only the banal. Trevor sees the banal and investigates it. The gigantic soot-stained mechanism of the industrial revolution has crumbled away, and what industry remains is “light”: jaunty, even, with its brightly unimaginative logos and its out-of-town sites sprinkled with struggling saplings, its light-handed women workers and its bright-eyed zeal to create every day some new need it can fulfill. Small towns are dying or dead, eviscerated by planners; life and commerce are conducted on the margins, in giant shopping malls, on the industrial estates that Trevor describes. Those without personal transport—unless they have Felicia’s uncomplaining stamina—are excluded from these places: so they are not for the poor or the old or the sick or for those who are—for any other reason—pedestrians. They breed only fleeting, casual contacts; they are for the shuffling of resources, the exchange of cash. They are for people whose wants are definable, material, and affordable.
The landscape of Felicia’s Journey was created, roughly speaking, during the Thatcher years. William Trevor has no overt political agenda; he is not that sort of writer. He is too old and wily an operator to settle for the small returns of the satirical novel, or to stifle the universality of his story with ephemeral complaint. But the contrasts between Irish and English society are strongly drawn. On the one side, there is cohesiveness and continuity: there is also suffocating conformity, and the backward-looking intolerance which makes Felicia’s departure a necessity. Across the sea in England, there are communities that barely hang together, and the individual life goes unremarked. In England you can disappear, you can lose your very name. Trevor’s Ireland does not fulfill De Valera’s dream. But England has never had such an ideal in the first place; there was no dreaming height from which England could slide. When our leaders articulate a vision of England, it is a nostalgic, retrospective one. The best is always past.
In the course of her search for Johnny, Felicia will meet many eccentrics, misfits, and derelicts, so that—in typical Trevor fashion—the painful story is shot through with bizarre black comedy. Just occasionally—and it is practically the only reservation one can feel about the novel’s effectiveness—there seem to be too many of these minor actors on the stage. When, for example, Felicia finds herself living in a household of religious cultists, the reader gets distracted trying to work out whether any of them are of long-term consequence. This flaw is small and understandable. When the eccentrics are simmering nicely, there’s always a temptation to throw one more in the stew. One could propose a rule of thumb for novelists: if you invent more than three real oddities, and mean to put them on the page together, waste one or leave him over for another novel: grotesques are transferable.
Of course, if you have Trevor’s perceptions, almost every human being has some quality which, examined closely, searchingly, makes him grotesque. His 1976 novel, The Children Of Dynmouth, examines this phenomenon. A very odd teen-age boy, Timothy Gedge, brings his mordant and skewed perceptions to bear on the seemingly blameless inhabitants of a small seaside town. An innocent little girl whose mother died in an accident comes to believe her father is a murderer. A clergyman decides he would be more usefully employed at the fish-packing station than he is in charge of a church. An elderly man, long married, has to admit to himself his sexual predilection for young boys. Given a little push by Timothy, his victims reveal themselves in a variety of destructive ways; their negative thoughts and their guilt-ridden misperceptions begin to dominate and ruin their lives. Timothy, in many ways, fulfills the function of a novelist, finding out a truth about people which is less literal than metaphorical, and always unpleasant. His victims collaborate with him, sacrifices yielding to the knife of Trevor’s wit. Interviewers charmed by Trevor’s twinkly-eyed persona should be aware that here is a man possessed of dangerous knowledge about the human condition and considerable manipulative skill; readers of his fiction should know that every cut goes a little deeper than the first light sting suggests.
Black comedy is not Trevor’s main intent in Felicia’s Journey—not even black comedy of the haunting Children of Dynmouth type. It is a compassionate novel, which has at its heart a convincing portrayal of innocence: possibly, in a knowing age, the hardest quality to put on the page. Everything in Felicia is open, transparent; but in the course of her search she finds a man whose life is a tissue of deception and self-deception, whose thoughts are dark and private, and whose secrets are old and distasteful and deep. He is Mr. Hilditch, the catering manager of a factory, of whom Felicia stops to ask directions. Soon Mr. Hilditch is popping up at every turn, offering advice, lifts in his little green car: cups of tea, a shared meal in a café, even a bed for the night. From his first appearance the reader knows that he is a deeply sinister figure, and knows that Felicia will be deceived by him. The more Trevor tells us that he is an ordinary man, a respectable man, the stronger grow our fears that he is not.
Christened Joseph Ambrose fiftyfour years ago, Mr. Hilditch wears spectacles that have a pebbly look, keeps his pigeon-coloured hair short, dresses always in a suit with a waistcoat, ties his striped tie into a tight little knot, polishes his shoes twice a day, and is given to smiling pleasantly. Regularly, the fat that bulges about his features is rolled back and well-kept teeth appear, while a twinkle livens the blurred pupils behind his spectacles. His voice is faintly high-pitched.
Mr. Hilditch lives alone, in the house he once shared with his mother, a detached house set amid shrubberies. He is obese, and spectacularly greedy: every day food occupies a large part of his attention. He is popular at the factory where he works, because he is always jovial, and he reads the sports pages of the newspapers in order to have topics on which he can converse easily. His speech is sententious. His daily round is ordered. He guards against impulse, against the impulse that he fears will undo him. He is a lonely man, but in the past there have been companions in his life: Sharon, Bobby, Elsie, Gaye. Where are they now? The author is unspecific.
A thriller writer may withhold information from the reader in a mechanical, formulaic way; Trevor is doing something more subtle. Mr. Hilditch is in many ways blind to his own nature. It has to be revealed to him, as slowly as it is revealed to the reader. He edges toward his victim in a manner almost diffident. He nets Felicia with lies, but she has the opportunity to escape. Mere chance could lead her away.
Chance throws in her path the striking and flamboyant figure of Miss Calligary, a Jamaican woman, a door-to-door evangelist who offers Felicia a refuge at the “Gathering House” which she shares with several companions. Felicia stays for a few days, but in the end the ersatz spirituality and the grating cheeriness drive her out. The Technicolor optimism of Miss Calligary’s world view is false, as she already knows. But Miss Calligary will remain a presence, a shadow in Felicia’s life, because one of the houses she calls at, offering salvation, is Mr. Hilditch’s. Her bright eyes miss nothing, though she often misinterprets what she sees, and in the end she will gather the threads of the mystery in her hands.
Miss Calligary has an ancestor in William Trevor’s work—Miss Gomez, the Jamaican evangelist of Miss Gomez and the Brethren (1971). Indeed that book foreshadows Felicia’s Journey in many ways. It is set in an area of South London where large-scale demolition is taking place, where only a public house and a pet shop still stand on one particular street. Miss Gomez turns up at the public house and offers her services as a cleaner, then proceeds to mesmerize the inhabitants with a claim that Prudence, the landlady’s teen-age daughter, is the predestined victim of a sex crime. The putative criminal is a silent young man called Alban Roche, an assistant in the pet shop, who has a minor conviction for spying on the woman’s changing room at the local badminton club; like Mr. Hilditch, Alban is obsessed by his stifling relationship with his dead mother.
Miss Gomez convinces everyone around her that she has second sight; when Prudence is missing for a few hours, the police are called, and a major search is mounted. No crime in fact takes place, but the threat of a crime hangs over the book. The passive figure of Prudence is a precursor of Felicia, a rehearsal for a portrait of a victim. Richly comic and deeply unsettling, the story has a narrower focus than the new novel, and yet it shares its concern with contingency and fate, the power of chance, the mystery of human goodness. When Miss Gomez returns to Jamaica, hoping to meet face to face the elders of her mother church, she finds that it does not exist and never has. The Brethren of the Way is a confidence trickster’s device, and heartfelt airmail letters from herself and scores of others lie gathering dust in an abandoned house. The Brethren offered boundless compassion, boundless understanding; now that is taken away, and Miss Gomez must begin again, with fewer certainties:
God worked in that mysterious way: through this reason and that, weaving a cobweb among all His people, a complexity that was not there to be understood while His people were any living part of it.
Similarly, Felicia will have to find her own truth; Miss Calligary’s house is only a temporary refuge from which she must set out again on her quest.
Her money gone—in fact, Mr. Hilditch has stolen it—Felicia sinks into destitution. She can no longer afford lodgings, she sleeps outdoors. She becomes acquainted with the night world of the city, with the derelicts and social discards who inhabit it; she picks up fragments of their lives, never a whole or a coherent story, because in the people and their environment there is no coherence left. A woman called Lena, just out of prison, explains how
a man she met in Westbourne Grove persuaded her to have snow-capped mountains tattooed on her back. They’re there for ever now; act on an impulse and you have a landscape all over you for the rest of your days.
Lena’s sidekick George is a well-spoken, educated boy of sixteen who has drifted far, far from the normal world. We don’t know the cause, or what his life has been; we only learn that “there was a sermon once, he says, when he was at school. In which it was stated that bishops were lonely.” Now George keeps a note of the birthdays of the bishops of England, and sends each of them a card. To the Bishop of Bath and Wells he has recently sent a card with a picture of a red squirrel, and this verse:
Of all the trees that grow so fair,
Old England to adorn,
Greater are none beneath the Sun
Than Oak, and Ash, and Thorn.
With great skill, Trevor has placed this poignant little rhyme at the very center of the book, as if to offer the reader a glimpse of an older, simpler world, a glimpse of something natural and true: as if he is lighting a candle for us in an ever-darkening landscape, or offering a vernal branch to combat the stench of corpses. He does not describe on the page the acts of violence by which Mr. Hilditch has made away with Sharon, Bobby, Elsie, Gaye; he does not allow Mr. Hilditch to think of them. He shows us a horribly lonely man, who kills for company. Mr. Hilditch likes to be seen with the current young girl, drive her around, be mistaken for her lover. The actual deaths are hazy. He does not dwell on them. They are a necessary stage, the gateway to Memory Lane, where the lost girls will walk forever, their hands resting confidingly on Mr. Hilditch’s pudgy arm.
The surprise, for the reader, is that Felicia will escape. Lured to the house, she will realize at the last possible moment what is planned for her. It is Mr. Hilditch who will go under, a suicide—driven to despair by Miss Calligary bawling her message of salvation through his letter box. The final pages of Felicia’s Journey are piercingly sad. Her child aborted, Johnny gone for ever, Felicia is reduced to begging on the streets; but she is alive, she can feel the sun on her face, and it is enough for her.
In the end, Mr. Hilditch’s dark perversity, and the reasons for it, are less interesting, less puzzling, than Felicia’s preserved innocence. It is not mysterious that people should serve their own ends and their own impulses, it is not odd if their self-serving sometimes takes strange forms and leads to evil deeds. The greater mystery is altruism—that people should act not out of self-interest but out of an impulse of grace. Felicia thinks about a woman dentist, who treats the street people free and in her own time.
The woman dentist has dedicated her existence to the rotten teeth of derelicts, to derelicts’ odour and filth. Her goodness is a greater mystery than the evil that distorted a man’s every spoken word, his every movement made.
And of Mr. Hilditch, she perceives, “Lost within a man who murdered, there was a soul like any other soul, purity itself it surely once had been.” The truths Felicia has learned are bleak and minimal, but they are her own.
It is rare to find a book which is so gripping as Felicia’s Journey, yet is so subtle. There is no straining for effect, and hardly a false note in it. Trevor establishes an intimacy with his characters, showing them to us from the inside out; he examines microscopically the details of their lives, and presents them in prose so scrupulous and exact that they are transfigured. There are some of us, Trevor says, for whom merely to survive is a victory. But in Felicia’s Journey, he suggests there can be a greater victory: to survive, and carry inside one’s heart the certainty of grace.
May 25, 1995