William Trevor Biography
Nationality: Irish. Born: Mitchelstown, County Cork, 1928. Education: St. Columba's College, Dublin, 1942-46; Trinity College, Dublin, B.A. 1950. Career: History teacher, Armagh, Northern Ireland, 1951-53; art teacher, Rugby, England, 1953-55; sculptor in Somerset, 1955-60; advertising copywriter, Notley's, London, 1960-64. Lives in Devon, England. Awards: Transatlantic Review prize, for fiction, 1964; Hawthornden prize, for fiction, 1965; Society of Authors travelling fellowship, 1972; Allied Irish Banks prize, for fiction, 1976; Heinemann award, for fiction, 1976; Whitbread Award, 1976, 1983, Book of the Year, 1994; Irish Community prize, 1979; BAFTA award, for television play, 1983; Sunday Express Book of the Year, 1994. D. Litt.: University of Exeter, 1984; Trinity College, Dublin, 1986; D. Litt.: Queen's University, Belfast, 1989; National University, Cork, 1990. Member: Irish Academy of Letters. C.B.E. (Commander, Order of the British Empire), 1977. Agent: Peters Fraser and Dunlop Group, 503-504 The Chambers, Chelsea Harbour, Lots Road, London SW10 0FX, England; or, Sterling Lord Literistic Inc., 1 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10010, U.S.A.
A Standard of Behaviour. London, Hutchinson, 1958.
The Old Boys. London, Bodley Head, and New York, Viking Press, 1964.
The Boarding-House. London, Bodley Head, and New York, VikingPress, 1965.
The Love Department. London, Bodley Head, 1966; New York, Viking Press, 1967.
Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel. London, Bodley Head, 1969; NewYork, Viking Press, 1970.
Miss Gomez and the Brethren. London, Bodley Head, 1971.
Elizabeth Alone. London, Bodley Head, 1973; New York, VikingPress, 1974.
The Children of Dynmouth. London, Bodley Head, 1976; New York, Viking Press, 1977.
Other People's Worlds. London, Bodley Head, 1980; New York, Viking Press, 1981.
Fools of Fortune. London, Bodley Head, and New York, VikingPress, 1983.
The Silence in the Garden. London, Bodley Head, and New York, Viking, 1988.
Two Lives (includes Reading Turgenev and My House in Umbria).London and New York, Viking, 1991.
Juliet's Story. New York, Simon & Schuster Books for YoungReaders, 1994.
Felicia's Journey. London and New York, Viking, 1995.
After Rain. New York, Viking, 1996.
Death in Summer. New York, Viking, 1998.
The Hill Bachelors. New York, Viking, 2000.
The Day We Got Drunk on Cake and Other Stories. London, BodleyHead, 1967; New York, Viking Press, 1968.
Penguin Modern Stories 8, with others. London, Penguin, 1971.
The Ballroom of Romance and Other Stories. London, Bodley Head, and New York, Viking Press, 1972.
The Last Lunch of the Season. London, Covent Garden Press, 1973.
Angels at the Ritz and Other Stories. London, Bodley Head, 1975;New York, Viking Press, 1976.
Lovers of Their Time and Other Stories. London, Bodley Head, 1978;New York, Viking Press, 1979.
The Distant Past and Other Stories. Dublin, Poolbeg Press, 1979.
Beyond the Pale and Other Stories. London, Bodley Head, 1981;New York, Viking Press, 1982.
The Stories of William Trevor. London and New York, Penguin, 1983.
The News from Ireland and Other Stories. London, Bodley Head, andNew York, Viking, 1986.
Nights at the Alexandra (novella). London, Century Hutchinson, andNew York, Harper, 1987.
Family Sins and Other Stories. London, Bodley Head, and New York, Viking, 1990.
Trio: Three Stories from Cheltenham (novellas, with Jane Gardam and Rose Tremain). London, Penguin Books, 1993.
Outside Ireland: Selected Stories. London, Penguin Books, 1995.
Cocktails at Doney's and Other Stories, edited by Giles Gordon. London, Bloomsbury, 1996.
Ireland: Selected Stories. New York, Penguin Books, 1998.
The Elephant's Foot (produced Nottingham, 1965).
The Girl (televised 1967; produced London, 1968). London, French, 1968.
A Night with Mrs. da Tanka (televised 1968; produced London, 1972). London, French, 1972.
Going Home (broadcast 1970; produced London, 1972). London, French, 1972.
The Old Boys, adaptation of his own novel (produced London, 1971).London, Davis Poynter, 1971.
A Perfect Relationship (broadcast 1973; produced London, 1973).London, Burnham House, 1976.
The 57th Saturday (produced London, 1973).
Marriages (produced London, 1973). London, French, 1973.
Scenes from an Album (broadcast 1975; produced Dublin, 1981).Dublin, Co-op, 1981.
Beyond the Pale (broadcast 1980). Published in Best Radio Plays of 1980, London, Eyre Methuen, 1981.
Autumn Sunshine adaptation of his own story (televised 1981; broadcast 1982). Published in Best Radio Plays of 1982, London, Methuen, 1983.
The Penthouse Apartment, 1968; Going Home, 1970;The Boarding House, from his own novel, 1971; A Perfect Relationship, 1973; Scenes from an Album, 1975; Attracta, 1977; Beyond the Pale, 1980; The Blue Dress, 1981; Travellers, 1982; Autumn Sunshine, 1982; The News from Ireland, from his own story, 1986; Events at Drimaghleen, 1988; Running Away, 1988.
The Baby-Sitter, 1965; Walk's End, 1966; The Girl, 1967; A Night with Mrs. da Tanka, 1968; The Mark-2 Wife, 1969; The Italian Table, 1970; The Grass Widows, 1971; O Fat White Woman, 1972; The Schoolroom, 1972; Access to the Children, 1973; The General's Day, 1973; Miss Fanshawe's Story, 1973; An Imaginative Woman, from a story by Thomas Hardy, 1973; Love Affair, 1974; Eleanor, 1974; Mrs. Acland's Ghosts, 1975; The Statue and the Rose, 1975; Two Gentle People, from a story by Graham Greene, 1975; The Nicest Man in the World, 1976; Afternoon Dancing, 1976; The Love of a Good Woman, from his own story, 1976; The Girl Who Saw a Tiger, 1976; Last Wishes, 1978; Another Weekend, 1978; Memories, 1978; Matilda's England, 1979; The Old Curiosity Shop, from the novel by Dickens, 1979; Secret Orchards, from works by J.R. Ackerley and Diana Petre, 1980; The Happy Autumn Fields, from a story by Elizabeth Bowen, 1980; Elizabeth Alone, from his own novel, 1981; Autumn Sunshine, from his own story, 1981; The Ballroom of Romance, from his own story, 1982; Mrs. Silly (All for Love series), 1983; One of Ourselves, 1983; Broken Homes, from his own story, 1985; The Children of Dynmouth, from his own novel, 1987; August Saturday, from his own novel, 1990; Events at Drimaleen, from his own story, 1992.
Old School Ties (miscellany). London, Lemon Tree Press, 1976.
A Writer's Ireland: Landscape in Literature. London, Thames andHudson, and New York, Viking, 1984.
Excursions in the Real World. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Knopf, 1994.
Editor, The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories. Oxford and NewYork, Oxford University Press, 1989.
Manuscript Collections: University of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
"William Trevor's System of Correspondences," in Massachusetts Review (Amherst), Autumn 1987, and William Trevor, New York, Twayne, 1993, both by Kristin Morrison; William Trevor: A Study of His Fiction by Gregory A. Schirmer, London, Routledge, 1990; William Trevor: A Study of the Short Fiction by Suzanne Morrow Paulson, New York, Twayne, 1993; William Trevor: The Writer and His Work by Dolores MacKenna. Dublin, New Island, 1999.
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William Trevor's celebrated writing career has largely been spent exploring the intersection of corruption and the human heart. His interest in moral vagaries and deluded, vulnerable characters speak to readers often through dark humor and acerbic perception. With over 30 published works—including fiction, short stories and non-fiction—Trevor is considered one of the greatest living short story writers and novelists, and his last few novels, especially, have been highly acclaimed.
Trevor's early works, dating back into the 1960s, mark a blooming affection for characters in bad relationships and down-andout-predicaments. The Old Boys and The Boarding-House are filled with colorful characters drawn from London life. But these eccentricities are not the sort to be taken lightly. They sometimes disguise motives that set characters against one another in wicked and often-comical fashion. The comedy tends to disguise the kinds of evil that ultimately show through—a mask that Trevor becomes more concerned with in his later fiction. Mr. Jaraby's ambition to become president of the Old Boys Association of his school is hardly diabolical, and the extent to which he is willing to go to insure his election is as funny as it is outlandish. But as we learn more and more about him and his ambition, aspects of his private life—particularly his attitude towards his wife and son—reveal a sinister side to his nature that even his worst enemy, Mr. Nox, does not suspect. At the end, defeated in ways he had not anticipated, Mr. Jaraby is left alone with his wife who, though she counsels hope, rightly questions, "Has hell begun, is that it?" and urges, "Come now, how shall we prove we are not dead?"
William Wagner Bird's death at the beginning of The Boarding-House provides one answer to Mrs. Jaraby's question. He leaves a will that bequeaths his boarding-house, occupied by an odd assortment of individuals of both sexes, to two of its most vigorous enemies, Studdy and Nurse Clock, both of them senior residents. Studdy is a petty con artist whose success in stealing one of Nurse Clock's elderly patients away from her has heightened the rivalry and ugliness between the pair. The specific condition of the bequest—that they make no changes in the residents or staff—puts them in an awkward position, but not for long. Like many of Trevor's less reputable characters, they are extremely acquisitive and quickly see that they have more to gain by working together than by working against each other. Unholy alliance though it may be, they systematically try to rid themselves of those strange and solitary inmates in whose hearts Mr. Bird believed he had kindled some comfort by bringing them together in his "great institution in the south-western suburbs of London." By attempting to disrupt the careful arrangement Bird had created and cultivated, they finally destroy everything else, as from his grave Mr. Bird takes his revenge—in the person of a deranged and dispossessed resident who believes he is taking revenge on him.
Timothy Gedge in The Children of Dynmouth is a younger version of Mr. Studdy, and, being younger, displays the causes of his behavior more clearly. An unwanted child, neglected at home by his working mother and sister and abandoned by his father, Gedge finds in others' lives not so much vicarious pleasures as sources of information and feelings that feed his diseased imagination. These help him to blackmail various townspeople, even those once kindly disposed towards him. While his demands are seemingly innocuous—a wedding dress, a dog's-tooth suit, a discarded tin bath—his means to secure those ends are entirely vicious, masked by a false heartiness and cheer that belie his true feelings. Ironically—and Trevor is a master of irony—what he invents to piece out his knowledge often comes close to the truth, close enough in any case to cause considerable anguish and hurt, for example, to Commander and Mrs. Abigail, who for years—ever since they first got married—have been living a lie; or to Stephen and Kate, whose parents—Stephen's father and Kate's mother—have just been married and are off on a honeymoon, leaving their children to begin a difficult adjustment to a new family life. In these and other relationships, Gedge pretends to a friendship that none of the others feels, and that tends to drive him into greater fantasies—and greater invasions of their privacy. His worse invasions, however, are those of the human heart—until he is stopped by someone who recognizes what he is doing and whose wife, through understanding Gedge's plight, puts away her own discontents and concerns herself more fully with her family's future—and his, too.
This somewhat upbeat ending should not be overemphasized—though subsequent novels also show an effort to overcome despair and pathos, optimism is always very qualified in Trevor's fiction and very hard-won, as his many short stories also reveal. Other People's Worlds and Fools of Fortune, give a good idea of just how high the costs can be. Francis Tyte, another descendant of Studdy in Trevor's own rogue's gallery, is a very attractive young man who works as an actor in bit parts and in making commercials. Even more than Timothy Gedge, he has been victimized in his youth by a male boarder in his parents' home, a debt-collector who draws Francis into what one of his later benefactors aptly describes as a "bitter world." Since that time, Francis has also turned into a debt-collector of sorts, like Studdy and Gedge reaping from others what he regards as his due. Already married to an elderly dressmaker in Folkestone who has thrown him out, he later meets Julia, 14 years his senior, who becomes infatuated with him and agrees to marry him and give him her jewelry. Their Italian honeymoon lasts a single day, during which Francis tells Julia everything, including the daughter he has fathered with Doris Smith, a poor shopgirl in Fulham, 12 years earlier. He absconds with the jewels and is not heard from again. But Julia is drawn into Dorrie Smith's world as well as Francis's other circles, including that of the aged parents he has long since abandoned in a retirement home. Despite the humiliation and despondency she naturally suffers because of her folly, Julia becomes more and more deeply involved in the shambles of others' lives Francis has left behind him. Once a devout Catholic, she nearly loses her faith altogether. But Dorrie's joy in more than one sense finally becomes Francis's own, as Gedge becomes Lavinia Featherston's. Drawn into other people's worlds and the messes they contain, she learns to value more her own, but not with smugness. The pain she has experienced has made her invulnerable to that and more truly compassionate than she had ever been before.
Fools of Fortune deepens the focus and the tone displayed in all of these novels, as Trevor resorts to first-person narrative and tells a story of revenge and retribution from several points of view. His eccentrics are still present, but here subordinated to their proper functions in a novel that spans the present century and deals with the perennial conflict between the Irish and their erstwhile British masters. Actually, the narrative goes back to the 19th century, when Irish Protestant William Quinton married English Anna Woodcombe and brought her to live in Kilneagh, County Cork. Two generations later, when for the third time a Quinton had taken a Woodcombe for his bride, Kilneagh is burned down by Black and Tans under the leadership of a Liverpool sergeant named Rudnick. Young Willie and his widowed mother survive the ordeal, but when years afterward Eve Quinton commits suicide—an alcoholic, she never recovered from the disaster—Willie decides to exact his revenge upon Rudnick. Just before he does so, he falls in love with yet another Woodcombe, Marianne, and fathers a child. But he is forced to spend most of the rest of his life in lonely exile, while Marianne and their daughter Imelda are taken in by Willie's aging aunts at what is left of Kilneagh. Anglo-Irish himself, Trevor has for many years lived in England and only occasionally attempted to treat the people and the landscapes of his native land in his fiction. In his short story "Attracta," about an elderly Protestant schoolteacher in a village near Cork, he sketched out some of the same themes he developed more fully in Fools of Fortune. But in "Matilda's England" he shows how the atrocities of the past and their impact upon the present are by no means limited to a single time or place or series of events.
Two more recent works, The Silence in the Garden, and his novella, Nights at the Alexandra, tend to bear out this trend. Both are set in Ireland, where Trevor grew up, and both reflect the elegiac tone that has grown more pronounced in his later work. Nights at the Alexandra looks back to the boyhood of a 58-year-old bachelor and the strange infatuation he felt for a beautiful and rather mysterious woman, Frau Messinger, an Englishwoman married to a German and brought to live in Ireland as World War II began. Isolated from the rest of the townsfolk in their home, Cloverhill, Frau Messinger befriends Harry, the narrator, who quickly falls under her spell. To provide some entertainment for his wife as well as for the townsfolk, Herr Messinger decides to establish a cinema, but it takes a long time to build, and meanwhile Frau Messinger falls ill. She dies shortly after the cinema opens and Harry is employed by her husband to help run it. Eventually he inherits the movie house, which at first was extremely popular. As the customers gradually stop coming, he closes it, just as Cloverhill is closed up when Herr Messinger leaves after his wife's death, and Harry is left to look after the boarded windows and her grave. In the end, he refuses to take a good offer for the place from a business partnership that would turn it into a furniture store.
The Silence in the Garden is a more complex and fully developed novel that uses several narrative techniques, including flash-backs and diary entries. Futile and misdirected love are part of the story, but so are senseless violence, superstition, family pride, and war. The novel is related from several viewpoints: the spinster Sarah Pollexfen's, a poor relation who comes to work at Carriglas, first as a governess, later as a companion to family duenna, old Mrs. Rolleston; Tom, son of the parlor maid (later cook) Brigid, whose intended husband, the butler Linchy, was killed in a Black and Tan ambush intended for the Rolleston men, Lionel and John James; Villana, granddaughter of Mrs. Rolleston, whose engagement to Sarah's brother, Hugh, is suddenly and mysteriously broken off shortly after Linchy's murder. Other Rollestons and townsfolk populate the novel; for example, Colonel Rolleston, Mrs. Rolleston's son and Villana's father, killed at Passchendaele; his sons, Lionel and John James; Finnamore Balt, the pedantic and elderly lawyer who eventually marries Villana; Mrs. Moledy, a widow who runs a boarding house, where she carries on a long liaison with John James, her "king," and who puts in an uninvited and comical appearance at Villana and Finnamore's wedding at Carriglas.
But the real protagonist of the novel is Ireland and her long unhappy history of Protestant landowners and Catholic servants and tenant farmers. If during the Great Famine an earlier generation of Rollestons had taken pity and forgiven rents, the later generation is still largely despised. As an example, when a bridge is proposed and built between the mainland and the island on which Carriglas is situated, it is named after Cornelius Dowley, the man responsible for Linchy's death but otherwise regarded as a hero of the struggle against the British. Over the course of the present century, Carriglas falls into disuse and disrepair, as one by one the Rollestons die out or leave, and only Tom is left. He inherits what is left of the estate, the old house whose value lies mainly in the valuable lead of its roof, and a little land—too little to make farming profitable. Although his would-be fiance, Esmeralda Coyne, thinks it would make a good resort hotel, Tom shows little interest in her or her idea, and the novel ends, like Nights at the Alexandra, with Tom likely to remain a bachelor and the old house steadily disintegrating.
In Death in Summer, Trevor creates a suspenseful tale ripe with elegant language and a subtlety readers have come to expect. Thaddeus Davenant has buried his wife, Letitia, who died in a freak accident. Letitia was a compassionate soul, though her nature was lost on Thaddeus, who married the woman for her money. His true and only affection is for his baby. After many interviews with less-thanqualified nannies, he even agrees to let Letitia's mother move in rather than risk any mishaps with his child. Though Thaddeus is a chilly sort, he manages to gain the affection of Pettie, one of the many nannies rejected for a position in Thaddeus's home. Pettie seems to be the oppositional force to Thaddeus's wintry nature. Having been deprived of love as a girl, she is ravenous for it now with Thaddeus. But is her affection so strong that she would kidnap the one person Thaddeus does love? Trevor's literary teeth are sharper than ever, and he is one of the top heirs to the Anglo-Irish tradition in fiction that has provided a wealth of talent. Trevor's legacy, both in its penchant for human evil and his gentle, luscious prose, make him a writer of insight and remarkable compassion.
—Jay L. Halio,
updated by Maureen Aitken