William Trevor (born 1928), whose life and fictional settings were divided between his native Ireland and his adopted England, was a successful novelist, television dramatist, playwright, and, above all, master of the short story.
William Trevor Cox was born an Irish Protestant on May 24, 1928, in County Cork, the son of a bank manager. He attended 13 different provincial schools before settling in at St. Columbia's College in Dublin from 1942 to 1946. He next matriculated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he received a B.A. in history in 1950; he then taught history at a school in Armagh, Northern Ireland, from 1950 to 1952.
Until the age of 22 Trevor had never been out of Ireland, but two years later (1952) the depressed national economy impelled him to leave permanently and to take up residence in England. That same year he married Jane Ryan, with whom he had two sons. He taught art at Rugby from 1952 to 1956 and at Taunton from 1956 to 1960. During his tenure as an art instructor he took up sculpting; however, despite winning an award for one of his pieces, he was dissatisfied with his work and turned to writing.
Novels and Plays
His first novel, A Standard of Behaviour (1958), was undistinguished and gave little evidence of a major talent. From 1960 to 1965 Trevor worked in London as an advertising copywriter, during which time he completed his second novel, The Old Boys (1964), which won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize. The Old Boys deals with the eccentricities and petty rivalries of a minor English public school's alumni association. The critical and commercial success of the novel encouraged Trevor to adapt it first for television and next, very successfully, for the stage (the play, in 1971, starred Sir Michael Redgrave); it also enabled Trevor to quit his advertising job, take residence in a small Devon village outside of London, and devote himself fully to his writing.
The Boarding House (1965) continued Trevor's novelistic interest in eccentrics, this time in a strange assortment of lodgers who plot against and generally bedevil each other. The Love Department (1966), which departs from the gentility of the earlier novels, is the story of a sexual pervert and the fortuitous justice that overtakes him. Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel (1969) and Miss Gomez and the Brethren (1971) typify Trevor's moral concerns as they explore the disparity between people's barren lives and their spiritual needs. Elizabeth Alone (1973) represents a shift from Trevor's accustomed bizarre types; the quite normal title character, in a hospital for a hysterectomy, meets three women whose frustrated lives parallel her own.
In the early 1970s Trevor enjoyed enormous success in theater and television; in 1973 alone he had three plays performed on the London stage and three dramas produced for television. His next novel, The Children of Dynmouth (1976), deals with a moral miscreant, 15-year-old Timothy Gedge, who spies on and blackmails the inhabitants of a small coastal resort. Partly on the occasion of the novel and partly for his career as a whole, Trevor received in 1976 the Royal Society of Literature Award, the Whitbread Award, and the Allied Irish Banks Award, and the following year he was presented with the ultimate honor, an Order of the British Empire.
Other People's Worlds (1980) is perhaps Trevor's most interesting novel, though it suffers a loss of momentum in its second half. It deals with a psychopathic con man, Francis Tyte, who deceives and cheats his new wife, then deserts her; the last half of the novel is then concerned with the heroine's efforts to reconcile herself to evil in God's scheme of things, but the theme is insufficiently compelling to compensate the reader for the loss of the novel's most interesting character, Francis, and the demonic energy he had supplied. Fools of Fortune (1983) is a turbulent family chronicle set in Ireland, a novel of murder, revenge, and reconciliation. His next novel was The Silence In The Garden (1989), winner of the Yorkshire Post Book of the Year Award. This was followed by Two Lives (1991), comprising the novellas of Reading Turgenev and My House in Umbria, named by the New York Times as one of the ten best books of the year.
Short Stories Outshine Novels
Some writers of fiction excel equally in the long and short forms (Hemingway, Greene, I. B. Singer, for example); others show little interest in or aptitude for the shorter form (Waugh, Camus). Still others have realized the apotheosis of their art only in the shorter form (K. A. Porter, F. O'Connor). It is to this latter group that Trevor belongs, not because the novels aren't good, but because the stories are so much better.
The Day We Got Drunk on Cake (1967), his first and weakest collection, is similar to the novels in that it deals with lives that are lonely and cultureless, with people, most often women, victimized by their confusions, obsessions, and fantasies.
The Ballroom of Romance (1972), Trevor's second short story collection, shows a big advance in his mastery of the form. American novelist Paul Theroux saw a thematic thread in the stories, a "brittle or urgent femininity thwarted by rather boorish maleness." Typically, the heroines of the title story and of "Nice Day at School" yearn for love and romance even as their hopes are being dashed by the coarseness and insensitivity of the available menfolk.
Angels at the Ritz (1973) was hailed by Graham Greene as perhaps the best short story collection since Joyce's Dubliners (1914). Two of its finest stories, "Last Wishes" and "The Tennis Court, " deal poignantly with impending death and changing social fashions. The title story concerns a couple who barely resist the enticements of a suburban wife-swapping party and thereby retain some vestige of unfashionable idealism; the story is uncharacteristic of Trevor in its concluding note of affirmation. Another superb story, "In Isfahan, " dramatizes a holiday encounter that fails to flower into romance; the reasons for the man's reticence are kept ambiguous, but he is movingly aware that, despite the woman's touch of vulgarity, she is humanly superior to him.
Angels was hard to improve upon, but Trevor surpassed himself with Lovers of Their Time (1978), which contains at least three masterpieces. "Broken Homes" portrays the harrowing desecration of an octogenarian's home by two homeless teenagers, a boy and a girl, who have been sent over on a refurbishing mission by a well-intentioned social agency. The story's title faintly suggests the allegorical theme: the socially deprived victimizing the physically helpless. "Torridge" is an ingenious attack on the built-in bully system of English public schools and the adult philistinism they inevitably promote: the cruelty of the story's schoolboys, long forgotten as they've turned into smug bourgeois, is jolted to memory by a chance reunion. The decent title character, who in the intervening years has become a homosexual, serves as the catalyst who exposes the rest of the group's social and sexual dishonesty. The collection's title story is a bittersweet tale of timid, gentle lovers, one of whom is unhappily married, who conduct their clandestine affair, unbeknownst to the management, rent-free in a posh hotel. The idyll and their chance for happiness, however, are shattered by the man's shrewdly cynical wife.
In the 1980s Trevor sustained his level of short story excellence with Beyond the Pale (1981) and The News from Ireland and Other Stories (1986) and, beginning in 1985, with a series of stories published in The New Yorker, including After Rain. The Collected Stories (1992) was recognized as one of the best books of the year.
Trevor's achievement, especially in the short story, was formidable: he illuminated the darker corners of contemporary English and Irish life and he did so in a compassionate, wryly humorous way that almost never slipped into sentimentality. His acknowledged influences were Thomas Hardy ("where all my gloom came from"), Evelyn Waugh, and Anthony Powell. He was a subtle prose stylist whose dialogue was ceremonious rather than idiomatic. His settings were more often England than Ireland, but in either culture he captured a feeling of loss and failure, spiked with a longing for a past that was admittedly oppressive but in any case preferable to the wasteland of the present. Probably the most striking aspect of Trevor's art was that his sparkling narrative effects were fashioned from unspectacular lives and situations; he was a transmuter, a writer who mined gold from garden-variety rock. He lived in Devon, England.
Further Reading on William Trevor
Gregory A. Schirmer published a biographical work, William Trevor: A Study of His Fiction (London, Rutledge, 1990), which covers many of Trevor's major writings. As yet there is no all-encompassing biography of Trevor, but reviews and critiques of his work abound. Among the more interesting are John Updike's "Worlds and Worlds, " New Yorker (March 23, 1981); Peter Kemp's "Cosiness and Carnage, " The London Times Literary Supplement (October 16, 1981); Ted Solotaroff's "The Dark Souls of Ordinary People, " New York Times Book Review (February 21, 1982); and Anatole Broyard's negative report on Trevor, "Books of the Times: 'Beyond the Pale', " New York Times (February 3, 1982).