William Trevor, original name William Trevor Cox, (born May 24, 1928, Mitchelstown, County Cork, Ireland—died November 20, 2016, Somerset, England), Irish writer who was noted for his wry and often macabre short stories and novels.
In 1950 Trevor graduated from Trinity College Dublin, and he subsequently began teaching in Northern Ireland and working as a sculptor. In 1954 he moved to England, where he initially taught art. He later settled in London, and in the early 1960s he worked as an advertising copywriter. During this time Trevor began publishing novels and short stories. A Standard of Behaviour, his first novel, was published in 1958 to little fanfare. However, his next book, The Old Boys (1964), earned critical acclaim and was the recipient of Britain’s Hawthornden Prize. Its success led Trevor to move to Devon, England, and write full time.
Trevor’s subsequent novels include The Boarding-House (1965), Mrs. Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel (1969), Elizabeth Alone (1973), The Children of Dynmouth (1976), and Fools of Fortune (1983). The latter two both won the Whitbread Literary Award for novels. In addition, Felicia’s Journey (1994) was named the Whitbread Book of the Year. Reading Turgenev (1991) and The Story of Lucy Gault (2002) were both short-listed for the Booker Prize. His last novel, Love and Summer, was published in 2009.
Trevor also wrote a number of highly acclaimed collections of short stories, notably The Day We Got Drunk on Cake, and Other Stories (1967); The Ballroom of Romance, and Other Stories (1972), which became a modern classic and was made into an award-winning television play in 1982; Angels at the Ritz, and Other Stories (1975); The Hill Bachelors (2000); and Cheating at Canasta (2007). These are typically bleak tales featuring moments of reckoning in which characters can no longer seek refuge in the fantasies and illusions that had previously made their lives bearable.
A number of works by Trevor were adapted for the screen, most notably Felicia’s Journey, the film version of which was directed by Atom Egoyan and released in 1999. Influenced by the writings of James Joyce and Charles Dickens, Trevor possessed a keen skill for characterization and irony. His works for the most part focused on the psychology of eccentrics and outcasts. In 2002 he received the Irish PEN Award for outstanding contribution to Irish literature.
William Trevor's "The Woman of the House"
One of the most important sources of new short stories in American publishing continues to be The New Yorker. I stopped my subscription to The Atlantic when they decided after so many years to stop publishing short stories. The special summer fiction issue, since it is not available to subscribers, but must be searched out on the Barnes and Noble or Borders magazines racks, does not reach as many readers as the regular monthly issue of The Atlantic. I still cannot understand why they do not have space for one story per issue. I continue to subscribe to Harpers, who still publish one story per issue.
One of the great pleasures of getting The New Yorker each week is the occasional publication of a story by the Irish writer William Trevor or the Canadian writer Alice Munro, who, in spite of advancing age, continue to publish in The New Yorker because the magazine has first refusal rights for their work.
I have yet to read a critic or reviewer who does not agree that Trevor and Munro are the two greatest short-story writers still publishing. However, no one has ever really talked about what it is that makes these two such masters of the form. I have an article in the Canadian journal, the Wascana Review about why I think Alice Munro is so good at the form. “Why Does Alice Munro Write Short Stories?” Wascana Review 38 (2003):16-28.
I will talk about Munro another time, hopefully when she publishes her next story in The New Yorker.
The Dec. 15 issue of The New Yorker has a story by Trevor entitled "The Woman of the House." I thought I would try to suggest a few of the characteristics of this story that are unique to the short story.
The plot of the story is quite simple. Two young men are hired by a Irish man to paint his house. Before they finish painting the house, the Irish man disappears and it seems clear that his wife hides the fact of his death so she can continue to receive his pension check. The two men finish the house painting job and leave. That is all that actually happens in the story. Not only is the plot minimal, but we do not know much about the characters. What we do know is this: The two young men are European and speak little English. They are usually taken to be Polish, but they are not. The Irish man is crippled and restricted to a wheel chair. The "woman of the house" may be his wife, but this is never specified. In the past, she has often had sex with the butcher in the village in exchange for free meat. Now, she is obese and getting older and less attractive to him.
So what is the story about? Not the plot, which is mildly interesting, but not engaging. Not the characters, who we know too little about them to really be involved with them. Then what?
To discover what this short story is about, we must look at details repeated so often in the story that they creates a thematic pattern. I suggest the following.
The two young men seldom speak, communicating by nods and gestures.
When the woman of the house goes out to the shed to be fondled by the butcher, they do not speak.
She never tells the crippled man about the money she gets back from the butcher, hiding it in a Gold flake tin.
When the crippled man disappears, what is noticed by the two young men is the silence in the house.
When the two young men investigate the newly dug garden, "They did not say this was a grave, or remark on how the rank grass, in wide straight path from the gate, had been crushed and had recovered."
The story ends with the woman, and the two young men, keeping silent about the disappearance of the crippled man, knowing no one would miss him for no one ever comes to the house.
So, what does this all add up to? What is the story about?
I think it is about silence, about not saying, about the basic mystery of human personality, about Chekhov's famous comment that in the short story, it is better to say too little than too much, even though he admitted he was not sure why that was true. The story is a fine example of the short story form's focus on basic and universal human characteristics, even though I know that the word "universal" is not appreciated by postcolonial and other cultural critics, who seem more concerned with what separates us than what unifies us as human beings.
I hope you read the story and offer your own comments on what the story is about and what makes it such a great story.