Bernard O’Donoghue, review of The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor, in Times Literary Supplement (30 Aug. 2002)

Details: Bernard O’Donoghue, review of William Trevor, The Story of Lucy Gault, in Times Literary Supplement (30 Aug. 2002), pp.3-4.

William Trevor’s career in fiction began nearly forty years ago with entertaining diversions in the school of Evelyn Waugh, more charitable than the master’s: mildly satirical novels of modern English life like The Old Boys (1964) and The Love Department (1968). Likeable as they were, they hardly served notice of the arrival of one of the principal novelists in English at the end of the twentieth century. They certaitily didn’t identify their writer as one of the finest Irish novelists - nor indeed give any reason to suspect him of Irish connections at all. Over the next forty years though, his major status in the novel has been established by masterpieces like The Children of Dynmouth (1961) and Reading Turgenev (1991). In addition, his wonderful short stories have proved him to be one of the leading masters in the genre considered most indigenous to modern Irish writing. What distinguishes him is the total sureness and sympathy with which he operates in two different literary traditions, explicable in part by his upbringing. He grew up in a series of Irish provincial towns, mostly in Munster, as his Protestant bank-manager father moved from one placement to another. He went a series of Dublin Protestant schools, includine St Columba’s, the only school in the South of Ireland which might be described as “public” in the specialist English sense. He studied History at Trinity College, Dublin, and regrets that he did not put more into it. Most of his later life been spent in Devon and other places in England; but he still says (in the course of his memoir-essays Excursions in the Real World (1993), a book which displays as much grace and compulsion as any of his writing): “When I think of landscape which is special I find myself back in the County Cork of my childhood. ... in Youghal and Skibbereen.”

The Story of Lucy Gault, Trevor’s thirteenth novel in a large corpus that also includes over pages of short stories, is a “Big House” novel set in the Youghal area. It returns to earlier concerns and settings of his, with an action that starts, like many Anglo-Irish novels by Elizabeth Bowen, Iris Murdoch, J. G. Farrell, Molly Keane and others, in the Irish Troubles around 1920. What Trevor does better any of the members of this formidable group is to represent Catholic Ireland as accurately and as sympathetically as England and Anglo-lreland. Alone among them he is entirely innocent of any disdain or patronage in evoking the new South of Ireland - as can be seen in “The Ballroom of Romance”, story and film. Perhaps this freedom from a sense of superiority is attributable to his moving around in childooh or to the tension between his greatly loved parents (the other crucial essay in Excursions for an understanding of Trevor’s incomparable steadiness of sympathy is the account of his parents’ unhappy marriage, “Field of Battle”). Whatever the explanation, he constantly employs the detached eye of the outsider, at once shrewd and unjaundiced - employing “the lonely voece” which Frank O’Connor ascribes to the short story. Like many previous Trevor central characters, but even more insistently, Lucy Gault wishes to be part of the rural society to which she is marginal and, in theory, socially superior. She is in the line of the Middletons of “The Distant Past”, the unforgettable and important story in which Trevor scrupulously outlines the social divisions that followed the revived troubles of the 1970s.

Lucy Gault’s story begins in rural east Cork in 1921. To give no more away than the blurb does: during the Troubles era of the burning of the Big Houses in Ireland, three young men come into the grounds of Lahardane with a can of petrol. The owner, Captain Everard Gault, Lucy’s father, shoots and unintentionally wounds one of the intruders” (the blurb’s rather coy term), setting in train the book’s fateful series of disasters, as we learn from its opening sentence. Of the Anglo-Irish “Big House” novel predecessors, the work that most shadows The Story of Lucy Gault is Farrell’s Troubles. There the eccentric and beleaguered occupant of the Big House keeps vigil at night against the nationalist fire-raisers, hoping to get a shot at them. In Lucy Gault, the arsonists pose an ineffectual threat, and the house-owner desperately tries to make amends for the unintended injury. But what is done can’t be undone. “It was time to go” for this impoverished Ascendancy family. But Lucy, the nine-year-old only child, cannot bear the thought of leaving, and there follows “a calamity so terrible that it might have been a punishment”.

The question that the novel more obliquely raises is: a punishment for what? The Middletons in “The Distant Past” were punished for living on to an era when they were, once again, the wrong social grouping: the Anglo-Irish in a troubled period (what Yeats called West Britons). As in Bowen’s The Last September, relationships between the various social groupings are presented as morally unclear. But Trevor’s version of these is much softer than Bowen’s; Lucy Gault ends with a full cast of hapless people who are punished by fate and nothing else. Nothing is anybody’s fault.

In some of his best novels - in The Children of Dynmouth and Felicia’s Journey (1994), for example - Trevor drew on the Gothic-eccentric which (for reasons that have been much discussed without definite conclusions) has always been one of the staples of the Anglo-Irish, Protestant novel from Maria Edgeworth to Sheridan Le Fanu to J. G. Farrell. Lucy Gault, impressively, tries to manage without these special effects. Indeed, it is a strikingly chastened piece of writing: pared back in style and structure in a way that is reminiscent of the other novel by an Irish master this year, John McGahrn’s That They May Face the Rising Sun. It may be felt in the end that this is not one of Trevor’s more incontestable successes; although it displays mastery over its material and admirable ethical strength, it lacks the edge of some of the earlier work. Sometimes, especially in the early sections, the language is uncharacteristically slack (Trevor is one of the great modern exponents of eloquent plainstyle). Towards the end, a tendency towards syntactic inversion - originally an inference from Irish spoken practice - becomes mystifyingly endemic (”Arguments about it there’d been, he said”; “South Tipperary he came from”; “All things Italian I love”). It seems as if the wish to complete the novel’s moral programme has rather defeated the fictive impulse by its studied avoidance of the meretricious. It could do with more of the eccentricity of The Children of Dynmouth. The characters are too nice, drifting almost allegorically towards the stereotypical decency of the kindly Chekhovian landowner, the lawyer who does his best and the faithful retainer. There are no villains; all are alike victims of fate and of a series of unlikely linked misfortunes. The passive acceptance of fate has been a recurrent characteristic of Trevor’s Irish characters, like Bridget in “Being Stolen From” who accepts her exploited condition without resistance. In Lucy Gault, the sharing of that fatalism across all the significant characters leads to a depressed ending.

It should be recognized that there is another tradition in which Trevor is pre-eminent and to which this novel strikingly belongs. His marvellous essay on Assia Wevill describes this: “ensconced in the corner of a bar, she would outline the complicated plot of a novel someone else might care to write. What she related never sounded quite like fiction, more a sleight of hand involving real people and the real world.” This is what Trevor’s writing is like. and it is what has always made it so convincing. One example will show clearly how he operates with material. A shadowy figure called Paddy Lindon plays a minor part in the plotting of this new novel, seeming no more than a mildly Gothic plot device. But his real-life prototype has been described in Excursions in the Real World, where his surname is spelt with a “y”: “Paddy Lyndon”. Similarly, the O’Reillys, who have gradually taken over the land frittered away by the Gault forebears (a familiar motif, ever since Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent), are also found by name in the factual world of Excursions. This repetition of material is hardly for lack of inventiveness; one of the miracles of Trevor’s short stories is their apparently endless fecundity of story and descriptive elaboration. In Lucy Gault he is insistently weaving his fatalistic morality out of real lives, more fully than in any previous novel, while at the same time keeping to the themes and conventions of the Irish “Big House” novel.

So what is Trevor saying about that tradition and the people who inhabited it? Putting his two emphases together, he is showing how the new reality has supplanted the old order, without ill will towards it. Like the novel’s train of events, this is nobody’s fault. Again the comparison with Chekhov is unavoidable, as Lucy settles down with the kind offices of the (Catholic) nuns, among the rooks and hydrangeas and fallen apples. It is all very well to be thus shown that the new Irish order is benign in its way; the spirit of the book remains decidedly elegiac.

As in any Trevor fiction, the narrative is totally engrossing. He is a master weaver of stories, and his primary demand has always been - like Forster’s - that the novel should tell a story. But here the bleak morality is uppermost. Trevor is operating without his traditional weapons of wit and stylistic elegance; he has eschewed too the modest formal experimentalism of The Silence in the Garden, as well as the controlled narrative expansiveness of the stories which makes their world so real. This book’s sections - “chapters” would imply too much substance - sometimes do not extend beyond a single page. This is the first book of Trevor’s that is not richly salted with humour. We are a long way from the witty entertainment of The Old Boys, or the perplexing evil of the boy in The Children of Dynmouth, or the smalltime English town of Felicia’s Journey (he is one of the greatest evokers of suburban England in the third quarter of the twentieth century). Of Trevor’s established virtues, The Story of Lucy Gault most manifests his unrecriminating understanding. We have to go back to earlier work for his harder edges and his colder eye. It may be that 1920s Ireland and its aftermath is too far away from the reach of his shrewdly satiric eye. Nevertheless, this book is an important addition to the corpus of one of the twentieth century’s most indispensable writers, especially in relation to Ireland. Behind its pervasive melancholy you never doubt that William Trevor wants the world to be a happier place and - unusually for a satirist - thinks it deserves to be.

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