William Trevor's numerous, highly acclaimed novels and stories are distinguished by their moral vision, psychological complexity, comic and tragic insights, and detached, ironic perspectives. Having lived in Ireland and England, Trevor is adept at setting his fiction in both countries, writing insightfully about English and Irish life and – in his Irish fiction – about both Anglo-Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics. Best known for his novels and stories, Trevor has also written plays, children's fiction, essays, and reviews, and he has both adapted his fiction and created original dramas for radio and television. Two of his novels, Fools of Fortune and Felicia's Journey, have been made into major films. He has been the recipient of numerous literary prizes, including the prestigious Whitbread Award, which he has won three times.
Trevor was born William Trevor Cox in Mitch-elstown, County Cork, Ireland, in 1928 to Protestant parents. His father was a bank official whose routine transfers resulted in the family living in numerous small towns, in both the Irish Free State (which in 1949 became the Republic of Ireland) and British-controlled Northern Ireland. As a result of these frequent family relocations, Trevor was educated in about a dozen schools, some of which were Catholic. After graduating from Trinity College Dublin, he taught for a few years in Ireland. In 1952 he married, and the following year he and his wife moved to England, where Trevor again taught but also worked as a sculptor and then for an advertising agency. He took the pseudonym William Trevor for his first novel, A Standard of Behaviour (1958), and upon winning the Hawthornden Prize for his second novel, The Old Boys (1964), he left the advertising agency and took up writing full-time. He and his wife settled in Devon, England, where they still live.
Trevor's novels fit within the English tradition of the serious moral novelists, particularly Dickens, Hardy, E. M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene. His short fiction resembles – in both style and subject – that of the best modern Irish short story writers, especially Joyce, Frank O'Connor, and Sean O'Faolain, with Joyce's Dubliners (1914) perhaps being his single greatest literary influence. Trevor's most recurrent themes are dark ones of loneliness, alienation, marital unhappiness, betrayal, calamity, madness, evil, guilt, and the like, though he often tempers his treatment of these bleak themes with irony and humor. One of his signature techniques is the use of multiple perspectives in relating a narrative – a technique that often results in the reader's uncertainty about the truth of events.
Characters in his novels, such as the title characters of Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel (1969) and Elizabeth Alone (1973) and Julia in Other People's Worlds (1980), often come to painful realizations about their lives, while his short stories are often structured, like Joyce's Dubliners, on what Joyce called “epiphany,” that is, an illumination or recognition. In the story “Mr. McNamara,” for example, a boy attempts to learn more about his father after his father's death in hope of understanding himself better. His search takes him to Dublin's Fleming Hotel where his father often visited the title character and brought back his friend's gifts and stories to the family. What the boy discovers is that Mr. McNamara is really Nora McNamara. Angry over his father's betrayal and hypocrisy, the boy wants to reveal the truth to his mother, but cannot. Instead, he is burdened by the awful secret, a burden that will embitter him for life. Frequently a novel or story will trace a character's unhappiness or perverseness back to a childhood incident. In “The Death of Peggy Meehan,” the 46-year-old narrator recalls how in a childhood fantasy he “killed” Peggy Meehan. When she died of an illness a short time later, he was struck with guilt and began to “see” her. As the story ends, she continues to appear to him – ironically as an object of desire – in his terribly lonely life.
Many of Trevor's works treat the disappointments, betrayals, and failures of love and marriage. An early novel, The Love Department (1966), explores with both comic effect and moral insight the middle-class marriages of London suburbanites. “Teresa's Wedding,” an early story, and “Honeymoon in Tramore,” a late one, have the same theme: the wedding couple's recognition that their marriage falls considerably short of their romantic ideals. In some stories, such as the renowned “Ballroom of Romance,” characters resign themselves to loveless marriages, while in others, such as “Office Romances” and “A Bit on the Side,” they act out the emptiness, betrayals, and loneliness of failed relationships.
Trevor's fascination with evil in human nature has resulted in his depiction of psychopaths, con men, sexual deviants, murderers, and the like. Quite often the malevolent or perverse behavior of these characters is a result of their being neglected or abused as children. In The Children of Dynmouth (1976), set on the Dorset coast of England, the 15-year-old protagonist, Timothy Gedge, neglected by his family, goes about maliciously exploiting for his own gain the secret sins and failings of people of Dynmouth village – their sexual proclivities, infidelities, and pathologies. The most sinister of Trevor's characters is Mr. Hildritch of Felicia's Journey (1994), an Englishman who ensnares the title character. Sexually abused as a child by his mother and rejected by a series of women, Hildritch is a psychopath who – despite living a seemingly ordinary life – kills women but then blocks out his horrendous acts from his conscious mind.
Typically, Trevor's plots place innocent characters in situations in which they are threatened – psychologically, sexually, physically – by the malicious characters. Julia of Other People's Worlds (1980), for instance, is brought under the malevolent influence of a younger man, Francis Tyte, who bigamously marries her while indirectly participating in the murder of his first wife. In Felicia's Journey, Felicia is a pregnant Irish girl who has been thrown out of her home by her puritanical father; she goes to England in search of the young man who seduced her. There she meets by chance Hildritch, who draws her into his psychopathic world.
A recurrent theme in Trevor's Irish fiction is the tragic legacy of Ireland's politically violent past, specifically the Anglo-Irish War of 1919–21 (part of the so-called “Troubles”) in which Irish rebels fought for independence against the British army. Trevor's treatment of this theme is distinguished by his compassionate and non-political perspective which allows him to shed light on the great human cost of the “Troubles.” In Fools of Fortune (1983), The Silence in the Garden (1988), and The Story of Lucy Gault (2002), as well as in several short stories, Trevor shows how personal tragedy results from the larger political tragedy. In Fools of Fortune, which spans the years 1918 to 1982, the protagonist Willie Quinton experienced as a child the burning of the family home, Kilneagh; the murder of his father, two sisters, and family servants by the Black and Tans, a brutal British paramilitary force; and the suicide of his mother distraught over the family misfortunes. This chain of tragic events was set in motion because Willie's Anglo-Irish parents, despite being allied by religion and heritage to the British, were supportive of Irish nationalists in their bid for independence in the Anglo-Irish War. It continues when, out of revenge, Willie kills the man who murdered his father and sisters and is forced to flee, leaving behind his lover and English cousin, Marianne. Pregnant with his child, Marianne waits at Kilneagh for decades with the child, Imelda, who eventually becomes mentally disturbed. In the end, the family achieves a measure of happiness as Willie, now an old man, returns to Kilneagh.
Trevor takes up this theme of the tragic past in several short stories and links it to the sectarian violence and terrorism of the Northern “Troubles” – the decades-long conflict between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists in Northern Ireland. In “The Distant Past,” a story set in the late 1960s at the onset of the Northern Troubles, Trevor shows how, despite decades of relative peace in Ireland, the bitter legacy of the distant past (specifically the Anglo-Irish War) really lies just below the surface and easily rises to embitter relationships between Catholics and Protestants once more. “Attracta,” arguably the most powerful story by any contemporary writer about the devastating effects of terrorism in Northern Ireland, records the attempts of the title character, an elderly Catholic schoolteacher in the North, to convey to her young Protestant pupils the horror and senselessness of sectarian violence. She attempts to do so by reading to them a shocking newspaper account about the wife of a British army officer stationed in Northern Ireland. The report graphically reports the murder and decapitation of the husband and the rape and suicide of the wife. Attracta links these horrific events to her own victimization in the Anglo-Irish War when her parents were accidentally killed in an IRA ambush of British forces. But the children have become immune to violence, and when they tell their parents about their teacher's efforts, Attracta is forced into retirement.
In over 50 years of writing Trevor's fiction has remained, in style and technique, firmly within the mode of realism with occasional use of the gothic to enhance psychological themes of guilt and madness. He has not been lured by the postmodernist techniques embraced by many of his contemporaries. But among writers of realist fiction, Trevor is undoubtedly one of the world's best.
SEE ALSO: Irish Fiction (BIF); Joyce, James (BIF)
- William Trevor: The Writer and His Work. Dublin: New Island. (1999).
- William Trevor. New York: Twayne. (1993).
- William Trevor: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne. (1993).
- William Trevor: A Study of His Fiction. New York: Routledge. (1990).
- A Standard of Behaviour. London: Hutchinson. (1958).
- The Old Boys. London: Bodley Head. (1964).
- The Boarding House. London: Bodley Head. (1965).
- The Love Department. London: Bodley Head. (1966).
- The Day We Got Drunk on Cake and Other Stories. London: Bodley Head. (1967).
- Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel. London: Bodley Head. (1969).
- Miss Gomez and the Brethren. London: Bodley Head. (1971).
- The Ballroom of Romance and Other Stories. London: Bodley Head. (1972).
- Elizabeth Alone. London: Bodley Head. (1973).
- Angels at the Ritz and Other Stories. London: Bodley Head. (1975).
- The Children of Dynmouth. London: Bodley Head. (1976).
- Lovers of their Time and Other Stories. London: Bodley Head. (1978).
- The Distant Past and Other Stories. Harmondsworth: Penguin. (1979).
- Other People's Worlds. London: Bodley Head. (1980).
- Beyond the Pale and Other Stories. London: Bodley Head. (1981).
- Fools of Fortune. London: Bodley Head. (1983).
- The News from Ireland and Other Stories. London: Bodley Head. (1986).
- The Silence in the Garden. London: Bodley Head. (1988).
- Family Sins and Other Stories. London: Bodley Head. (1990)
- Two Lives: Reading Turgenev and My House in Umbria. New York: Viking. (1991).
- The Collected Stories of William Trevor. New York: Viking. (1992).
- Felicia's Journey. London: Viking. (1994).
- After Rain. London: Viking. (1996).
- Death in Summer. London: Viking. (1998).
- The Hill Bachelors. London: Viking. (2000).
- The Story of Lucy Gault. London: Viking. (2002).
- A Bit on the Side. London: Viking. (2004).
- The Dressmaker's Child. London: Viking. (2005).
- Cheating at Canasta. London: Viking. (2007).
- Love and Summer. London: Viking. (2009).
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