Novelist and short-story writer William Trevor was born in Mitchelstown, County Cork, in the Republic of Ireland on 24 May 1928.
He was educated at St Columba's College, County Dublin, and Trinity College, Dublin. He worked briefly as a teacher, and later as a copywriter in an advertising agency before he began to work full-time as a writer in 1965. He was also a sculptor and exhibited frequently in Dublin and London. His first novel, A Standard of Behaviour, was published in 1958.
His fiction, set mainly in Ireland and England, ranges from black comedies characterised by eccentrics and sexual deviants to stories exploring Irish history and politics, and he articulates the tensions between Irish Protestant landowners and Catholic tenants in what critics have termed the 'big house' novel. An acclaimed author of several collections of short stories, he also adapted a number of his own stories for the stage, television and radio. These collections include The Day We Got Drunk on Cake and Other Stories (1967), The Ballroom of Romance and Other Stories (1972), Angels at the Ritz and Other Stories (1975) and Beyond the Pale (1981). His early novels include The Old Boys (1964), winner of the Hawthornden Prize, and Mrs Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel (1969). The Children of Dynmouth (1976) and Fools of Fortune (1983) both won the Whitbread Novel Award, and Felicia's Journey (1994), the story of a young Irish girl who becomes the victim of a sexual sociopath, won both the Whitbread Book of the Year and the Sunday Express Book of the Year awards. The Hill Bachelors (2000), a collection of short stories, won both the PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award for Short Stories and the Irish Times Irish Literature Prize for Fiction in 2001. The Story of Lucy Gault (2002), was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. William Trevor's latest short story collections are: A Bit On the Side (2004), on the theme of adultery; The Dressmaker's Child (2005); and Cheating at Canasta (2007). His final novel is Love and Summer (2009). Between 2009 and his death in 2016, he published his Collected Stories (2009) and a Selected Stories (2010). A final collection, Last Stories (2018), appeared posthumously.
William Trevor was awarded an honorary CBE in 1977 for his services to literature, and was made a Companion of Literature in 1994. He was knighted in 2002. He was a member of the Irish Academy of Letters, and was awarded the David Cohen British Literature Prize by the Arts Council of England in 1999 in recognition of his work, and the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award in Irish Literature in 2008.
William Trevor died in November 2016.
William Trevor is one of the most prolific writers to have emerged from modern Ireland.
Acclaimed as both novelist and short-story writer, he is somewhat unusual in having maintained the two forms in tandem, rather than using one – the story – as an apprenticeship for a mature career in the other – the novel. His commitment to the short story as a medium relates largely to his understanding of ‘storytelling’ as the natural expressive idiom of his native Ireland, where the great nineteenth-century realist novel failed to gain a foothold, but the short tale flourished as a natural element of traditional culture. ‘The understanding of a mode of communication is not easily abandoned’, Trevor wrote in his introduction to the Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories (1989). ‘The Irish delight in stories, of whatever kind, because their telling and their reception are by now instinctive.’ If the short story is rooted for Trevor in an Irish mind-set, his sense of its development acknowledges its international profile. In addition to the Irish influence of James Joyce and Frank O’Connor, his work suggests an immersion in the great European masters of the form, Chekhov and Maupassant, or from a British literary tradition, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene and V. S. Pritchett. Like all of these, he employs the short story to draw back from wider social landscapes in order to focus on limited and insignificant individuals, those whose lives are blighted by failure, disappointment, or regret. Despite the comic and even on occasion farcical nature of his characters’ predicaments, the pervading mood is one of melancholy, and the predominant tone that of frustration. Several of Trevor’s early novels were set in England, where he moved from Ireland in 1953. In The Old Boys (1964), The Boarding House (1965) and The Love Department (1966), he showed gifts for subtle comic nuance in the depiction of characters destined for catastrophe of some kind. He was also able to take an expatriate’s perspective on the quirks and institutions of Englishness, illuminating with outsider’s eyes the mundane yet fascinating routines of English life. Domestic quarrels and office romances become the basis, in his writing, of penetrating insights into the ritualised chaos of ordinary people. As in the title story of his 1975 collection, Angels at the Ritz, which depicts the rituals of a suburban wife-swapping party, his descriptions are tinged with satire, but this is rarely savage, suggesting instead a mocking affection for his adopted home. Despite living in England, Trevor regularly draws on an Irish landscape for material. His own background is Protestant, and his writing frequently registers this minority’s difficult co-existence with the prevailing Irish Catholic majority. But the scope of his work is inclusive, and he is just as like to delineate the plight of a rural Catholic farming family as the downfall of the Anglo-Irish Protestant aristocracy. He has often written of the city, and his 1969 novel Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel, about a British woman who tries to refashion a tawdry guesthouse, recreates in detail the topography of central Dublin. But he is clearly most at home outside the urban centre: in England it is the midlands and southern regions which attract him most, and in Ireland, the small towns and rural provinces of the country. Few writers, indeed, have captured with such sensitivity the claustrophobia and isolation of the Irish rural community, as depicted in one of Trevor’s best-known tales, The Ballroom of Romance (1972). This tells the story of Bridie, a woman approaching middle age, whose only pleasure amidst the harsh routine of caring for her disabled father on the family farm is a weekly trip to the local dance hall. There, she indulges in all the teenage trappings of romance, swept up in the coloured lighting and jazz melodies, as the few remaining bachelors from the surrounding area congregate to choose a mate. But week after week for Bridie, the promise of true love fails, while the realities of emigration and social stagnation intensify. Marriage will eventually be a compromise, and life lived out in the shadow of what might have been. In his treatment of Ireland Trevor has also addressed the twinned subjects of history and violence. His short story The News from Ireland (1986), set in the mid nineteenth century, explores the existence of a Protestant landed class who will always be seen as ‘strangers and visitors’, political or religious misfits in their country of birth, while his 1983 novel, Fools of Fortune traces the disintegration of a wealthy Protestant family over sixty years of turbulence and betrayal. Contemporary conflict is also addressed, and Trevor brings to this topic his identification of English indifference and ignorance as motivating forces in the Northern Irish Troubles. In Beyond the Pale (1981) two English couples are shaken out of their complacency when a sudden reminder of Belfast’s violence disrupts their annual holiday on the Northern Irish coast. The event propels one member of the party into a traumatic engagement with Ireland’s tortuous past - the confusions which runs through Irish history 'like convolvulus in a hedgerow’, and which shatter for ever the comfortable fiction of their seaside idyll. In his recent novels, Trevor has developed a structural and narrative complexity. Two Lives (1991) includes ‘Reading Turgenev’, the story of a young woman who feigns insanity as a means of escape from an unsuitable marriage, and ‘My House in Umbria’, in which the owner of an Italian guesthouse invents elaborate details of her guests’ lives. In both novellas, Trevor relies on the blurring of clear distinctions between fact and imagination: his protagonists each create a fantasy – of madness or passion – but the reader is uncertain as to where the truth actually lies. In Felicia’s Journey (1994), Trevor’s cinematic thriller about a mild-mannered psychopath who preys on a young Irish woman, the reader is again plunged into ambiguities and ambivalence: how far can we sympathise with the plump and friendly catering manager who turns into a sinister killer? Trevor treads more familiar ground in The Hill Bachelors (2000), a collection of tales about ordinary people caught up in loneliness or victimisation. In his novel The Story of Lucy Gault (2002), he returns to an Ireland haunted by tragedy, in an intense and disturbing story of a child whose apparent disappearance following the loss of her family home sets off a chain of grief and despair. Like all Trevor’s writing, this much-praised work demonstrates his graceful, disciplined narrative style and subtle emotional insight, bringing these together in what is perhaps his most accomplished and dramatic fictional achievement to date.
Trevor’s two most recent collections of short stories, A Bit on the Side (2004) and Cheating at Canasta (2007), are close companions in tone and theme, penetrating the shame, fear and isolation of a succession of individuals, none of whom are happy, all of whom are lonely. These protagonists exist on the margins, in down-at-heel villages, remote farms, or flats above bookmakers. It is worth noting how well Trevor employs an oblique prose style in these works: elliptical sentences such as ‘He didn't know if he'd tried to, he didn't know if there hadn't been time’, frequently require rereading, reinforcing the elusiveness of truth in such settings. Often, it is simply unclear whether the dark secrets borne by many of the characters are past experiences or prolonged fantasies. In ‘On the Streets’, from the former collection, a waiter stalks his wife with the story of a murder he may or may not have committed; in ‘Men of Ireland’, from the latter, a tramp returns to the village of his birth to blackmail the parish priest with memories of child abuse which have possibly been fabricated.
There are several broader social themes sketched in the Irish stories of these collections, including the waning influence of the Catholic church and the slow decline of rural Ireland after years of emigration, but Trevor’s governing concern remains with the individual and the insuperable odds faced in any attempt to find happiness or fulfilment. The tone is set by characters such as the stonemason in ‘Sacred Statues’ (A Bit on the Side), a talented craftsman who, unable to raise the funds to pursue his vocation, resigns himself to working on the roads. ‘Things happen differently,’ he concludes to his wife at last; ‘We’re never in charge.’ In this landscape of disappointment, instances of humour are few and far between, and the bleakness of Trevor’s world-view remains both uncompromising and compelling.
Dr Eve Patten, 2008