Posy Fallowfield on The Story of Lucy Gault, William Trevor, copyright Mark Gerson & National Portrait Gallery, London

Just the Way It Is

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I first came across William Trevor in the early nineties when my son came home from school with The Children of Dynmouth, his GCSE set text. I’ve been an ardent fan ever since, although I must admit that in one’s robust forties Trevor’s themes (sadness, loneliness, cruelty, the sheer arbitrariness of life’s awfulness) can be relished in a way that becomes increasingly difficult with age, as one’s skin thins and that arbitrariness begins to bite.

One does not read William Trevor to be cheered up. But one can definitely read him to be consoled: by the pin-point accuracy of the writing, by the absolute truth of his characters, by the universality of their predicaments, by the wisdom of his perceptions – in other words, by his humanity. Yes, he seems to be saying, appalling things happen, unfair, unjustified, inexplicable, random things you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy but there it is, we’re all in this together, that’s just the way it is. And somehow, the beauty of the writing can turn this message into something comforting. A warm hand has stretched out and taken yours.

William Trevor was an Irishman who spent his working life in England, first in London and then, after his novels brought success, in a quiet Devon village. But Ireland and its troubles remained a
favourite theme. The Story of Lucy Gault (2002) is set in an unspecified part of southern Ireland in a big house which has seen better days. It opens thus:

Captain Everard Gault wounded the boy in the right shoulder on the night of June the twenty-first, nineteen twenty-one. Aiming above the trespassers’ heads in the darkness, he fired the single shot from an upstairs window and then watched the three figures scuttling off, the wounded one assisted by his companions.

While ‘scuttling’ – the only emotive word in these two calm, precise sentences – may render the trespassers undignified, it also suggests something more si

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I first came across William Trevor in the early nineties when my son came home from school with The Children of Dynmouth, his GCSE set text. I’ve been an ardent fan ever since, although I must admit that in one’s robust forties Trevor’s themes (sadness, loneliness, cruelty, the sheer arbitrariness of life’s awfulness) can be relished in a way that becomes increasingly difficult with age, as one’s skin thins and that arbitrariness begins to bite.

One does not read William Trevor to be cheered up. But one can definitely read him to be consoled: by the pin-point accuracy of the writing, by the absolute truth of his characters, by the universality of their predicaments, by the wisdom of his perceptions – in other words, by his humanity. Yes, he seems to be saying, appalling things happen, unfair, unjustified, inexplicable, random things you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy but there it is, we’re all in this together, that’s just the way it is. And somehow, the beauty of the writing can turn this message into something comforting. A warm hand has stretched out and taken yours.

William Trevor was an Irishman who spent his working life in England, first in London and then, after his novels brought success, in a quiet Devon village. But Ireland and its troubles remained a
favourite theme. The Story of Lucy Gault (2002) is set in an unspecified part of southern Ireland in a big house which has seen better days. It opens thus:

Captain Everard Gault wounded the boy in the right shoulder on the night of June the twenty-first, nineteen twenty-one. Aiming above the trespassers’ heads in the darkness, he fired the single shot from an upstairs window and then watched the three figures scuttling off, the wounded one assisted by his companions.

While ‘scuttling’ – the only emotive word in these two calm, precise sentences – may render the trespassers undignified, it also suggests something more sinister. And it is this event, typical enough at a time when houses owned by English or military families were being fired almost routinely, which reverberates through the book, affecting lives and destinies for decades to come. Lucy Gault is 8 at the start of the book; her fate, together with that of the wounded boy, is decided that night.

Lahardane, the Gaults’ home, is a haven:

There was no other place [the Captain] might more happily have lived than beneath the slated roof of its three grey storeys, the stone softened by the white woodwork of the windows and the delicate fanlight above a white hall door. Flanking it on its right was the wide high archway of a cobbled yard, with cobbled passageways leading to an apple orchard and a garden . . . a raised lawn that was separated from steeply rising woods by a curve of blue hydrangeas. The upstairs rooms at the back had a view of the sea as far as the sea’s horizon.

But Lucy’s parents, rattled by the trespassers and their petrol cans, eventually decide to leave and go to England. Lucy, eavesdropping, only gradually becomes aware of their decision and is both heartbroken at the prospect and angry that her parents have not explained their anxieties to her.

A solitary child, she is in the habit of secretly bathing in the sea and has also made friends with the O’Reillys’ dog, ‘a big, frolicsome animal,’ who – while she swims – plays with her discarded clothes and hides some of them. As preparations to leave Lahardane continue, we hear of storms and fishermen lost at sea, their bodies never recovered. Lucy decides to run away, collecting scraps of food and warm clothing; but her plan to run to the house of Kitty Teresa, a housemaid recently made redundant, comes to grief when she trips in the woods and breaks her ankle.

And so it is that a false conclusion is reached. Everyone assumes Lucy has drowned, and the chance discovery on the beach of a vest and a sandal reinforces the assumption. The woods are never properly searched. Trevor coolly evokes a nightmare and we see how easily this could come about. Grief-stricken, her parents finally depart, leaving trusted servants Bridget and Henry in charge of the house and the land. By now the Gaults can hardly wait to get away but they are vague about their plans.

When Lucy is finally found by Henry and carried home she is emaciated, barely alive; her broken ankle has mended badly, leaving her with a lifelong limp. The telegram sent to her parents doesn’t reach them because they have moved on.

In this agonizing way the book moves forward; Lucy grows up under the protective eyes of Bridget and Henry, and her parents continue their sad journey through Europe, eventually settling in Italy. All efforts to trace them fail. Captain Gault writes letters home but never posts them, feeling it would be an act of disloyalty to his wife, who wishes to forget Lahardane; his wife resolves to find the courage to speak to him about it, but never quite does. Lucy, meanwhile, awaits their return, badly needing their forgiveness. As she matures, wearing her mother’s discarded white dresses and resembling her in both looks and speech, she is watched over not only by Bridget and Henry but also by the family solicitor and Canon Crosbie who visit her occasionally – bewildered old people who can only look on helplessly. And all the while Lahardane exerts its consoling influence.

‘We hope, Bridget, we hope.’
‘She has taken on the bees.’
‘Bees?’
‘The Captain used to have beehives in the orchard. We didn’t bother with the honey the time he left. Henry can’t be doing with bees, but she’s started up the hives again.’
Canon Crosbie nodded. Well, that was something, he said. Bees were better than nothing.

With the introduction of Ralph, a young man who accidentally discovers Lahardane and with whom Lucy immediately feels an affinity, Trevor finds a new way to tantalize the reader. And Horahan, the boy wounded in the first chapter, reappears with a role in the story one would never have anticipated.

Throughout the book, politics rumble in the background: initially the threat by nationalists to Lahardane, then Mussolini’s bellicosity which drives the Gaults from Italy, finally Ralph enlisting to fight in the second war. But Trevor is at pains to demonstrate that what really directs our lives – and certainly that of his heroine – is the humble accident. When Everard Gault, believing Lucy drowned, fears he is being punished for his military, landowning background, Trevor declares with authority, ‘Chance, not wrath, had this summer ordered the fate of the Gaults.’ Later Lucy rejects Ralph’s proposal, insisting that she must wait for forgiveness, that ‘she must trust some twist of fate – that all there was was fate’.

Events in this book, as in life, follow a painfully random course. Horahan, another of fate’s casualties, visits and Lucy thinks, ‘No meaning dignified his return; no order patterned, as perhaps it might have, past and present; no sense was made of anything.’

But what might seem a nihilistic stance is eventually softened as Lucy takes action in an unexpected direction; at the end there is forgiveness, peace, redemption. The past is come to terms with. As Ralph says, ‘It is how things have happened . . . no one is to blame.’

This is what makes Trevor such a great novelist: he blames no one. Virtually every character in this book is gentle and decent. There are no villains. The agents of tragedy are unwitting, even witless; one of them is a dog. Bridget and Henry, protective and utterly loyal, are lovingly drawn – Bridget, pink-cheeked and excited whenever there are visitors; Henry, heavy, slow-moving, impassive. (‘“More happens in a ham,” Bridget’s father had once said about Henry’s face.’) Neither of them falters for a second when it comes to Lucy’s welfare.

William Trevor has been there, witnessed these things, known these people. He was surely in the room when Bridget and Henry discuss Ralph.

‘He’s here,’ Henry said in the kitchen, and was aware when he spoke that his wife was pleased to about the same degree that he was not.
‘What it is, he’s teaching the Ryall boys,’ Bridget said. ‘She told me that this morning. He’s staying in the bank.’
‘So he’ll go back to where he emerged from one of these days?’
‘It’s why she wrote a letter to him – to say come out again before he’d go.’
‘He has an easy way with him.’
‘Ah, he’s a nice young fellow.’
‘I don’t know is he.’

It’s not just the wonderfully odd, elliptical Irish conversations that summon character so superbly. Trevor depicts the strained, suffering parents in a sentence: ‘Expert now at altering sentences already begun, or allowing them to wither or smiling them away, they gave themselves to the unfamiliarity of the place . . .’ He sums up a lifetime’s change in rural Ireland with perfect economy: ‘Young fishermen from Kilauran with waiters’ shirts on them, and cars drawn up.’

Even the dog is nailed:

The strand had been empty in both directions when she’d left it. Without being able to see clearly as she swam back to it, she knew that what seemed to be moving there now was the O’Reillys’ dog chasing its own shadow on the sand. It often did that; while she watched, it stood still for a moment, gazing out to where she was, before beginning its play again.

Who has not seen a dog daydream like that?

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 68 © Posy Fallowfield 2020


About the contributor

Posy Fallowfield lives in Devon, in a village close to the one in which William Trevor lived until his death in 2016. She used to drive slowly through it, never actually spotting him but content to breathe the same air as this most brilliant writer.

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