By lopping off his family surname, William Trevor Cox provided himself with a nom-de-plume that has become synonymous with good fiction throughout the world. Almost the only dispute dividing admirers of Trevor, who has died aged 88, is whether he is pre-eminent as a short-story writer or as a novelist. Perhaps majority opinion inclines to the short-story, with memories of such collections as The Day We Got Drunk on Cake (1967), The Ballroom of Romance (1972) and Beyond the Pale (1981), but the contrary view, recalling novels including The Old Boys (1964), The Children of Dynmouth (1976) and Felicia’s Journey (1994), is just as strongly held.
His extraordinary skill with the short story, a form always relished in Ireland, but one strangely orphaned elsewhere in contemporary literature, enabled him to flourish also as a TV playwright. His gift for establishing atmosphere quickly and for inventing idiomatic dialogue led to his becoming a master of the individual television play. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, viewers enjoyed watching Trevor turn his short stories into dramatic encounters between bewildered human figures that could seem sometimes the only adult dramatic material on offer. His friends will continue to see him sitting down at his neatly arranged desk in his country home in Devon, quietly determined not to be disturbed. As much as Mozart, he believed that working is the most effective way of relaxing.
Trevor was born in Mitchelstown, County Cork, Ireland, to James Cox and his wife, Gertrude (nee Davison), who came from Ulster. For most of his childhood and adolescence his father was a bank manager. He was a product of that extraordinary pool of talent, the Anglo-Irish Protestants. But he was not of the Protestant Ascendancy and resembled George Bernard Shaw and Seán O’Casey more than he did WB Yeats. He was born into Éamon de Valera’s diminished Catholic Ireland and his personality had none of “the big house” about it.
He once told me that he believed his ancestors had been Catholic smallholders in the west who had, for reasons probably venial, seen fit to convert to the Church of Ireland at the beginning of the 19th century. He suspected that their name had been something more rootedly Irish than Cox. Nevertheless, young Trevor was educated, as middle-class Protestants usually were, at Irish public schools, including St Columba’s College, Co Dublin, and destined for Trinity College Dublin.
As a child he moved about southern Ireland, his father being transferred often to distant regional towns. His fondest memories of his childhood peregrinations were attached to the town of Youghal in Co Cork., at one time home to Walter Raleigh and redolent of Anglo-Irish plantationism. His parents’ marriage was not happy, and it is tempting to relate some of the more scarifying confrontations and silences among characters in his fiction to memories of this clouded childhood. Both his brother and sister agreed that theirs was a chilly home. Trevor gives a brilliant, if partial, account of these years in his Excursions in the Real World (1993), a set of autobiographical essays covering episodes in his life up till the last decade of the 20th century. His picture of the Ireland of pre- and post-second world war decades, of its village life and its crumbling institutions, is even more strikingly presented in his later fiction.
It is a truism to say that Trevor’s most graphic depiction of real life will be found in his imaginative work. Though he is unequalled among modern writers for the keenness and accuracy of his eye and ear, and he is obviously influenced by personal experiences, he is not primarily an autobiographical writer. Excursions in the Real World is like a book of sketches by a great painter: the finished pictures are in the stories and novels. His early memories of Ireland are more richly furnished in Fools of Fortune (1983) and Beyond the Pale. And his sardonic vision of seedy private schools and provincial towns is exploited in those disturbing early novels, The Old Boys, The Love Department (1966), and Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel (1969). He once wrote that the novelist is first and foremost a storyteller. He might have added that storytelling is the best way to comment on society.
The most important event in Trevor’s life was meeting his future wife, Jane Ryan, at Trinity College, from which he graduated in history in 1950. Jane, whose father had been a British army officer, is one of those remarkable people whose family origins in Ireland were overlaid by an almost exemplary Englishness, but whose residual loyalties took her back to Trinity to study. She and Trevor married in 1952 and he dedicated book after book to her. They were seldom separated and enjoyed travelling together in Italy and Switzerland.
At first, the newlyweds found themselves short of cash and Trevor spent some time teaching in an Evelyn Waugh-style academy in Ulster. His first reputation came as a wood-carver, and in 1953 he jointly won the Irish section of the international Unknown Political Prisoner competition. The following year he and Jane moved to England, settling first in the Midlands, then in the West Country. Trevor taught at local schools and continued to sculpt. Pilgrims on the William Trevor trail should make their way to All Saints Church, Braunston, Northamptonshire, where the carved lectern and screen is entirely his work (years later he was to review with great insight a book on Grinling Gibbons).
Sculpting was not so much a false start as a training by other means, and Trevor was always cut out to be a writer. Two events changed his life at this point, the birth of his sons, Patrick and Dominic, and the publication of his first novel, A Standard of Behaviour (1956). Although prescient in some ways of his mature work, the novel made no impact on the literary world at the time. He and Jane decided to leave their quiet and comfortable life in the country and Trevor was obliged to seek, as one of his characters might put it, “gainful employment”. This brought him to London and to advertising.
He applied, in 1959, for a copywriter’s job at Notley Advertising, where the chief of staff was the formidable Marchant Smith, an awesomely de-haut-en-bas figure but a true friend to indigent literary types. Notley’s in the 1960s employed a remarkable assembly of writers including Oliver Bernard, Edward Lucie-Smith, Peter Redgrove, Gavin Ewart and myself. Although the work was uncongenial, as were some of the accounts executives and a few of the professional copywriters, Trevor was able to turn advertising to his advantage and launch himself on his brilliant career as a fiction writer.
As we all managed to do, he composed some of his literary work in the boss’s time. Once when one of the agency’s top brass came across Trevor and a helpful secretary using the firm’s photocopier to prepare a literary manuscript after working hours, his comment was the genial: “It’s good to see you two working so late.” In Trevor’s pages there are portraits of our fellow workers at Notley’s, or at least shadowy gestalts of the sort of people who drifted into advertising in the 60s. The closed-circuit nature of advertising life exactly fitted Trevor’s natural gift for delineating claustrophobic personalities.
The Old Boys, equipped with a pre-publication testimonial from Evelyn Waugh, made for an audacious launching from which Trevor’s career thereafter never faltered. To say that the novel was a hit is to underestimate both its brilliance and originality. This story of an obsessional school feud carried on into senility combined the grotesquery of Dickens with a scalpel-sharp awareness of the persistence of snobbery, cruelty and infantilism in English life. It was also very funny. Trevor’s remarkable ear not just for the mannerisms of speech but for the underlying fear and vulnerability of which they are the signs made it a visible and audible tour-de-force.
Perhaps he never wrote a better book: I would rank only The Children of Dynmouth and Two Lives (consisting of the pair of novellas Reading Turgenev and My House in Umbria, 1991, which was made into a TV film starring Maggie Smith in 2003) as its equal, although its immediate successor The Boarding-House (1965) is even more virtuosic in construction, more misanthropic and funnier.
In his later years he both made more of his Irishness himself, and came to be seen by commentators as more characteristically Irish, but I continue to stress how superbly English and suburban his early novels are. If he is truly Anglo-Irish, then it is in the strain of Congreve, Swift and Goldsmith; his is a hard-edged world where Celtic Twilight never reaches.
The success of these novels was soon followed by equally successful collections of short stories and commissions from television and radio, so that by 1966 he was in a position to leave advertising. In that year he also bought Stentwood House, near Dunkeswell Abbey in the Blackdown Hills on the borders of Somerset and Devon. While they retained their flat in Putney, south-west London, this move back to the West Country marked the end of his and Jane’s days in the capital. Increasingly it was work alone that would bring Trevor to London.
His Stentwood days were happy and productive ones. The house had been built in Victorian times for a former governor of the Bank of England. When, early in the 80s, Trevor moved to another and quite different house in Devon, gloomy Stentwood had been transformed by the Coxes into a charming rural dacha. I recall Trevor looking at a line of quick-growing trees he had planted when moving in, and reflecting that at a height of nearly 40ft they had moved away from him just as he was about to move away from them. It struck me as a metaphor of the writer’s relationship with his own creation.
Trevor’s great success led to an inexorable increase in literary fame. The US, Ireland and Britain honoured him with degrees and awards. His name became pre-eminent when critics listed the best purveyors of modern fiction, though his reputation was always more solid than that of whichever genius of the zeitgeist was in the news. Monographs were written about his fiction, none of them encouraged by their subject. Listing a few titles will speak for Trevor’s finest achievements – Elizabeth Alone (1973), Other People’s Worlds (1980), Fools of Fortune and The News from Ireland (1986). His final novel, Love and Summer, came out in 2009.
His eye, which had looked at the bizarre and the cruel, though still with comic tolerance, gradually developed into a more severe limner of human nature. The key book in this change is The Children of Dynmouth. Young Timothy Gedge, a teenage liar, blackmailer and devoted tempter of everything natural and trusting, provides a devastating study of evil in action. It is Trevor’s great tact never to fit the boy out with any Iago-like credo: wickedness is seen as natural however deplorable, and the rest of us, whether decent or just averagely unpleasant, as helpless victims of Timothy’s and the world’s depredations.
Like Dickens, Trevor came to view life in terms of its unswervable unpleasantnesses, as Felicia’s Journey and Death in Summer (1998) demonstrate. Critics have often spoken of his humanity and belief in redemption, but surely his readiness to face the way the human species behaves is more realistic and courageous than any readiness to seek transcendence.
Trevor and Jane devoted much of their later life to travelling in Italy. They were never so contented as when renting a flat in Montepulciano or walking round the Ticino, that unfashionable bit of “Italia in Germania”. Tuscany remained their ideal, but it was the Tuscany of the myriad churches, galleries and museums, not Chiantishire. Trevor and I used to compete for who could find the least-frequented church or museum, and he always won. I would turn up at a remote corner of Siena only to discover that the church there was closed for the next five years. After all, Trevor had visited it already.
As early as the 60s he was adding to his income by that customary resort of the novelist, selling the film rights of his novels. Darryl F Zanuck had planned to film The Love Department as a vehicle for Rita Hayworth’s return to the screen, but the star’s encroaching Alzheimer’s put an end to this. There must be a number of screenplays written by Trevor himself gathering dust in studios – he often undertook such adaptations himself, since the fee for rights alone was seldom generous. Finally in 1999 a Trevor book made it to the screen when Atom Egoyan directed an affecting film version of Felicia’s Journey. His TV work included adapting the classics for serial broadcasting, with Dickens a speciality. Few writers would have relished having to dramatise The Old Curiosity Shop, one of Dickens’ least appreciated works, but one which Trevor recognised as a natural for TV.
He was a prodigious winner of literary prizes from the Hawthornden in 1965 up to the David Cohen prize for a lifetime’s literary achievement, which he won in 1998, only its fourth recipient. In 2002 he received an honorary knighthood, and in 2015 was made Saoi of Aosdána, the highest honour of the state-supported association of Irish artists.
Trevor had a genius for friendship. I have never met a writer more loved and courted by his acquaintances. There was perhaps a slightly flirtatious charm to his affections: basically he was a very private person, guarding his time and space rigorously. The order of his daily priorities went: first work, then family and last, his much-loved home in the undulating green of Crediton, Devon.
Ireland remained close to his heart, but I am convinced that he reserved his best writing for his adopted land, England. One of the great creators of fiction of recent decades, he was not modern, but neither was he reactionary. Every sentence he wrote was perfectly crafted, yet he had a natural love of storytelling: his first loyalty was always to the reader’s desire to find out what was going to happen next. It is hard to conceive of an English-speaking literary landscape without him.
He is survived by Jane, Patrick and Dominic.
•William Trevor (William Trevor Cox), writer, born 24 May 1928; died 20 November 2016
•Peter Porter died in 2010
For the Victoria Cross recipient, see William Spottiswoode Trevor.
William TrevorKBE (24 May 1928 – 20 November 2016) was an Irish novelist, playwright and short story writer. One of the elder statesmen of the Irish literary world, he was widely regarded as one of the greatest contemporary writers of short stories in the English language.
He won the Whitbread Prize three times and was nominated five times for the Booker Prize, the last for his novel Love and Summer (2009), which was also shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award in 2011. His name was also mentioned in relation to the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 2014, Trevor was bestowed Saoi by the Aosdána.
Trevor resided in Devon, South West England, from the 1950s until his death at the age of 88.
Born as William Trevor Cox in Mitchelstown, County Cork, Ireland, to a middle-class Protestant family, he moved several times to other provincial towns, including Skibbereen, Tipperary, Youghal and Enniscorthy, as a result of his father's work as a bank official.
He was educated at St. Columba's College in Dublin, and at Trinity College, Dublin, from which he received a degree in history. Trevor worked as a sculptor under the name Trevor Cox after his graduation from Trinity College, supplementing his income by teaching. He married Jane Ryan in 1952 and emigrated to Great Britain two years later, working as a copywriter for an advertising agency. It was during this time that he and his wife had their first son.
His first novel, A Standard of Behaviour, was published in 1958, but had little critical success. He later disowned this work and refused to have it republished.
In 1964, at the age of 36, Trevor won the Hawthornden Prize for Literature for The Old Boys. The win encouraged Trevor to become a full-time writer.
He and his family moved to Devon in South West England, where he resided until his death. In 2002, he made honorary KBE for services to literature. Despite having spent most of his life in England, he considered himself to be "Irish in every vein".
William Trevor died peacefully in his sleep during the early hours of 21 November 2016, at his home. He was 88 years old.
Works and themes
He wrote several collections of short stories that were well received. His short stories often follow a Chekhovian pattern. The characters in Trevor's work are typically marginalised members of society: children, the elderly, single middle-aged men and women, or the unhappily married. Those who cannot accept the reality of their lives create their own alternative worlds into which they retreat. A number of the stories use Gothic elements to explore the nature of evil and its connection to madness. Trevor acknowledged the influence of James Joyce on his short-story writing, and "the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal" can be detected in his work, but the overall impression is not of gloominess, since, particularly in his early work, the author's wry humour offers the reader a tragicomic version of the world. He adapted much of his work for stage, television and radio. In 1990, Fools of Fortune was made into a film directed by Pat O'Connor, along with a 1999 film adaptation of Felicia's Journey, which was directed by Atom Egoyan.
Trevor's stories are set in both England and Ireland; they range from black comedies to tales based on Irish history and politics. Common themes in his works are the tensions between Protestant (usually Church of Ireland) landowners and Catholic tenants. His early books are peopled by eccentrics who speak in a pedantically formal manner and engage in hilariously comic activities that are recounted by a detached narrative voice. Instead of one central figure, the novels feature several protagonists of equal importance, drawn together by an institutional setting, which acts as a convergence point for their individual stories. The later novels are thematically and technically more complex. The operation of grace in the world is explored, and several narrative voices are used to view the same events from different angles. Unreliable narrators and different perspectives reflect the fragmentation and uncertainty of modern life. Trevor also explored the decaying institution of the "Big House" in his novels Fools of Fortune and The Story of Lucy Gault.
Awards and honours
Trevor was a member of the Irish Academy of Letters and Aosdána. He was awarded an honorary CBE in 1977 for "services to literature", and was made a Companion of Literature in 1994. In 2002 he received an honorary KBE in recognition of his services to literature.
Trevor was nominated for the Booker Prize five times, making the shortlist in 1970, 1976, 1991 and 2002, and the longlist in 2009. He won the Whitbread Prize three times and the Hawthornden Prize for Literature once.
Since 2002, when non-American authors became eligible to compete for the O. Henry Award, Trevor won the award four times, for his stories Sacred Statues (2002), The Dressmaker's Child (2006), The Room (2007), a juror favourite of that year, and Folie à Deux (2008).
Trevor was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award in 2011.
A monument to William Trevor was unveiled in Trevor's native Mitchelstown on 25 August 2004. It is a bronze sculpture by Liam Lavery and Eithne Ring in the form of a lectern, with an open book incorporating an image of the writer and a quotation, as well as the titles of his three Whitbread Prize-winning works, and two others of significance.
On 23 May 2008, the eve of his 80th birthday, a commemorative plaque, indicating the house on Upper Cork Street, Mitchelstown where Trevor was born, was unveiled by Louis McRedmond.
This list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it.
Novels and novellas
- A Standard of Behaviour (1958)
- The Old Boys (Bodley Head, 1964)
- The Boarding House (Bodley Head, 1965)
- The Love Department (Bodley Head, 1966)
- Mrs Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel (Bodley Head, 1969)
- Miss Gomez and the Brethren (Bodley Head, 1971)
- Elizabeth Alone (Bodley Head, 1973)
- The Children of Dynmouth (Bodley Head, 1976)
- The Distant Past (Poolbeg Press, 1979)
- Other People's Worlds (Bodley Head, 1980)
- Fools of Fortune (Bodley Head, 1983)
- Nights at the Alexandra (Hutchinson, 1987)
- The Silence in the Garden (Bodley Head, 1988)
- Two Lives (the two novellas Reading Turgenev and My House in Umbria) (Viking Press, 1991)
- Felicia's Journey (Viking, 1994)
- Death in Summer (Viking, 1998)
- The Story of Lucy Gault (Viking, 2002)
- Love and Summer (Viking, 2009)
- The Dressmaker's Child (Penguin Books)
Short story collections
- The Day We Got Drunk on Cake and Other Stories (Bodley Head, 1967)
- The Ballroom of Romance and Other Stories (Bodley Head, 1972)
- The Last Lunch of the Season (Covent Garden Press, 1973)
- Angels at the Ritz and Other Stories (Bodley Head, 1975)
- Lovers of their Time (Bodley Head, 1978)
- Beyond the Pale (Bodley Head, 1981)
- The Stories of William Trevor (Penguin, 1983)
- The News from Ireland and Other Stories (Bodley Head, 1986)
- Family Sins and Other Stories (Bodley Head, 1989)
- Outside Ireland: Selected Stories (Viking, 1992)
- The Collected Stories (Viking, 1992; Penguin, 1993, 2003)
- After Rain (Viking, 1996)
- Cocktails at Doney's (Bloomsbury Classics, 1996)
- The Hill Bachelors (Viking, 2000) ISBN 978-0141002170
- A Bit On the Side (Viking, 2004) ISBN 978-0143035916
- Cheating at Canasta (Viking, 2007) ISBN 978-0670018376
- Bodily Secrets (Penguin Great Loves, 2007; new selection of stories from earlier collections) ISBN 978-0141033235
- The Collected Stories (Viking, 2009)," ISBN 978-0140232455.
- Selected Stories (Viking, 2010), listed as "the second volume of his collected stories" ISBN 978-0-670-02206-9.
- Last Stories (Viking, 2018)
- Play for Today: O Fat White Woman (1971, adaptation from short story)
- The Old Boys (Davis-Poynter, 1971)
- A Night with Mrs da Tanka (Samuel French, 1972)
- Going Home (Samuel French, 1972)
- Marriages (Samuel French, 1973)
- Scenes from an Album (Co-Op Books (Dublin), 1981)
- Juliet's Story (Bodley Head, 1992)
- A Writer's Ireland: Landscape in Literature (Thames & Hudson, 1984)
- Trevor, William (1994). Excursions In The Real World: Memoirs. Knopf.
- Mary Fitzgerald-Hoyt (2003). William Trevor: re-imagining Ireland. Liffey Press. ISBN 978-1-904148-06-7.
- Dolores MacKenna (1999). William Trevor: the writer and his work. New Island Books. ISBN 978-1-874597-74-2.
- Tom McAlindon: Tragedy, history, and myth: William Trevor's Fools of Fortune. (Critical Essay); in: Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies, 2003
- Stephanie McBride; Irish Film Institute (2006). Felicia's journey. Cork University Press. ISBN 978-1-85918-399-1.
- Kristin Morrison (1993). William Trevor. Twayne Publishers. ISBN 978-0-8057-7032-2.
- Hugh Ormsby-Lennon (2005). Fools of fiction: reading William Trevor's stories. Maunsel & Co. ISBN 978-1-930901-21-6.
- Gregory A. Schirmer (1990). William Trevor: Study of His Fiction. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-04493-6.
- ^Flood, Alison (12 April 2011). "Impac prize shortlist dominated by three-strong Irish contingent". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group. Retrieved 12 April 2011.
- ^"It's like gadgets in shops".
- ^"Punters tip Trevor for Nobel honour". Irish Independent. 10 October 2012. Retrieved 10 October 2012.
- ^"William Trevor elected to position of Saoi by Aosdána to honour outstanding achievements". RTÉ News. 29 September 2014. Retrieved 4 December 2016.
- ^The Guardian: William Trevor, watchful master of the short story, dies aged 88
- ^Homan Potterton, 'Suggestions of Concavity: William Trevor as Sculptor', Irish Arts Review, vol 18 (2002), pp.93–103.
- ^ ab"William Trevor, award-winning writer, dies at the age of 88".
- ^Adams, Tim (2 August 2009). "William Trevor: the keen-eyed chronicler". The Guardian. Retrieved 19 July 2016.
- ^"William Trevor, novelist and short story writer, dies aged 88". 21 November 2016 – via www.bbc.co.uk.
- ^Cain, Sian (21 November 2016). "Irish writer William Trevor dies aged 88" – via The Guardian.
- ^"Royal Society of Literature".
- ^Department for Culture, Media and Sport
- ^"William Trevor". Man Booker Prize. Archived from the original on 3 December 2010. Retrieved 4 July 2010.
- ^Pepinster, Catherine (29 September 2002). "William Trevor: The quiet chronicler of the lost and the damned". The Independent. Retrieved 4 July 2010.
- ^Battersby, Eileen (12 April 2011). "William Trevor makes an Impac". The Irish Times. Irish Times Trust. Retrieved 12 April 2011.
- ^Medrano, Juan Díez (Jan 24, 2010). Framing Europe: Attitudes to European Integration in Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Princeton University Press. p. 273. ISBN 9780691146508.
- ^The Man Booker Prize 1970
- ^Trevor, William (1958). A standard of behaviour. London: Hutchinson.
- ^http://www.borders.co.uk/book/cocktails-at-doneys-bloomsbury-classic-s/437707/[permanent dead link]
- ^Play for Today: O Fat White Woman, BFI Film and TV Database