"The Trojan Prince"
by Tessa Hadley
Originally published in the November 15, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

I’m finally catching up with my reading of these stories, and I’m glad to say that “The Trojan Prince” made it a pleasure. I’ve been intrigued with Tessa Hadley’s stories in The New Yorker, but where I always felt only s0-so with her previous ones, I quite liked this one about James McIlvanney (sixteen), his cousin Ellen Pearson (who might be “a useful friend to have”), and her friend Connie Chappell (twenty). It takes place in the 1920s in the UK.

When the story begins, James is standing before the daunting door of Ellen’s house. He himself is only following some unconscious intuition in visiting his wealthier cousin (or second cousin, or thereabouts).

He hasn’t said a word to his mother about coming here.

All he has in mind is that Ellen would be a useful friend to have. He hasn’t followed this through to any idea of paying court to her, or advancing himself in the world that way; he doesn’t like to think about courtship or marrying at all — and he really may be going away to sea at some point soon.

When James is introduced into the home, he is shocked and a bit upset that Connie has been living there. He knows things would work out better without her around.

James has recently set up a potential apprenticeship aboard a cargo ship.  As an excuse for visiting, he says he came to say goodbye. And this is how the story begins. In these last days of his youth, James spends a lot of time with Connie and Ellen.

It’s the same each time: although the visits to the Pearson house are his own idea, he feels the girls are drawing him there, as though he were under their spell.

He goes about with one on each arm, imagining “that the girls are water swirling around him.” It’s a very nice portrait of a rather carefree time.  World War I has ended, and anything seems possible. Hadley is very skilled at placing subtle sexual tension (anything sexual repulses James — at least, that’s what he thinks in his innocence), and this little triangle is well set up to explore a wide variety of themes while staying focused on an interesting story.

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By |2016-06-23T17:43:06-04:00November 8th, 2010|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Tessa Hadley|Tags: |7 Comments


  1. Trevor Berrett November 8, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    New fiction forum up.

  2. Thomas November 8, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    This week Tessa Hadley showed other New Yorker writers how it’s done. This story was great (though, not perfect) on so many levels. The language for one. I caught myself rereading certain scenes and sentences. When James sits with his back to the girls, his eyes blindfolded by Connie’s stocking, tasting the “stale-sweetish trace of her foot’s perspiration”–wow.

    The story itself was slow, but in a way I admire. It is sometimes more difficult to write about (what appears to be) nothing, then to control even the most complicated of plots. The tension between the two girls and James is marvelous.

    The final scene, with James hanging onto the rope for dear life as he is plunged mercilessly into the raging water, felt straight out of a movie. The writing is so on point and lively, I couldn’t have imagined changing a single word. My only complaint is James’s revelation that he could not marry Ellen (I felt the implication was that he loved Connie). I’m not quite certain how we get from point A to point B in this instance. Yes, Connie gave him a good luck charm, but he hates her throughout this entire story and even into the train ride home. There are subtle hints at the fun they shared as children, but I’m still unconvinced. James seems so determined to marry well that a piece of glass doesn’t seem strong enough evidence that there is someone better waiting for him back home.

  3. Joe November 14, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    It was interesting to read Thomas’s comments on this story. My impressions were quite different, but his thoughts made me wonder if maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to appreciate the story when I read it.

    I’ve enjoyed Tessa Hadley’s writing before, but I found that this story had a description-to-action ratio that was a bit too high for my liking. As I read the first page, I kept wondering how the story would be different if it were all condensed into a single sentence that said “A young man rings a doorbell in neighborhood that’s more posh than his own.” After that, I found myself skipping ahead to get to the end.

    I do agree with Thomas that the scene of the escape from the shipwreck was lively and interesting. For me, that was the one part of the story that worked, and I wish the rest of it had that same energy.

  4. Ken November 17, 2010 at 4:51 am

    I agree 100% with Thomas’ comments about this very nicely done story. I like how the slow opening, with its descriptiveness, allows for a sense of mystery to develop about why exactly he is here and how we slowly learn about him through his reactions to this wealthy household and its furnishings/atmosphere.

  5. Aaron November 22, 2010 at 6:43 pm

    I’ll put myself in Joe’s camp so that we remain divided between liking and respecting this story. I understand, or at least I think I understand, Hadley’s choices and I admire her writing. But I don’t think the final contrast worked, nor do I think the story built to anything–you might as well have just begun with the shipwreck and charted the more erratic future from there, rather than the deliberate plodding that preceded it.

    I wrote more about it here, http://thatsoundscool.blogspot.com/2010/11/short-day-tessa-hadleys-trojan-prince.html, but again, I give the full disclaimer that I’m not a fan of the slower British-y story.

  6. Trevor Berrett November 30, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    I’m finally catching up, and I’m tipping the balance back in favor of Hadley. I really enjoyed this one.

    I particularly agree with Thomas’s statement:

    It is sometimes more difficult to write about (what appears to be) nothing, then to control even the most complicated of plots.

    Though it seems not much happens for the first 90% of this story, a lot is going on under the surface.

    Thomas, I actually felt that the ending was nicely led-up-to. When James feels repulsed by Connie, I think he is actually feeling what to him was an uncomfortable sexual desire. The quote you pulled about the stocking shows this. There’s something uncomfortable about the sweat, but it’s also alluring.

  7. Trevor Berrett November 30, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    As an afterthought, thanks for commenting in my absence!

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