William Trevor: “The Women”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  William Trevor’s “The Women” was originally published in the January 14, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

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Trevor

It was a beautiful thing to find a new William Trevor story in this week’s issue of The New Yorker. To my knowledge William Trevor has not published anything anywhere in the last four years. I assumed that, at age 84, he was done, as much as I hoped this day would arrive. I was not disappointed in the slightest.

“The Women” is, in part, about quiet sadness, the type that doesn’t go away as we age even though those who know us best may not even know what caused it. They just see it on our faces. We tell each other and ourselves lies and find consolation in anything that lends doubt to the cause of the sadness. We are first introduced to the sadness of Mr. Normanton. In most ways, Mr. Normanton has it all together. He brushes his gray hair “carefully every day so that it was as he wished it to be.”

Only Mr. Normanton’s profound melancholy was entirely his own. It was said by people who knew him well that melancholy had not always been his governing possession, that once upon a time he had been carefree and a little wild, that the loss of his wife — not to the cruelty of an early death but to her preference for another man — had left him wounded in a way that was irreparable.

Mr. Normanton is the father of our central character, Cecilia, she who makes the strange connection between melancholy and happiness in Mr. Normanton and some other characters we meet soon. Cecilia never knew her mother. In fact, much as we might have assumed when we read “the loss of his wife” meant that Mr. Normanton’s wife had died, Cecilia thinks this as well. The truth is humiliating, and he still loves his ex-wife, so Mr. Normanton has never really brought it up. Trying to do his best by Cecilia, Mr. Normanton eventually sends her to boarding school when she turns fourteen. After all, she has no friends at her home on Buckingham Street. He’s been advised that Cecilia would “benefit and be happy as a girl among other girls.”

Of course, at first it is dreadful, and Cecilia begs to be brought back home: “Cecilia disliked the place intensely, felt lonelier and more on her own than she ever had in Buckingham Street.” But this kind of sadness and longing often drifts away, especially among the young. As much as she misses her father, she finds she’s settling in at her school.

All is going well until she begins to spy two strange, retired women. She sees them first at a couple of hockey games, and, though she cannot figure out why, they seem to pay particularly close attention to Cecilia. After one of the matches they “stood about as if they had a reason to, and Cecilia avoided looking in their direction.”

Trevor moves us away from Cecilia and drops us right into the lives of the two women, who happened to be named Miss Keble and Miss Cotell. At fifty-five, they’re retired now, having worked together for thirty years. They live together now in a comfortable friendship, though there is acute pain in Miss Cotell’s past, and, due to their intimacy, Miss Keble feels it too.

The characters don’t want to relive their pasts, but naturally pieces of it find their way into consciousness every once in a while, and it’s in such small pieces that Trevor brings this story together. More than anything else, it’s this careful style that brings us so close to the source of pain and the desire to turn away from it that makes this such a powerful story. It’s not particularly hard to figure out what’s going on, and indeed it doesn’t stay a secret for too long. But it’s the secret pain that these people feel they cannot share, so carefully rendered, that makes this story come to life.

In the end, Cecilia knows what’s going on too, though she’s not 100% certain. In fact, she’s just uncertain enough that she can foster some kind of doubt that allows her to avoid the painful truth she’ll now have to deal with for the rest of her life, especially if she never faces it. It’s one powerful last paragraph:’

Shakily challenging the apparent, the almost certain, this flimsy exercise in supposition was tenuous and vague. But Cecilia knew it would not go away and reached out for its whisper of consoling doubt.

This is a remarkable story, only the second of the year, yet it’s hard for me to imagine another coming along to top it.

Betsy

In “The Women,” William Trevor lays out a fine mystery in a cool voice, revealing the cold truth, such as it might be, in a cobweb of the slightest of hints. It is this narrative style of slight, interrupted, skewed, slowly revealed information (plus the tart observation) that engages the reader. Cecilia Normanton, Trevor’s main character, wonders what is true and what is not (as does the reader), and she thinks: “Fragments made a whole.” Or a hole. One thing is sure: uncertainties and bad actors prevail.

Who are William Trevor’s “Two Women”? That’s a cool question to be sure. One has the pair of elderly companions, Keble and Cotell; Normanton’s pair of wives — his ex-wife and his possibly “dead” wife; and Cecilia’s pair of possible mothers — her father’s ex-wife or one of the elderly women. Finally, one has Cecilia as she would be if she ever gets free of her father and/or Cecilia as she will be if she remains in his possession.

The multiple explanations for Trevor’s seemingly simple title underlie his point: confusion abounds in our perception of life. In addition, confusion is multiplied when people take their opportunities to “wield power” over one another but call it something else: love, friendship, parenthood, priesthood, truth.

For one, people use class distinctions to keep other people in their place. Early on in the story, a little student-villain named Elizabeth Statham raises the question of class. She sees a pair of tatty old ladies trailing Cecilia, and, sensing weakness, Statham pointedly inquires, “Are they poor relations?” Even Elizabeth’s name suggests that there is a kind of powerful social “state” that rules the little villages of life.

The perks of class may influence Cecilia’s ultimate decision to “doubt” the truth — that her father is unreliable. In the end, she consciously chooses to believe that there could be an alternate story — a “Shadowland” — that casts doubt on the possibility that her father could have lied, or lied by omission, or worse.

Another tactic for surviving uncertainty is to simply seize power. Father Humphrey is the man whom Cotell seeks out when she is pregnant; we know he is not to be trusted when we read that his handmaiden is a “slatternly woman with a bucket and mop.” We distrust him even more when we hear how, years later, Cotell has recurring nightmares of the day she gave the priest a heavy envelope, he having said, “All done.” We slowly gather that the priest has collected a handsome fee for placing her illegitimate child. Later, when we see Mr. Normanton being fawned upon by the headmistress of Cecilia’s school, we think money, and it dawns on us how Cecilia may have been acquired. Why she was acquired is less clear. (There is the coolest hint of abuse here, by the father, by the priest, or both, in collusion.)

Trevor makes a point of the power relationship between the two little old ladies. Keble is able to goad the once-pregnant Cotell into tracking down her child’s identity, and Keble also is able to convince Cotell to stalk the 14-year-old girl who is probably, but not certainly, her daughter. Trevor makes clear how Keble “wielded power” over her companion. But, “given to exaggeration,” Keble completely misjudges what is possible, and Keble’s mis-use of her power leads to disaster and betrayal.

Power is the currency. The name Normanto(w)n suggests a medieval environment where entitled, violent men own other people — serfs and women among others. In this milieu, the father can tell Cecilia that a “jeu blanc” is a “love game” without telling her that in tennis, love is a zero. Cecilia never realizes that the kind of love her father is offering makes a zero — zero match. Cecilia reminds the reader of Nabokov’s Lolita, the girl enslaved by Humbert Humbert. But where Lolita separates from Humbert when she declares he has stolen her childhood, Cecilia seems to have chosen to stay with her lying cad of a rich father, despite the hints of the real truth, despite the “fragments [that] made a whole.” She, after all, is comforted by the doubt her imagination can envision.

40 thoughts on “William Trevor: “The Women””

  1. Shelley says:

    As a writer, I can tell you:

    Never underestimate an 84-year-old.

  2. stujallen says:

    he is the greatest living short story writer I think ,amazing even in his 80’s still writing wonderful stories ,all the best stu

  3. EBjorn says:

    It is a sad truth that, in our own mental and emotional self-defense, we are all too willing to bury the past. Sadder still that these buried pieces of history manage to surface, though we are made unaware of their existence.

    It’s almost like a broken picture frame in a trash bag, hidden from sight except where the edges have ripped a hole, loosing all sorts of scraps we know we’ll have to clean up…

  4. Trevor says:

    In case you missed them, Betsy’s thoughts have been added above.

  5. Trevor says:

    Betsy, I think we read the story quite differently, so I’m especially excited to discuss it and to read it again.

    I hadn’t looked too closely to the power struggles, focused as I was on the secrets and hidden pain. I of course saw Elizabeth Statham, but I hadn’t thought about her too much. And though I noticed it, I also didn’t think much about the envelope passed to Father Humphreys. I’m curious how it will shape up for me with those things coming more to the fore.

    That said, I’m not sure I do see what I think for you might have been the central struggle: the struggle of Cecilia under Mr. Normanton. I may be reading it too much on the surface, but I didn’t catch any signs of abuse. Rather, I saw a man who wanted to do right by his adopted daughter, though in the end he kept her origins (and the fate of her mother and adopted mother) secret, potentially causing her a sense of being unmoored — now, if only she can hold on to that scrap of doubt that any of that is true, that “dumpy” Miss Cotell is not really her mother!

    Could you expand on the power struggle/enslavement you see between Cecilia and Mr. Normanton? For me that feels too strong. I think Mr. Normanton and the whole situation is much less sinister.

    On another note, I loved what you pulled from their discussion of a jeu blanc.

  6. Betsy says:

    Hi Trevor, my dog ate my homework! No – actually, my rural dial-up ate my two previous replies! (True!)

    Okay. The story has a dark, ghost-story mood: the surly priest and his slatternly housekeeper, the shadowy women, the emphasis on money, and the strange, spooky way Cecilia was raised – with only a tutor and a housekeeper for companions. It was as if she had been chosen for a purpose – but that purpose had nothing to do with the parent enjoying the girl’s childhood. That dark childhood distressed me, and the suggestion of money changing hands after the birth.

    Then, when Cecilia is fourteen, she is beautiful and looks eighteen, and the father and she begin traveling together. But they don’t take a friend for her, they don’t take a family friend to add to the party. They don’t do the the things kids would like to do. They travel like lovers. When the father dons the brightly colored scarf, it is as if he is wearing Cecilia’s colors, as in the old Norman days of old. The section about them traveling through Europe together, alone, reminded me of Lolita, especially given the sinister question of how she might have originally been acquired (purchased).

    I am sure that Nabokov had slavery in mind as Humbert Humbert’s crime. Lolita herself says that he has stolen her childhood. Whether William Trevor has slavery in mind is probably going too far. But the story has something unnatural on its mind.

    Given that power is a specifically mentioned element in the story, the parent’s power over the child must be specifically in the author’s design. While most parents choose to use their power to enjoy their children’s childhood (and then try to enjoy letting go as they become adolescents) this father is unconscious of the joys of childhood, and only comes alive when he can travel alone with the girl-who-is-almost-a-woman. That is strange! But it’s a zero-zero love match.

    That’s what I mean by enslavement – although that word is much too strong. william Trevor makes clear how much he dislikes brazen language, and so I should weaken that point. Now I’d say just that it’s odd that the father now wants to take possession of his daughter, just when she should be coming into her own adulthood.

    But Cecilia is tempted by class and privilege – another pre-occupation of this story. She is ashamed of her “poor relation”, and she is happy to accept the shadowland – the easy pose of being her “father’s” daughter. After all, she is an actress.

  7. Betsy says:

    By the way, hello to Stu and Shelley and welcome to EBjorn.

  8. EBjorn says:

    Betsy– thanks for pointing me to this site, and thank you for the Christmas card. I’m always glad for familiar voices, and for reading suggestions!

    I would also like to point out that in the title, it is effectively denying the adulthood of the child. If the great young adult novels (though “great” is relative, and i am not suggesting this is one) are all coming-of-age stories, this choice seems the opposite. To suggest the denial of that coming-of-age, at least until she can somehow connect with one of the two older women, is an indication of limitation, isolation, and in the long run may unconsciously connect the reader with other forceful restrictions such as kidnapping and abuse.

    just a thought.

  9. Trevor says:

    Betsy, thanks for the response. I need to go back through and read the story again (which I wanted to do anyway, but now have a very good reason to).

    But I won’t wait until then to respond :) .

    I do feel the story has a haunting quality, with the priest, etc., but for me that represented the haunting past, the secrets hidden in darkness, secrets that seem blessed or at least sanctioned but that are anything but. As far as Cecilia’s purpose, I felt it was to save the marriage which was already a failure. It was almost like Mr. Normanton hoped he could buy his wife a gift, a gift that comes with a particular responsibility that would, he hoped, keep her in the family. He himself was not equipped to care for Cecilia, and she had a childhood relatively distanced from childish things.

    Them travelling like lovers, though, and the remarks that she looks eighteen when she’s only fourteen, definitely make me anxious to read it again. I have no real response to that at this point. Certainly I see where you’re going bringing up Lolita; I’m just not certain I agree yet :) .

    And your last paragraph is exceptionally insightful. Even if I can’t quite go as far as Mr. Normanton and Cecilia having a Humbert Humbert-Lolita relationship (though I’m going to be looking closely upon the reread), I do agree that Cecilia is terrified not just that her past has been rewritten but that it has been rewritten to bring her from a “dumpy” woman. And, yes, she is an actress and is just about to put on a show for herself.

    I’d like to welcome EBjorn, as well. I’m anxious to reread the story with your thoughts on the denial of a coming-of-age. I do believe the two women make a sinister impression on Cecilia, whether they want to or not. It is a bit creepy, though they are sympathetic and understandable. Again, I missed the bridge that would take me to anything more sinister, but I’ll be looking for it soon.

  10. Jane Fox says:

    Thank you Mr. Trevor….I thoroughly enjoyed reading THE WOMEN….after reading the other comments I need to read it again….

  11. Betsy says:

    I sometimes wonder about the New Yorker editorial process governing the selection of writing that will appear together in one issue.

    In this case, William Trevor’s story “The Women” appears aside an important article (“Structure”) by John McPhee, thus at least honoring Trevor by having a writer of great stature appear with him. Even the topic, the development of one older writer’s writing process over time, appears to obliquely honor Mr. Trevor.

    The poetry selections include Galway Kinnell and Billy Collins, both writers with a great following and therefore of a piece, somewhat, with Mr. Trevor. Billy Collins’ poem, however, shares a difficult theme with Mr. Trevor, Catholicism. I notice that the poem associates a “little ghost” of a possum whose progress through the speaker’s yard reminds him of a “priestly pace.” While the speaker is more concerned with his awareness of his own “failings”, the poem also does not present the church in honorifics, thus making the poem hook up, so to speak, with the grim priest in Trevor’s tale.

    Kinnell’s poem, “I, Coyote, Stilled Wonder”) is gorgeous, mysterious, and grim. Given the gun, the death and the violence, the selection of the poem first echoes the terrible Newtown shootings. But I also notice (as a congruence with William Trevor), the phrase “stilled wonder”, as in the characters who people Trevor’s story who are also “stilled”. In addition, there is the grotesque entitlement of the coyote, who as a matter of his nature attacks, eats, enjoys and destroys a newborn calf. There is that association of the destruction of life that I sense in the Trevor story, maybe as much in the two elderly women as in the young Cecilia. But of course, in its unique strangeness, this Kinnell poem stands abruptly alone.

    The book review, which I enjoyed almost not at all, concerns itself with “Twentysomething Lives”, and in so doing reminds us of Cecilia’s peculiar dilemma: how completely will she live subsumed in Mr. Normanton’s life, class, and desires, and how completely will she take possession of her own life.

    Finally, there is the upsetting “Annals of Crime: The Science of Sex Abuse”. I merely point out that this article appears in tangential conjunction with “The Women”.

    This is not the first time that some kind of conversation between editors seems to be in play regarding the the feel of the entire issue. It is as if a general editorial mind has chosen writings that can be in some kind of conversation with each other.

  12. Ken says:

    The debate between Betsy and Trevor over the degree of sinisterness here is in itself highly illuminating. I would agree, though, more with Trevor. Clearly, class is an issue here. Cecelia’s father is able to keep her somewhat sequestered in her early childhood, he has possibly donated to the school etc. The two women are clearly less-advantaged (they wait for tickets to the play after the privleged get them)and one of them seemed to sign over her rights as a mother in a way that perhaps a lawyered-up wealthy woman would not be bullied into. But…I don’t find the father a “cad” or abuser. He is in deep denial, obviously, but tries to do what is right for his daughter. He does, after all, send her away to boarding school which benefits her (as an American of the middle class I find the whole boarding school idea horrifying and creepy but that’s my own background). His lying is a weakness but I’d hardly call it sinister. It does harm the two women because their presence at Cecelia’s school makes no sense to her because she thinks the woman who “died” was her biological mother. If she’d known the truth she might have forged a relationship with Ms. Cotell. Nevertheless, I feel the main point is an ambiguity: lies can both serve us and harm us and harm others. Cecela’s father has done fairly well with his lie, she is about to become an actress (a form of lying in a way) and will sooner or later forget the two women and probably be reasonably content. Still, there’s a hollowness perhaps one must continually cover up by continuing to reinforce the lie. That’s what I thought he was saying.

  13. Betsy says:

    Ken – I think your low key assessment is so persuasive – and certainly in tune with a writer like Wm Trevor who disapproves of excitable people like Keble and myself. And I do like the way you build to your penultimate sentence and do think you’re right about “the hollowness one must continually cover up by continuing to reinforce the lie.” And I especially agree with your idea the “the main point is an ambiguity.”

    The thing that bothers me is how Normanton acquired Cecilia. If he adopted her with his former wife, I would think she would have both legal rights and legal responsibilities to see Cecilia. One would think that most women would not want to leave a little girl with a man they didn’t like, and most women would not want a little girl being educated completely away from the presence of other children.

    If the wife/adoptee mother did not want to be married to the husband, one would think such a former wife would want to protect a little daughter from him.

    If Normanton acquired Cecilia without a wife, it does not actually seem like a legal proceding. It seems more of a gothic situation. Wm Trevor has set up the original arrival of Cecilia in Normanton’s house in such a way that the reader should be uneasy. In fact, one is forced to wonder what exactly happened to the wife.

    So I would argue that Normanton’s motives are very questionable, while Cecilia is being misled by garden variety class consciousness. I would also argue that Wm Trevor’s narrative is “fragmentary” – leaving many “holes” in the story, one key one being the whereabouts and motives of the long-ago wife.

    I agree with your questioning me about using the word “cad”. I got kind of a chill later on, thinking how Wm Trevor himself would not have used the word. But I am uneasy about Mr. Normanton!

    Despite your appropriately low key argument (more appropriate to Wm Trevor than my excitability!), I remain concerned for 15 year old Cecilia! But for her sake, I hope you can prove me wrong about my doubts concerning her arrival at Normanton’s household and the uneasiness I feel regarding the whereabouts of his wife.

  14. Ken says:

    Thanks, to Betsy, whose compliment is meaningful to me since her analyses of New Yorker stories are always so intelligent and thoughtful. A few responses. 1. I’m not sure about the divorce laws in England. But, I’ve never heard that a mother who gets a divorce had any responsibilty to a child, adopted or not, besides financial obligations if for instance she had more $ than the father (not the case here). I agree, though, her lack of presence in Cecelia’s life is a mystery, and certainly could be viewed as troubling or sinister. Maybe, though, it’s a sign of her bad character. 2. I don’t think I’d want to prove Betsy wrong about her doubts and uneasiness. I tend to follow a mild version of the school of literary criticism that stresses how the reader constructs the text as much as the writer. If Betsy has these doubts, and especially as she’s stated valid reasons for them, then I’d say they’re now a part of the text itself, and this is even more fitting in a work seemingly (note this last word, after all we don’t “know” what Trevor intended) marked by ambiguity on the writer’s part. The text I’ve constructed sees the father as more sympathetic than Betsy’s text.

  15. Trevor says:

    Betsy and Ken, thanks for keeping the discussion going. I am really enjoying it, and though I still haven’t been convinced want to thank Betsy for pushing me still. It’s made me think about the story in new ways. I don’t think I’d really thought much about the absent wife until now, but now I see there is a large story there (a very Munro-esque story, I think).

    So I’d like to take a stab at the motives and whereabouts of the absent wife, though I don’t think this will or should mollify your worry, Betsy. I can’t see any reason not to trust what it says in the beginning: Normanton lost his wife because she fell in love with another man. It’s not that she hated Normanton (though maybe she did) nor that she was terrorized by him. She simply found something she wanted more; perhaps it was more exciting, perhaps the flame never really existed in the first place, perhaps Normanton’s class got in the way. Perhaps the adoption (which very probably was not legal, Ms. Cotell wanting the pregnancy to remain shrouded in secrecy, Normanton coming along with his own secrets) was only handled by Normanton, him feeling that a child was the thing his marriage was missing. Misguided but not malicious, Normanton realizes too late that his wife has denied him and repudiated his offering. She leaves and never looks back. She’s living a completely different life, her past with Normanton more like a dream; perhaps it’s her own dark secret.

    Sadly, this is not that unusual, even when the child is blood. Dear Alice Munro has put us through this a number of times.

    I say all of this still not having reread the story, which I’m looking forward to doing this weekend.

  16. Betsy says:

    Hi Ken, Hi Trevor ~I enjoyed the “reader construction” argument, as I see how this story somehow touches a nerve with me. I also really appreciate the point Ken makes about “over the degree of sinisterness”, as well as his associated point regarding the degree of ambiguity.

    Question – why, out of all the names in England, would Trevor have chosen “Normanton”? First of all, there is the ancient “Norman” connection: northman, vikings, wm the conqueror, complete possession, etc. Then, there is the fact of the existence of a town called Normanton in West Yorkshire, Yorkshire being a type of English Appalachia, in the English imagination,with the accent and person being easily placed. Obviously, Cecily’s father could be from anywhere, it being the association that would be operative.

    Obvious second question – Why would Wm Trevor have picked the name Cecilia, whose origin is the Latin word for “blind”? Saint Cecily was martyred when she was beheaded, after first attempt to suffocate her failed.

    As to Keble and Cotell, both names seem odd, truncated.

    And as to “Amhurst”, Cecilia’s school, the name appears to be a misspelled version of Amherst, indicating yet another gothic oddness in the story. Geneanet tells me that “It may have been derived from Hamo, who was sheriff in the county of Kent, in the time of William the Conqueror; a descendant of his was called Hamo de Herst, [with}the Norman de”. COmplicating the oddness of “Amherst” is Lord Jeffrey Amherst, who is associated with giving American Native Americans blankets tainted with smallpox, although I have no idea if the English would make that association.

  17. Kayla says:

    The father had sex with this woman who was the mother. I was confused. Did that break up the marriage ? Was it purposeful to have a child? Why would the mother pay the priest?

  18. Trevor says:

    Betsy, for me Normanton didn’t bring to mind Norman conquest but rather dynasty and class (and, surprisingly, also the exact opposite: normal, suggesting, perhaps, decline), though I recognize this falls perfectly into what Ken described above. That Cecilia means blind, though — I didn’t know that and think that’s wonderful!

    Thanks so much for these insights into the names, Betsy. I’m never particularly good at looking into that stuff and greatly appreciate it.

    Kayla, Mr. Normanton did not have sex with Ms. Cotell, so that is not what broke up his marriage. Ms. Cotell once had a lover named Broughton. It was possibly Ms. Cotell’s only sexual relationship (though that brings up a troubling point I talk about a bit below).

    Before going to the troubling point, Broughton brings up one other aspect of the story that was so painful to read. William Trevor has Ms. Cotell, a fifty-five-year-old woman, standing in front of a mirror naked, looking at her aged body: “How old she seemed, the flesh of her neck all loops and furrows, her arms gone scrawny!” She stands there, alone, and thinks of Broughton, who probably abandoned her when she got pregnant (she did go to see Father Humphreys without him, and there is no indication he ever had anything to do with Ms. Cotell again). Yet she cannot forget about him and still loves him, if we can call her desperate yearning for affection, for physical touch love. The way Trevor writes the next paragraph is a masterpiece of style:

    Slowly Miss Cotell drew on her nightdress, then felt the sheets, the pillow, cold. He’d warmed her, and tonight she had known he would again. The caressing of his murmur did, and his touch was more than she could bear, his hands so soft, as if all his life he had done no physical work. The blue of his eyes was a paler blue than she’d ever seen in eyes before, his hair like down, wheat-colored, lovely. He whispered now as he had then and she did, too, in the dark, since always they wanted that. She dried his tears of shame. She loved his body’s warmth. He’d chosen her. She’d wanted no one else.

    Wow! Her relationship with Broughton is long over, yet she still imagines him, dreams him there so fully that cold night she actually thinks she can feel him warming her. I love how Trevor meshes the past with the present in this passage. For me, this relationship with Broughton is similar to the relationship between Mr. Normanton and his absent wife: he still loves her, can’t forget her, has to hide the ugly aspects in the darker parts of him memory.

    The troubling aspect I alluded to above is this: if Ms. Cotell is fifty-five and Cecilia is fifteen that would mean she had Cecilia at around forty (am I reading this right??). Yet her relationship with Broughton seems to be something from days even further in the past. Her bashfulness, his lust: they didn’t strike me as the type of sexual relationship a woman of forty would have, though I know it isn’t impossible. Or perhaps Broughton isn’t Cecilia’s father, after all; perhaps it was some one else, someone who remains anonymous. In any case, this leaves a bit more room for Cecilia to doubt that Ms. Cotell actually is her real mother (or, rather, it leaves the reader more room; after all, Cecilia has no idea about Broughton). Perhaps Ms. Cotell and Ms. Keble really are just eccentric women. I don’t believe that, but without confirmation from Mr. Normanton there is room for doubt.

    As for paying the priest, Trevor taps into some of the common illicit practices performed by people in various roles of authority. It is a way to take advantage while appearing to help.

  19. Ken says:

    This story is proving endlessly interesting to discuss. I didn’t mention it before, but I think the story is a masterpiece and better than earlier stories (which I’ve liked well enough) by William Trevor. I do think sometimes character names like “Cecelia” may be chosen for simple, prosiac, random reasons not alway symbolic ones. Trevor’s points about Broughton and Cotell added a fascinating level of new ambiguity. They stem from his observing one of the masterful scenes-her naked before the mirror-and then unpeeling that particular layer.

  20. Roger says:

    I agree that this story is a masterpiece and am delighted to find a work with such a beautifully wrought plot, among other virtues, in the New Yorker. I am inclined to doubt that there was physical/sexual abuse between Normanton and Cecilia, if only because we are privy to Cecilia’s thoughts and her state of mind, neither of which seem to suggest that anything along these lines occurred. But Normanton certainly has exploited her by concealing from her the truth about her mother – which is to say, the truth about herself. He comes close to admitting as much when he tells her: “During all your life as I have known it . . . you have made up for what went wrong in mine.” She has served as a means to his own end, a compensation for the grief that came to him after his wife’s desertion. That said, his behavior didn’t strike me as unforgivable, because his grief was so life-bending (he has suffered from severe “melancholy” since the desertion), but of course what he did was wrong. The gothic, dark aspects of the story, so persuasively pointed out by Betsy, seem consistent with Normanton’s tragic acts of concealment, yet his behavior is still moving, his character not entirely unsympathetic, because he does seem to have cared for Cecilia and, in his own grief-afflicted mind, has acted with her welfare at heart.

    This is the best story I’ve read in the New Yorker and, offhand, anywhere else I can think of, in a long time. May William Trevor keep this up till he is 94 and beyond.

  21. Betsy says:

    Hi Roger ~ I enjoyed your post, and particularly where you point out this sentence: “[Cecilia] has served as a means to his own end…”

    I would agree with you that outright abuse is not the question. My reference to Nabokov suggests that. It is more a question of possession (one with which all parents struggle) that troubles me about Normanton.

    Hi Ken ~ I agree. This is such a wonderful story that it is, as you say, endlessly interesting to discuss, with each contributor bringing a new slant to consider.

  22. Trevor says:

    I’m almost sad that a new issue of the magazine came out as I’m afraid it will draw attention away from this exceptional story and fascinating discussion. Ah well!

  23. Myrna says:

    Nobody so far has discussed the relationship between the two eccentric women. Were they merely old friends of 30 years duration who lived with each other comfortably in retirement? Or were they lovers?
    After Miss Keble revealed to Cecilia that Miss Cotell was her mother, Miss Cotell accused Miss Keble of jealousy. Could Normanton’s wife have left him for another woman? Could Broughton be Normanton’s given name?

  24. Trevor says:

    Those are all thoughts I had while I read this, Myrna, but from my reading the text moves away from each, at least a bit.

    I think it is pretty clear that Normanton is not Broughton, and that Normanton’s wife left him for another man (the first paragraph says that explicitly, and I see no reason to doubt it because I see no reason to suspect Normanton had anything to do with Miss Cotell prior to getting Cecilia).

    As for the relationship between Miss Cotell and Miss Keble, I think the story allows us to think they may be lesbian lovers for a bit, but it never confirms this and seems to suggest otherwise, such as the moment when Miss Keble is thinking about Miss Cotell’s past and thinks something along theses lines: she knew Miss Cotell had experiences she would never have. I believe that is referring to sex, but I suppose it could be referring to sex with a man. It’s just that, other than the fact that they live together and certainly have an intimate, even possessive relationship, the story never does much more to suggest they are lovers. For me, Miss Keble’s jealousy does not support the idea that they have a homosexual relationship, at least, not as much as Miss Keble’s “lack of experience” suggests they don’t.

    I do think their relationship is fascinating, though, and Miss Keble’s jealousy certainly shows something. I think naturally in a relationship/friendship as long as theirs, jealousy will arise if one is pulled away by someone else. It also could be that Miss Keble herself is homosexual, but they have never had sex. After all, most of the times we explore their intimacy, it is from Miss Keble’s point of view. Miss Cotell is always focused on Cecilia and the past.

  25. Myrna says:

    Thanks for your insights, Trevor. I agree that the relationship between the two women was a longstanding intimate friendship. Especially since Miss Cotell was not dreaming at night about Miss Keble, who was asleep in her separate room.
    Btw, I did not find the father/daughter relationship creepy; nor did I make a connection with Lolita. I thought more about Soames Forsyte and the unconditional love he felt for his daughter- that was the relationship that endured.

  26. Rosalind Kurzer says:

    The comments confirmed some of my observations of the vision of reality that is Trevor’s story. Is life all about power and control and what we assume to be real for us? Complicated stuff.

  27. Trevor says:

    You do bring up a good point, Roslind, about this story being about power and control and what we assume to be real for us. But one thing I keep coming back to is how, in my view, these characters genuinely love each other. It’s easy to look at power and control in an abusive relationship, but this story shows it in loving relationships. Certainly all of us experience this, even with those we love the most and for whom we’d do anything. I love how this story becomes more complicated by going that route. I guess that’s one reason I haven’t been able to see the more sinister side that Betsy brought up.

  28. Ken says:

    I think that the people love each other also. I too don’t see the sinister tale that Betsy sees (as I’ve stated). I’m reading The Recognitions by William Gaddis now and since I have this neurotic thing about not reading short stories when I’m reading a novel (hence my long absences from this site), I’ll not be back until April.

  29. Betsy says:

    Hi Trevor, Myrna, Rosalind, and Ken – all the wonderful civility and the careful analysis in this continuing debate has me wishing I were ready to cry uncle! (But no!) Of course, Trevor, we owe that civility to you, who so consistently sets the bar so as to require orderly thinking and polite procedure. But I do yield this: although the tide of public opinion in this commentary is not going my way, it sure is a fascinating story. Here’s hoping there will be another Wm Trevor story in the pipeline, and more debate. The close look is a lot of fun. And Ken – hope to see you in April.

  30. Still puzzling... says:

    I’m still a bit mystified about some aspects… the ages of the women being 55 and Cecilia’s age being about 15 seems to indicate Cotell had the baby at age 40… which seems to indicate that the failed marriage lasted quite a long time…?

    Who is Cecilia’s mother? We are told in the text p. 64 that “No child was born; they’d hoped one would be. As best they could they had made up for that, but what had been was over… A taxi drove away. He watched it go alone but for a child who by chance belonging nowhere, now belonged to him.”

    So if Cecilia wasn’t born to Normanton and Cotell, was she in fact purchased by them from the mysterious Father Humphrey?

    Or is it possible that Cotell gave birth to the child, which had been fathered by her lover, Broughton? And then for some reason decided to give the child up to Father Humphrey to pass on to Normanton?

    This seems unlikely as we get the idea that the dour spinster Miss Keble would hardly befriend a slattern woman who would do such a scandalous thing.

    Normally I love William Trevor’s work and enjoy trying to figure it all out, sort of the same way I do after reading an Alice Munro short story, another master of the genre.

    But this particular story just doesn’t really seem to add up and I can’t suspend disbelief and find emotional truth in it with all these loose ends hanging out of the plot and the main characters also being slightly two-dimensional.

    I feel as if I’ve been tricked or lied to.

    I guess what I do take away from the story is that the whole idea of “jeu blanc”= “love” = “null game” is our hint that the father, Normanton, isn’t really capable of real love or real truth with real women.

    His financially generous but emotionally turgid, artificial relationship with his daughter is just another example of this inability.

    His daughter Cecilia has her own tendency towards acting, loves going to France, and enjoys dressing up in fancy clothes… is she going to be a chip off the old block?

  31. Trevor says:

    Still puzzling, I get the sense you haven’t read the above comments as many of these issues have already been discussed. For example, I don’t think — and I think most people agree — that there was ever any kind of relationship between Miss Cotell and Mr Normanton. Miss Cotell — if she’s to be believed — did have Cecilia at around age 40 (but we’ve already discussed that this leads to some important ambiguities, since the story ends with Cecilia choosing to latch on to whatever ambiguities she can so she can deny that Miss Cotell is really her mother).

    I’m a bit surprised you think Miss Keble wouldn’t be friends with Miss Cotell given Miss Cotell’s affair. They were already very good friends, and Miss Keble helped her through the pregnancy and placing the child in Mr Normanton’s care via Father Humphrey. Certainly Miss Keble is conflicted and perhaps a bit jealous, but the love is still there.

  32. Dante says:

    I’ve been haunted by this story since I read it last week, and re-read it, and read it again. The thoughtful readings and comments above are so gratifying. “The Women” has all the classic Trevor creepiness, the ambiguity, the secrecy, the unknowable motivations, the imbalance of power. The big issue this story raises for me is how we take what we think need from our relationships–regardless of the cost to the other person. As the father of a daughter I was horrified to recognize myself in Normanton: I love my daughter so much that it feels selfish. “During all your life as I have known it . . . you have made up for what went wrong in mine.” Can there be a more chilling declaration of love?

  33. Trevor says:

    Dante, a fantastic insight. Thanks for sharing. I have three boys but didn’t make the connection. I see it now.

  34. Still puzzling... says:

    Yes, you are quite right about Normanton and Cotell not knowing one another, I realized that in the middle of the night!

    Upon further reflection, the point of the story is really Cecilia’s apparent decision to cast her fate with Normanton and deliberately turn her back on her birth mother… A small tragedy, perhaps, but a realistic one… Lots of folks choose never to have any relationship with their biological parents and devote themselves only to their adoptive parents…

    I don’t know, I just don’t find Trevor’s depiction of either Cecilia or Normanton quite convincing… Cecilia is just too innocent and unknowing to be believable, and Normanton is just too shallow… He’s all about fancy clothes and putting on a facade of sophistication.

    I found Cotell and Keble a little more believable, but the story was not really told from their viewpoint so it didn’t really help matters…

  35. Sapeur says:

    Having read the story a few times now I think I am comfortable with the basic story arc which combines many aspects of the comments above. I love the way it revealed itself to me with careful re-reading and how the unknowns continue to provoke thought as the days pass.

    One thing that hasn’t been commented on, at least from what I read, is the choice of literary references William Trevor has chosen to attach to characters in the story, which add depth to each and to the piece as a whole. “The Moon and Sixpence”, “The Constant Nymph”, “Dr Bradley Remembers”(?); that Cecilia plays Thisbe with that as just a start of her future in ill-fated love (or a reflection of the past ones of others).

    You know that with Trevor each word was carefully chosen. Wondering why, is what makes his stories so entertaining to read.

    I have to agree with Betsy’s take on overall editorial decision making that seems to have gone on with this issue. The NYR is always a starting point for thought and exploration, but this one very much so, right from the cover onwards.

    One other little addition for fans of William Trevor: I have gone back and listened to this BBC interview with him a few times over the years, if you haven’t heard it, you may enjoy what it reveals about his take on the craft of the short story. Quirkily, it seems now, the audio is a Real Audio .ram file.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/johntusainterview/trevor_transcript.shtml

  36. Charles J. Shields says:

    Each word in the story was so freighted with meaning that I almost had to use my finger as I read. And the comments posted reveal even more meanings!

    In any case, I think in this story there are two fantasies— one definite, the other doubtful— that have spawned a third. Cecelia’s father has nurtured a fantasy for most of her life: that her mother (who many not have been her mother), left for another man. Two peculiar biddies are convinced (they may be fantasizing as lonely ladies) that Cecelia belongs to one of them. Cecelia, moving into adulthood, comes to understand that adults prefer fantasies when it comes to painful matters. And so she will do nothing to destroy this web of pretend that is about her.

    Good training for an actress. You can say anything and act like it’s so.

  37. bww says:

    Jeu blanc (tennis) does not mean there was no score. It means a one-sided game. where the server made all the points and the receiver made no points.

  38. avataram says:

    This story was selected as one of the best short stories of last year and included in the O Henry Prize Anthology 2014. So was Tessa Hadley’s “Valentine” also discussed in the New Yorker.

    http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-o-henry-prize-anthology-2014-winners-20140505-story.html

  39. avataram says:

    Sorry – Tessa Hadley’s “Valentine” was also published in the New Yorker and discussed in Mookse..

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