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.
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.