Quantcast

William Trevor: “An Idyll in Winter”

Trevor and Betsy discuss:

Trevor

Our post on William Trevor’s “The Women” (here) has become one of the most viewed posts on this site. It is the top post for the past six months, though it’s been up for only a few weeks of those months. It is an exceptional story that delves into many mysteries. In that post, I said I didn’t think Trevor had published anything since late 2008. This was wrong on one front, obviously, since in 2009 he published his novel Love and Summer. I didn’t think much of this error since I was primarily talking about his short stories. But I was wrong there too. The other day I was browsing for anything I could find on Trevor and found that on November 7, 2011, he published a piece in The Guardian (you can click here to read the entire piece — you really should). I printed it out properly and started reading it immediately. If, like me, you missed it, I suggest you do the same thing. Due to the interest in “The Women,” I hope there are plenty of you out there who find this to be excellent news.

I must admit, I wondered how good this story would be. It is my understanding that The New Yorker has a right of first refusal when it comes to Trevor’s stories (if you can find a solid source for this rumor, please let me know). Not that that magazine always gets only the best. They also have a right of first refusal with Alice Munro, but several of her best stories have been published elsewhere. Still, it made me wonder if this was passed over, and if not, if The New Yorker and William Trevor ignored their relationship so he could publish a piece in The Guardian, not known for its fiction. Perhaps it would be a slight piece, something produced for fun. Whatever the case, “An Idyll in Winter” is another masterful work. I have read it a few times since I found it, and in writing this post, in selecting passages, I found it still hit me just as hard, if not harder.

 

“An Idyll in Winter” is a kind of love story that is forced to deal with enemies of love: time and imagination. Our lovers are Anthony and Mary Bella. The story begins when Mary Bella is twelve. She’s trying to stay up late because her new summer tutor is arriving at their isolated house on the Yorkshire moors. His train is delayed, she falls asleep, but soon the summer begins and her relationship with Anthony, who is twenty-two.

Mary Bella is enraptured by the stories, and, fittingly, they take walks out on the moors where her young love develops, and we know it will never die. But this idyll — as with all idylls — soon ends, though “[h]e said it never would, because remembering wouldn’t let it.” For his part, Anthony doesn’t seem to take advantage:

And that summer, which was warm, with hardly any rain, she developed a fondness for Anthony that he could not dismiss or pretend he didn’t notice and which, when September came, caused him more unease than he admitted to himself.

But is he feeling uneasy because of her love for him? Or is it that, with September, he must leave this twelve-year-old girl who has linked him to the growing world he’s introduced her to. In the next passage, we learn a lot about Anthony’s character.

He left what he thought would be impossible to forget — the sadness Mary Bella had spoken of, and something like desperation in her eyes when the last day came and they said good-bye to one another. But Anthony did forget. He made himself, considering it better that he should.

He makes himself forget. Somehow, he’s able. And this is followed by a short, lovely section that shows us the wonderful life Anthony goes on to live. He becomes a successful cartographer and marries the lovely Nicola. They have two daughters, and Anthony doesn’t like to leave them for his assignments.

Neither wondered how married life might have been if they had married other people, how different their children would be. It was enough to know that being married to one another was what they wanted, that neither wanted more.

Twelve years pass, and during this time Mary Bella’s parents die and she takes over the home. She does not forget: “She knew she was living in the past, that it would always be here, around her, that she was part of it herself.”

One day, Anthony’s job takes him back to the Yorkshire moors. He decides to wander a bit, allowing himself to remember pieces of that summer twelve years earlier. He finds the old house, sure that Mary Bella must have left by now. They meet and he stays longer than he’d planned.

The remainder of this post is loaded with spoilers. It’s difficult to discuss the themes of this story if they are not revealed. Consider yourself warned.

Anthony and Mary Bella begin an affair, and it’s as if the twelve years they spent apart never happened, as if it was some kind of dream: “Someone else, not he, had lived his other life: that fantasy, in silence, was shared.” At first, Anthony wonders what has happened. How is he now able to disregard the family he loved so much?

Anthony hadn’t made it happen. It had happened because it was part of something else, of what had been impossible and now was not. He told himself that, but it made no difference. He tried to push it all away, to deny that time, only by passing, could contradict so easily and so naturally, but he found he couldn’t.

Mary Bella, as much as she loves Anthony, as much as she wants him there, cannot help but imagine the lives he left to be with her. He doesn’t tell her much about his wife or his children, “[y]et out of so little, images came, and voices spoke.” The easiest thing for Anthony, though, is to do what he did the first time: forget.

But in all this Anthony’s instinct was as it always was: not ever to allow in himself the kind of tribulation that haunted Mary Bella. His way was to suppress, to conceal, to be protected.

They are happy as winter comes and their lives become one. Cutting out periods of time, though, is not as easy as Anthony would like to think.

When he left Mary Bella the first time, the summer they shared felt like a dream. Then, when he comes back, his time with his wife felt like a dream, like the part of life that didn’t quite fit and could be forgotten. Of course, the title of the story gives it away. This time with Mary Bella will also become an idyll, a period of time that feels disconnected from whatever “reality” Anthony begins when he leaves again. He will, again, simply try to forget; Mary Bella will continue to remember.

Betsy

Many thanks to you, Trevor, for discovering Wm Trevor’s “An Idyll in Winter.” What a wonderful read! Like you, I enjoyed reading it very much. I want to add to your commentary.

Economy has to be the short story writer’s staff and stave. Here, I note the way Wm Trevor creates an observer in the trusted servant of the Grange, Woods.  The name alone suggests “many” and “omnipresent,” though quiet — like the rest of the world, like the reader. The reader is reminded by his presence — what is Woods thinking? We don’t know, of course, but we can imagine. We are reminded that even if they are quiet about it, people are watching Anthony and Mary Bella; society is watching.

Another little structural note has to do with Anthony’s thinking about the Grange. “Inaccurate clocks were everywhere.” With that, and with all the references to Bronte and Heathcliff, I think the author is pointing us to something askew in the timing of this story — i.e., not just that this is a 19th century idyll taking place in the 21st, but also that the young male tutor had been tempted by a 12 year old girl. (Of course, he resisted.) He says, years later, after he has returned, “. . . too much had colored too many moments since they had walked again on the moors, since in the kitchen afterwards she had made tea, since in their schoolroom he had wanted her.”

“Since.” Does the author mean since as in earlier in the day? As in “when”? Or does he mean since as in because . . . meaning that extra color was there because he had wanted her even when she was a child in the schoolroom? I think  both — all.

I do think the Irish pedophile crisis colors such a story. Anthony is not a pedophile. But he has the “double self” of a pedophile, and the ability to conceal the truth from himself. I think Trevor lures us into this lovely idyll and makes us want, want, want this union, just as Anthony does. But he points out — the “woods” are watching — as if the world, or even, nature — is asking us — what do we see?

In a way, the story reminds me of the way Juliet and Romeo perish. Mary Bella’s parents are not in their right minds when they hire this young man and leave the child alone with him for hours and days on end, just as Juliet’s parents were not in their right minds when they entrusted their daughter to the nurse and the priest. It is not Anthony so much who was at first at fault, but the people who hired him and then abdicated their duty to him. And look at Mary Bella’s parents’ reasoning — to get her into Evelyncourt. (There’s a discussion in that name — court, class, Eve, temptation — what else?)

But in the end, what we see, in fact, is that Anthony is a man who, no matter that he resisted seducing the child (although he did, so to speak) has now committed a very different sin — the betrayal of his family — which of course we take very lightly nowadays . . . another way the clocks are all out of whack.

Anorexia overtakes the oldest daughter — but it is clear that it is not the disease so much as the betrayal that is killing the girl. There is such a huge debate about the seeds of anorexia. But it is interesting that it is in England where a common sense philosophy regarding anorexia appeared — that you should eat with your anorexic (and not relinquish her to the hospital.) What Wm Trevor is suggesting, I think, is that it is unnatural for a parent to abandon their child. And the English ideal treatment for anorexia blames no one, but makes the parents the center of the treatment, in their home, thus strengthening and validating the family (where Americans have been somewhat dedicated to hospitalization). And to decide you are going to eat with your anorexic is no light decision — it can take every minute of the day, at first, as Laura Collins, “American author of Eating with Your Anorexic “ could tell you.

Hannah Arendt talked to us about the banality of evil, and how easy it is for us to fall in with it. I think Wm Trevor does as well, showing us, as he does, how casually Anthony can abandon his family, see his daughter dying, and convince himself that  “that would pass.”

We want to believe it, too. That it would be that easy. It takes Mary Bella to convince him  otherwise. But, in fact, this idyll in winter is so alluring, having as it does every beautiful fantasy — servants, vast tracts of land, horses, and primroses, not to mention the living in the past — that we fall in with it, too, seduced bystanders. But not Mary Bella.

16 thoughts on “William Trevor: “An Idyll in Winter””

  1. Trevor says:

    Folks, I’m thrilled to update this post to include Betsy’s thoughts.

    Betsy, thanks for sharing! I loved this story and am so glad you read it and loved it too (and that I now have your thoughts : ) ).

    I found it so strange in the middle of the story because I didn’t really know what relationship I wanted. In the end, I actually wanted each woman to be rid of Anthony, a viewpoint I’ve stuck to since. We learn early on that, though he can rouse the feelings in Mary Bella, he was not a particularly successful student, that he is passing by. I get the sense that it is he who benefits from Mary Bella’s imagination and not that he is anything other than a messenger to get Mary Bella’s imagination going. It could be that he leaves his wife and children that really gets to me (as it should, of course), but it’s sad to think that he’s doing the same to Mary Bella. He’s forgotten her once and he’s going to force himself to do it again. I wonder if his wife takes him back. Maybe for the sake of the children.

    I also loved all of the ways this story makes us feel like we’re in the nineteenth century; thanks for making a few references to that, and especially for discussing how time is out of whack. I really think that a large theme here is how time, just its passage, can rework our lives so much and we can either live in the past (Mary Bella) or in the present (Anthony).

    I’m hoping I get the chance to read this one out loud to my wife in the next few days. I always get so much more from Trevor’s stories when I read them out loud.

  2. Sapeur says:

    Try reading the story with Mary Bella as Anthony’s daughter.

  3. Sapeur says:

    Try and then give up. I’d so much wanted this story to be more than it appeared to be. Unfortunately I don’t think it is.

    I tried to make Anthony’s lover be Mary Bella’s mother, it almost works and would be so much better if it did.

  4. Betsy says:

    Trevor, I think that point you make about Anthony’s poor performance in school is really important. That kind of situation can seduce one into thinking that being hero-worshipped by a student is what one was born for. I agree that this colors the whole story, and that the issue of M B’s imagination is key.

    Reading aloud! Now there’s a time travel worth making! I miss that in this world!

    About ten years ago I met a man in a meditation class who said that he had spent the first year of his retirement reading William Trevor. But I never thought to ask if he was reading him aloud …

  5. Trevor says:

    Sapeur, I stopped to think about your first comment and was slightly baffled, wondering if I’d missed something, so I had a chuckle when I got to your “try and then give up.” :)

    I have to respond to your second comment, though. I will when I get a few moments.

  6. Trevor says:

    I’m back! So, Sapeur, first off, thanks for coming back after commenting on “The Women.” It’s nice to see you again.

    I’m intrigued by your second comment here and would love it if you’d expand it a bit. For me, there is a whole world going on in this story, and each time I take another look at it I find more. Now, I wonder why you’d try to read that Anthony’s lover was the mother and why that would make the story better. For my part, I don’t think it would, not because such a story couldn’t be great or couldn’t be better than this one but because then all of the themes here — the reallignment of the clock, the banality of evil (as Betsy mentions), the young, living in the past and living in the future, etc. — would go away.

  7. RS says:

    I agree with Trevor that imagination plays a big role in this piece. It is, after all those years, Anthony’s longing that brings Mary Bella and he back together again. Our narrator is unreliable — he tell us that Anthony forgets, but can we really believe this, given how “often” Nicola has urged him to tell his family about Old Grange?

    We can ourselves imagine what these recollections must be like. What might Anthony invent, or better yet, omit? The banality of evil, as Betsy has pointed out, is everywhere in this story, but it perhaps begins with the human heart and is made possible by imagination. It can be justified at the expense of so much.

    We are told that “it was not sentiment that brought Anthony back to the Yorkshire moors,” but mere “chance,” “his profession,” which stirs an impulse in Anthony — here is the whiff of possibility that makes his imagination real. I wonder, can we really believe if Anthony is there by chance?

    In any case, this a fine story by William Trevor. Sometimes, though, I found the dialogue too contrived: “How good this summer is too!” “How blurred the edges are: what we can do, what in the end we can’t. What nags, what doesn’t.” “There’s nothing to be observed. Nothing mysterious to be discovered. Nothing that isn’t known.”

  8. RS says:

    Also, interestingly enough, after leaving university William Trevor went on to teach a young “backward” child in the country. From an interview in the Paris Review (The Art of Fiction No. 108):

    “Eventually I found an advertisement in a newspaper that said someone’s child needed to be taught. “Would suit a nun” it suggested at the end of it, which was interesting, and I actually got that job. So I used to leave Dublin every day on the bus, go about twenty-five miles into the country, and teach this rather backward child. Her mother brought in the neighbor’s children, and a little academy was formed.”

  9. Trevor says:

    I need to reread the story — again — RS, because I can’t remember Nicola asking Anthony about the family at Old Grange and I get the sense that Anthony is the type to forget. I think I believe the narrator in this case, though of course Anthony doesn’t fully forget so much as repress, live in the present by ignoring the past, just as he tried to do when he moved in with Mary Bella. Anthony lives from idyll to idyll, always thinking he’s found what’s real but letting it pass into a dream he will do his best to forget.

    Very interesting insight into William Trevor’s own experience teaching a “backward” child in the country. Thanks for pointing that out!

  10. Charles May says:

    Thanks, Trevor, for calling attention to this story, which I had not seen, but which I have just read, with my usual admiration for William Trevor.

    I have also read the other comments here on the story and am struck by two kinds of responses that, in my own humble opinion, indicate a misunderstanding of the short story in general and Trevor’s story in particular.

    I think too often folks read short stories as if they were reading chapters in a novel and thus either analyze the characters as if they were real people with backgrounds outside the story or else try to “solve” the mysteries of the story by applying a social or psychological category.

    This approach ignores the “style” of the story, it seems to me, the “tone,” the language, the literary tradition within which the story belongs. I don’t know if you have read the story aloud to someone else (something I often do), but if you do, I think you will hear a tone that has little to do with realistic characters or social categories.

    I am reading the story again and will post something about the issue I think it raises on my own blog soon, with examples of other stories which readers respond to as if they were social or realistic sections of a novel.

  11. Trevor says:

    Thanks for your comment, Charles. For those who don’t know you, I’d recommend they click on your name and see your work. And I look forward to reading your post on this!

  12. Betsy says:

    It’s so very nice to meet you, Charles, and to get to know your blog.

    Well! Two kinds of misunderstanding of the short story exemplified in our discussion! There’s enough in that opener to keep one thinking for quite a while. But I would agree, readers come in all steps and stages.

    You caution the reader not to ignore the style and tone of a short story, nor the tradition to which the story belongs. I’d love to hear more about that – especially how you see the tradition of which Trevor sees himself to be a part.

    Or, I am curious, too, about how Trevor achieves a particular tone and makes that be in service to his ends – or if in fact, for him, the tone is an end in itself (as it seems to be in Munro, for one).

    I do agree, to see a story through one lens only, say, as merely a discussion of social class (say, as in “The Women”) is to miss the complexity of Trevor’s mind.

    I would suggest that readers bring to a story responses that come in steps & stages – that one deals with a story in layers, and that it is quite difficult to deal with a complex story in toto the first time out. Not just difficult, but actually a necessity: it’s necessary to respond in steps and stages. If the story’s worth it’s salt, it should come at you in waves, so to speak. Well, and the reader’s understanding of the genre – that, too, has to emerge over time.

    But I look forward very much to reading your post on your blog and hope to hear you here as well..

  13. Betsy says:

    Charles – I hope you’re still with us – ,
    I want to recommend to everyone your rich analysis of “An Idyll in Winter” which you have posted on your blog. (Charles May). It would be great, actually, if you wrote here and provided the link.

    I found your historical perspective wonderfully helpful, as you link and explicate connections between Tennyson and Trevor. This background is extremely helpful to the casual reader(me). Most of us do not have this background, and it’s great to read your work. A privilege.

    I politely quarrel, though, (hopefully politely) with your impatience with people who link stories to the contemporary world. Somehow, each of us is a groundling as well as a serious reader. In addition, one has to proceed in steps. Trevor doesn’t use or choose anorexia for no reason – it has currency these days, and one reason it has currency is because its cause is unsolved; it is mysterious in origin. I think he chose this behavior with that mystery in mind, and it is legitimate to react to it.

    And briefly, speaking as a groundling, it looks like Trevor constructs his stories to be accessible to both the trained student of literature and the casual reader. Obviously, I am not arguing for a shallow approach, but I am arguing for the legitimacy of a variety of reactions.

    I took note of your balanced discussion of pedophilia and this Trevor story; I recommend it. I can appreciate your distaste for explication that gets stuck on such a topic, but at the same time, I think if there is a resonance between the story and the topic, therein lies a legitimate discussion. I’m not a fan of seeing all literature through a feminist lens, although I am a woman. Nor am I a fan of seeing all literature through a “class” lens. But sometimes particular social issues are worth discussing. College students want to discuss these issues, because for one thing, these issues are in the middle of being revelations to us all. Of course the short story has a life of its own that is bounded by its borders. But it was William Trevor who set before us a story of a man who fell in love with a student.

    At the same time, I love knowing this new information about Tennyson et al and of course see its importance – especially in regard to hopeless love.

    I also found your discussion of the two other stories to shed light on this one. So I hope you will comment here in order to provide a link to the page on your blog on these topics.

  14. Trevor says:

    Here is a link to Charles May’s post on “An Idyll in Winter.”

    I find myself somewhere in the middle here, though perhaps mostly on the side of Betsy. I say that having learned an awful lot from Charles May over the past few months since I’ve discovered his blog and his work with the short story. I have found his insights invaluable as they’ve opened up the short story for me and have given voice to some things I’ve tried to voice here before.

    What I mean by “in the middle,” though, is that I completely agree with May’s reading of the story but, in a way, found it a bit reductive itself, focused as it was on structure and on the story’s literary heritage. I may be misreading that response or the story itself, but I felt the story was much more than that. However, I sympathize completely with the frustration when readers interpret a story against itself, ignoring structure to focus on “issues,” or, particularly, igorning the story itself to focus on issues it could have dealt with.

  15. Charles May says:

    I am sorry, Trevor, that you found my reading of “An Idyll in Winter” “reductive.” That is just the opposite of my intention, which was to respond to the complexity of the story’s exploration of one of the great themes of the world’s literature–romantic love; I am not sure you can get much “more than that.” My understanding of a “reductive” reading is the reduction of the complexity of the story as an art work to the simplicity of the story as a social message.

  16. Trevor says:

    My understanding of a “reductive” reading is the reduction of the complexity of the story as an art work to the simplicity of the story as a social message.

    Nicely put. I guess what I mean is that for me the story is about romantic love but, in a way (and maybe I’m being wilfully biased here), I felt the story used romantic love to examine the passage of time and our perceptions of time, particularly in response to emotionally charged events. I may be working at this from the wrong end of the telescope, though, as I can see it could be the exact opposite, i.e., that time and our perspective of time is being used to examine romantic love.

    And I do want to sincerely apologize for suggesting your reading was “reductive.” That’s such and ugly — and often “reductive” (as it was here) — word, and it doesn’t convey how much I appreciated your considered, thoughtful, and insightful commentary on this piece.

Leave a Reply