Over the past few years I’ve developed a deep love for William Trevor’s short stories. Particularly this past month, regular visitors here have caught wind of this (and hopefully have sought him out if they did not already know his work). But until now, I had never read one of his novels, and he’s written many in his 84 years. I consider him primarily a short story writer, and he himself has said, “The short story is infinitely harder, but it’s infinitely more worthwhile” (here). Obviously, just because his short stories are, in his words, infinitely more worthwhile doesn’t mean that his novels are not incredibly worthwhile. Obviously. I was completely engrossed in Death in Summer (1998), shocked, as usual, at how much Trevor is able to put into even the smallest sentence, how completely he enters into his characters’ heads as we watch them suffer tragedies both large and small.
The first chapter of Death in Summer is a masterpiece in and of itself, and it goes on my shortlist of best first chapters in literature (off the top of my head I’d also place on this list James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Cormac McCarthy’s The Outer Dark — any other ideas?). In this chapter Trevor introduces multiple characters through their individual perspectives, various themes, and even a few different timelines, all to develop the beginnings of a haunting book.
The book begins in the immediate aftermath of a funeral.
All that is over now, and yet is coldly there in the first moment of waking every day: the coffin, the flowers laid out, the bright white surplice of the clergyman, dust to dust, and that seeming an insensitive expression at the time.
Thaddeus’s kind wife Letitia was struck by a car, leaving him, after six years of marriage, alone with their six-month-old daughter, Georgina. He is thinking of their last moments together (as are, in another room, his two servants, Maidment and Zenobia). They’d managed to have a bit of a fight, if it could be called that. When he was a younger, single man, Thaddeus had a fling with a married woman. It’s been nearly twenty years, and suddenly she came back into his life. She sent a letter asking for some money, any, as she was sick and alone. He wanted to ignore it, but Letitia found it and said that she thought he should (she didn’t know any details about the affair). He told her he would, a bit baffled by her.
He wondered if the nature of the relationship had crossed Letitia’s mind, if even for a passing moment it has occurred to her that the woman she wished to see assisted had been his associate in passionate intimacy, that they had deceived a decent man, carelessly gratifying desire.
The only reason Thaddeus has any money, after all, is because he married Letitia. The heir of the great Quincunx House, Thaddeus was a few generations removed from any real wealth that could keep the house from decline, so it was fortuitous indeed that he met Letitia one day on the train. She might have known that this was why he was really interested in her, but she entered marriage committed to making it real. She was kind, loving, caring, and in every way wonderful to him. After her death, we get this:
It was his considerable loss, Thaddeus was every day aware, that he did not love his wife.
But with her gone, what’s now to be done, particularly with the child? Letitia’s mother, Mrs Iveson, has a plan. She will help him to get an advertisement out and then to interview any potential nannies. Unfortunately, none of the three who show up to be interviewed are up to their standards, especially not the last one to come, Pettie, who smells of cigarette smoke and has obviously drafted her own references. It’s bad news, but Mrs Iveson, who knows why her daughter married this strange, quiet man, says she will stay to help with Georgina.
Miraculously, things settle down and this seems to be a great fit. Mrs Iveson and Thaddeus even begin to admire each other. But they are still dealing with their own grief, and Mrs Iveson writes the strangest thing to a friend:
Bereavement brings the truth out, Mrs Iveson wrote ten days ago to a longtime friend in Sussex. Letitia’s innocence seems just a little remarkable now, and I wonder if the good are always innocent.
Whatever she meant by this, we soon become aware that Pettie, that last girl interviewed, has become attached to Thaddeus and is calling and hanging up. She finally gets the courage to speak and says she lost a ring that day, could she come look for it. Naturally, she despises Mrs Iveson, because obviously Thaddeus preferred her: “She wants to tell him what Letitia would, that the baby isn’t properly minded, that the baby isn’t safe.” Worse, she’s allowed her imagination to keep this going, and here’s something she imagines when she visits to look for her ring:
Sorrowing gets to you, he might have said, saying also that he shouldn’t have done that, that he got carried away. No, it’s all right, she had it in mind to reassure him. She knew, she understood.
This leads to a “second cruelty, drifting out of the summer blue, as the first did.”
To be honest, the plot here is actually very simple. The complexity comes with the multiple characters and the complexity of their feelings and thoughts as chance overtakes them and they have to wonder about whether defilement leaves a trace. And, of course, there is William Trevor’s exquisite atmospheric and insightful prose. Here is Thaddeus, who has sat up through a terrible night of anticipation with Mrs Iveson:
Thaddeus turns off the lamp on the table, and the conservatory is more softly lit by the haze of early morning. He does not want this day, so gently coming. He does not want its minutes and its hours, its afternoon and its evening, its relentless happening.