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, though I could have specified this better, I was talking about his short stories. Alas, 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. Whyever it ended up in The Guardian, though, “An Idyll in Winter” is another masterful work that deserves its place in the top tier of Trevor’s 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.
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.