Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Elizabeth Alone

Elizabeth Alone - William Trevor

William Trevor's Elizabeth Alone is not a novel that I had heard of. In fact, there are a number of Trevor novels I haven't heard of. Although many people have praised him to me, and I've read positive press, there are only a few titles that I've retained. These include the two I've read Two Lives and Felicia's Journey, both of which I enjoyed immensely. And his great short story The Ballroom of Romance.  I don't know why this is. Maybe I just wasn't paying attention.

Anyway, I will be filling in more of these gaps in the coming years. Elizabeth Alone tasted like more, with a large cast of characters, a vivid sense of place and things alongside some breathtakingly good passages of panoramic writing. And then there are the sort of observations that make Trevor such a great short story writer. "He put his arm around her shoulders. It was a gesture he often found himself making now, ever since he'd been cited in the divorce case, a gesture to show that they were friends again, to show that Daphne had forgiven him."

Elizabeth Aidalberry is a divorced woman in her early forties with three daughters and few friends. She has to go into hospital for a hysterectomy. The cast includes the women with whom she shares a ward,  the boyfriend of one, the husband of another and the residents of a "church" lodging house owned by another; doctors; nurses; Henry, a childhood friend of Elizabeths, also divorced, who is in love with her, and others.

Although spending a lot of time with broken and lonely people this is more tragicomic the tragic, with plenty of laughter falling from the pages. Many of the characters, particularly Henry, are stuck in their childhood. Adult life seems crummy to him. ("He sat with a third of the Haig bottle left. The last time anything had been any good was an afternoon at Radley when he'd scored ninety-three not out in the second innings.") He has had a series of dead end jobs, made even more dead by his alcoholism.

He has many problems, and one solution. "Gloomily, he enetered the public house. 'Large gin and tonic,' he said. Everything was going fine, everything was ready for turning over a whole new leaf, and suddenly you were a figure of ridicule, driving around London at forty-one years of age with a fish on top of your car."

However, as with the other characters here, Trevor makes the reader feel the pain of the characters and empathize with them through the laughter. The happy go lucky child that Henry once was still waits  for life to resume, losing more hope at each setback.

Elizabeth herself is not really settled as an adult and her marriage seems to have involved a series of renunciations of the people and practices that were important to her. Her music and painting teachers, an eye for beauty, and natural sympathy for the weak. Her old teachers still haunt her dreams - "There was a piano in the St Beatrice Ward and and Miss Digg was there, sitting by the table with roses on it. 'You'd be much better off doing some practising,' Miss Digg said, 'instead of taking other women's husbands off on dirty weekends. Sex, sex, sex, Elizabeth: you should be ashamed of yourself."

Marriages aren't any refuge from disappointment - Elizabeths marriage was a disappointment, or worse: "she'd hated his hands the first time he'd touched her body with them, she'd hated them ever since, those awful fingernails. His voice wasn't beautiful; his voice was like dust." We have an overview of other relationships and can see betrayals that are sometimes unseen but often intuited anyway. Compromise is the order of the day. Elizabeth's mother, who went to a home so that she wouldn't be in the way considers Elizabeth's case and her own.  "In the dining room the old women found there places and carefully seated themselves. You always had faith in marriage even after it had let you down. You tried again if you could, she'd have tried again herself. No one really wanted to be alone."

The tension between loneliness and compromise, the short distance from compromise to failure.

Others don't put their trust in marriage, but in God. Miss Samson inherited her boarding house from Mr Ibbs, and also her faith. Her fellow tenants see her as saintly, and she sees Mr Ibbs as saintly, a view which will be challenged by a discovery in his final diary. Her dreams are rich with religious imagery. "'I knew by an interior light that I must die,' Mr Ibbs said, 'and as soon as I knew I made arrangements for Miss Samson to take over Number Nine. 'Pass down my precious stigmata to the inmates,' He said. 'To all except Miss Samson, who received them at birth. Let it be a miraculous thing,' He said, 'that you have returned with the holy marks to Nine Balaclava Avenue, Mr Ibbs. Let it be a sign of my love for my people.'"

Indeed the book is filled with vivid dreams, particularly after the women have had their operations. "Animals entered the St Beatrice Ward, dogs and cats and coloured birds in cages. Fictional people came, from Coronation Street and Waggoners' Walk, from the Morcambe and Wise show and Dad's Army. A nameless man, encountering(sic) in a zoo thirty-five years ago and since forgotten, enacted the main part in the fantasy of a Mrs Treen. Two beds away a horse whinnied, by the door a snake uncurled itself. Men in white aprons loaded a Pickford's van with furniture. The Eurovision Song Contest took place."

The book also describes the distances that can arise between generations. Elizabeth's eldest daughter leaves home to join a commune with her lover Samuel. Her worries are amplified by societal fears. "You heard of things like that all the time now, there were programmes on television and articles in the colour supplements. The Yes Generation they were called. They started with cannabis and then they went on to LSD, they didn't care when they caught venereal disease, they lived on national assistance, they got sick and died. Savaged by heroin, Mt Feuchtwanger in her dream had said."

Lily Drucker, who is being kept in hospital to ensure she doesn't lose her baby, having lost many before, has a husband who is dominated by his parents, and their expectations and judgements. This is always threatening to come to a head and it does. "'I don't like either of you,' he shouted at them. 'I've never liked you' he shouted. 'With your jam-rolls and your television and your bloody sewing-machines. I don't like Lincoln Creams, I don't like Ovaltine, I hate this house.'"

There seems to be a overwhelming dictatorship of things, slightly grubby and disappointing things, advertised and branded and habitual things, defining people and confining people. Brand names and advertising copy ties the book to early seventies Britain; the import of some of this will be lost across distance and time, but it is effectively used.

But it is the switch between the individual viewpoint and the kaleidoscopic and between grubby reality and the yearning of dreams that will stay with me most strongly. At times I was reminded of Muriel Spark and JG Ballard. "And then in her dream it happened that Lily's baby was not born alive, and that Miss Samson wandered the shore at Bexhill-on-Sea, seeking and not finding her God, and that Sylvie never again laid eyes on Declan. The world was a wilderness, her own voice said in her dream, in which these things happened to other people every day, in which a man might die in a drunken misadventure, in which she herself might wish herself dead also. No other voice spoke in her dream, not Mr Feuchtwanger's nor Mr Apple's nor her mother's. There was only silence then."

This is a book about compassion, about listening to brittle whispers from the dreams of others and studying the veins in a wildflower's petal. A balancing act which invites us to laugh at its characters while showing us their dignity.  It is also a book about recuperation, about convalescence, and the things that can make the days bearable. All of us are fragile when the spin cycle starts. "In The Times a correspondence raged about the damage laundries inflicted on shirt-buttons. She quite looked forward to that each day."


  1. Oh, I can see why you flagged this one up, Seamus, as it sounds just my type of thing. Great review. I like what you say about compassion and the balance between humour and heartache. It's funny because I've enjoyed some of William Trevor's short stories, but his novels seem to have passed me by. Must remedy that at some point.

    1. Yes, I have a few more Trevor novels on my shelves which I must get to. I have a long term goal of reading them all but I'd better get down to it if I'm going to achieve that. I also intend doing something on his short stories. Plans, plans, plans...