In “Memories of Youghal,” we again see William Trevor’s unusual facility with occupying multiple consciousnesses in a story. In this case, the focalized point of view moves from a Miss Ticher, on vacation in France and listening to a drunken man talk about his tragic childhood in County Cork, to her friend Miss Grimshaw, with whom she goes on these holidays once a year. Miss Grimshaw returns to their hotel from a walk on the beach to find her friend half-drunk and upset by Mr. Quilian’s stories—of his parents’ death and his subsequent neglect at the hands of his aunt and uncle. Mr. Quilian’s memories of Youghal—in concert with the noon-time aperitifs he is buying—bring long-suppressed emotions to the surface in Miss Ticher, and Miss Grimshaw has to work hard to avoid “the thoughts that were attempting to invade [her mind],” namely: what she and Miss Ticher have never experienced in their small, loveless lives.
The two women can be read as representing two aspects of the same consciousness, or perhaps, the two types of available responses to Mr. Quilian and the dangerous nostalgia he represents. (Signally, Mr. Quilian tells Miss Ticher he is a detective, at the hotel investigating a couple; the claim is ludicrous, but not strictly false—he is a kind of detective, trying to solve his own past.) Miss Ticher still has contact with her emotions, in particular regret. The stern and severe Miss Grimshaw simply wants the disheveled Mr. Quilian gone, out of the deck chair meant for her, a space he occupies in figurative and literal terms. The two women have established a delicate mode of mutual existence, and it cannot bear the presence of this interloper, who, in his wake, leaves Miss Ticher saying “how very cruel the world is”—and, of course, she really means how cruel the world has been to her and Miss Grimshaw.
Misses Ticher and Grimshaw are a Trevor type: loveless and childless old maids. They are employed by a girl’s school and plan to retire to the same cottage together. In a more modern story, one would probably infer some sort of lesbian undertone, but if it’s there, I found it undetectable. Still, they are life partners of a sort, brought together by their employment and the daunting problem of having become elderly without having become married.
Trevor is virtually unique, to my mind, in his interest in elderly characters; I cannot think of another writer who devotes more story space to the lives of the old—Alice Munro perhaps comes closest. Old characters are often overlooked in fictional narrative, narrative that usually profits from a surfeit of potential choices and actions. The lives of the old, in fiction as in life, are often if not always characterized by a lack of options. In Trevor’s fiction, this is an advantage—old characters most potently express his dominant theme of diminishment: diminishment in body and mind, diminishment in importance, diminishment in possibility. Young people, impoverished in whatever sense, are still wealthy in time, and can delude themselves as to some future happiness. The old cannot, and this acceptance—in the case of Miss Grimshaw, an acceptance of the truth accompanied by a blind resistance to her feelings about it—is at the heart of Trevor’s fiction.
Thanks for stopping by—next week, I’ll be discussing “The Table!”