The William Trevor Reader: “O Fat White Woman”

Realist fiction is an interesting proposition to consider. Hopefully it’s interesting, anyway, since it’s what I’m considering this week, vis-a-vis William Trevor’s “O Fat White Woman.” The strangely, Cheeveresquely named “O Fat White Woman” concerns a Mrs. Digby-Hunter, whose husband has founded a successful remedial preparatory school, a stately ivy-covered institution in which he and the other head, Mr. Beade, savagely beat the boys for their own pleasure, a ritual abuse from which one of the boys has suddenly died. Before we get to that, though, we get Mrs. Digby-Hunter, sunning herself on the British equivalent of an Adirondack chair, and a two-page précis of her life and the choices that have led her here. The writing in question is a marvel of stylish economy, a supremely elegant and effective example of psychological realist exposition, wherein the coal of three decades is compressed into a diamond of summarized existence. A few of the representative sentences that take us through Mrs. Digby-Hunter’s life:

Determined at all costs to make a success of her marriage and come up to scratch as a wife, she had pursued a policy of agreeableness: she smiled instead of making a fuss, in her easy-going way she accepted what there was to accept, placing her faith in her husband as she believed a good wife should.

In a bedroom of a Welsh hotel she had disguised, on her wedding night, her puzzled disappointment when her husband had abruptly left her side, having lain there for only a matter of minutes.

Just occasionally Mrs. Digby-Hunter wondered what life would have been like if she’d married someone else… She imagined, occasionally, being married to a clergyman she’d known as a girl, a man who had once embraced her with intense passion, suddenly, after a dance in a church hall.

But Milton Grange was where she belonged now: she had chosen a man and married him and had ended up, for better or worse, in a turreted house in Gloucestershire. There was give and take in marriage, as always she had known, and where she was concerned there was everything to be thankful for.

After reading the story, I found myself both satisfied by it—Mrs. Digby-Hunter’s biography, in particular—as a piece of realist fiction and wondering what it means to say that. It is commonplace to point out that realist fiction is not actually realistic. As a genre of writing, realism encodes a set of literary moves that we accept as “realistic”—that we accept as somehow faithfully representing “real life” on the page, but which is very unlike real life in its focus, its aesthetic rigor, its thematic coherence. Nonetheless, this kind of writing feels real or real adjacent—a human mind and life seem rendered on the page.

But are they? No, what is faithfully rendered is the adherence to realist tropes itself: the adamantine yet tenuous self-knowledge, the strategic blindspots, the sense of turning-points, the little mental catchphrases—no less than eight times during the story, Mrs. Digby-Hunter thinks about “coming up to scratch” as a wife; the story, in fact, ends on this phrase. These realist tics gesture at something true about real life: we do have incomplete self-knowledge, and we do—however incompletely and occasionally—tell a story about our lives. But real-life consciousness and memory are both more intent and more diffuse than what is rendered here.

The conventions of realism and the psychological realist narrator act, in all fiction but especially short fiction, as a kind of deft caricaturist, giving us a person in a few brushstrokes. Just a great cartoonist can suggest character, embodiment, action, and emotion with a few boxes and not much more than stick figures, so can a deft writer of realist fiction like William Trevor suggest life via extreme and exaggerated shorthand. For example, in real life, people mostly do not have internalized catchphrases—they do not repeat mantras like “coming up to scratch.” This is shorthand, shorthand for the very real experience of repetitive mental processes, for the feeling that one’s thoughts are on a hamster wheel. We recognize this helpless reiteration in Mrs. Digby-Hunter’s catchphrase, and we sense that it stands in for the kind of murky psychological swirl that would be more or less impossible to capture in a few pages. This holds true, I think for other features of the narration, for example and more generally, the cleanness of Mrs. Digby-Hunter’s remembered past, the little way stations of surrender that stack up to equal her present helplessness. Again, real life isn’t like that, isn’t really close to being that way—what this quick, neat sketch stands in for is our muddled sense of these turning points, a totality that would more realistically involve accumulated feeling, hesitancy, compromised decisions, regret and relief, and the further fuddling doubt that time brings. But you can’t do that in a story.

What’s fair to say about realist fiction, I think, is that, in large part, as veteran readers of realist fiction, what feels like successful narration in terms of “realism” is more accurately a successful enactment of the moves and the codes, the tricks and shorthands and smoke signals of the form. Writers and readers of psychological realism are like other experts in specialized and cloistered pursuits, like judges watching a gymnast on the uneven bars. We know the little moves, the extensions and symmetries and arabesques that constitute a successful performance of the form, the form having achieved a consensus on its aesthetics over centuries of effort and advancement; we know when the performer falls, or as Trevor does here, when they stick the landing.

Next up, “Raymond Bamber and Mrs. Fitch.”

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of two novels: The Grand Tour (Doubleday 2016) and The Hotel Neversink (2019 Tin House Books). His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, VICE, The Iowa Review, and many other places. His podcast, Fan’s Notes, is an ongoing discussion about books and basketball. Find him online at adamofallonprice.com and on Twitter at @AdamOPrice.

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