The William Trevor Reader: “Mrs. Silly”

“Mrs. Silly” is top-shelf, archetypal Trevor, the kind of Trevor story you’d show someone who wants to know what all the fuss is about. (Laughing here, imagining there ever being any fuss about William Trevor.) The titular Mrs. Silly is the mother of the story’s protagonist, Michael, who is sent to Elton Grange boarding school at age twelve. Michael’s mother and father are long since divorced, and his father has remarried the posh (or posh-adjacent) Gillian, with whom he lives in a smart country house outside London. Michael’s mother is decidedly unposh, lives in a cramped and messy apartment in Hammersmith, and constantly upbraids herself for crying and talking too much: the nickname Mrs. Silly is self-applied.

Michael loves his mother but is ashamed of her when she visits him at boarding school: her fluffy hair that she wears under scarves, her cheap clothing, and her nervous talkativeness all mortify Michael in front of new friends and faculty. An initial embarrassing visit sets the stage for a second visit upon Michael’s graduation, when his mother makes a spectacle, first in a talkative fugue, then falling over and spilling tea all over herself. The story ends with Michael asking his father not stop at his mother’s cheap hostel to say goodbye; later, when his friends laugh about the woman that fell over, Michael pretends the strange, embarrassing woman was a distant aunt.

“Mrs. Silly” hits all the dominant Trevorian notes—pathos, shame, stuckness, the inexorable march of time—delivered with his characteristic effortless-seeming prose and close third-person narration. But I want to talk about is small choice by Trevor that does an awful lot of work in the story. When Mrs. Silly first visits her son, she prattles on about her life back in London and repeatedly references a woman named Peggy Urch, who recently moved into the flat above her. Over the course of her visit to Elton Grange, she tells people Peggy’s name over and again, so much so that it becomes a punchline, as well as a metaphor for Mrs. Silly’s lonely cluelessness: what is more boring than telling an acquaintance about a person they don’t know?

But after Michael’s mother’s visit, Michael goes home to stay with her for the holidays, where, and lo and behold, “Peggy Urch, the woman in the flat upstairs, often came down for a chat.” Peggy Urch has suddenly gone from a risible aspect of Mrs. Silly’s inept conversational style, to an actual person that Michael meets, who lives in the apartment overhead and visits frequently. This has two main effects: specific to this story, it shifts our perspective and sympathy to Michael’s mother. Peggy Urch moves from mere narrative joke at Mrs. Silly’s expense to a flesh and blood character; Michael’s mother may speak too much in her lonely anxiety, but she is, after all, speaking about her real life.

The second effect is one that I have written about before on Twitter, what I like to think of as the principle of narrative conservation. In short, very few things in fictional narrative more powerfully create a sense of realism than the reappearance of certain objects and people. The usual case is an object that appears early on in a story and reappears later—for example, a ball-point pen pocketed on page three and pulled out on page ten to sign a document. This pen is, in its small way, a metonym for the ostensive reality of the entire fictional universe it occupies. Unimportant in itself, the fact of its persistence suggests a kind of object permanence, an aura that it confers to the larger things around it.

Peggy Urch in “Mrs. Silly” is another such persistent element, and there’s a small but deep satisfaction in seeing her materialize, however insignificantly. In drawing a real character from the ether of Mrs. Silly’s talk, Trevor likewise draws something that seems factual from the ether of narrative fabulation. 

Next up: “A Complicated Nature.”

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.

2 comments:

  1. After finishing the book some 30 years ago, “Mrs. Silly” is one among several (“A Complicated Nature,” “The Day We Got Drunk in Cake,” “Raymond Bamber and Mrs. Fitch”) that still has some claim on my memory. I reviewed the book for a newspaper — a delightful and frustrating task, as there was hardly room to do more than shout a few praises. Reading the collection is an experience thst really sticks with you.

  2. Hi Rodney,

    It does stick with you. I’m rereading many of these stories after many years, and finding small parts in almost every piece that have remained lodged in my memory.

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