“Last Wishes” is a long—and, in my estimation, very good—story, that tells the tale of Mrs. Abercrombie, a rich widow who, upon her husband’s death, sequesters herself within his ancestral estate, Rews Manor, for three decades, where she is attended by a faithful staff of five. Rews Manor has, during this time, become infamous and somewhat beloved in the nearby town. As we’re told: “In the 1960s and 1970s, when life often had a grey look, the story of Rews Manor cheered people up, both those who told it and those who listened. It created images in minds and it affected imaginations.” Visitors are allowed to tour the manicured grounds, with proceeds benefiting a local charity, but the only townspeople to lay eyes on Mrs. Abercrombie for years have been a window-washer and the town doctor, Dr. Ripley.
When Mrs. Abercrombie dies suddenly, the house is thrown into understandable grief and confusion, especially given the fact that Mrs. Abercrombie failed to sign a new draft of her will, which would have legally allowed her beloved employees to live on in the house for 20 more years. The butler, Plunkett, devises a plan to blackmail the elderly Doctor Ripley, by accusing him of malpractice, into withholding Mrs. Abercrombie’s death certificate, so that Plunkett can bury the great lady in the backyard beside her husband, and everything can go on as it had—an immoral plan lent appeal by the fact that it would, in fact, be largely honoring her actual last wishes. But the doctor will not be bullied, and when he tells the assembled hangdog staff that a judge would likely have honored Mrs. Abercrombie’s wishes regardless, he knows the staff will not now stay at Rews Manor, “because of their exposure one to another.”
I admire many things about this story. I admire its slow, patient pace, the two introductory pages it devotes to building the backstory of Rews Manor and Mrs. Abercrombie, and the other three pages it spends introducing the backstories of the servants: Plunkett; the housemaid, Tindall who occasionally sleeps with Plunkett; the cook, Mrs. Pope; and the two gardeners, Miss Bell and Mr. Apse—all of the servants misfits of one form or another who have come to love working at Rews Manor.
I admire the general ambition in creating this cloistered little world—the story has the world-building reach of a small novel. And I admire the deftness with which Trevor handles this large ensemble. As usual, Trevor’s narration glides effortlessly from consciousness to consciousness, beginning with a distanced, village narration, moving to Mrs. Abercrombie before her death, then Plunkett and the others, before its ultimate destination in the doctor’s mind, as he dashes the servants’ hopes.
One element of “Last Wishes” that works so well is the humble motivations of the characters. While the scheme they concoct and almost enact is grand, the desires it protects are anything but. The servants have found a place in the world where they feel comfortable and needed, where their small talents have been given room to breathe and thrive. Considering Plunkett’s plan, we are given this summary paragraph of massed character motivation:
Mr. Apse remembered a lifetime’s association with the gardens at Rews Manor, and Mrs. Pope recalled the cheerless kitchens of the YWCA, and Miss Bell saw herself kneeling in a flower bed on an autumn evening, taking begonia tubers from the earth. There could be no other garden for Mr. Apse, and for Miss Bell no other garden either, and no other kitchen for Mrs. Pope. Plunkett might propose to her, Tindall said to herself, just in order to go on sharing beds with her, but the marriage would not be happy because it was not what they wanted.
It is characteristic of Trevor’s fiction that these people want so little, have no higher aspirations than to simply be left alone in their peaceable routines, and thereby be allowed to preserve a little bit of dignity. Dignity—the difficulty of achieving or maintaining it—is, I think, the great unspoken theme of Trevor’s fiction, and the unspoken emotional motivation of the majority of his characters. And it is immensely powerful in this role. Dignity is, after all, a nearly invisible thing if you have it, but all-important and all-consuming if you don’t have. The stakes in Trevor stories are, at once, miniature and vast as life itself.