The William Trevor Reader: “Matilda’s England”

September 6, 2022 | 1 book mentioned 3 min read

I’ve had my eye on this one for a while. Located roughly halfway through the Collected’s table of contents, “Matilda’s England” stands out as a three-parter, a triptych of stories narrated by a woman named, unsurprisingly, Matilda, describing her childhood on a farm during the Second World War, the loss of her brother and father in the war, and her unhappy marriage to a man named Mr. Gregary. These sub-stories are named, respectively, “The Tennis Court”,” “The Drawing House,” “and “The Summer Room.”

“The Tennis Court” introduces the character of old Mrs. Ashburton, the 81-year-old widow of the former estate owner that Matilda’s family lives on as tenant farmers of the former home garden. Mrs. Ashburton’s husband returned from World War I with shell shock and drank himself to death, letting the farm go to “rack and ruin,” a phrase Trevor echoes throughout the three pieces. Matilda and her siblings become friends with Mrs. Ashburton, Matilda especially, and they help the old woman renovate the tennis courts and throw a party there, the way she used to in the old, happy days.

The old happy days—and Matilda’s inability to recapture them—is the main thematic thrust of the remaining two stories. When her brother and father are killed in World War II, Matilda grows religious, then embittered, and by the third installment, in which she terrorizes the gentle, rich husband who has bought the property and married her into the manor, she has descended into cruelty and even madness. She is so haunted by the perfection of the past that she cannot live in the present, and by the end she has become a kind of reincarnated version of Mrs. Ashburton. 

I consider this piece (or these pieces, depending on how you look at it) to be a minor masterpiece. While this degree of strangleheld structural and thematic material might not be to everyone’s taste, the exquisite control must be admired. A small town of characters is drawn with the usual brisk efficiency, and an entire life is limned in the space of 50 pages. The precision with which Trevor parcels out Matilda’s story, from happy childhood, to culmination at the tennis party, to sustained tragedy and prayer, to the aftermath of a life, is impressive, as is the way he slowly reveals her unreliability and monstrousness by the end. The effect is like the sun moving behind a house, watching the yard become engulfed by shadow inch by inch. 

I would also consider this to be the first truly effective first-person piece in the Collected, although “Mr. McNamara” makes some good use of narrative unsteadiness as well. In my reading, Matilda is the first of these narrators to function as much more than a simple camera watching the other characters. She has a fully imagined depth of consciousness, and the effect is receiving the story through an emotional prism, as it should be. Trevor remains helplessly incapable of writing with any voice besides his own, but regardless, the story works well in first and could not work otherwise. A third-person rendering of this piece wold largely be about the breadth and sweep of the events that occur; in this first person, it is about how a particular childhood and its misperceptions have conspired to create Matilda and her warped narrative lens. 

Another thing I admire about this story is its length and structure. It is a 57-pager in the Collected and 96 pages in its 1995 paperback issue, probably around 18,000 words—at the lower end of what we consider a novella, and beyond what we typically consider a short story. Reading it, I wondered why writers don’t write more stories of this length. But I know the answer: because you cannot publish stories of this length. The upper bounds of publishable short-story length is 10k words, around 30 double-spaced pages in Word, and the lower bound for a novel is probably around 50,000 words. In between is that murky dreaded darkland known as the novella, or else “novels” by authors Jenny Offill that are formatted and fonted so as to be stretched to an acceptable page length. A small handful of narratives this length are published every year. 

coverI have heard various explanations for this, among them, having to do with publishers needing spine space on shelves. Whatever the market-related reasons for this phenomenon, it’s unfortunate. One to two hundred pages can be an ideal length for a story—take, for example, Muriel Spark’s perfect The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which clocks in around a brisk 140. Finishing “Matilda’s England,” I had the novelistic sense of having spent time with a life, but in a form that took me a single afternoon to read. I would like more of this experience. 

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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