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Like a good mystery, Death in Summer is a tease, coyly nudging readers away from what's really about to happen. But since its author is William Trevor, the renowned Anglo-Irish master of both story and novel, the book is a lot more -- a stark rendering of English class divisions and a compelling dramatization of sudden, violent eruptions in the lives of those too timid to venture beyond tidy safe harbors.
At the heart of this novel and Felicia's Journey, Trevor's previous one, are young women of little education and lesser means struggling to make their way in an indifferent world. Early on, we understood that Felicia was a doomed victim. Pettie of Death in Summer, a shoplifting runaway from a squalid orphanage, seems too cunning, energetic and resourceful for that fate. But now she's out of a job and the rent is overdue. Maybe she can land that nanny job out in the Essex countryside at Quincunx House, where Thaddeus Davenant's wife has just died, leaving behind a baby daughter.
It's too bad Pettie isn't allowed to tell this story. Though Trevor does shift back and forth between her and Thaddeus, it's this pale, tight-lipped trimmer who gets most of the attention. Thaddeus does have a certain understated edge; while still single, he once carried on with a married woman, and his match with the plain but well-to-do Letitia Iveson underscored a quietly creepy deviousness. But instead of sliding into iniquity, the melancholy Thaddeus only tends his garden.
To nearly every other character, Trevor gives a bracing humanity. Maidment is the nosy butler, rummaging through rooms and rumors like a gossip columnist. Albert is Pettie's worrywart pal, a young man with a big heart and endless curiosity. Dot Ferry is Thaddeus' conniving and pathetic former lover. Only Thaddeus' mother-in-law, Mrs. Iveson, seems more of an idea of upper-crust respectability than a fully fleshed-out human being.
Above all, what makes these characters interesting, even the tepid Thaddeus, is the author's foreboding Olympian vision. The great god Inertia rules all. Upstairs or downstairs, these contemporary Britons seem to shuffle along, ever prey to overwhelming, unseen forces. Bad things happen to good people, all right, but Trevor is eager to underscore the vulnerability of everyone, good or bad. Letitia's death (in a cycling accident) is but the first of several.
In very different ways, Pettie and Thaddeus are strangers to love. Pettie has suffered the mind-warping manipulations of a child molester. Thaddeus never had much of a father, never opened himself to love's vulnerability. Patiently, quietly, Trevor nudges these two toward the inevitable collision. The tension is palpable, the insight into character shrewd, the prose slyly seductive. -- Salon
And once Thaddeus reluctantly agrees to allow his mother-in-law (and former enemy) to join them at Quincunx, trouble begins—not with her, but with one of the rejected nannies interviewed beforehand, an orphan girl named Pettie, who quickly develops an elaborate fantasy life involving the grieving widower and his darling child. Trevor suggests character with the ease of a single gesture or detail, and his narrative instincts are, as usual, dead-on, providing just enough melodramatic intrigue to propel his studies in interior life.
"Evil is never so elegant as when Trevor turns his velvet-gloved hand to the discreet thriller." —Winnipeg Sun, Top Books of 1998
"Stunning—One of the most enthralling books of the year." —Bolen Books
"A deliciously menacing vision of Cruel Britannia. [Trevor's] exquisite prose draws comparisons with…Alice Munro, but beneath the mannered surface lurks the devilish imagination of a Patricia Highsmith." —The Globe and Mail
After the funeral the hiatus that tragedy brought takes a different form. The suddenness of the death has gone, irrelevant now. Thaddeus has stood and knelt in the church of St Nicholas, has heard his wife called good, the word he himself gave to a clergyman he has known all his life. People were present in the church who were strangers to him, who afterwards, in the house, introduced themselves as a few of Letitia's friends from the time before he knew her. `And where is Letitia now?' an undertaker a week ago inquired, confusing Thaddeus, who for a moment wondered if the man knew why he had been summoned. `It's Letitia who has died,' he said, and answered, when the man explained, that Letitia was in the mortuary, where she'd been taken.
moment of waking every day: the coffin, the flowers laid out, the bright white surplice of the clergyman, dust to dust, and that seeming an insensitive expression at the time. There is Letitia's mother in the graveyard, and some cousin, and a chubby woman whose bed was next but one to Letitia's in a school dormitory more than twenty years ago. And there are all the others: local people, and colleagues from the music library, the postman who retired two years ago and was particularly fond of Letitia, the twins who come to clean the windows. There are the tears on Zenobia's plump cheeks, and Maidment gaunt and appalled. The day the heatwave began it was, that funeral afternoon, the empty blue of the sky touched upon in the clergyman's brief eulogy. For as long as he lives, Thaddeus Davenant believes those funeral images will be there in the first moment of his waking.
brown eyes beneath hair that almost matches them. Inheritor of a property set in the flatlands of Essex, he has been solitary even in marriage, this the legacy of an unusual childhood, compounded by his choosing to eke out a livelihood selling the produce of his garden rather than seeking to discover a vocation or otherwise claiming a profession.
built by a tallow merchant, John Percival Davenant, in 1896, its name deriving from the five wild cherry trees he ordered to be planted, one at each corner of his high-walled garden, one at its centre. Many years later this garden became Thaddeus's greatest pleasure. In it, he still saves his own seeds, and cultivates hellebores people would come to see if they knew about them. He has replaced decaying heathers with growth from their own new shoots. He has teased a vine back to life in his conservatory. He has been successful with blue poppies and the most difficult penstemons.
is Letitia learning the secrets of the garden -- how to prune the wistaria, when to trim the yew, cosseting the ceanothus when frost threatened. There is Letitia resting beneath the catalpa tree, pregnant with the child she has left behind. Six years ago Thaddeus brought her here, Letitia Iveson, a person of almost wayward generosity, although she never saw herself in such a light: plainness was what Letitia had seen and sighed over since adolescence and before. Thaddeus did not so harshly judge, finding in her features a tranquillity that challenged beauty with a distinction of its own: a Piero della Francesca face, he insisted with only a little exaggeration.
in the spacious flat near Regent's Park where she had passed her childhood, the relationship between the two bonded to some degree by the perpetual confinement of Mr Iveson in medical care. At his decree, while he still retained his senses, the Iveson family means had been divided into three: equal shares for the two women and for his nursing home. Twice a year, wife and daughter took a train to Bath, where this home -- St Bee's -- spread through two houses in a crescent. Five times a week Letitia walked to the music library in Marylebone, her services at the disposal of musicologists and biographers, the reading-room her particular province. An ageing virgin, she considered herself then, and did not think much about marriage, since there had never been a reason to until Thaddeus came into her life.
wife. Her wealth restored the derelict state of Quincunx House, allowed the employment of a couple as cook and houseman, and dispensed with the necessity for Thaddeus to sell the garden's fruit and vegetables. With difficulty, and after several disappointments, a daughter, Georgina, was born.
should be a child but, while wondering at the time what it was going to be like to have a baby about the place, he did not demur, and soon after Georgina's birth was surprised to find his feelings quite startlingly transformed. Marriage had changed everything in Letitia's life. The birth of Georgina changed, in part, Thaddeus. Wizened and blotched, as tiny as a doll, she was Letitia's object: Thaddeus imagined that would always be so and did not expect otherwise. But within a fortnight he found himself claiming his daughter, possessed by an affection he had been unable to feel for anyone since his own infancy.
the details of the funeral occasion, the lowered tones of the clergyman, a silence asked for. But most of all -- remembered also by the household's couple -- is the last afternoon of Letitia's life. Because of her disposition and Thaddeus's practice in his marriage of saying too little rather than too much -- her natural inclination to amity, his to mild prevarication -- there was not often a disagreement between the two. But a drizzling Thursday in June had been affected since early morning by unusual inquietude: in passing a letter across the breakfast table, Thaddeus had blundered. Better, he later realized, to have slipped it into a pocket, as occasionally he did with awkward correspondence at breakfast-time. That morning he was careless, allowing himself to sigh over Mrs Ferry's missive, and Letitia had smiled in sympathy and asked him what it was. He should have shaken his head and been evasive. Instead, he thought he might as well confess this continuing nuisance. `Haven't I mentioned Mrs Ferry before?' he asked, knowing he hadn't but feeling that such an introduction was necessary. Letitia's denial allowed him a description, which he lightly gave while the letter's contents were read. But he knew when the single sheet of violet-coloured writing-paper was handed back across the table that he'd been foolish.
raised again in the afternoon. At breakfast, about to crumple the letter into a ball, muddling it with the junk mail that had come, he changed his mind. He returned Mrs Ferry's communication to its envelope and placed it beside him on the tablecloth, the gesture implying that he intended to sit down and compose a reply, and to send what Mrs Ferry was after, which was a cheque for fifty pounds.
with tiny droplets that did not merge to run down the glass: Thaddeus remembers that afterwards. He remembers the agitation in Letitia's voice, and a pale tinge coming into the flesh of her round face -- not brought about by jealousy of Mrs Ferry, for that would be ridiculous, but by her concern for a woman she did not know, who clearly had been on her mind all day, a woman he himself hadn't laid eyes on for all of seventeen years.
`Please, Thaddeus. She's far from well.'
not being well.'
she be alone and ill?'
the door that is common to both rooms, Maidment learnt that Mrs Ferry's plea for assistance was also a reminder that she had repeatedly written before and not once received an answer. The poor woman was wretched with stomach ulcers and related suffering, came a further rebuke through the door panels. She called herself a charity case: afterwards Maidment particularly remembers that being said.
it would amount to. I could not do that, and I had none to spare before.'
perusal of Mrs Ferry's previous letters had not been confessed to his wife, whose disapproval could be biting when she put it into words. Eavesdropping Zenobia accepted, as conversation unavoidably overheard; the investigation of private correspondence, and poking about in drawers, she preferred to believe did not occur. So Maidment had kept to himself what he had long ago pieced together: that the woman who wrote the begging letters was guilty of the sin of profitable nostalgia; of resurrecting one or two good moments so that, in the circumstances as they were now, the past might be honoured with a cheque. The woman's handwriting sprawled wildly, decorated with exclamation marks and underlining, Maidment recalled, listening again to the voices in the drawing-room.
no key, Maidment did not stoop to a more intimate witnessing of the scene. He did not see Thaddeus -- in pale corduroy trousers, tweed jacket and tie -- standing in front of the empty fire-place, nor observe the holding back of Letitia's tears. The deep blue of her dress reflecting the dots of sapphire in her earrings, her fair hair plaited in a coil, she stood also, pressed into the corner by the door, as though her sympathy for Mrs Ferry consigned her there. Her dog -- a retriever she had found as a puppy, drowning in a ditch -- was stretched out between the two sets of french windows, half an eye on the misty garden outside.
to disagree about.'
going to be quarrelling between them,' he gloomily predicted, `it'll be the end of us.'
statement that passed unnoticed at the time. Phlegmatic and an optimist, Zenobia simply retorted that if he was talking about separation or divorce he was being altogether too pessimistic. Married couples disagreed, as they had observed both in a personal way and in their experience of other households. The infant born four and a half months ago in this one will become a child with characteristics and a nature of her own, an influence for stability and for good should such an influence be needed, which Zenobia doubted. Colouring her argument, she touched upon the occasion of the birth: cherry brandy poured in the kitchen at a quarter past eleven at night, she herself clapping her hands, then clasping them to give thanks, Mrs Iveson in the house as the prospective grandmother, the midwife brisk and self-important, the January night damply mild. After the gloom of miscarrying in the past it had been the happiest of events and most certainly boded well.
made his way through past and present correspondence, and listened in on the kitchen telephone when Zenobia's back was turned, the Maidments' impression was that Thaddeus Davenant's wife had done well for herself. They had not known the house gone to rack and ruin, and did not then realize the circumstances of its rescue. Now they knew everything.
telling what's said.'
plumpness, Zenobia has soft hazel eyes in a soft face, her cheeks streaked like two good apples, her hair flecked with the grey her forty-nine years demand. In contrast, her husband is a hawk-faced man, dark-jowled and lankly made, his servant's wear -- black also -- completing the priestly look he cultivates. Second to his servant's curiosity, Maidment's interest is the turf.
insistence firmly went on. `That is important.'
polish, Maidment did not pause to comment on that. Strengths and weaknesses were distributed to the marriage's advantage, Zenobia's view was, and neither party trespassed on ground that was already claimed: alone again in her particular domain she reflected on that, and saw the future bright.
dining-room table, the lid taken from the polish tin. A hole-in-corner thing, he concluded, a long-ago affair his employer could hardly be blamed for not wishing to pick over.
dying woman who is alone, Thaddeus.'
yawned, then pushed herself on to her feet, slipping about on the polished boards with a scrabble of paws. She settled herself again and, while the two familiar voices continued, slept.
pointless; they did no good; nothing was ever gained. He had been careless, he was to blame. But even so this need not become more tiresome than it was already, and visiting Mrs Ferry would certainly be as tiresome as anything he could imagine.
when I knew her. It would be awfully difficult, meeting again.'
Thaddeus's thoughts she had since become. Receptionist at the Beech Trees Hotel -- two AA stars -- she had married Ferry, who was its manager, sharing his duties when they returned from honeymooning. A little later she'd been unfaithful to him in Room Twenty. Airless and poky, with windows opening on to the hotel's well, Room Twenty had been suitable for surreptitious afternoon love, being tucked away and quiet. `Two of a kind, dear,' the husky voice came back to Thaddeus, the fleshy limbs, hair dyed a shade of henna. `Bad hats, bad news' Mrs Ferry liked to whisper in Room Twenty, an older woman who'd been around, who had renamed the cocktail bar the Pink Lady and the dining-room The Chandeliers. She folded underclothes on to the one chair the room supplied and afterwards, putting them on again, often spoke about her husband, her voice gone slack, touched with disdain. `Tried going without it, dear, but it doesn't work.' His sandy moustache was what he tried to go without; he had a gammy leg as well. A likeable enough man in Thaddeus's memory, who would presumably have left her years ago.
necessary to visit the woman and he did not intend to. He wondered if the nature of the relationship had crossed Letitia's mind, if even for a passing moment it had occurred to her that the woman she wished to see assisted had been his associate in passionate intimacy, that they had deceived a decent man, carelessly gratifying desire. Even after six years of marriage he didn't know his wife well enough. She could have suspected everything or nothing: her tone gave no clue when next she spoke, only a freshness in it marking the end of the contretemps.
meant because it was Georgina's first. A quality in Letitia often anticipated happiness, and for a moment Thaddeus regretted his own shortcomings in this respect.
smiled and crossed the room to kiss him. `Thanks for doing the box.'
carrier of her bicycle, large enough to contain the six chicks she had arranged to fetch. Since she did not drive, Letitia cycled about the lanes -- to collect honey from a bee-keeper she had got to know, or tomatoes because Thaddeus didn't grow them any more, or to call in to see old Mrs Parch or Abbie Mates. Even when it was cold, or raining quite hard, she preferred cycling to walking or being driven. She had made the lanes her own, local people approvingly remarked to Thaddeus, and he agreed that his wife knew the lanes well by now.
trying to come out at last.'
her feet. Why Letitia should wish to keep chickens would once have been bewildering, as would her concern for a woman she had never laid eyes on. She didn't know about chickens. She won't know whether the half-dozen shown to her are good of their kind or not. Nor will she know if the man selling them is telling the truth about their being disease-free or about whatever other hazards there may be. She will believe the man, every single word he utters, and somehow her purchases will survive disease and lay the eggs expected of them: when Letitia trusted to luck she was more often than not rewarded. This irrational trust, and Letitia's goodness, the practical steeliness of her resolve, were entangled in a nature that was disarmingly humble. It was his considerable loss, Thaddeus was every day aware, that he did not love his wife.
`Yes, it's going to be sunny,' he agreed.
posts driven into an out-of-the-way patch of ground, chicken-wire stapled into place, a crude door, mostly of chicken-wire also. The pullets will spend only their nights in it, safe from the jaws of foxes. By day, they'll scratch about among the silver birches.
polish tin. In the kitchen Zenobia beat up eggs for a sponge cake, saying to herself that one of these Sundays they must drive over to see the Scarrow Man, a wonder cut from the turf of Scarrow Hill. Georgina was wheeled into the garden, and settled beneath the big catalpa tree in case the sun became bright.
tennis ball for his wife's dog, then starting up the lawnmower, although in Maidment's opinion the grass was still too wet to cut. Why don't you make a sign? a previous communication from Mrs Ferry had chided, the violet writing-paper stained in a corner with a splash of something yellow, which he had unproductively sniffed. I am a nuisance perhaps. Or are you gone away? `Has the old house become too much for him?' I say to myself. `Has he ages ago gone from it and do my letters lie dusty in the hall, picked up by no one? Yet how attached he was to that house!' I say again. `It would fall down around him yet he would not leave!' How much a single line would mean! That and any little you can spare a needy friend.
established that Mrs Ferry was aware his employer was married now. She was not in the business of making trouble, she had assured, each word of that underlined twice. But neither that nor her belief that the house had been abandoned rang true. What did was what wasn't written: that she had come to know there was money where once there hadn't been. There was a taste of blackmail here, in Maidment's view.
tray, and when Georgina was in the house again and Maidment was laying the dining-room table Thaddeus pushed the lawnmower over the cobbles of the yard, its engine still running, the grass of the two lawns now cropped close. He turned the ignition off and, watched by Rosie, her shaggy head interestedly on one side, he hosed away the debris of clippings from the blades. Letitia was taking longer than she'd said and he imagined her asking questions at whatever farm it was she had gone to, and listening to the answers in her careful way.
William Trevor's fiction is inhabited by characters who suffer from an inner longing and desperation that is heartbreaking. InDeath in Summer, his most emotionally resonant novel, Trevor's keen attention to the smallest detail and his subtle hand reveal the tragedy that comes with the inability to love.
Thaddeus Davenant is the last descendant of a distinguished English family and owner of Quincunx House. He has just lost his wife, Letitia, a person of "almost wayward generosity." Yet, despite her compassion and her "Piero della Francesca face," Thaddeus acknowledges that he was never able to really love Letitia. It is Georgina, their baby daughter, who receives all of Thaddeus's attention. He admits he married Letitia primarily out of financial necessity, his own family fortune long since gone. It is this deception, even more than Letitia's sudden death, which haunts Thaddeus throughout the novel.
When Thaddeus and Mrs. Iveson, his mother-in-law, begin interviewing for nannies to care for his infant daughter, their carefully manicured world is invaded by a series of coarse, unattractive young women. Pettie, the young girl who smells of cigarettes, proves unsuitable for the job, but develops an obsession with Thaddeus that will expose the frailties of both characters. Pettie, the product of the Morning Star, a grim institution for homeless children, latches onto Thaddeus, thinking of him as her salvation. The only affection Pettie has ever known came from her sexually abusive "Sunday Uncles" who visited the Morning Star on weekends.
We learn that Thaddeus was equally unloved as a child, ignored by his parents, and is therefore unable to feel love as an adult. Although their worlds could not be more different, Thaddeus and Pettie are both haunted by the same longing. Ironically, when Pettie's obsession drives her to steal Georgina from Quincunx House, their sole chance at understanding and redemption occurs. Thaddeus must allow himself to feel real emotion for the first time and submit to the incredible love he has for his own daughter; Pettie must return to the Morning Star, the origin of her troubles. It is the death she encounters there that will bring her freedom. And it is Albert, her only friend, a seemingly simple young man of unrivaled compassion and understanding, who will ultimately show all the characters in Death in Summer the most hidden human failings.
ABOUT WILLIAM TREVOR
William Trevor is the author of twenty-eight books, which include novels, short story collections, a play, a volume of memoir, and a children's tale. Among his many prizes are a 1996 Lannan Literary Award for Fiction. Two of his books were chosen by The New York Times as Best Books of the Year. His short stories appear regularly in The New Yorker.
A CONVERSATION WITH WILLIAM TREVOR
In many of your novels, you show a real affinity for desperate, victimized women. Where does your capacity for understanding these women come from?
The capacity you're thinking of is imagination; without it there can be no understanding, indeed no fiction.
The image of motherhood is pervasive throughout your work, especially mothers who are inattentive or abusive. Why?
I value mothers and motherhood enormously. For every inattentive or abusive mother in my fiction I think you'll find a dozen or so who are neither.
In Death in Summer, there are several allusions to the Lindbergh kidnapping. Was this the inspiration for the story?
No. It's natural for anyone of a certain age who remembers hearing about the Lindbergh kidnapping to recall it when a baby disappears.
How do you believe your own childhood has influenced your writing?
There is an element of autobiography in all fiction in that pain or distress, or pleasure, is based on the author's own. But in my case that is as far as it goes. Descriptions of, for instance, physical pain have to be the author's own experience. He cannot know, exactly, how someone else has suffered in this way. Otherwise, I don't think my childhood—or later life—has had much influence on my writing.
Posted March 31, 2013
Posted September 5, 2011
No text was provided for this review.