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Going Beyond the Pale with William Trevor

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Going Beyond the Pale with William Trevor

In William Trevor’s short story ‘Beyond the Pale’, the reader is presented with a text that seethes with the angst of a writer whose country’s Colonial past has been gnawing on his bones. Although there is nothing unusual in this (especially in Irish writing), Trevor manages to fumble the ball in the course of his didactic strategy and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory: what should have been a successful indictment of British Colonial Rule in Ireland becomes nothing more than the grumbling of an intelligent writer who cannot negotiate his patriotic feelings.

The story is presented as a first-person narrative by one of four English holidaymakers who regularly visit a small hotel, Glencorn Lodge, in County Antrim (see the Map of Ireland). All the details the narrator, Milly, supplies the reader with in the introductory paragraphs indicates a lack of Irishness in the whole make-up of this group’s holiday: Glencorn Lodge is a Georgian building, the driveway of which is lined with rhododendrons (a non-indigenous species of plant); the couple who run Glencorn Lodge - the slyly named Malseeds - are English; the garden has figs, the greenhouse has apricots and peaches - and the greenhouse is presided over by ‘old Mr Saxton, another aptronymous character. Essentially the reader is given a picture not of Ireland, but of the remnants of Imperial supremacy.

So far, so good. Trevor is in control, and he has created a good backdrop for his tale. Where does it all go wrong? Quite simply, Milly, the narrator is not up to the task of telling the story Trevor wishes to unfold: for subtlety she is fine, but it is when events become more action-oriented that Milly fails to prove herself the correct storytelling device for this narrative.

As the story progresses, we learn much of the four characters’ past, both together and apart - Milly is ideal as a teller of the more dubious or purely speculative elements of a character’s past. Further details indicate a lack of Irishness in this ritualized holiday along the way - for example, Strafe, one of the male characters, drinks ‘whisky’ rather than ‘whiskey’, the former indicating Scotch, the latter indicating an Irish or American distillation. In the midst of their holiday world, it is noticed that an intrusion has occurred: a red-haired man, ‘uncouth-looking’, has appeared, ...

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...ard because, essentially, he is trying too hard to make the reader feel sympathy not for the English conscience (Cynthia), but for Ireland itself. Having a an admission of guilt (albeit on behalf of a nation) from one English conscience described by an English consciousness that is consumed by its obliviousness towards any reason for feeling guilt (both at a personal and national level) is an ambitious idea - one which Trevor should have pulled off. The urge to preach (which can only be regarded as some attempt to justify guilt that Cynthia feels, and, by extension, Britain should feel) should have been stifled, completely repressed. The subtle detailing of the early part of the narrative displays Trevor’s ability to deftly sketch the particulars of a scene without descending to caricature, and to embed his agenda while doing so. The loss of subtlety in the final pages (and Cynthia’s monologue does cover a number of pages) is actually a loss for the reader, because whether a reader of this story is British, Irish or otherwise, one can only leave the tale wondering who Trevor had in mind when he wrote it, and who ultimately would gain in the way he obviously intends for the reader.
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