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INTRODUCTION

What is the difference between one's life story and the stories one tells? This question amounts to much more than semantics when applied to the two women we come to know in William Trevor's short novels Reading Turgenev and My House in Umbria, published together as Two Lives. In Reading Turgenev, Mary Louise Dallon marries a draper to escape her family's farm and enjoy life in a small Irish town, only to find life in the town worse than the life she left. In My House in Umbria, Mrs. Emily Delahunty flees a seaside town in England to escape an abusive adoptive father. She travels the world, finally settling in a house in Umbria, where circumstances suggest she has succeeded in building a new life for herself. But, after a traumatic experience, her past comes rushing back.

On the surface, the lives of these two women, both fifty-six years old, seem very different. As their stories unfold, however, similarities become apparent. As they age, both Mary Louise and Mrs. Delahunty retreat ever further into worlds of their own imagining. Because Mrs. Delahunty narrates My House in Umbria, this fact eventually compromises our faith in the distinctions she makes between the real and the imaginary. Both novels examine two of Trevor's recurring subjects: events and circumstances that cause people to seek refuge in fictions they create, and the limitations that women face in a world still dominated by men.

In Reading Turgenev, Mary Louise settles for marrying Elmer Quarry, fourteen years her senior, so she can move into town and work at Quarry's drapery. Mary Louise and Elmer share absolutely no passionin fact, they fail to ever consummate their marriage. Elmer's sisters, Rose and Matilda, resent Mary Louise's intrusion into the family and continuously harass her. As Elmer and Mary Louise become more isolated from each other, Elmer disappears into drink and Mary Louise carries on a platonic affair with her frail cousin, Robert, for whom she had a childhood fascination. After Robert dies, he is no less central to Mary Louise's life. She buys his possessions at an auction and continues to project herself and Robert into the Turgenev stories he once read to her.

Why does Mary Louise plunge deeper and deeper into her fantasies, rather than attempt to change her real life? Near the end of the novel, we are told that, for thirty-one years, Mary Louise "passed as mad and was at peace" (p. 221). To the other characters in the novel, Mary Louise does indeed appear mad. To the reader, whether she is mad or not depends on where the line is between the self-deception that makes life bearable and delusions so powerful as to negate reality. In Reading Turgenev, a number of characters live secret lives that most people are aware of but that no one talks about openly. Trevor shows us characters who cling to tradition, religion, marriage, or simply familiar circumstances to avoid the emotional pain of changing, of admitting to grave mistakes, of acknowledging a wasted life.

In My House in Umbria, Mrs. Delahunty tries to present herself as a simple woman, but fails to conceal the inner conflicts that animate her. Rising above an incredibly difficult past, she has come to own a house in Umbria, where she lodges tourists and writes happily-ever-after romance novels. She claims, "There's not much to me" (p. 236), and tells us that she is "not a woman of the world" (p. 225). What she later discloses disproves both statements. Mrs. Delahunty's unfortunate origins are almost comically exaggeratedher parents, who made their living performing daring stunts with a motorcycle and what she calls "a Wall of Death," sold her to an English couple when she was an infant. Her subsequent fate is excruciating. As she describes it, "There was the purchase of a female infant so that a man could later satisfy his base desires" (p. 368). Before making her way to Italy, she spends several years as a prostitute in Africa.

After suffering a horrible "outrage," a bomb that explodes on her train, Mrs. Delahunty invites three other survivors to convalesce in her homethe General, an elderly Englishman; Otmar, a young German; and Aimee, an eight-year-old American girl. As they all recover together, Mrs. Delahunty alternately reveals to us details of her own life and compulsively imagines the details of her guests' lives, seemingly unconcerned that the truth about her guests might be entirely different. Why she engages in such invention is never spelled out; that her imaginings are somewhat analogous to fiction writing does not quite explain it. None of the three guests commands as much of Mrs. Delahunty's attention as Thomas Riversmith, the cold, unemotional uncle now responsible for the orphaned Aimee. When Riversmith arrives, planning to take the child home with him, Mrs. Delahunty's imagination begins to spin wholly out of control. She dreams about a scene in Riversmith's childhood and becomes convinced that her dream is an accurate representation of his past. She pursues Riversmith mercilessly, embarrassingly, trying to tell him her life story, trying to prevent him from taking Aimee home to America, trying perhaps to seduce him.

Because Mrs. Delahunty's imagination seems ever more ungovernable, the parts of the narrative that she presents as fact gradually become suspect. Does Riversmith really live in Virginsville, Pennsylvania? Or does the town's name reveal Mrs. Delahunty's fear that Aimee will be sexually abused if she returns to America with Riversmith? Is Otmar somehow responsible for the bombing of the train, as Mrs. Delahunty insinuates? Why would she think him guilty, especially if there is no evidence against him? Even the name of the Italian doctor who attends to AimeeDr. Innocentistrains credulity. At the end of the novel, Mrs. Delahunty reports that she no longer writes. Has her capacity to tell stories, which she says "were a help" (p. 233), been exhausted? Mrs. Delahunty ends by referring to herself as less than a person, having become merely "the presence you are familiar with" (p. 375). One wonders if she has lost the ability to invent herself, and the people around her, thus extinguishing her very desire to live.

 

ABOUT WILLIAM TREVOR

William Trevor Cox was born in Mitchelstown, County Cork, Ireland in 1928. His father's career as a bank manager led to a transient life for the family. Trevor attended over a dozen schools in provincial towns before moving to Dublin at thirteen. Of his early years, Trevor says he lived the life of a "middle-class gypsy." Although his ambitions were modestTrevor hoped to be a clerk in the Bank of Irelandhe was introduced to sculpture while attending St. Columba's College in Dublin. After graduating from Trinity College, Dublin, he worked as a sculptor, supporting himself by teaching. Trevor's art was exhibited in Dublin and in several places in England, to which he emigrated in 1953. In 1958 Trevor published his first novel, A Standard of Behaviour, to little critical success. Two years later, in need of a steady income and thinking his art had become too abstract, he gave up sculpting and took a job as a copywriter at a London advertising agency. He began writing fiction again, publishing a few short stories. His second and third novels, The Old Boys and The Boarding House, both won the Hawthornden Prize.

Trevor has since won numerous awards, including Great Britain's prestigious Whitbread Novel of the Year three times, for The Children of Dynmouth (1976), Fools of Fortune (1983), and Felicia's Journey (1994). Several of his novels have also been short-listed for the Booker Prize, including Mrs. Eckdork in O'Neill's Hotel (1970), The Children of Dynmouth (1976), and Reading Turgenev (from Two Lives) (1991). Although his novels have received much recognition, Trevor describes himself as a "short story writer who likes writing novels," and he is revered as a master of the genre. The Hill Bachelors (2000), Trevor's most recent short story collection, received the 2001 Irish Times Irish Literature Prize for fiction. Trevor is a member of the Irish Academy of Letters and resides in Devon, England, with his wife, Jane Ryan Cox.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

Reading Turgenev

  1. Why does Mary Louise feel she has made a "ludicrous, laughable mistake" (p. 34) in marrying Elmer?
     
  2. Why don't Elmer and Mary Louise consummate their marriage?
     
  3. Why don't Rose and Matilda accept Elmer's marriage?
     
  4. What part does reading the work of Turgenev play in the relationship between Mary Louise and Robert?
     
  5. Why can Mary Louise declare her love for Robert only after he has died?
     
  6. Why does Mary Louise want Elmer and his sisters to think she is mad?
     
  7. Are we intended to think Mary Louise is mad, or only pretending to be mad?
     
  8. Why does the clergyman call Mary Louise "prosperous" (p. 221)?
     
  9. Why does the clergyman wonder: "Does love like hers frighten everyone just a little?" (p. 221)?
For Further Reflection
  1. Why is it so hard to break with tradition?
     
  2. Why do people continue to live emotionally painful lives instead of changing their circumstances?

 

My House in Umbria

  1. Why does Mrs. Delahunty invite the other survivors of the outrage into her house?
     
  2. Why does Mrs. Delahunty say "there's not much to me" (p. 236)?
     
  3. Why does Mrs. Delahunty decide to call her next book Ceaseless Tears, even though all of her previous romance novels end happily?
     
  4. What does Mrs. Delahunty mean when she says that all of her romance novels "came out of nothing, literally out of emptiness" (p. 261)?
     
  5. Why is Mrs. Delahunty so eager to prevent Mr. Riversmith from taking his niece home?
     
  6. Why does Mrs. Delahunty stop writing after the accident?
     
  7. What keeps Quinty and Mrs. Delahunty together?
     
  8. Why does Mrs. Delahunty want to tell her life story to Mr. Riversmith?
     
  9. Why does Mrs. Delahunty look through her guests' belongings and eavesdrop on Mr. Riversmith's conversations?
     
  10. Does Mrs. Delahunty know the difference between what is real and what she imagines?
     
  11. Why does Mrs. Delahunty let her new garden wither and die?
For Further Reflection
  1. How does sharing a traumatic experience with someone else make a difference in the effort to cope with its effects?
     
  2. How much of our impressions of other people is determined by our own past experiences?

Related Titles

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (1857)
To escape her father's farm, Emma marries Charles Bovary, but the life she lives never measures up to those she reads about in romance novels.

Jane Hamilton, The Book of Ruth (1988)
A young woman stuck in a dead-end job in a hardscrabble northern Illinois town tries to make a new start after a nearly impossible life with her dominating mother and crazy, going-nowhere boyfriend.

Alice Munro, Open Secrets (1994)
This collection of short stories examines the limited choices several generations of women face. All of the characters share origins in rural Ontario.

Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons (1862)
Turgenev's most acclaimed novel examines the nihilism of the character Bazarov, who, despite his dark philosophy, tries to find happiness in love.

Richard Yates, The Easter Parade (1976)
In this novel, set mainly in postwar New York, Emily Grimes chooses an independent path before it was considered acceptable for middle-class women. Despite brief promise, she finds desperate loneliness.