I have written before about my love of the great British boarding house as a setting for fiction – more specifically, novels like The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton, Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross, and The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark. There is something about this type of environment that really appeals to me. Maybe it’s the seediness of these places or the strange mix of people we often encounter there – whatever it is, I never seem to tire of reading about these establishments. All of which brings me to the very aptly named The Boarding-House, an absolute gem of an early novel by the Irish writer, William Trevor – a very worthy addition to my list.
Set in a South London suburb in 1964, the novel is an ensemble piece, focusing on the lives and concerns of the residents of Mr Bird’s boarding house, the sort of traditional establishment that is fast going out of fashion due to the rise of bedsits and flat-shares. At first, Mr Bird’s tenants appear to be a disparate bunch, each person possessing their own individual characteristics and personality traits. However, it soon becomes clear that they are all solitary figures, mostly flawed or inadequate in some way, at risk of being seen as misfits or outcasts from the realms of ‘normal’ society.
There’s Major Eele, an old-school eccentric with a penchant for strip clubs; Mr Obd, a lonely Nigerian man who longs to deepen his relationship with an English girl he first met some twelve years earlier (sadly, she will have nothing to do with him any more); Mr Scribbin, a railway enthusiast who spends his nights listening to gramophone records of steam trains; and Mr Venables, a nervous office worker who has been the subject of petty bullying for most of his life. Then there are the female residents, Miss Clerricot, a somewhat plain secretary who is puzzled by the fact that her married boss seems to be taking a particular interest in her, and Rose Cave, a gentle, middle-aged woman who remains haunted by the memory of her dead mother. There are a couple of other notable residents too, Nurse Clock and Mr Studdy – more about those two a little later on.
All of these characters are drawn by Trevor with great precision and clarity, and in such a way that clearly elicits the reader’s sympathy. The pen portraits of Miss Clerricot and Rose Cave are particularly touching. There is a sense of tragedy surrounding these women, a feeling of missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential as life passes them by.
At first, Miss Clerricot is buoyed by the attention of her boss, Mr Sellwood, who takes her to lunch and then on a business trip to Leeds. However, her illusions are shattered when she realises that her companion is merely looking for someone who will listen to him, a captive audience for his interminably dull discourses on the banking and insurance industries. Not that Miss Clerricot wants to have an affair with Mr Sellwood, but it would be nice to feel wanted and desired in some way, at least for once in her life.
Rose Cave’s backstory is sadder still. Having been born out of wedlock, she never knew anything of her father apart from the fact that he had been hired by her grandparents to hang some wallpaper in their house. There was a closeness between Rose and her mother in those early years; the scandal over the affair and the snobbery it created in the family drew them together, cementing their reliance on one another until death intervened.
Rose Cave lived a selfless life until her forty-first year, until the day her mother died. And then, when she moved closer in to London, closer to the work she did, she found it hard to feel that she was not alone. She joined clubs and societies to give herself something to do, but one night when she glanced around it seemed to her that she was just a little older than the other people present, and it seemed that the fact was noticeable. (p.48)
Also residing at the boarding house are the kitchen staff, the pragmatic Mrs Slape and her young helper Gallelty – the latter a very recent addition to the household, having been scooped up by Mr Bird in the most unlikely of circumstances.
It’s not long before we get the sense that Mr Bird has deliberately ‘collected’ these various unfortunates over the years, seeking them out for his own pleasure – not as acts of kindness but for some sort of perverse mischief, the nature of which becomes a little clearer as the story moves forward.
He in his time had sought these people out, selecting them and rejecting others. He sought them, he said, that they in each other might catch some telling reflection of themselves, and that he might see that happen and make what he wished of it. (p. 16)
Even though Mr Bird dies right at the beginning of the novel, his presence is felt throughout by way of extracts from his ‘Notes on Residents’ and the accompanying flashbacks from the past. Moreover, there’s a sense that his spirit remains in the house following his death, exerting its influence over the various events which subsequently play out.
In a move seemingly designed to put the cat among the pigeons following his death, Mr Bird has bequeathed the boarding house to the two most diametrically opposed residents – namely, the rather brusque and interfering Nurse Clock and the feckless petty criminal and blackmailer, Mr Studdy.
Constantly on the lookout for any moneymaking opportunities, Studdy – a rather amiable chancer – uses the residents’ collection for Mr Bird’s funeral to acquire a couple of cut-price wreaths, pocketing the spare cash in the process. A nice little earner when added to the eight pounds eight he hopes to save in unpaid rent – money previously owed to Mr Bird that he now plans to keep for himself (as long as Nurse Clock doesn’t get wind of it).
Nurse Clock and he did not hit it off. He wondered if she knew about the eight pounds eight. It was not impossible, he imagined, that Mr Bird had released that information on his death-bed. She had looked at him oddly when he had displayed the wreaths, when he said that he had added an extra sixpence of his own. She had pitched up her head, snorting like a horse, blowing through her nostrils. You could not trust, thought Studdy, a woman who looked like that and who spoke so sharply. Whenever he saw her in her big blue skirt he wanted to stick a pin in her. He fingered the point of his lapel and felt the pin there, the pin her carried for that purpose: to stick, one day, into one or other of Nurse Clock’s knees. (pp. 14-15)
The other residents and kitchen staff fear Mr Bird’s death will signal the end of the boarding house. However, the conditions included in the deceased’s will and testament provide them with a degree of reassurance. Nurse Clock and Studdy are to inherit the establishment, provided it remains in its current form with no changes to the residents or staff – well, until someone dies or leaves the boarding house of their own accord. There is much fun to be had in observing the dynamics between the domineering Nurse Clock and the rather sly Mr Studdy as they vie for position in the house, their conversations with one another are brilliantly conveyed.
In time, however, Nurse Clock realises that Mr Studdy might prove to be of some use. With Studdy’s assistance, she plans to turn the house into a home for the elderly – an altogether more agreeable endeavour than a boarding house, and potentially more profitable to boot. Studdy, for his part, sees this development as a positive move, viewing it as an opportunity to extort money and valuables from vulnerable elderly residents in their twilight years of their lives.
The hatred was still there between them, but it no longer raged; it was no longer on the brink of violence, because something stronger, something like self-interest or greed or small ambition, had put it into its proper place. (p. 120)
As the story plays out, it builds to a near-inevitable denouement. One gets the feeling that the spectral Mr Bird is playing God with the lives of the various residents, pitting them against one another in a bid to destabilise the environment he created.
While the lives of many of these characters are marked by a deep sense of sadness or loneliness – Mr Obd’s situation is particularly heartbreaking – they are partly balanced by touches of dark humour now and again. Major Eele takes centre stage in some priceless scenes, most notably those involving a certain Mrs le Tor, the unfortunate recipient of one of Mr Studdy’s rather tawdry blackmail letters.
The attempted disposal of Mr Bird’s clothes to a charity for refugees gives rise to more moments of hilarity. In an underhand move on the part of Mr Studdy, the deceased’s suits and shirts get mixed up with items belonging to Mr Scribbin and Mr Venables, much to the embarrassment of the normally uber-efficient Nurse Clock. It is a truly marvellous scene, one that could have come straight out of a classic comedy of manners by Barbara Pym.
All in all, The Boarding-House is a superb novel, a wonderful study of human nature, a tragi-comedy of the finest quality. Very highly recommended indeed!
The Boarding-House is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.
A wonderful short story writer, but I know little of his novels. This is on my shelf, still waiting. One day soon. Interesting comparison to Pym – both study the overlooked
Oh, great. I think you have a treat in store with this. I’ve only read a couple of Trevor’s stories — both published in journals, I think — but they were very impressive. One of his late novels, Love and Summer, is excellent too, beautifully observed.
That’s a good point about the overlooked. Pym’s novels often focus on people on the fringes of life, and the same is true here to a certain extent. Plus the clothing clear-out scene is just the type of comedy of errors that she excels at, what with her sharp eye for detail and fondness for jumble sales and the like.
I read this one earlier in the year and I have to say that it is brilliant. I found Mr Bird’s motives confusing though as he seems to have spent his life helping these unfortunate and pathetic characters only to torment them when he died. I was surprised, but liked, the dramatic ending. I have also read ‘Mrs Eckdorff’ this year which is nearly as good. I intend to read much more by Trevor.
Oh, that’s really interesting. I’ll definitely take a look at your review if there is one – it might have been while I was offline earlier this year as so much passed me by back then.
Yes, I know what you mean about Mr Bird, although he definitely seemed to have set things up to cause a hell of a lot of friction after his death! What larks. I loved the characters here, particular Mr Studdy and Nurse Clock. There was another quote about them that I nearly put in, but it just would have made the whole post ridiculously long (and it’s probably still too long as it is). Oh well, if anyone is interested I’ll add it to the comments below.
Mrs Eckdorff is definitely on my radar too, so it’s great to see that you enjoyed it so much. He’s a very fine writer, Trevor – I only wish I had discovered him a little sooner…
Yes, I actually have reviews for BH and Mrs Eckdorff. Both of these were books I got from my local library; they also have The Love Department which will probably be my next Trevor. I have some copies of his other books as well.
It would have been nice knowing about his work earlier but this way I have all his work to look forward to.
Cool. I’ve just left a comment on your very fine review of The Boarding-House. How funny that we both ended up reading it this year. I think I bought my copy a year or so ago, just after Penguin reissued his books in those smart black and white editions. The Love Department sounds great too. I have a different Trevor on my shelves — The Old Boys — a recommendation from a like-minded reader on Twitter, so I’m hoping that will be my next by him.
The Old Boys does sound good. I read The Children of Dynmouth last year which I thought was excellent as well. I’m sure at some point I’ll come across a book of his that I won’t like but hopefully not for a while yet.
I remember your review of The Children of Dynmouth. The book has a seaside setting, doesn’t it? Well, at least that’s my impression of it from memory.
Love and Summer is another good one, beautifully observed and very subtle. The tone is very different to that in The Boarding-House, more delicate and sympathetic. I liked it a lot.
This sounds like a wonderful piece of mischief, very different from Trevor’s The Strory of Lucy Gault – one of my favourite novels and one of the saddest stories I’ve read. I can understand the attraction of the boarding house setting. I’m attacted to novels set in apartment buildings which act as a micrcosm of society.
It’s very wicked in more ways than one! I haven’t read Lucy Gault (or Felicia’s Journey for that matter), but I suspect the tone of this one is quite different – as you say, more mischievous.
Yes, the microcosm-of-society idea really appeals to me too, which is probably why I also love hotel novels so much. Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel is a great example of that genre where some of the characters are on the up while others are slipping down.
I love the sound of this one, I have only read a few William Trevor novels, and his characterisation is superb. I read Mrs Eckdorff I think it was last year, and although I could recognise many touches of brilliance in it, I didn’t engage with it. Right book, wrong time perhaps. Boarding houses are such great settings. I
Yes, I loved the characters here – they’re such a mixed bag, but all very well-drawn even down to the minor players like Gallelty and Mr Venables. I think you would really like this one, Ali. The setting is terrific, and there’s so much to enjoy in the dynamics between the characters. In some ways, I was reminded of Elizabeth Taylor’s work, particularly Mrs Palfrey and The Soul of Kindness. Plus that clothing scene is straight out of a Barbara Pym. All in all, a wonderful novel.
Great review as always Jacqui. I do not think that I have ever read a boarding house novel. Yet I can see how they can create great settings for fiction. There are a lot of variations out there where characters end up living together under seedy or unusual conditions.
As for this book, it sounds very good and the characters very well crafted.
Yes, a combination of great setting and excellent characterisation. All these lost souls living together under one roof – what could possibly go wrong? Well, quite a lot as it happens…
If you’re ever interested in trying a boarding-house novel, then I would recommend The Slaves of Solitude. It has also has that Britain-in-wartime vibe that adds an extra layer of poignancy.
Lovely review, Jacqui. I’ve heard good things about this book and I think if I were to try Trevor this would be where I would start. One day…. ;)
I think you’d enjoy this one, Karen. An odd assortment of characters rubbing up against one another in a South London boarding house – what’s not to like? :)
I have loved one or two of William Trevor later novels, but I’ve not got on so well with earlier ones.. I’d read mixed reviews of this one but you have me intrigued.
This is definitely on the mischievous side in terms of tone, so I don’t know how you’d get on with it. Have you read Love and Summer by Trevor – I’m wondering if it might be one of the late novels you were referring to above? It’s more delicate and compassionate than The Boarding-House – beautifully written, too. I suspect you would like it very much.
I am a Trevor fan although it’s been a while since I read any of his books.
Have you read this one? If not, I think you’d like it very much.
This sounds great Jacqui – as you say, a boarding house is fertile ground for a writer! I’ve only read Felicia’s Journey by Trevor, which I thought was excellent but I’ve not read anything since, thanks for putting him back on my radar!
Oh, you’re very welcome. I think you’d like this one, the set-up allows for plenty of incidents between the characters and Trevor executes these very effectively. Plus it has that sense of social change as a backdrop, a household that knows it needs to move on.
I haven’t read Felicia’s Journey, but I really liked the film version. Maybe I should pick up the book at some point. Then again, that’s always a risk when you come to the film first — it can be hard to get the characters’ images out of your mind!
This sounds wonderful. Maybe it will be my next William Trevor!
It’s great. If you have any interest in the great British boarding house, then this is the one for you. The characterisation is excellent.
Hotels and boarding houses: great places to assemble an interesting cast of characters!
Do you have a favourite, Lisa?
In a German Pension by Katherine Mansfield, or The Little Hotel by Christina Stead. Or A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles? Too hard to choose a favourite, as always:)
(How lucky we are to have so many wonderful books to read!)
I loved A Gentleman in Moscow, such a stylish and elegantly-written book. The way the Count manages to carve out a life for himself within the confines of the hotel is truly wonderful…
Yes, I liked it too. He’s an author I intend to keep an eye on:)
I share your fondness of boarding house novels. I liked Girls of Slender Means very much.
This sounds rather marvelous but then he is such a wonderful writer. I know I’d like it. The guy who listens to recordings of steam trains made me laugh. What is it with men and trains. In the Diary of a Bookseller Bythell writes that the railway books are always gone first.
I really haven’t experienced enough by William Trevor, but everything of his that I’ve read to date has been wonderful. Mr Scribbin made me laugh too. I could just imagine him holed up in his room listening to those recordings of trains over and over again – everyone likes to have a hobby, some more obscure than others!
I’ve only read one Trevor book, so many years ago that I can not even recall what it was. I do recall bristling at its depressing atmosphere, though, which I obviously found off-putting enough not to pick up another of his works. But this one sounds quite a bit more appealing, a microcosm, obviously, with Mr. Bird looking down god-like on his collection of curiosities. Onto the list it goes!
Yes, the tone is very mischievous at times. Trevor has a lot of fun with these characters in what is essentially a kind of tragicomedy. As a slight aside, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that freshly translated Irish book you wrote about on your blog a few years ago, the one where all the dead souls in the cemetery are chattering away to one another – The Dirty Dust? It’s not quite the same thing — the language is not quite as close to the bone here — but something about the spirit of Trevor’s novel made me think of it. I think you might find it an interesting comparison!
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