The Love Department by William Trevor

I’ve been on a bit of William Trevor kick over the past few years, starting with his early novels, The Boarding-House (1965) and The Old Boys (1964), both excellent; then moving on to his final novel, Love and Summer (2009), a book I absolutely adored. The Love Department (1966) is another of Trevor’s early works, and while I didn’t find it quite as satisfying as the others, there’s still a great deal to enjoy here.

Like its predecessors, The Love Department is something of an ensemble piece, set in England in the mid-1960s. The central character is Edward Blakeston-Smith, a rather innocent young man who has just left a monastic retreat after a period of recuperation for a nervous condition. In his eagerness to prove he is no longer a child, Edward applies for a job with the ‘love department’, a hugely popular agony aunt service run by a leading newspaper based in London. Heading up the service is Lady Dolores Bourhardie, an eccentric figure who believes in the preservation of love within marriage, largely irrespective of a woman’s dissatisfaction with her husband.

Following a brief yet unsuccessful trial in the love department office, Edward is enlisted to perform a special mission in the field. He is to track down Septimus Tuam, an infamous trickster who has been stirring up trouble in the suburbs of Wimbledon, preying on vulnerable ladies with the ultimate aim of tapping them up for money. In short, Edward must find this enemy of love, follow him as he goes about his business and report back in full to Lady Dolores, preferably with a comprehensive dossier of Tuam’s targets and movements. At first Edward is rather reluctant to take on this mission, preferring the relative safety of the office to life in the wild; however, needs must when the devil drives, so he sets off with the aim of finding his prey.

As the narrative unfolds, we gain an insight into Tuam’s modus operandi, a technique which usually involves the ‘accidental’ laddering of a woman’s stocking with the tip of his umbrella. In this scene, Tuam – a rather attractive young man – is in the midst of setting up a potential victim, a smartly-dressed young woman whom he spots in a café. When Tuam offers to buy the lady a new pair of stockings, his target is rather reluctant to accept…

‘My dear, we cannot say goodbye like this. I have utterly ruined your beautiful stocking. I do insist, I really do, that you step across the road to Ely’s and see what they have for sale. I’m well known in the store.’ Septimus Tuam had taken the liberty of seizing the woman’s elbow, while she, feeling herself propelled from the café and on to the street, was thinking that a hatchet-faced young man whom she had never seen before had paid for her coffee and was now about to buy her stockings.

‘I must ask you to release me,’ she said. ‘Let go my elbow: I do not intend to go with you to Ely’s.’

‘Oh, come now.’

‘Please. You are greatly embarrassing me.’

‘Nonsense, my dear. My name is Septimus Tuam. And may I be so bold –’

‘Excuse me,’ said the woman to two men on the street. ‘I am being annoyed.’

The men turned on Septimus Tuam and spoke roughly, while the woman, glancing haughtily at him, strode away. He felt humbled and depressed and then felt angry. He crept away with the sound of the men’s voices echoing in his ears, hating momentarily the whole of womankind, and reflecting that his failure had cost him two and sevenpence. (pp. 28–29)

Edward’s investigations into Tuam bring him into contact with a wide range of characters, most notably Eve and James Bolsover who have been married for ten years. The Bolsovers’ marriage has eroded over time, something that Eve finds herself reflecting on as she goes about her days. While James is wrapped up in his work and the deteriorating health of his father, Eve is bored and frustrated in her role as a wife, the spark having gone out of their relationship through a gradual process of decay. As ever with Trevor, there are some poignant insights into the small tragedies of life throughout the novel, particularly in relation to the erosion of love.

Eve wondered if these wives loved their husbands now; and what the history of love had been in the marriages. She wondered if Mrs Linderfoot in Purley had woken one morning and seen that there was no love left, and had climbed on to a sofa and stayed there. She wondered if the Clingers ever spoke of love, or how Mrs Poache and the Captain viewed their wedding day. She looked across the room and saw her husband, his head bent to catch what Mrs Poache was saying. He was still a handsome man; the decay was elsewhere. (p.116)

The novel has a similar tone to Trevor’s other early works, one of black comedy – in this instance, a darkly humorous satire pitting the protectors of love within marriage against the threats to its preservation. There is a marvellous set-piece in the middle of the book when the Bolsovers host a dinner party for three of James’ work colleagues and their wives – all the men are members of the board. The Clingers turn up with their pet monkey, which is confined to a separate room. Unfortunately for the hosts, the monkey ends up attacking Mrs Hoop, the Bolsovers’ disgruntled charwoman, who milks the situation for everything she can get. To make matters worse, old Beach – Mrs Hoop’s drinking partner – turns up brandishing a broom, adding considerably to the fuss and mayhem. Even poor Edward is dragged into the fray through a bizarre coincidence, one of several in the book. (If I had a criticism, I would say that some of these seem a bit forced or contrived, more so than in Trevor’s other early novels.)

While the narrative is rather farcical at times, the individual scenes are never less than well observed. The characterisation too is excellent, from the sinister Septimus Tuam, a confidence trickster who shows no remorse at abandoning a woman who proves burdensome, to Mrs Hoop, a woman who despises her employer for her apparent lack of concern.

Trevor has a great affinity for life’s eccentrics, for people on the fringes of society, expertly capturing the pain and loneliness of an existence on the margins. His books are full of insights into the human condition, our hopes and dreams, our failings and foibles. Probably not the best place to start with this author, but a very diverting read nonetheless!

(I read this book for Cathy’s Reading Ireland month which is running throughout March. For another take on this novel, please see Kim’s review.)

The Love Department is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

24 thoughts on “The Love Department by William Trevor

  1. Tredynas Days

    I’m also an admirer of WT’s work, and have many of the short stories still to get through. I agree about that mix of humour and bleakness – a little like the tone in some of Elizabeth Taylor’s fiction – that he handles so deftly. I hope you’re keeping ok, Jacqui. I’m taking advantage of this enforced isolation to get back into the world of literary blogging, after a long spell occupied with work.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m fine, thanks, Simon – and I hope you and Mrs TD are keeping well too. Good idea to get back to blogging again, especially as books can be such a good source of solace in times of great stress and uncertainty. As for William Trevor – yes, Elizabeth Taylor is good comparison. Penelope Fitzgerald also springs to mind as another author with the skills to blend together those elements of comedy and tragedy. I hope to read more of Trevor’s stories, too – maybe the current lockdown will give me the time to do so.

      Reply
  2. Morag

    Love and Summer was a recent pleasure and I have so much more of his work to read. Thanks for this introduction to his early work. I think that for a short time, Wiliam Trevor lived in Wimbledon, hence the reference to Ely’s – our local department store – still going strong. It’s delightful to find such a very local detail.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, you’re very welcome. How interesting about Ely’s, and good to hear it’s still in existence. We’ll have to hope that it survives the current crisis as so many retail businesses will be feeling very vulnerable right now. Lovely to hear you enjoyed Love and Summer, too. It’s such a beautifully-written book – tender and heartbreaking, especially towards the end.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s very enjoyable. Maybe the enduring relevance stems from the fact that as human beings so many of our underlying emotions remain the broadly the same, even if the broader social context and attitudes of the day have evolved or changed.

      Reply
  3. Cathy746books

    This sounds great Jacqui – Trevor really never lets you down, does he? I agree, he has a rather miraculous way of capturing loneliness, without be morbid, that I find quite beautiful.

    Reply
  4. A Life in Books

    Lovely review, Jacqui. I’m not famliar with Trevor’s early work which sounds worth exploring. Humou – dark, farcical or otherwise – isn’t something that comes to mind when I think of his writing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Based on what I’ve been able to glean so far, Trevor’s early novels seem quite different from his later – much darker in tone and shot through with a wicked seam of black humour. If you were to try any of them, I would suggest either The Boarding-House or The Old Boys. The former in particular could be an interesting read in the current times.

      Reply
  5. madamebibilophile

    The names in this are such a joy – Lady Dolores Bourhardie! Septimus Tuam! I’ve never really thought of Trevor being similar to Muriel Spark but this did make me think of her. Are there similarities do you think?

    Also, I still shop in Ely’s – I had no idea it was used to nefarious ends…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes! I think there are some similarities between this author and Muriel Spark, certainly in terms of the early work. There is a seam of devilish humour running through these early novels, a wickedness that could be seen as quite Sparkian in style/tone. I wonder if Trevor was a fan of her work? It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if that were true. And yes, the names are marvellous, aren’t they? Straight out of something by Barbara Pym although not quite as cosy!

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review Jacqui. I have to say that this does sound very entertaining, and that mix of serious and farce can be fun. I’ve read at least one of his short stories, but maybe I’ll keep an eye out for novels (when I can next get to the charity shops….) :(

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I really want to read more of his short stories at some point. And yes, the novels are well worth looking out for, if we’re ever able to get to the charity shops again!

      Reply
  7. heavenali

    Oh, well I really like the sound of this one. It’s interesting you use the term darkly humorous because that’s exactly the flavour I was getting from your review. A quirky novel with some interesting characters. Great review Jacqui.

    Reply
  8. gertloveday

    I read this some time ago and can remember Septimus Tuam quite well. STtangely I can remember very little about the scene with the monkey I must be losing my faculties (as Muriel would say.)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Yes, that’s very ‘Godfrey’ from Memento Mori. The monkey incident is quite surreal, with one bizarre development following another. Probably worth revisiting for that alone. :)

      Reply
  9. 1streading

    I’ve always thought of William Trevor as being a bit dull (this is not based on having read him) but this does not sound dull! Has anyone ever been called Septimus outside of a novel though?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Probably not. I think there’s a Septimus in Mrs Dalloway, and possibly another in one of Muriel Spark’s novels, although you’re probably in a good position to speak to that. It’s very much the kind of name Barbra Pym would favour too; her novels are full of charterers with the most fanciful names!

      Reply
  10. Mark Jackson-Hancock

    Thanks for this very insightful reading of William Trevor, Jacqui. I’ve read a few his novels and many of his short stories but not The Love Department or Love and Summer so I’ll add them to my reading list. Great literature is timeless and its interesting that ladykilling scamsters like Septimus Tuam are still in operation on the internet. I agree with all the comparisons made between Trevor and Muriel Spark, Penelope Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Taylor. To this list I’d add Angus Wilson who similarly had a gift for memorable characterisation and social comedy and who was drawn to outsiders.

    While my own bookshop is temporarily closed i’m grateful to find many more hours to read, so I’ll catch up with all your back blogs and maybe add some more comments. Keep well, Jacqui, and keep reading–keep writing too! x

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hello, Mark! It’s lovely to hear from you – I hope you’re safe and well in these most unnerving of times. Sorry to hear that the shop is on hold for now, but hopefully you’ll be able to get everything up and running again once the current restrictions can be relaxed (wherever that turns out to be).

      As for the book…yes, great point about the enduring nature of some of the elements Trevor features here. As you say, the Septimus Tuams of this world are still in existence, just using different methods to snare their prey. I guess he would be grooming women on the internet in the contemporary setting, sending out phishing scams or other such activities. Good thought about Angus Wilson, too. I’ve never read him but will endeavour to check him out. Thanks! In the meantime, take care of yourself and keep in touch. I hope you manage to get some quiet time to read. All the best, J x

      Reply
  11. Pingback: Reading Ireland Month Week 4 Round-up!

  12. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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