Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel by William Trevor

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working my way through some of William Trevor’s novels – mostly the early ones with their notes of dark comedy and undeniable tragedy. Mrs Eckdorf is very much of a piece with the others from this period. First published in 1969, it is something of a bridge between The Boarding House (1965) and The Children of Dynmouth (1976), both of which I adored.

The novel’s catalyst is the titular Mrs Eckdorf – a most annoying and invasive woman who has fashioned a career as a photographer, exploiting the lives of unfortunate individuals around the world, their existences touched by devastation. Large coffee-table style books are this woman’s stock-in-trade – a forerunner of the poverty porn images that are rather controversial today.

As the novel opens, Mrs Eckdorf is on route to Dublin, eager to pay a visit to O’Neill’s Hotel, having heard about the establishment from a bartender on a ship. The hotel itself is central to the book; once grand and distinguished (the sort of place frequented by actors and commercial travellers), it has now fallen into disrepute, its faded glory being a kind of metaphor for declining moral standards.

The hotel is owned by Mrs Sinnott, a ninety-one-year-old deaf-mute woman who can only communicate with others through her notebooks. Various other characters – mostly orphans – frequent the hotel, having been drawn to Mrs Sinnott over the years, confiding their stories to the old lady in a way that feels similar to a religious confession. As a consequence, the notebooks represent a rich source of information, documenting the preoccupations of each of Mrs Sinnott’s visitors – their hopes and dreams, their fears and disappointments.

The hotel itself is largely run by O’Shea, an ageing porter who longs for a return to the glory days of the past. Permanently trailed by his greyhound, O’Shea cuts a somewhat tragic figure, albeit one who has Mrs Sinnott’s best interests at heart. Also residing at the hotel is Mrs S’s son, Eugene, a rather thoughtless, feckless man whose prime interests appear to be drinking and gambling – mostly on greyhound races – much to O’Shea’s disgust. 

When Mrs Eckdorf arrives at O’Neill’s, O’Shea takes a shine to her, mistakenly believing that she may wish to purchase the hotel. Perhaps as a consequence of this misunderstanding, O’Shea longs to pour his heart out to Mrs Eckdorf, viewing her as a kind of saviour and potential ally against Eugene.

He’d have liked to repeat the conversation that had taken place that morning in the kitchen between himself and Eugene Sinnott, explaining to her [Mrs Eckdorf] that for the past three years Eugene Sinnott had insisted on giving his mother a pencil sharpener for her birthday and was again insisting on it, that he had gone on about a greyhound race instead of devoting thought to the question of the birthday present.

Mrs Sinnott’s ninety-second birthday is fast approaching, a date that Mrs Eckdorf believes is particularly significant – not just to the old lady but to the broader Sinnott family. There are hints of a tragedy that took place precisely twenty-eight years earlier – a story that Mrs Eckdorf is keen to uncover, potentially as the source material for another of her books. With this in mind, Mrs Eckdorf proceeds to inveigle her way into the Sinnott family, just in time for the birthday celebrations in all their unvarnished glory.

As ever with William Trevor, the dialogue is excellent, frequently highlighting the mordant humour that seems so indicative of his early work. It’s a style typified by the following passage in which Eugene Sinnott is virtually powerless in the face of Mrs Eckdorf, complete with all her fake charm and flattery.   

‘Now listen,’ said Eugene, stepping in front of O’Shea. ‘Listen, Mrs Eckdorf, this is a bad time to stay here. Tomorrow there’s an occasion here, a lot of people coming, a family thing. It’d be awkward with a stranger about.’

‘Mr Sinnott, I’m like a mouse.’

‘Added to which, there’s only myself and O’Shea. There’s no cook in the kitchen or anything like that. The dining-room hasn’t been entered since we had a farmer from Monaghan here two months ago, a man O’Shea found wandering –’

‘Oh God, I love your way of talking,’ cried Mrs Eckdorf. ‘All the time this morning I’ve met only the nicest and now it’s best of all. Any old bed will do, and a meat tea I adore.’ (pp. 84–85)

Also on Mrs Eckdorf’s hit list are the other members of Mrs Sinnott family, all of whom are brilliantly drawn by the author in his characteristically insightful style. There is Eugene’s estranged wife, Philomena, whose primary concern is her son, Timothy John, and his burgeoning relationship with a girl from Lipton’s cheese counter – the wonderfully-named Daisy Tulip. Mrs Sinnott’s daughter, Enid, is a particularly tragic case, trapped in a loveless marriage to the bemused Mr Gregan, a man with absolutely no awareness of just how unhappy and lonely his wife feels on a continual basis. As the novel unfolds, the developments that led to this relationship are revealed, deepening the poignancy of their isolation from one another.

He had explained to her once that a brooch she had seen in a shop in Nassau Street would be of little use to her since there would never be an occasion in her life when she could wear it. (p. 34)

In the hall she shook her head. She held back her sobs. His voice questioned her again, and she said again that she was upset. She said she was fifty-one years of age and had borne no children. She said that for some reason she couldn’t bear the thought of his growing tomatoes in his field. She said that for some reason she couldn’t bear the thought of seeing him on his bicycle. (p. 37)

Other characters of note include Morrissey, a seedy little pimp who sleeps in one of the corridors of O’Neill’s hotel, effectively using the place as a brothel for various women on his books. Agnes Quin, for her sins, has fallen into Morrissey’s clutches; nevertheless, there are glimmers of hope for Agnes, a young woman who dreams of Hollywood and Olivia de Havilland.

Having installed herself at the hotel, Mrs Eckdorf wastes little time in tracking down these individuals, using her discussions to create a mental picture of their backstories, notably enhanced by the conversations in Mrs S’s notebooks. Naturally, the books prove to be a rich seam of information for Mrs E, a veritable treasure trove just waiting to be exploited… 

As the birthday tea gets underway, Mrs Eckdorf continues to make a nuisance of herself, intruding on the privacy of the occasion, snapping people left, right, and centre for her *art*. Despite several protestations from the Sinnott family, Mrs E is determined to persist — an activity that ultimately leads to her downfall, revealing a disturbed and deluded individual underneath all the bravado.

Once again, William Trevor proves himself a master of the tragicomedy, crafting a story that marries humour and poignancy in broadly equal measure. (There’s a marvellous farcical sequence in which a Mr Smedley, a cardboard salesman from England, is fobbed off with another of Morrissey’s women when Agnes Quin fails to show. It is the beginning of another undoing – in this instance, that of a relative innocent, ‘a man of vigour’ caught in the fray.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Trevor’s interest lies in various aspects of human behaviour, particularly the darker or less appealing facets of our personalities. There is a seedy malevolence to some of these characters, a sense of selfishness and exploitation of others that some readers might not enjoy (despite its authenticity). Nevertheless, there is evidence of sympathy and compassion too, certainly enough to balance the tone. All in all, this is another finely observed novel from one of my favourite writers – I loved it.

Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel is published by Penguin Books; personal copy. Read for Cathy’s Reading Ireland month, which runs throughout March.

37 thoughts on “Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel by William Trevor

  1. MarinaSofia

    You do like your boarding house/hotels literature, don’t you? And this does sound very attractive. It’s odd, isn’t it, that in some countries (for example, Romania) there is no such literature set in hotels/boarding houses at all?

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha – yes, I do! That’s an interesting point about genre being quite specific to some countries but not to others. I hadn’t really thought about it in that context before, but now that you mention it I can see what you mean!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m glad I started to read them largely in chronological order as it’s interesting to see his development over time. These early novels are wonderfully dark and disturbing – very different in style to something like Love and Summer.

  2. Jane

    There’s a lovely anonymity to boarding houses isn’t there, any possible character could turn up?! I need to get reading William Trevor, this sounds very good.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Exactly. It’s that mix of flotsam and jetsam that makes this book so compelling. If you’re looking to make a start with Trevor, may I recommend The Children of Dynmouth (the book that Ali has just reviewed)? It’s probably the best of his early novels – one of my favourite reads from last year.

  3. Julé Cunningham

    It’s a good day when I get to read both you and Ali on William Trevor books! It’s particularly interesting to see how Mrs. Eckdorf is not only an outsider muscling her way into a circle of family and friends, but a photographer using her art to do so. Trevor raises some difficult questions about how artists come up with material for their creations.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes. it’s a lovely coincidence to see Ali publishing her Dynmouth piece on the same day! That’s a very good point on the question of source material for the creative arts. Funnily enough, I’ve just been watching a documentary about Vivian Maier, the street photographer whose work was discovered following her death 10 or so years ago. She had a wonderful ability to capture people in quite a naturalistic manner, so much so that it raises questions as to whether she may have crossed a line (certainly on one or two occasions)…

  4. heavenali

    I remember this one so well. I seem to remember being a bit underwhelmed, but at the time I thought that had more to do with my mood. Now I am convinced that was the problem. The hotel and the characters have really stayed with me, which is a testament to William Trevor ‘s writing. So lovely that we are both reviewing William Trevor today.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, isn’t it just! A lovely coincidence. I think Trevor’s characters are almost always highly memorable – very much a reflection of this author’s skills as a writer, as you say There’s a degree of eccentricity to many of these individuals, and yet they always seem believable and authentic.

  5. 1streading

    It’s interesting how many of these boarding house novels there are – I wonder if that’s representative of how common it was to stay in one, or because it’s a gift for a writer, allowing a large cast of characters in one place.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Maybe a combination of both, particularly given how widespread they were during the 1940s and ’50s! That said, there are more contemporary versions of the genre to be found in literature today. Sarah Moss’s Summerwater, for example, which takes a small group of holiday cabins in Scotland as its setting. Have you read it by any chance?

  6. Jonathan

    I loved this one just as much as The Boarding House but I wouldn’t want to decide beween the two. Your review reminds me that I haven’t read a book by Trevor for a while; my next one was going to be The Love Department.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think it’s the missing link between The Boarding House and The Children of Dynmouth, maybe with a dash of Patrick Hamilton thrown in (I can’t but feel that Trevor must have admired him as a writer). The Love Department is good, although not quite in the same league as his other early novels for me. Others have loved it though, so you may well find it interesting!

  7. gertloveday

    Most enjoyable review. Trevor can certainly depict the malicious aspects of humanity. I imagine the boarding house is a particularly English phenomenon, as is the seedy hotel where people down on their luvk may spend their last years.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, although there are some great novels set in Ireland that also feature these seedy hotels and boarding houses. Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, for example, a novel set in a Belfast boarding house in the mid ’50s. I can’t recall if you’ve read it – but if not, it’s well worth considering!

  8. buriedinprint

    Ahhh, I agree, how truly satisfying is that dialogue! And I could practically see the scene, even without a drop of exposition, not a single descriptor. No wonder his work has been brought to the screen a few times. I wonder if these earlier works ever were dramatized too. They’d’ve made lovely films by the sounds of it. I know I likely say this every time you’ve posted about him, but I’ve love to read straight through his work. He’s so good.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think you’re right about the potential for dramatisations as there’s something about his work that makes it seem very transferable – probably a combination of the dialogue and the mise en scène (so to speak). I think he scripted some TV dramas and plays during his career, including the script for a stage adaptation of his novel The Old Boys, which was first published in 1964.

  9. Peggy

    Love William Trevor and haven’t read this one yet. The setting of a boarding house is intriguing for sure. Will be looking for this one!

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