Other People’s Worlds by William Trevor

As a writer, William Trevor has an innate ability to convey the tragedies of our lives, how individuals can be worn down by their fates and circumstances. It’s a quality that’s very much in evidence here, in the author’s 1980 novel, Other People’s Worlds, a tale of deception, collateral damage and a questioning of faith. But, if anything, the story is even darker than Trevor’s other early to mid-period work, more malevolent perhaps than The Children of Dynmouth, with which it shares a central theme – how a sinister figure can sweep into people’s lives, leaving wreckage in their wake.

The man in question is Francis Tyte, a thirty-something bit-part actor whose main claim to fame is a series of tobacco commercials on the TV. As the novel opens, Francis is preparing to marry Julia Ferndale, a forty-seven-year-old woman who lives wither her widowed mother, Mrs Anstey, in Swan House, their Gloucestershire home. Mrs Anstey has some nagging doubts about Francis, which she tries to voice to her grown-up grandchildren, Henrietta and Katherine, but to little avail. While Julia’s daughters agree that their mother should make a will, they have no great concerns about Francis himself. After all, Julia seems happy with him, contently planning their honeymoon in Florence, for which she alone will pay.

Francis, however, is not as charming or innocent as he might appear at first sight, as Trevor quickly reveals to the reader (but not to Julia herself). Over the years, Francis has latched onto a series of people (often women), inveigling his way into their worlds, taking advantage of their generosity – and in some instances, their vulnerabilities. It’s a well-worn routine, complete with a tragic childhood to illicit the victims’ sympathies, perfected over time, from one family to another.

After the tragedy of his parents’ death when he was eleven he’d spent the remainder of his childhood in Suffolk, with a faded old aunt who had died herself a few years ago. None of that was true. As a child he had developed the fantasy of the train crash; his parents were still alive, the aunt and her cottage figments of his imagination. But in the drawing-room of Swan House he recalled the railway tragedy with suitable regret, and was rewarded with sympathy and another cup of tea. (p. 28)

Once Francis has gained what he wants from his benefactors – or has been rumbled – he disappears, leaving them feeling foolish and violated in his wake. In most instances, money is his main object, alongside a place to stay; but as the narrative unfolds, the is a sense of something deeper at play – a desire or need to disrupt, perhaps. In many respects, Julia is the perfect target for Francis – kind, compassionate, and too trusting by half. Prone to collecting ‘lame ducks’, as Mrs Anstey tends to think of it. 

As preparations for the wedding get underway, Francis’s past begins to close in on him. We meet Doris, a single mother with a drink problem, barely holding down her job in the shoe department of a local store. While twelve-year-old Joy (Francis and Doris’s daughter) skips school, Doris cuts a particularly tragic figure, hiding bottles of vodka behind the bread bin to feed her escalating addiction. She too is the victim of Francis’s lies, knowing nothing about his engagement to Julia and the forthcoming wedding. As far as Doris is concerned, Francis is still married to his first wife, a dressmaker in Folkestone who has been at death’s door for several years.

Surely, it’s only a matter of time. Once the dressmaker has finally passed away, things will be different. Francis will be free to live with Doris and Joy on a permanent basis – just like a proper family, or so Doris believes. But her colleagues at the store are not quite as convinced…

He’d got even thinner, his face especially, not that it didn’t suit him. Lean bacon’s best, as Irene in Handbags always said. All the girls on the floor knew what he looked like of course because of being on the television, especially since he’d become the Man with the Pipe and there were more close-ups of his features. ‘Dishy,’ young Maeve who brought the tea to the floor supervisor’s office had said only three weeks ago. But some of the other girls, aware of how long Doris had been waiting for him, sometimes pursed their lips. (p. 64)

Others too get caught up in the web of lies, from Susanna Music, a young actress who comes into contact with Francis while working on a TV drama, to Francis’s elderly parents, Mr and Mrs Tyte – alive and relatively well in a care home in Hampton Wick. (Interestingly, the drama Francis and Susanna are working on concerns Constance Kent, whose story has some resonances with Other People’s Worlds.)

Once the truth about Francis comes out (which feels inevitable to the reader from the start), Julia, a practising Catholic, begins to seriously question her faith, doubting the existence of God, given the trauma she is experiencing. It’s an interesting development, adding another layer to Trevor’s richly imagined story.

Francis Tyte is yet another of William Trevor’s sinister creations, a truly dangerous man who cares little for his victims, weaving fantasies for himself as he destroys those around him. As the story develops, we learn more about his early years, the interactions between Francis and a broader at the Tyte family home. Not that any of this is an excuse for Francis’s unscrupulous behaviour, but it does shed some light on how the rot began to set in.

Alongside the darkness and undeniable tragedy, there are humorous moments too. Mrs Spanners, Julia’s sixty-year-old charwoman, provides some welcome light relief with her interest in local gossip and forthright pronouncements. (Mrs Anstey, as it happens, is not a fan of Mrs Spanners and her ways of doing things, viewing her as an interference when Julia is away.) Once again, Trevor demonstrates his sharp eye for detail, the little touches that bring a character to life.

[Mrs Spanners:] ‘Fancy the garbage out again! Never think of no one but theirselves.’

She wore an overall with prancing shepherdesses on it, and was heavily scented with Love-in-a-Mist. Her face had already been made up, fingernails shaped and painted. Her tangerine hair was fresh from its curlers.

‘Another thing,’ she said. ‘Pig products is up. Immediate from midnight.’

With that she departed. (pp. 123–124)

Doris is a remarkably complex character (more deranged and twisted than Francis himself), foisting herself on Julia, Mrs Anstey and others as the truth is revealed.

All in all, this is a fateful tale – a story of shattered lives damaged by a fantasist/con man with little appreciation of his capacity to destroy. Nevertheless, there are glimmers of hope at the end amid the damage and destruction.

Definitely recommended for lovers of dark, character-driven fiction with flawed, unlikeable individuals. Fans of Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye may well be interested in this one, especially given the resonances with Dougal Douglas and his disruptive impact on the community.

Other People’s Worlds is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

35 thoughts on “Other People’s Worlds by William Trevor

  1. madamebibilophile

    Having read this and Ali’s review of Fools of Fortune yesterday, I’m baffled as to why I’ve not read more William Trevor. He sounds an extraordinary writer. I can imagine Francis really gets under the reader’s skin. And you’ve compared it to my favourite Spark novel, so I’m wholly convinced this is unmissable :-)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Definitely a book for you, then! I can imagine Francis Tyte as an older version of Dougal Douglas, scamming the compassionate and vulnerable when they’re least expecting it…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, he’s got an amazing eye for detail, from people’s clothes to their mannerisms and expressions. Even though Mrs Spanners is a relatively minor characters here, she’s conveyed so vividly that it’s hard not to picture her!

      Reply
  2. jenniferbeworr

    This really is a service to William Trevor, that you write as you do in the outline of characters. I was introduced only several years ago to his short stories and novels, and have some catching up to do. Thank you for this sensitive plot encapsulation and interpretation.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jennifer. His characters are always so interesting to write about, complete with their various flaws and failings. I’m working my way through his fiction, slowly but surely… :)

      Reply
  3. Cathy746books

    William Trevor really is extraordinary, isn’t he? I’ve just finished The Children of Dynmouth and was incredibly impressed. This is another one to add to the wishlist!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The Children of Dynmouth is probably my favourite Trevor so far, although I’ve still got quite a few of his novels to read. He has a wonderful way of capturing the quiet tragedies of life, the disappointments and moments of despair…

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, I completely agree with you on the Spark comparison. Timothy Gedge is like a younger version of Dougal Douglas, while Francis Tyte (from the novel I’ve reviewed here) is where they’re heading in the future.

          Reply
  4. peterleyland

    I’ve not read his novels Jacqui but am a great fan of his short stories, an edition of which featured in a short story course of mine. I’m intrigued by your reference to Constance Kent, a fascinating real life story in itself via Mr Whicher if I remember correctly.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s right! Francis has a role in a TV drama about the case, which is rather apt given some of developments in the novel itself. I’m glad you’ve mentioned Trevor’s stories as I’d like to read more of those going forward. The ‘After Rain’ collection from the mid ’90s is superb – The Potato Dealer, Lost Ground and The Piano Tuner’s Wives immediately spring to mind.

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review as always, Jacqui, and Trevor really does sound like an author of dark tales. i’ve been reading a lot about his books this month and his characters are quite something! Not sure I’m quite ready for them at the moment but I will keep him in mind!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. You might prefer his short stories to his novels, should you ever be minded to give him a go. His ‘After Rain’ collection is somewhat different to these early novels, more poignant and compassionate, I think – definitely less malevolent!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      He’s well worth checking out. For you, I would recommend either After Rain, a poignant collection of short stories, or Love and Summer – his final novel, I think.

      Reply
  6. heavenali

    Oh my this sounds marvellous, in a darkly sinister way. I loved that malevolence he brought to The Children of Dynmouth. I can see I am going to have to acquire some more William Trevor.

    Reply
  7. 1streading

    I was thinking of The Ballad of Peckham Rye from the opening paragraph so was not at all surprised to see you mention it at the end! Isn’t it frustrating as a reader when you know he is a con man and other characters do not? I imagine myself shouting at the book!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, you just want to take Julia aside and give her a good talking to – although I appreciate these things are much harder to see when you’re caught up in a relationship!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s darker than The Old Boys but not without its moments of humour. I’d recommend the Children of Dynmouth if you’re ever thinking of going back to him.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Mrs Spanners was a delight, I have to admit! And I loved Mrs Anstey, the only character who could see people for who they truly were, if only she could have voiced her concerns more strongly…

      Reply
  8. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Wonderful review as always, Jacquiwine! I’m currently fighting the urge for a William Trevor binge — however could I have gone years & years without reading him?
    I noticed your reference in comments to Trevor’s After Rain, which I regarded as a transcendent reading experience (I know I’m inclined to hyperbole but . . . it really was. The story “Lost Ground” lingered in my mind for days and even led to a bout of research on the saint that appeared to Milton. Great review there BTW).
    I’ve stopped to check my William Trevor shelf and was devastated to discover I’d done a lot of weeding there during my big move two years ago. Fortunately, I kept all the short stories; although his novels are superb, I do think Trevor’s best in the shorter format.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks so much! After Rain really is superb – not a dud in the whole collection, which is testament to Trevor’s skill as a writer. In fact your comment reinforces what many others have said about the short form being where he excels. I really must shift my focus towards his stories in future…

      Reply
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  12. Marcie McCauley

    I’ve been thinking so often of Trevor this year. I had planned to read him in 2022 but haven’t quite gotten off the ground with that yet. Your post makes me want to, even more, though.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m trying to read one of his books every 6 months or so, just to keep up a sense of momentum with him. What I find particularly interesting is the contrast between the darkly comic / malevolent ‘feel’ of these early-mid period novels and the softer, more compassionate tones of his later work. His stories in particular feel somewhat different to these books. And yet, having said that, they still have something in common. Maybe it’s partly an interest in people on the margins of life, the lonely and unfulfilled? I’m finding it hard to pin down!

      Reply
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