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 subjectsevents 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, 14 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'd 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 31 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
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.
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 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.