Katherine Bailey on Books
Book Reviews, Literary Essays


Reviews: Irish Authors Elizabeth Alone by William Trevor
The Cheltenham Street Hospital

A study of one of William Trevor’s early novels, Elizabeth Alone, which was published in 1973, reveals the same underlying arguments about the human condition that flow through his fiction of recent years. For example, unhappiness is ubiquitous, yet life is good; tragedy occurs, yet people are resilient; and relationships are emotionally complex, often disappointing, yet it is only through them that one lives a full life. The novel also showcases Trevor’s remarkable talent for depicting the inner lives of his characters. But Elizabeth Alone differs from, say, his latest novel, Love and Summer. Clearly, it is his writing style that he has honed and altered over the years. Explicit and intricate in style, Elizabeth Alone seems to reveal everything to the reader, while Trevor’s nuanced and concise 21st century works require readers to read between the lines and to infer a great deal.

The book’s central characters meet in the gynecological ward of London’s Cheltenham Street Hospital. Elizabeth Aidallbery, Sylvia Clapper and Miss Samson await hysterectomies, while Lily Drucker is confined to the ward indefinitely, on bed-rest due to a problematic pregnancy. We learn that she has already suffered four miscarriages. Though a separate plot forms around each of these four patients, it is the genteel, 41-year-old Elizabeth Aidallbery who takes center stage. At its core the novel is a celebration of Elizabeth’s hard-won success in transforming her self-image.

At the time of her surgery when she would, of course, part with a vital part of her body, Elizabeth has already lost her husband, her lover, and most significantly, her sense of self. As events unfold she will also lose her childhood sweetheart, and the oldest of her three daughters, 17-year-old Joanna, will move away to a hippie commune.

Gloomy memories plague Elizabeth. “She saw her life,” writes Trevor, “as something that was scattered untidily about, without a pattern, without rhyme or reason. She often wondered if other people, examining their lives in middle age, would have preferred, as she did, to see something tidier and with more purpose.”

Elizabeth was only 19 when she agreed to marry a “tweedy” man with an elegant exterior, a man 13 years her senior. During their courtship, “He talked about Egypt and Persia and Peru, and tribes he’d studied and genealogy and psychiatry.” Trevor points out the inauspicious beginnings of their married life “…she didn’t like sharing a bed with him. This came as a shock to her and caused her painfully to assume that she wouldn’t have liked sharing a bed with any man…On their honeymoon – among ancient ruins in Crete – she didn’t tell him…she was somehow ashamed.”

Aidallbery (Trevor does not assign him a Christian name) came to live in Elizabeth’s childhood home in a southwestern suburb of London. The imposing three-storey house has back windows that overlook the Thames. Her widowed mother lived in a flat at the top. Elizabeth spent years in this misalliance, trying to please a man who “had developed a disappointed way of looking at her,” a man who “considered that she, more than the children, was responsible for the children’s shortcomings.” Trevor explains that Aidallbery expected Elizabeth to read books about the Achaemenicins and reports on the integration of central African tribes.

Elizabeth carries on a love affair with a man whose young daughters attend the same swimming class as her two youngest, Jennifer and Alice. Against all odds, they fall in love. “For 19 years,” writes Trevor, “she had assumed that the physical side of marriage was something she didn’t care for, yet it seemed now that in another marriage this wouldn’t have been so.” Without question, there was no future together for Elizabeth and her lover. Inexplicably, both wanted above all to protect his fragile wife, Daphne.

In the aftermath of the affair, by the time Elizabeth tells Aidallbery that she wants a divorce, she has come to understand her relationship with her husband. She reflects, “It was more than loving someone else and wanting to have another marriage.” She resented with a bitter passion the years she’d wasted with a man who’d married her because she was beautiful and young, so she might listen and he could feel proud.

The character of Henry, Elizabeth’s childhood companion and perpetually devoted admirer, is one of Trevor’s endearing losers. “Henry had grown into a heavy, dog-like man with an elaborately freckled face and reddish hair, with large hands that were elaborately freckled also…In middle age he spent a lot of his time brewing home-made beer and endeavoring to cultivate mushrooms for profit.” Henry was accident prone and luckless and he drank too much of his home-brew beer and too much beer at the local pub. At the time of Elizabeth’s hospitalization he was self-employed as a vending-machine operator. While very drunk, Henry dies from gas escaping from his kitchen oven. The police report noted that “there had been alcoholic poisoning as well as the effect of the gas.”

Receiving the news of Henry’s death just days after her operation, Elizabeth suffers a setback in her recovery. Moreover, she is dealing with the loss of Joanna, who has moved to a commune in Somerset run by an “elephantine and elderly” woman named Mrs. Tabor-Ellis. Mrs. Tabor-Ellis, who raises goats, believes in the spirits of stones and infant animals, and in human touch and feel. And to Elizabeth’s understandable distress, she promotes free love, cannabis and LSD.

While this primary storyline centered on Elizabeth progresses, Trevor’s subplots, which focus on the other bedridden women, seamlessly develop. Sylvia Clapper, who works in Woolworth’s basement, is irrevocably in love with an elusive Irishman who is both a liar and a thief. Lily Drucker, trying to ward off a miscarriage, must cope with unpleasant revelations about her husband as well as a cruel mother-in-law. And finally, Miss Samson must re-examine her religious convictions in light of disillusionment.

Trevor’s depiction of Elizabeth’s protracted recovery after returning home from her three-week hospital stay is unmistakably one of the book’s highlights. It is the healing of her spirit along with that of her body that holds our attention. Somewhat mindlessly she takes care of her two young daughters while she takes care of herself. As time passes, for the first time ever, she gains a measure of control over her life and over her thoughts, which up until now had been self-defeating.

In one of the novel’s closing scenes Elizabeth pays a call on Miss Samson at her flat on Balaclava Avenue. Most of the time a deeply religious and empathetic woman, Miss Samson confides that she cannot believe in a God who allows so much misery in the world. Yet, she admits, there are days when she does believe. Miss Samson’s courage bolsters Elizabeth and motivates her to become a more responsible mother.

In a simultaneous step forward, Elizabeth begins to savor her own independence. Though no one knows better that happiness is fragile, she is happy knowing that she can make a satisfactory life on her own. Marriage, she understands, is not a synonym for happiness – nor does it have to be a prison.