“Instead of Nothing”: William Trevor, The Story of Lucy Gault


She should have died a child; she knows that but has never said it to the nuns, has never included in the story of herself the days that felt like years when she lay among the fallen stones. It would have lowered their spirits, although it lifts her own because instead of nothing there is what there is.

The Story of Lucy Gault is a melancholy, tender, and strangely comforting novel about the devastating consequences of hatred, violence, and loss. It begins in 1921 with an act of self-defense, a shot fired to scare away boys who have come to “fire” the Gaults’ home of Lahardane on the coast of Ireland. They had been by once before but the dogs had scared them away; “within a week the dogs lay poisoned in the yard, and Captain Gault knew that the intruders would be back.” The bullet strikes one of the boys, and though he does not die the incident makes the anger and suspicion and fear in the community worse and finally Captain Gault and his English wife Heloise decide to leave Ireland. “The trouble will go on,” Heloise tells her husband, “truce or not. You can tell it will. You can feel it. We can’t be protected, Everard.” So they make their plans, pack their things, and say their goodbyes.

But they underestimate their daughter Lucy’s fierce resistance to leaving her home, where she knows and loves every stream and path and stone:

“I won’t go.”

She ran from the room and ran down to her crossing stones. They came to find her, calling out in the woods, but everything she said to them on the way back, they didn’t hear. They didn’t want to hear, they didn’t want to listen.

Much later, Everard will insist that this was their failure, that they carry the blame for what happens next: “that a child’s anxieties had been impatiently ignored was the cruelty that remained.” Because of it, Lucy comes up with a scheme to derail their planned departure. It goes horribly awry and the consequences change everything, for her parents, who leave believing they have lost her forever, and for Lucy, who ends up staying on at Lahardane but in circumstances none of them ever imagined.

gault-3There’s an almost stately simplicity to the novel’s unfolding after this precipitating crisis, which launches its characters into a strange state of limbo. Lucy’s parents, unaware of developments back in Lahardane, roam Europe, exiled from home and happiness by their grief and guilt; Lucy, shamed by what she has done, pays penance for it with a life of near total isolation, even refusing love, when it is offered, as something she cannot accept “until she felt forgiven.” When a reunion finally comes, it is almost too late to repair the damage they have collectively wrought or to make up for the time spent apart, mourning and waiting. There is redemption in the story, though, and it comes from what the nuns who visit Lucy late in her life call her “gift of mercy.” Lucy herself sees nothing extraordinary in what she has done, nothing that needs the kind of explanation others wish they could command: “for what does it matter, really, why people visit one another or walk behind a coffin, only that they do?”

The Story of Lucy Gault is elegantly structured, bringing us patiently around to complete the pattern begun by Everard’s shot in the dark. The story itself is first gripping then almost unbearably heart-wrenching, and then, slowly, it unfurls into a kind of sad, calm beauty. There’s something mesmerizing about the cadences of Trevor’s prose, which is measured but not minimalist, evocative but completely without flourish. Unlike some contemporary writers whose sparse writing seems very flat to me, with little of interest below its dull surface, Trevor’s pulses softly with meaning and feeling. Every page yields a potential example, though it is the cumulative effect that is most powerful. Here’s a sample that perhaps conveys the qualities I liked so much. “For her part,” he tells us,

Lucy did not wonder much about the nature of exile, accepting, with time, what had come about, as she did her lameness and the features that were reflected in her looking-glass. Had Canon Crosbie raised with her the question of going out into the world, she would have replied that the nature and tenets of her life had already been laid down for her. She waited, she would have said, and in doing so kept faith. Each room was dusted clean; each chair, each table, each ornament was as they were remembered. Her full summer vases, her bees, her footsteps on the stairs and on the landings, and crossing rooms and in the cobbled yard and on the gravel, were what she offered. She was not lonely; sometimes she could hardly remember loneliness. ‘Oh, but I’m happy,’ she would have reassured the clergyman had he asked her. ‘Happy enough, you know.’

lucy-gault-2Is the story of Lucy Gault a tragic one? I don’t think so. It is a sad one, certainly, but for all its heartbreak the novel conveys the same sense of peace that draws the visiting nuns to Lucy’s home:

Her tranquillity is their astonishment. For that they come, to be amazed again that such peace is there: all they have heard, and still hear now, does not record it. Calamity shaped a life when, long ago, chance was so cruel. Calamity shapes the story that is told, and is the reason for its being: is what they know, besides, the gentle fruit of such misfortune’s harvest? They like to think so: she has sensed it that they do.

It’s not that there’s a silver lining to the Gault family’s “calamity”: Trevor offers us nothing so pat. I think what makes the novel comforting in spite of its characters’ thwarted joy is that, like Lucy, it settles us into the day-to-day possibilities of grace without insisting that a life without more than that is a failure. “Instead of nothing there is what there is,” Lucy reflects, and what there is has beauty that is its own kind of happiness:

She settles in her chair by the window, to gaze out at the dusky blue of the hydgrangeas. The avenue has gone shadowy, the outline of its trees stark against the sky. The rooks come down to scrabble in the grass as every evening at this time they do, her companions while she watches the fading of the day.

2 thoughts on ““Instead of Nothing”: William Trevor, The Story of Lucy Gault

  1. Tredynas Days August 21, 2019 / 12:15 pm

    The adjective ‘limpid’ is overused to describe some writers’ prose style, but in Trevor’s case it’s appropriate. I’m not aware of the language used in the foreground, just what it conveys with its rhythms, cadences, images. He’s one of the best.


    • Rohan Maitzen August 21, 2019 / 1:33 pm

      I agree. It’s almost frustrating, isn’t it, when you read someone who really deserves one of those over-used adjectives? This is my first experience with William Trevor and I definitely want to read more now.


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