Tragedy, History, and Myth: William Trevor's Fools of Fortune
McAlindon, Tom, Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies
Even among the best of its kind, William Trevor's Fools of Fortune (1984) stands out as a Big House novel of singular complexity and scope. In this richly allusive work, the story of the house at Kilneagh between 1918 and 1983 is fashioned as a tragic and symbolic distillation of Irish history from the sixteenth century to the present day. But in keeping with Trevor's conviction that the artist must deal with what he calls 'the parochial' in such a way as to 'illuminate the human condition', (1) the novel has a transhistorical, mythic dimension too.
The ambitious nature of the novel is signalled in the title, a phrase which links it with Romeo and Juliet (III.i.136). (2) Here, too, the title intimates, is a story of young lovers whose happiness is undone by the violence endemic to the polarized world in which they have the misfortune to be born. Here, too, the tragedy involves the protagonist's surrender to the spirit of hatred and revenge, and an element of malign chance which mocks good intentions and reasonable hopes. Here, too, the harshness of the tragic ending is modified by a consolatory reaffirmation of love and union in the midst of ruin.
But whereas the feuding which splits the world of Romeo and Juliet seems to have no beginning, in Trevor's novel the perspective is historical throughout. Like that other meditation on colonialism and civil war, Conrad's Nostromo, Fools of Fortune has its own historian, a pacifist priest who repeatedly insists that the lesson of Irish history is the futility of violence. Like Nostromo, moreover, it employs narrative techniques (including memory, reverie, dream, and nightmare) which continually break down distinctions between past, present, and future: there is 'the battlefield continuing' from Elizabethan times to the current 'trouble up in the North', symbolized by the permanently stopped clock in what remains of the ruined house at Kilneagh. (3)
Although he may have had Nostromo in mind when he set about locating a narrative of recent history in an extensive historical continuum, and making it exemplary of the whole, another analogy in this respect, and probably an important influence, is David Thomson's classic memoir, Woodbrook (1974). Beginning with suggestions of an endangered idyll, moving through a phase of hope and renewal, and ending in desolation, Woodbrook has the shape and tone of a tragic novel. Early in the 1930s, Thomson, a history student at Oxford, goes to the Big House at Woodbrook in Co. Roscommon as tutor to the two daughters of a cultured Anglo-Irish family, the Kirkwoods. He stays there for almost ten years, failing in love with Woodbrook, with Ireland, and with his pupil Phoebe (with whom he reads Romeo and Juliet). But the Kirkwood fortunes decline and the estate is sold to its native Irish tenants, the Maxwells. The family moves to Dublin, where Phoebe soon falls victim to a serious illness and dies. Back in wartime England, Thomson's sense of loss on hearing of her death seems complete; but it is not. He returns to Ireland almost thirty years later, assuming that his old friends the Maxwell brothers will have given new life to Woodbrook. Instead, he finds that it too has died. The land is overgrown with thorn, abandoned implements litter the farmyard; Tommy Maxwell, childless and arthritic, has retreated with his wife to the servant quarters, leaving the unmanageable Big House to become an echoing shell.
Summarized thus, Thomson's memoir is a moving and personal version of a familiar pattern. What makes it unique is the way in which the author's affection for Woodbrook stirs his historical imagination. History continually seeps through his autobiographical narrative, not in any orderly or academic fashion, nor with any clear sense of chronological development, but according as particular places, persons, or customs prompt parenthetical explanation or narrative inset: 'past and present merged'. (4) Thus at the end the reader is left with a well-informed grasp of Ireland's troubled history from the arrival of the Normans until the time of the book's publication. …