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Obituary: William Trevor

William Trevor. Photo: Irish Times William Trevor. Photo: Irish Times

Often described as Ireland’s Chekhov, William Trevor’s reputation far exceeded his own modest description of himself as a “short-story writer who likes to write novels”, just as his success with prose eclipsed his achievements as a writer of compellingly emotional plays for the stage and television.

He was born William Trevor Cox in 1928, just as the recently independent Republic of Ireland began to assert its Catholic distinctiveness over the old Anglo-Irish Protestant order. The shift, as much cultural as political, put Trevor, the son of Protestant bank-worker parents, at a disadvantage in the new state, the always-present undercurrents of which richly informed his writing.

Even more important was his parents’ feuding, fractious relationship. The crushing pressure of domestic life gone sour and the desperate flailing of those caught up in it was at the bittersweet heart of his finely observed writing. He could be as clinically accurate in delineating his often forlorn characters as he was achingly compassionate in his attitude towards them.

A prolific writer, his breakthrough came in 1964 with the novel The Old Boys, which won the Hawthornden Prize for Literature. Adapted by Clive Exton, it was seen the following year on television, with a stage version, starring Michael Redgrave, produced at the Mermaid Theatre in 1971. In 1965, Alastair Sim and Roger Livesey toured his play The Elephant’s Foot, and many of his shorter plays were championed by Basement Theatre at the King’s Head, Islington in the early 1970s.

He made his belated debut at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1981 with Scenes From an Album, a portrait of an English planter family settling in 17th-century Ulster that tapped into his themes of difference, isolation and the suffocating weight of social norms. Meanwhile, A Night with Mrs Da Tanka in 1968, with Geoffrey Bayldon as a bachelor searching for his long-lost sweetheart encountering Jean Kent’s serial divorcee, established Trevor as a writer whose intimate tales perfectly suited the small screen.

Steeped in subtext, his plays attracted actors of calibre including Claire Bloom (An Imaginary Woman, 1973), Wendy Hiller (Last Wishes, 1977), Celia Johnson (Matilda’s England, 1979) and a host of names in his serialisation of Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop (1979). All For Love, Granada’s 1982 trilogy of his short stories, saw Jean Simmons and Ian Carmichael partnered in Down at the Hydro.

Profiling documentary film-makers revisiting the scene of a brutal murder of two young lovers, his 1991 play for the BBC, Events at Drimaghleen had been a radio play before making its way to television. It showed Trevor was able to address larger calamities within the public domain while retaining his acute focus on the intrusion of events into private lives.

Returning to more familiar territory, his novel Felicia’s Journey was filmed in 1999, while My House in Umbria (2003) saw Maggie Smith play a romantic novelist opening her Italian home to a trio of survivors from a terrorist attack, with unexpected consequences.

William Trevor was born on May 24, 1928 ,in Mitchelstown, County Cork, and moved to Devon in 1954. He received an honorary knighthood in 2002 and died on November 20, aged 88. He is survived by his wife and two sons.

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