Mary Fitzgerald-Holt has noted that The Hill Bachelors represents a marked change of style from William Trevor’s previous collections. “Gone are the dramatic moments of confrontation, the sometimes strident exposures of painful truths” (174), she writes. Indeed, this collection has a much quieter feel, this conveyed through an economic use of words and a consistent tone of gentle tolerance. Many of the characters are as seedy as those in previous Trevor collections: confidence tricksters, petty thieves, and mendacious hypocrites are as prevalent as before. The difference is that secrets are revealed slowly, without the dramatic sensationalism that characterizes, for example, the revelations made by the ranting Cynthia in 1981’s “Beyond the Pale.” In “Three People,” two seemingly innocuous persons have transgressed seriously: Vera has escaped punishment for murdering her dependent, handicapped sister, and Sidney has perverted the course of justice by providing a false alibi. These horrendous secrets are not revealed in a destructive flash but are discreetly and quietly presented to us—not to any other character in the text.
Several stories are set in England, but the stories set in Ireland convey the most consistent and memorable theme: the decline of rural Irish customs. The sober pace and tone is appropriate to this theme: Rural Irish families, routines, and traditions are dying not with cataclysmic flashes but with anticlimactic whimpers. “Of the Cloth” focuses on the quiet life of a Church of Ireland clergyman in remote Ennismolach. Underlining the steadfast dignity of the clergyman, Trevor insists that Reverend Grattan Fitzmaurice is as Irish as any Catholic: “[H]e belonged to this landscape.” A contrast is made between the sparseness of Fitzmaurice’s existence (the rectory has a negligible staff and a minute congregation) with the apparent wealth of a nearby, fresh flower–decorated Catholic church. But we gradually realize that Trevor is not mourning the decline of Irish Protestantism. Instead, the insistence is that the Roman Church is in decline—falling attendances underline the Catholic Church’s lessening influence. The confidence of the Catholic priests is a front: Their status will soon be as sorry as that of the already marginalized Fitzmaurice. The Protestant tradition has declined already; the Catholic tradition is undergoing a similar decline.
In “The Virgin’s Gift,” another sort of rural decline is subtly accounted for: the passing of family-scale agriculture. Michael has willingly undergone many years of hermitage, inspired by instructions apparently sent by the Virgin Mary in his sleep. Called upon again, this time to return to his country-dwelling family, he goes home. His aged parents appreciate this change, but there will not be a perpetuation of their livestock-rearing and crop-sowing subsistence. Michael still seeks only peace. Significantly, he is an only child; he chose a religious life instead of a married life with a young woman, Fódla. Trevor does not tell us whether Michael’s following of the Virgin’s callings is delusional— Trevor never judges his characters in such a manner—but it is clear that Michael’s religious devotion causes the ending of one family’s local-scale farming. In the title story, 29-year-old Paul does continue rural traditions: He takes over the family’s farm after his father’s death. His older brothers have all progressed to married lifestyles in commercial environments distanced from the farm’s remoteness. The problem is that Paul cannot find a marriage partner. Women invariably reject Paul—transparently, he seeks a wife only to share farm chores. Trevor articulates the tragedy of this enforced solitariness through an elegiac narrative. Paul accepts that he is destined to be a “hill bachelor,” a loner who will never pass the farm down to an heir. He is resigned to the inevitable decline of rural traditions in his area, just as Trevor accepts with melancholy that traditional rural sensibilities in Ireland have generally given way to industrial-scale agriculture and urban-influenced attitudes and mores.
Fitzgerald-Holt, Mary. William Trevor: Re-imagining Ireland. Dublin: The Liffey Press, 2003.
Kiberd, Declan. “Demented Bachelors,” review of The Hill Bachelors. London Review of Books, 8 March 2001, pp. 30–31.
MacKenna, Dolores. William Trevor: The Writer and His Work. Dublin: New Island Books, 1999.
Ormsby-Lennon, Hugh. Fools of Fiction: Reading the Fiction of William Trevor. Dublin: Maunsel and Co., 2004.
Trevor, William. The Hill Bachelors. London: Viking, 2000.