‘The Boarding-House’ by William Trevor

After reading my first book by William Trevor last year (Children of Dynmouth) I have decided to read a few more of his books this year, especially as a few of them are available at my local library. The one that really appealed to me was this one, The Boarding-House, which was first published in 1965. The blurb on the back of the new Penguin edition states: William Wagner Bird filled his boarding-house with people whom society would never miss—if it had ever noticed them at all. Now, doesn’t that just grab your attention?

The novel begins with the landlord of the London boarding-house, Mr Bird, on his death-bed. He is being attended to by one of his tenants, Nurse Clock. Mr Bird had spent the last few decades populating his house with tenants that were lonely lost-souls with neither friends nor family. The house itself had been spared the troubles of decorating or refurbishing for the whole time that Mr Bird had owned the building. It was out-of-date and a little worse for wear just like its owner and tenants.

It turns out that Mr Bird made a study of his tenants; not only did he specifically choose them but he also wrote notes on each one in a notebook titled Notes on Residents. In this book Mr Bird writes:

Well, at least I have done a good thing—I have brought them all together; and though they are solitary spirits, they have seen in my boarding-house that there are others who have been plucked from the same bush. This, I maintain, lends them some trifling solace.

It would seem that Mr Bird’s intentions are purely altruistic and recognising that he is in a position to help others, who are similar in many ways to himself, he does so by allowing them to live their lives as free from outside interference as is possible. But, as the novel progresses, it is not so clear that this was Mr Bird’s intentions at all.

There are many characters in this hugely entertaining novel. We get to know them as Trevor skillfully flits between characters, moving from the present, to the past, and back again, sometimes entering their thoughts, sometimes their dreams or from direct quotes from Mr Bird’s Notes. The novel includes other characters besides the tenants, such as the cook and the maid as well as those that the tenants come into contact with. It would take too long to introduce them all but I will give a quick outline of some of the major participants. Mr Studdy is a petty thief who loves causing mayhem; Mr Bird writes ‘Anyone can see that poor old Studdy never had a friend in his life.’ And of Nurse Clock he says ‘Nurse Clock has morbid interests. She is a woman I would fear were it not for my superior position.’ Venables was the first of Mr Bird’s ‘solitary spirits’, he is a weak, lonely man who suffers from stomach cramps. He arrived after fleeing from a girl he made pregnant and fears that her parents are still seeking him. Miss Clerricot blushes at everything and is extremely self-conscious about her face; Mr Bird finds her ‘adorable’. Major Eele is full of bluster and visits strip clubs but is rather naive; he married a few years before but it only lasted days. Mr Obd came from Africa to study law but didn’t graduate; too embarrassed to return home he works as a clerk; he is deeply in love with a girl called Annabel Tonks but his love is unreciprocated. Mr Scribbin likes listening to records of trains at a thunderous volume. Rose Cave was brought up by her mother after a fling with the wallpaper man; Mr Bird notes that she cries out at night.

It is soon announced that Mr Bird, having no kin of his own, has left the house to two of the residents, Nurse Clock and Mr Studdy, but with the proviso that no changes should be made to the house and that none of the tenants should be made to leave. Just prior to the reading of the will we have witnessesed Studdy trying to wheedle a drink for nothing out of a barman at his local pub, con an old bedridden woman out of some money and write an anonymous blackmail letter to the meals-on-wheels lady. It turns out that Nurse Clock likes caring for old people, especially when they’re over ninety, but it becomes clear that it’s the power that she can exert over them that appeals to her. In short, Studdy is a petty thief and swindler whilst Nurse Clock is a bully. As the novel continues Nurse Clock decides that she wants to turn the house into a nursing home for the elderly and Studdy goes along with her plans, especially as it involves more disruption and chaos but they are a totally incompatible couple; Clock just wants to boss everyone about and is frustrated when others have ideas of their own whilst Studdy has no intention to help her with her plans, instead he has to fight the overwhelming urge to stick a pin into her arm.

So, given that Mr Bird knew about these characteristics, as is apparent from his Notes on Residents, why did he leave the house to these two people? Was it his intention to cause chaos amongst his residents after his death? Or was he just naive? Trevor hints of possible malice in Mr Bird’s decisions:

When Mr Bird had written his will and had read it over he became aware that he was laughing. He heard the sound for some time, a minute or a minute and a quarter, and then he recognized its source and wondered why he was laughing like that, such a quiet, slurping sound, like the lapping of water.

But Trevor points out that Mr Bird had similarly smiled whilst writing about his residents but had murmured an apology when he had realised he was being mean, which isn’t really the action of a malicious person.

This is a brilliant book, full of grotesque but strangely likeable characters, by which I mean likeable as characters in a novel, they’d be a right pain in real life. The novel reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont but surpassed even that superb book in my opinion. I am certainly attracted to books set within a closed environment such as hotel, boarding-house, ship etc. especially if there are many characters. Trevor’s Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel looks quite similar and may well be my next book by the author.


Filed under Fiction, Trevor, William

19 responses to “‘The Boarding-House’ by William Trevor

  1. This sounds very good. Stories set in places where a group of unrelated people are living together never cease to fascinate. The concept seems to have nearly limitless potential.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jonathan

      It seems simple doesn’t it? Put a disparate group of grotesque characters in a confined space and let it roll. I guess that’s the intention with the Big Brother type of TV shows-which shows that it’s not enough on its own. Trevor really lets us see the characters from all angles.


  2. Have you read Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington?
    I read a lot of Trevor a few decades ago but I can’t recall if I read this one or not (perhaps it’ll come back to me if I pick it up and read/read? it again)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      No, I’ve only read ‘Prime’ so far. I’d like to get round to reading some more by her but this year I’m concentrating on certain authors—William Trevor, H.E. Bates, John Cowper Powys, Brian Moore and a few others. Mind you I may try to sneak a Spark in somewhere along the way. I’ll add ‘Kensington’ to my list.

      I would have thought you’d remember reading ‘The Boarding-House’ if you’d read it before. I can’t imagine forgetting it in a hurry. Have you read Mrs Eckdorf? That will probably be my next Trevor book.


  3. I should add that I haven’t enjoyed this more recent stuff as much…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: ‘Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel’ by William Trevor | Intermittencies of the Mind

  5. Lovely review. Funnily enough, I couldn’t help but think of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, too! In fact I’ve just mentioned it in reply to one of the comments on my piece. I think it was the Major that finally sealed it for me – shades of Mr Osmond there, I think.

    Your quote about Mr Bird writing the will is very telling – definitely an element of malice there, even if some of it was operating at a subconscious level.

    PS I would second Guy’s recommendation of Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter – a very affecting film.

    Liked by 1 person

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