‘A Portrait of that Lonely Woman’: William Trevor’s ‘The Ballroom of Romance’
INTERVIEWER: You have never really created a hero. Why is that?
TREVOR: Because I find them dull. Heroes don’t really belong in short stories. As Frank O’Connor said, ‘Short stories are about little people,’ and I agree. I find the unheroic side of people much richer and more entertaining than black-and-white-success.
William Trevor, The Art of Fiction No. 108. Interviewed by Mira Stout
In Frank O’ Connor’s classic study of the short story, The Lonely Voice, he says that one of the things which characterises the short story (and for him differentiates it from the novel) is ‘an intense awareness of human loneliness’ and that:
it might be truer to say that while we often read a familiar novel again for companionship, we approach the short story in a very different mood. It is more akin to the mood of Pascal’s saying: Le silence éternal de ce espaces infinis m’effraie [the eternal silence of those infinite spaces terrifies me.]
Great short stories are often quiet and outwardly mundane-seeming, much like the lives they frequently chronicle. From Gogol’s lowly clerk, Akakey Akakeivitch, in ‘The Overcoat’ to Gabriel Conroy first gazing at his sleeping wife and then at the fast falling snow in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’, or to the ever lowering expectations of Bridie in Trevor’s ‘The Ballroom of Romance’, we are brought right into the very centre of the lives of people who we wouldn’t ordinarily give a second thought to. Let alone consider settling down to read (or indeed write) a novel about. And perhaps their lives might not be an appropriate subject for a novel because these characters are very often trapped in one form of stasis or another.
It is the job of the short story to show us why and how this stasis came about and in doing this, in the right hands, the short story can reveal an extraordinary, revelatory truth - the ‘explosion of truth’ that William Trevor talks about - which can make us realise that we have more in common with these seemingly mundane lives than we might have at first thought. Certainly more so than we might have wanted to think because, of course, our lives are more often than not fairly mundane and, indeed, more marked by stasis than acts of universal relevance and importance. And it is for this reason that we tend to turn to the short story in a very different cast of mind to the manner in which we turn to the novel. There tends to be a momentum in novels that is absent from stories – ‘a sense of continuing life’ as O’Connor would have it – things happen to people in novels, whereas stories tend to be more about what hasn’t happened or what won’t. Short stories are more concerned with who we are when we wake up in the middle of the night, feeling frightened without knowing why – without knowing why except that we can feel our lives passing like stock through a sieve.
In his Paris Review Interview, O’Connor said that he had originally intended on being a lyric poet and only became a short story writer when he discovered:
that God had not intended me to be a lyric poet, and the nearest thing to that is the short story. A novel actually requires far more logic and far more knowledge of circumstances, whereas a short story can have the sort of detachment from circumstances that lyric poetry has.
And certainly it appears to me that short stories place an emphasis on emotions over logic, (perhaps one might go so far as to say that what stories are about is the logic of emotions), and that they are concerned with the distillation of feelings and observations into sentences in a way, which has a lot more in common with poetry than with longer fiction. Or as William Trevor would have it:
If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting.
In other words we are in a territory where narrative logic is not so ostensibly important and where definitions are not so outwardly set in stone; where definitions are – in fact – deliberately impressionistic. Take this line from Trevor’s ‘The Ballroom of Romance’ [I have provided the preceding line for the sake of context]:
Girls who hadn’t been danced with yet talked to one another, their eyes wandering. Some of them sucked at straws in lemonade bottles.
Which is a tiny, perfect impressionist painting in itself. It seems at first like a deeply disinterested sentence, almost like Trevor could barely have been bothered to write it at all, but upon closer inspection we can see that his disinterested tone is deliberate and beneath its apparently vague brushstrokes there is a world of complexity and meaning. The casualness of that ‘Some of them’, followed by the coarse sound of that ‘sucked’ which, while carrying a sexual overtone also manages to convey the essential girlishness of the girls, especially when we find that what they are drinking is lemonade through a straw. However, we are informed that it is the straws that they are sucking at (note that ‘at’ – which brilliantly conveys both the boredom and the agitation of the moment, the atmosphere of pent up eroticism which characterises the ballroom) and not the lemonade, something which at once conveys A. that annoying air sucking sound that happens when someone attempts to suck the last drops of a drink up through a straw and B. an arid, sucking-at-nothing barrenness which touches at the heart of what the story is about because it is a story about spinsterdom.
This sentence is in microcosm what Trevor does in his short stories, it is an example of ‘the art of the glimpse’ (which is what he claimed the short story to be in his Paris Review Interview.) He puts a single event in a character’s life under microscope scrutiny. When he looks up he is somehow able to tell us everything important about that character’s life both before and – what is perhaps most troubling in his fiction – after the event. Or, as he has a character say in another story, ‘The Printmaker’:
Does it happen, she wonders in other people’s lives that a single event influences all subsequent time?
Well it happens to the people in Trevor’s stories at least. So much so that it is difficult to think of a major character of his that it wouldn’t apply to. It is clearly the central tenet of his theory of the short story. Baring this in mind let us put ‘The Ballroom of Romance’ under a little microscope scrutiny ourselves in order to see how he goes about adjusting the story of Bridie so that it ‘seem[s] to us’ – as Joyce would have it – ‘radiant.’
Thirty-six year-old Bridie looks after her disabled father (who lost a leg ‘after gangrene set in’) on a remote, hilltop farm in the west of Ireland. Once a month she cycles to the nearest town to go shopping and every weekend she cycles to a wayside dancehall called (‘somewhat implausibly’ Trevor notes) The Ballroom of Romance.
‘Although her father still called her a girl, Bridie was thirty-six’ immediately tells us something about the crisis at the centre of Bridie’s life. She is still a girl in the sexual sense but clearly she is a woman and with a woman’s physical desires. Her only relationships are with her father – which is infantilising – the landscape – which is warping – and the people at the Ballroom (about which more later.) The way the landscape has effected her hands so that they ‘are stained, and harsh to touch… as though juices had come out of vegetation and pigment out of soil’ is suggestive of how the landscape has taken up the parts of her life she might have given to a man while at the same being perhaps indicative of her inner emotional life. Unlike Dorian Grey she does not have a painting in the attic and the way she looks mirrors the barrenness of her life: ‘Wind had toughened the flesh of her face, sun had browned it; her neck and nose were lean, her lips touched with early wrinkles.’ That depiction of a girlish personality trapped inside a prematurely aged-looking body is really, as well as being quite heartbreaking, a perfect example of stasis in the short story; of being stranded in a place where time appears to have stopped while life flows away from you.
As though we needed any confirmation that this is a story that deals with barrenness we then have the description of the dancehall, as ‘miles away from anywhere, a lone building by the roadside with treeless boglands all around’ which, of course, in a metaphorical sense would do very nicely as a description of Bridie herself. The description of the ballroom continues:
On pink pebbled cement its title was painted in an azure blue that matched the depth of the background shade yet stood out well, unfussily proclaiming The Ballroom of Romance. Above these letters four coloured bulbs – in red, green, orange and mauve – were lit at appropriate times, an indication that the evening rendezvous was open for business. Only the façade of the building was pink, the other walls being a more ordinary grey. And inside, except for the pink swing-doors, everything was blue.
Let us consider that name: if it appears that in calling such a transparently unromantic dancehall The Ballroom of Romance Trevor is allowing himself to be a little overly fanciful or to be overdoing the irony a touch then be reassured: The Ballroom of Romance is the name of what was a real dancehall in the west of Ireland (that Trevor chanced upon once on holiday). As ever with Trevor he is drawing our attention to things; the irony of such a place being called that name is evident for all to see (especially once we learn more about what goes on inside it!) But it is perhaps worth pointing out that while non-Irish readers may find the idea of such a place and it being called such a name somewhat outlandishly ironical that there used to be many such places in rural Ireland, all with similar names, so that for the Irish reader The Ballroom of Romance is not so outlandish a place at all.
‘The Ballroom of Romance’ is a very famous story but particularly so in Ireland and perhaps this is because – as well as the brilliant cut-crystal quality that it has – it is a story about Ireland. A story that you might – if you were prone to exaggeration – say was about the sex lives of an entire nation at a certain point in time. Those light bulbs outside the dancehall could not spell it out more clearly: ‘Red, Green, Orange and mauve [my italics].’ Clearly in saying that the bulbs are ‘lit at appropriate times, an indication that the evening rendezvous was open for business’ Trevor is drawing a parallel with a brothel. In keeping with this the first bulb is an illicit red but then we have the orange and green of the Irish flag and then mauve – mauve! - an insipid, spent colour associated with spinsters and barrenness; with the very opposite of sexual desire. At one end the red and at the other the mauve: the red then representing the young couples at the dancehall and the mauve representing the thirty something spinsters like Bridie. But why the orange and green? Trevor is surely suggesting that the ballroom not only represents Bridie but all of Ireland. This, like the entire story, is both blackly humorous – i.e. Ireland must surely be the only brothel where nobody ever got laid! – and deadly serious.
That final line of the paragraph means several things: firstly, what it actually says, that the ballroom is painted blue inside; secondly that everything that happens inside the ballroom is blue i.e. melancholic i.e. frozen i.e. static; thirdly that everything inside Bridie is blue i.e. melancholic i.e. frozen i.e. static; and fourthly that everything literally inside Bridie – note the sexual connotation of those ‘pink swing-doors’ – is blue i.e. frozen i.e. barren.
In other words if the ballroom is meant to represent Ireland and Bridie represents the ballroom then all of Ireland must be blue i.e. frozen i.e barren. ‘The snow was general over Ireland’ as Joyce says in his own state of the nation address, ‘The Dead’.
Just from looking at this one paragraph by Trevor we can see A. just how complex and experimental Trevor’s stories are despite their outwardly ‘conventional’ appearance and B. how painterly they are – for one thing just look as his use of colour in the paragraph we have been discussing – and why Trevor often relates his writing to painting, as he does in this extract from his Paris Review Interview:
Interviewer: Your own style of writing is very steady – were you experimenting with form at all at that time? Do you think your writing has changed much?
Trevor: No, I think all writing is experimental. The very obvious sort of experimental writing is not really more experimental than that of a conventional writer like myself. I experiment all the time but the experiments are hidden. Rather like abstract art: You look at an abstract picture, and then you look at a close-up of a Renaissance painting and find the same abstractions.
This is unquestionably true: as we have seen the longer you look at a Trevor story the more details become apparent and as a result the more resonances, until you are left with as real and complicated a portrait of a human life as it perhaps possible to achieve in any medium.
When Bridie arrives at the dancehall on a bicycle we are told that she has been going (and indeed cycling) there ever ‘since she left the presentation nuns’ (we later learn that this was twenty years ago) and that it is ‘seven miles there and seven back.’
‘How’re you, Bridie?’ greets Mr Justin Dwyer, the owner of the ballroom who as you would expect for a ballroom so described has a touch of the pimp about him:
He’d made a fortune people said: he owned other ballrooms also.
Bridie herself is wearing the colour of sin – ‘a new scarlet dress’ – which draws our attention to how she is trying to be younger than her years while also being an example of Trevor’s way with darkly ironical humour – Bridie is surely the exact opposite of a scarlet woman. (Think of how Hitchcock puts Grace Kelly in a scarlet dress in Dial M for Murder to illustrate her adultery and then think of how Trevor puts Bridie in a scarlet dress to illustrate her spinsterdom.)
We are now introduced to ‘The Romantic Jazz Band’ (‘in spite of the band’s title, jazz was not ever played in the ballroom’), ‘three middle-aged men who… were employed otherwise by the tinned-meat factory, the Electricity Supply Board and the County Council.’ It is the one who works as a county council labourer, Dano Ryan, that Bridie hopes will marry her.
Dano, who is four years older than Bridie, has been the drummer in ‘The Romantic Jazz Band’ for all of the twenty years that Bride has been going to the ballroom but she had barely noticed him when she was sixteen, when the ballroom had seemed like a wonderful place and she had been in love with a boy called Patrick Grady:
She knew he loved her, and she believed then that he would lead her one day from the dim, romantic ballroom, from its blueness and its pinkness and its crystal bowl of light and its music.
How altered but essentially the same the ballroom sounds! (And again how subtle and painterly Trevor’s use of colour is! Here he is using the same pink and blues – admittedly with the help of that sumptuous ‘crystal bowl of light’ – with which he described the ballrooms unappealing barrenness to describe – or better say, to paint - the unalloyed joy of falling in love.) But Patrick Grady marries a girl from the town where he lived and moved to Birmingham. It is the start of the relentless fashioning that sadness works upon Bridie:
Bridie had wept hearing that…. When she woke in the early morning the thought was still naggingly with her and it remained with her day by day, replacing her daytime dreams of happiness.
When she doesn’t meet anyone else she starts to think of Dano Ryan as a husband because ‘If you couldn’t have love, the next best thing was surely a decent man’ and it is well known at the ballroom of Bridie’s intentions towards Dano. She fantasises about him living with her and her father and him helping her father in the fields but even these hopes are to be dashed because it becomes apparent towards the end of the evening that Dano will marry his landlady, Mrs Griffith (‘Mrs Griffith had got him just as the girl had got Patrick Grady.’)
Bridie feels ridiculous (’a figure of fun, trying to promote a relationship with a middle-aged County Council Labourer’) and resolves never to dance in the ballroom again. There then follows what surely must be one of the most desolate passages in all of literature:
She might be living in Wolverhampton, going out to the pictures in the evenings, instead of looking after a one-legged man. If the weight of circumstances hadn’t intervened she wouldn’t be standing in a wayside ballroom, mourning the marriage of a road-mender she didn’t love. For a moment she thought she might cry, standing there thinking of Patrick Grady in Wolverhampton. In her life, on the farm and in the house, there was no place for tears. Tears were a luxury, like flowers would be in the fields where the mangolds grew, or fresh whitewash in the scullery.
…In the Ballroom of Romance she felt behind her the tears that it would have been improper to release in the presence of her father. She wanted to let them go, to feel the streaming on her cheeks, to receive the sympathy of Dano Ryan and of everyone else. She wanted them all to listen to her while she told them about Patrick Grady who was now in Wolverhampton and about the death of her mother and her own life since. She wanted Dano Ryan to put her arm around her so that she could lean against it …She might wake in bed with him and imagine for a moment that he was Patrick Grady.
It is in this passage more than any of the others that Trevor fully reveals Bridie’s soul so that it ‘seems to us radiant.’ This, more than Bridie’s realisation at the end of the story that she will end up marrying one of the ballrooms drunken hill bachelors to escape loneliness, is the epiphany at the heart of the story: its moment of supreme revelation (Bridie’s realisation at the end being a kind of after-epiphany, like the residual tremors from an earthquake).
It is in the self-realisation that she is mourning the marriage of a man she doesn’t love that Bridie confronts how she really feels about her life and it is then that she wants to cry. And then we begin to really understand what her life must have been like since her mother died and Patrick Grady went to Wolverhampton (it is a mark of Trevor’s genius that the black humour implicit in allocating Wolverhampton such romantic status is kept very much as a background note. This is because Wolverhampton does have romantic status for Bridie and Trevor respects her and treats all of her feelings with complete seriousness – Trevor, like all good writers, never mocks his characters) because even tears are denied her. She feels that it would be unfair to her disabled father for her to show her feelings: ‘Tears were a luxury [to Bridie], like flowers would be in the fields where the mangolds grew….’ Tears ought never be ‘a luxury’ but to compare them to flowers is startling: a signifier of inversion, of the way Bridie’s life has turned in on itself. And to put it bluntly: of extreme emotional repression. There is something rapturous about the way she fantasises about crying – ‘to let them go, to feel them streaming down her cheeks’ – and of course we see that tears are beautiful to Bridie because they represent self-expression, they represent what she feels inside but can never tell anyone for fear of dismaying her father or of making herself appear ridiculous at her only social outlet, The Ballroom of Romance (whose name does mock Bridie – just as it had once glittered truthfully when she was a love-struck teenager – but again it is not Trevor who is mocking her – he is merely observing – it is life itself which mocks Bridie.) And just as there is no place for flowers to grow alongside the mangolds, Bridie does not cry. The field of mangolds – a vegetable most often used for horse feed – is representative of what Bridie’s life has become both metaphorically and quite literally. She even seems to resemble the mangold fields somewhat if we think back to the opening description of her and the way ‘juices had come out of vegetation and pigment out of soil’ and seeped into her skin; if we think of the fantasy flowers growing alongside the mangolds and the fantasy tears flowing down her cheeks.
In an interview with John Tusa for Radio 3, Trevor – in response to a question about compassion and loneliness in his stories – had this to say (it seems to me to sum up what he has achieved here, in ‘The Ballroom of Romance’):
I think it’s, it’s enough for me to, if I write about, I’m always being told I write about lonely people so I suppose I must accept it, if I write about a lonely woman, for instance, the very fact that I have created a portrait of that lonely woman is really compassion enough because it’s should, one should be looking at a portrait and seeing that person, and there is, for me there is a voice saying well look there, there it is that’s, that’s her life, what do you think of it?
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