Can men write women? For a case study in “Yes!” read William Trevor. Today’s short story, Mrs Silly is told via the viewpoint character of an eight-year-old boy. Trevor never lets us into “Mrs Silly’s” head. Instead, he shows us the cauldron of misogyny: A little boy who loves his mother is sent away to a boy’s boarding school, where he learns the gender hierarchy, and its intersection with English class.
The great irony undergirding this story:
Michael could not remember a time when his father had been there.first sentence of “Mrs Silly”
Despite his father’s absence — and also partly because of it — Michael is open to input on How To Be A Man in the world. This makes him susceptible to absorbing the worst ideas.
Note: Misogyny does not mean “woman hater”. It can mean that. It can refer to a single person who hates women, in general. But more widely, misogyny is systemic. Most men do not hate women. But all men are — or have been — reliant upon women, and reliance means vulnerability, which is not permitted in hegemonic forms of masculinity. Women are often very appreciated, but only while performing carework:
Women may not be simply human beings but positioned as human givers when it comes to the dominant men who look to them for various kinds of moral support, admiration, attention, and so on.Kate Manne
Find “Mrs Silly” in Angels at the Ritz (1975) and also in William Trevor: Collected Stories.
SETTING OF “MRS. SILLY”
Setting is everything in this story. Trevor creates slightly caricatured characters to exemplify theme.
First, I’d like to define ‘misogyny’, because that is one misunderstood word. Kate Manne does it best, in her excellent book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. Below, the difference between sexism and misogyny (which are not interchangeable):
SEXISM: the branch of patriarchal ideology that justifies and rationalizes a patriarchal social order. Sexism is scientific. (Sexist ideology will tend to discriminate between men and women, typically by alleging sex differences beyond what is known or could be known, and sometimes counter to our best current scientific evidence.)
MISOGYNY: the system that polices and enforces its governing norms and expectations. Misogyny is moralistic.
Both are in place to maintain or restore the patriarchal order, which is a hierarchy of gender placing men above other genders.
When the story begins, Michael is about to turn nine. He is about to be sent off to boarding school. William Trevor does not offer precision regarding the passing of time after that. If I have one criticism of this story: the eight-year-olds seem a little too knowing, sophisticated and mean-spirited to be eight. Perhaps this is the point. Perhaps boarding school really does change boys immediately.
Or perhaps the story follows them over a number of years, as they head towards adolescence and beyond.
Michael’s mother (Mrs Silly) lives in London. The father has left her, remarried and continues to make a good income. He lives an hour out of London, in a wealthy part of the country considered ideal.
Michael’s world is a triangle between his parents’ houses and his boarding school, Elton Grange, in Wiltshire.
William Trevor sets up a juxtaposition between Michael’s mother’s and father’s house, emphasising the socio-economic disparity:
Mother’s house: poky, cluttered house in Hammersmith.
Father’s house: spacious, near Cranleigh, a half-timbered house set in pretty wooded countryside.
The boarding school, Elton Grange, is presented as a labyrinthine Gothic mansion full of secret nooks and crannies such as Michael’s locker which he does not want to show his mother. When containers with openings/lids appear in storytelling they often symbolise something a character wants/needs to keep hidden from others or sublimated from oneself. In this case, Michael feels discomfort when his mother opens his locker because he feels her social difference, her low status, and to cope with this he marks a mental boundary between his worlds. Mother belongs to his private world. School belongs to the public.
When Michael’s mother visits him at Elton Grange, she will stay someone called the Sans Souci (cheap) whereas all the other parents stay at The Grand.
(Sans Souci is also a suburb in Sydney.) Apparently Sans Souci means ‘without worry’. It would seem Mrs Silly is the only person in the story who doesn’t care too much about social standing and money and image. But since we’re not let into her head, we can’t be sure about that.
The countryside is idealised as a space for bringing up children, while places such as Hammersmith, London, are not. The boarding school is clearly an attempt to recreate a childhood as enjoyed by aristocratic children.
TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY
This story looks back in time rather than forwards, to the old-fashioned, starchy boys’ school.
The father’s disposable income is conveyed succinctly with his succession of blue then green then white Alfa Romeos.
In 2006 I spent a year in Earls Court (like many Kiwis, Aussies and Saffas). One of my Australian hostel-mates secured a job at a well-known high-end department story. (You know the one.) As non-English people, our accents stripped us of class marker: An British person can’t easily tell if I speak ‘educated’ or ‘broad’ Australian; to them we sound simply Australian. (This can be a freeing experience.) Anyway, my Australian friend (D) came home one evening shocked. The department store was about to stage a big event or something, and required many new employees at once. Time was limited. D had been instructed to simply cast aside any applicant who had worked in a supermarket, ever. D couldn’t believe the snobbery. We couldn’t either.
Retail work is much of a muchness, we had thought. But no. My experience as a high school check-out operator would make me unfit to work at Expensive London Department Store ten years later and beyond.
Without that little insight into the London class system, I may have breezed past the detail William Trevor provides regarding the employment precarity of Michael’s mother. As the daughter of a man who was “in the church”, Mrs Silly sat briefly outside the strict class system. As a young woman she secured work in an upper-class retail establishment (The Wedgwood Centre), probably because public facing roles favour the young and pretty. But after hitting middle age, newly single after her husband left her, she could no longer find work in the West End. She now works in an office supplies warehouse (unseen by customers). She holds hopes of getting a job like that again. But will she really?
Michael knows, and we know, she won’t. Michael’s mother is one of life’s discarded middle-aged women, existing in the fringes, increasingly unimportant even to her own son.
THE ECONOMIC PRECARITY OF SINGLE MOTHERHOOD
Michael’s mother lives a very simple life compared to his father, who clearly comes from privilege (a boarding school graduate himself), and has walked into a highly-paid career as a result of having the right accent, the right manners, the right connections.
Her simple living is partly because she works reduced hours to be at home after Michael comes home from school.
Here’s the thing, though: She still manages to live. 1970s single motherhood was actually less precarious than 2020s single motherhood.
Let’s zip for a moment to the other side of the globe. In 2022, Australia elected a Labour Prime Minister for the first time in almost a decade. Anthony Albanese is himself the child of a single mother. In his victory speech he became emotional and said this:
It says a lot about our great country that a son of a single mum who was a disability pensioner, who grew up in public housing down the road in Camperdown, can stand before you tonight as Australia’s prime ministerAnthony Albanese, 2022
People campaigning for a more fair and just social security system were quick to point out that a little Anthony Albanese growing up in the 2020s would not have nearly the same chance to become a future prime minister. Children of single mothers today are born into abject poverty and housing insecurity:
Just as society was different, so was the Australian welfare state.
Albanese grew up in the same home where Maryanne had been born in 1936. He has spoken of his first campaign against a push to sell off his home. He was still a boy; the campaign was a success.
If they had been evicted, it is likely the family would not have faced the long waits that are common for those seeking social housing today.The Guardian
STORY STRUCTURE OF “MRS. SILLY”
“Mrs Silly” is an example where the ‘main character’ is difficult to define. Generally, when in doubt, ask ‘Who changes the most?’ Often, this means ‘Who has the self-revelation/anagnorisis near the end?”
The son has the revelation. He is also the viewpoint character.
But the title belongs to his mother. This is a story about misogyny in a microcosm of society. (Note: she doesn’t even get her own name.) The mother is also the subject of the theme.
With divorced parents living in vastly different circumstances, young Michael has two life templates: Pauper versus privileged. As an eight-year-old, decisions are made for him: I’m sure both parents agree, indoctrination at a private boys’ boarding school offers the best chance at attaining the most privilege available to him.
Even at the beginning of the story, we see Michael has moved away from his mother. We meet him on the cusp of middle boyhood, where the bifurcation between mother and son will be complete.
Michael would be entirely incapable of articulating his wish to separate from his mother, but this is what he wants. Society rewards him for fortitude, bravado and discernment.
In the beginning, Michael is so close to his mother he starts to write her a letter while he’s still on the train, not even reached school yet.
After some time at Elton Grange, seeing a wider view of society and his mother’s place in it, he wishes to separate himself from Mother; not just because she is his mother but because of her obvious economic precarity. Those things intersect.
Rather than talk about opposition, let’s talk instead about the complex character web William Trevor has woven, especially the cast of women.
- Gillian — his father’s new wife, and more in line with what Michael thinks a private school mother should be. It is precisely because Michael is not reliant upon her that he can feel this way.
- Miss Brooks — a teacher of about sixty. Grey hair, smoker, wears jodpurs, known as Brookie. She wears a suit and tie when she’s not teaching horse-riding and may today identify as transgender. In this era, she does transgress gender expectations. This teacher is the only woman on the teaching staff and has inserted herself fully into the male world by emulating masculine culture. This is the only way to penetrate such a hyper-masculine subculture.
- Sister — thin and brisk.
- Under matron — Miss Trenchard, under 23 (strangely specific), not pretty. The older boys call her “Tampax”. The detail about the nickname makes clear the juxtaposition between how Michael is at the beginning compared to how he is at the end. Little boys see their mother as an all-encompassing protective force, and as a whole person. Older boys begin to regard women in a granular way, a feature of objectification and othering. The boys who call a woman “Tampax” are reducing a woman to her most private and sexual body part. The boys believe Miss Trenchard to be going out with a number of male staff members. Despite her being ‘not pretty’, or perhaps because of it, the boys hypersexualise her.
- Mrs Lyng — ‘outsize Dorothy’. Mrs Lyng, too, is defined by her body shape most of all. As the principal’s wife she should command respect, but in the case of this woman, her female gender as well as who she is as a person undermine any chance of identification with the boys.
- Miss Arland is the other young female staff member (‘the lady cook’). William Trevor has created a pretty young woman and a plain young woman to show how differently they are regarded by the boys. In contrast to Miss Trenchard, Miss Arland is the virgin archetype. (Miss Trenchard being the whore.)
So this story contains the three main female archetypes under patriarchy: mother, virgin, whore. It’s always a little dangerous talking too much about colour symbolism because once it’s said, it feels too much of a stretch and too on-the-nose, but mothers are associated with earthy, bloody creatures because of the grotesque act of childbirth. Hence the mother’s maroon everything vs. Gillian’s white ensemble at the confirmation. Mother is all about bodily comfort and generation to him, whereas Gillian can remain ‘pure’ in that regard, by dint of her distance.
He has also given us the thin-fat duo, and the mother-step-mother of fairy tale, but inverted. Gillian is not evil. That would be too easy, and would mess with the very non-fairytale theme: Mothers are rejected precisely because of their feminine warmth.
Notice how the boys are already calling each other by their last names. When a boy in a Carson McCullers short story (“The Haunted Boy“) slips back into first names, we know what this means: The masculine mask is temporarily dropped in a rare moment of emotional closeness. There’s no dropping the mask in this story.
The plan is carried out by no one person in particular. All the people in Michael’s life are working in unison to create an environment that is hostile to someone like Michael’s mother.
This is one of those stories with many small conflicts all adding up to something whole.
The scene in which Michael’s mother meets Outsize Dorothy shows that the women have their own strict pecking order even among themselves.
The symbolic climax: Mrs Silly is required to attend Michael’s confirmation and slips on ‘something slippy’ at tea in the Great Hall. Michael almost dies of secondhand embarrassment. She has already embarrassed Michael for taking up too much time chatting with the clergy (in Michael’s opinion). Of course, he has learned by this point that a low-status woman such as his mother has no right to take up anyone’s time, ever. The earlier foreshadow: the overheard comment from Mrs Malone when a neighbour complained Michael’s mother talked too much. Michael knows his mother so well, at this point, that he understands how she’s been keeping her desire to chat bottled up. It all comes out.
William Trevor adds to the list of ways in which Michael learns to discriminate: This time around he notices her clothing and her manner, but also her ‘voice’ (accent).
Michael also understands his mother is required to become invisible lest the ‘police force’ of misogyny (Kate Manne’s words) kick in to stop her, in ways that could arguably make her position in life even more precarious. Michael’s private reaction at this moment shows how far he’s come in absorbing the unspoken social rules of the boarding school, which map onto the gender hierarchy of wider society.
For Michael’s Part
What it means to be a man: To not be a woman. Anything but a woman, and especially not a womanly sort of woman, one who nurtures and shows emotion and vulnerability in public. Especially not a mother. Not your mother, who you need so badly. Not when her very existence illuminates your own vulnerability.
There is no conflict between a man being vulnerable and insecure and his being a misogynist. Indeed, this kind of vulnerability would be predicted on my analysis to be a common trigger. Similarly, there is no conflict between someone being a racist (say) and his being a misogynist. On the contrary, it makes sense that a person would be fixated on his position in multiple salient social hierarchies.Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny
When Mrs Silly asks Michael to show him the dormitories of the older boys, so she can see where Michael will be sleeping in future, it seems she can see ahead. She knows she is not welcome in this place, she feels she chatters too much about things these people find inane. So she will not be back. This is her ex-husband’s school, his domain, and this is no place for her.
Sure enough, William Trevor flashes us forward with, ‘Michael’s mother did not, as it happened, ever arrive at Elton Grange at half-term again.’
FOR THE READER’S PART (HOPEFULLY)
So this is how wonderful, loving little boys turn into men who perpetuate the gender hierarchy for yet another generation. It’s no one person’s fault. It’s the system. An entire society of misogyny.
Michael shuns his mother. Kate Manne again, describing how misogyny works:
There is no reason to expect that misogyny will typically manifest itself in violence or even violent tendencies, contra Steven Finker. From the perspective of enforcing patriarchal social relations, this is not necessary. It is not even desirable. Patriarchal social relations are supposed to be amicable and seamless, when all is going to plan. It is largely when things go awry that violence tends to bubble to the surface. There are numerous nonviolent and low-cost means of defusing the psychic threat posed by powerful women who are perceived as insufficiently oriented to serving dominant men’s interests. For example, women may be taken down imaginatively, rather than literally, by vilifying, demonizing, belittling, humiliating, mocking, lampooning, shunning, and shaming them.”Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny
Note that Michael has become a misogynist even though he is not the stereotypical violent boy typically associated with the word. To shun your own beloved mother for her femininity is exactly how misogyny works. In fact, that’s how it starts. Importantly, Michael has not stopped loving his mother. “Misogyny” does not mean “hate”.
Michael was born in the 1960s. He’ll be retired now. It is highly adaptive for this little white boy to absorb the rules which will afford him the most reward. No fear, the man will have done well in life.
If you were writing this story today, how would it look different? Would it look any different at all?