Taking Mr Ravenswood by William Trevor

Taking Mr Ravenswood” is a short story by Irish-English author William Trevor, included in Last Stories (2018) and previously unpublished. The author had already died by the time this story was released to the rest of us. This is an excellent example of the ambiguity lyrical short stories are known for. To get a sense of what happens in the story, it is necessary to read the symbolism. In line with the ambiguous, post-Chekhovian lyrical short story tradition, William Trevor offers aesthetic but not dramatic closure. But mostly, I think, he is leaving us to construct a large part of the plot.

SETTING OF TAKING MR RAVENSWOOD

PERIOD — This story must be set sometime after 2009 but not too long after 2009, and I’m using just a few subtle clues to deduce that: Roseanne picks up a copy of The Evening Standard and doesn’t appear to pay for it. This right of center, free daily newspaper tabloid was made free in 2009. (Incidentally, the type of newspaper a character reads says quite a lot about that character. This is a woman who doesn’t put much thought into where she gets her news sources; she is therefore also susceptible to the ideas of a confident-sounding boyfriend.) Placing this story more concretely in time, phone technology changed a lot over the 2010s. Roseanne gets a call to her landline from someone wanting the gas company. It would be unusual near the end of that decade, I think, for someone in Roseanne’s position to maintain a landline to the house; she’d have a mobile phone and that’s it.

DURATION — The framing structure of this short story is Roseanne’s journey from her place of work to an elderly man’s house. This journey is bulked out significantly by Roseanne’s memory, and there’s no firm starting date, because the story is about a customer who she’s known for a long, unspecified amount of time. The story moved from the iterative to the singulative (in Roseanne’s memory) the moment Mr Ravenswood asked her out to dinner. This takes place three weeks earlier. Some writers would approach this story differently, aiming for more suspense. To make something more suspenseful, writers are commonly told to keep the reader in the ‘present’ part of the story and to avoid spending any more time than necessary in the ‘memory’ part. This short story has plenty of narrative drive and is also mainly a reflection on the past, so makes an excellent case study in how to write ‘reflective suspense’.

LOCATION — I wasn’t immediately grounded in place, but soon it is very clear that this story happens in and around London. William Trevor writes big cities by specifying actual travel routes and actual geolocatable suburbs, but within those suburbs the specific streets, restaurants, pubs are fictional. (Plume d’Or, the restaurant was called, in a street off Pall Mall, the Running Horse Pub, 7A Tangar Street, where Rosanne lived, 81 Radcliffe Square: all fictional.) This seems to be the way fiction writers approach stories set in big cities. When writing about small towns, safest to make the entire town fictional, but position it mentally for the reader between a couple of real towns.

ARENA — Roseanne journeys from central London to the west, where housing is more affordable for a single mother.

Sluggishly, her journey took her out of the city, into the hinterland that was hers and had been all her life. Kensal Green, Willesden Junction, Harlesden, Stonebridge Park, Wembley Central: she knew the stations too well, not even looking when another one was reached.

Taking Mr Ravenswood

MANMADE SPACES — The bank, the restaurant, the homes of the characters. William Trevor paints a vivid picture of the entire arena, and when Rosanne reaches the end of her suburban mythic journey she sits down and the reader sits down with her to observe the mysterious Mr Ravenswood’s front door:

Number 81 had a white front door, a fanlight above it, white also, white pillars on either side of the steps. The name was there, beside the bell at the top, above other names and a South American legation, and Ernst Kruger Designs. A dentist and R. C. Holdings were in the basement.

The square’s railings enclosed two plane trees, several clusters of shrubs, a sunlit lawn.

Taking Mr Ravenswood

I don’t know how much symbolism William Trevor was into, and this may be ‘off-duty’ detail (to use the terminology of James Wood.) Anyway, in Greek mythology, the plane tree is a symbol of regeneration. The bark of a plane tree regenerates, by flakes, like the skin of the snake. According to the myth, the wood of the plane tree was used constructing the Trojan horse. 

NATURAL SETTINGS — This story is notable only for its complete lack of natural settings.

WEATHER — London is known for its rainfall and general damp feeling, but William Trevor is careful not to turn this into comical pathetic fallacy:

A wind had got up and rattled the windows. She could hear rain too, and hearing it made being in bed a greater pleasure.

Taking Mr Ravenswood

The entire scene of Rosanne in her own house shows the reader she’s actually pretty content with her lot, and the thought of fleecing an old man wouldn’t occur to her if she weren’t being influenced by a crooked boyfriend with a crooked grin.

TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — This story takes place in an era when people are still visiting banks, dealing with actual humans who can attach faces to sums in bank accounts.

LEVEL OF CONFLICT — In the wider world of the story, workers like Roseanne have been priced out of living in London, which explains her long commute and the loneliness which results from the bifurcated existence of working in one place (away from your child) and living in another completely. That’s not to say that Roseanne’s life would be perfect if she were able to live near where she works, but it’s clear that Roseanne is lacking community. William Trevor makes sure the reader understands exactly how her life would be improved if she had enough funds to move back to where her mother lives, but (I deduce) to a town where there are fewer opportunities for work in general.

THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — I’ve heard a different author, Kazuo Ishiguro, say in response to the unlikeability of the butler in Remains of the Day, and to the charge that a capable, sensible woman such as Miss Kenton would never be romantically interested in someone like Mr Stevens, that it is always completely unfathomable why people fall for other people. We accept that in real life romantic alliances are without discernible logic; we should also accept it in fiction. I suspect William Trevor would say the same of Rosanne’s attraction to Keith; the author goes to no effort to explain exactly what it is that attracts her to her no-good boyfriend Keith, apart from his crooked smile, perhaps. It is simply stated that she finds him irresistible, despite all his flaws, which are (almost) as clear to her as they are to us.

CAST OF CHARACTERS

Mr Ravenswood: The ‘paisley handkerchief tidily protruding from the top pocket of a softly checked jacket and tweed hat’ suggest a gentleman of the upper middle class; someone who probably likes wine and playing piano. This is proven to be so. “Stylish in his manner, Mr Ravenswood was friendly in a way the other men who came to the counters never were, and always asked her how she was.” He has the sort of manners we in the West are inclined to trust. At the same time, readers of fiction should be clued in to the way writers often subvert first appearances. We spend the entire story wondering if Mr Ravenswood really is the gentleman he appears to be.

Rosanne: Works in customer service at a bank. Has a child still in a pushchair, and is hopelessly attracted to an awful man who she had hoped to turn around by procreating with him. A distasteful detail which I think, sadly, does sometimes happen, even though I wish I weren’t so. In contrast to the gentlemanly Mr Ravenswood, Ketih has pale, sharp features, sandy hair drooping over a narrow forehead, his crooked grin’. Interesting that William Trevor is utilising a trope from romance fiction; the attractive ‘crooked grin’ of a bad boy. At the time of the story, Keith has moved back to his old room above the Indian takeaway, but he is still involved in Rosanne’s life. The reader can see what Rosanne probably can’t: That by fleecing an old man of his money, the end recipient will not be Rosanne and their unnamed child at all; he will do to Rosanne what Rosanne does to Mr Ravenswood. With the following detail we know that there’s a disconnect between how Keith is and how Rosanne perceives him:

He drove a van, delivering packages and parcels all over south-west London. He was in films, he said when he and Rosanne first met, on a Starbucks sofa one Saturday morning, and his claim was not entirely untrue: he’d once been a crowd-scene extra in a production that ran out of funds and was abandoned.

Taking Mr Ravenswood

Nancy Pollitt: We know little about this woman other than that she is lacking in social graces (in contrast to Mr Ravenswood) and that her house smells of smoke and takeaway food. (Isn’t it interesting, the classist ways we are encouraged to mistrust a fictional character? People who smoke — especially around children — are bad. People who eat takeaway are bad.) Rosanne neither ‘liked nor trusted’ this woman, we are told, a heavy psychological burden when leaving your child in the care of anyone else, and also making a lengthy commute away from them. Importantly, Rosanne and Nancy Pollitt are women from the same socioeconomic class. Later we’ll see Rosanne eating a ‘Sausageking’ sandwich from her handbag (takeaway food).

Rosanne’s mother: In case the reader requires a bit of outsider perspective, Rosanne’s off-the-page mother thinks very poorly of her daughter’s on-again-off-again boyfriend. We tend to trust the judgement of mothers.

STORY STRUCTURE OF TAKING MR RAVENSWOOD

SHORTCOMING

How to tell ‘the main character’ of a story? We don’t get it from the title. Sometimes stories are titled after mysterious characters who we never really learn much about. The salient question: Who changes the most?

In this case, does the character of Rosanne really change? There will be no Joycean epiphany here, but her shortcoming is that she is easily led by an awful man who she has naively chosen to be the father of her only child, therefore making him part of her life forever.

DESIRE

Rosanne is no out-and-out villain because she craves what we all crave: More time to be a parent to her child; to be close to her mother, or to have some kind of community; for romantic love.

These are the things I want her to want: To move back home near her mother. However, she wants money so that Keith can follow what Keith has told her is his true passion: film-making (I deduce).

In any case, there is a clear ‘quest narrative’ in this story: To utilised an old man’s sexual attraction to her and somehow persuade him to give her his money (about enough to buy a house). William Trevor is renowned for being kind to all of his characters, however flawed, so he connects this desire for money to some very base desires which most of us share, and which therefore makes Rosanne more relatable.

OPPONENT

The manipulative, immoral villian in this story is Keith. It’s interesting that William Trevor created a woman who has bad thoughts mainly because she’s under the influence of a man who has such thoughts. I’m not sure this is saying anything gender essentialist; rather, as a storytelling tactic, Keith makes Rosanne look better by comparison. The reader won’t want to come along for the journey if we despise Rosanne terribly, and if we don’t see her as a more rounded individual with the same basic needs as us. Even if she is wrong about what her needs actually are.

PLAN

William Trevor leaves certain information off the page and requires the reader to fill in some blanks. In this case, the blanks aren’t hard for me to fill: I don’t believe there’s a solid plan for what Rosanne will do once she gets to Mr Ravenswood’s house. I believe the long game is to get his money. Perhaps this is by starting a relationship and getting him to change his will. Perhaps she’s hoping to start some sort of sugar relationship, in which he pays her bills in return for companionship and possibly sex. I think at this stage she’s working out exactly what the old man wants, and what she can hope to get.

THE BIG STRUGGLE

The first visit to Mr Ravenswood took place earlier. Everything hangs on this second visit. Except the reader doesn’t get to learn what happens on this second visit. Instead there’s a flashback to the first, and how Rosanne momentarily fell asleep, and how when recounting this to Keith later, Keith tried to convince her that he’d done something sexual to her in that time.

ANAGNORISIS

When we learn that Mr Ravenswood carries guilt, and that he has in the past been a different sort of man (angry at least once), the reader’s morality may shift a little. We never know the exact extent to which Mr Ravenswood is genuinely culpable for his wife’s death. We have disagreements with our families. Sometimes, inevitably, the last communication with a family member will be of this variety. Was it really Mr Ravenswood’s anger which caused the accident? William Trevor’s explanation of the accident is ambiguous enough to make us wonder.

It’s possible that this old man is the mellowed version of a much younger, more violent one.

It’s also possible that this old man is still plenty violent. It’s possible that he’s not simply interested in Rosanne as a placeholder for his wife, who he only ever knew as Rosanne’s approximate age, but that he’s more of a Bluebeard archetype, who regularly picks up women working in the service industry and takes them home to get them drunk and do a Bill Cosby on them.

Readers are left to make up our own minds; despite his own immorality, could Keith be right? Doesn’t it take a villain to know one? Importantly, we are left in the same state of confusion as Rosanne.

Her coat was on the floor, as if she had been cold, as if it had been brought from where she had left it and had slipped off her. ‘Well, there you are!’ Keith’s comment was when she told him about the coat.

Taking Mr Ravenswood

I feel the coat is symbolic in this story. Rosanne has been trying on a new identity — that of a con artist — and it doesn’t suit her. The coat stands in for that new (temporary) identity. Notice how earlier in the story, the ‘girls’ at work put on their coats when leaving for the day, as if they’ve been their robotic work selves while at work, and are now putting on their individuated identities. If I interpret Rosanne’s coat as symbolism, then this offers me insight into her character arc: She considers ‘breaking bad’, but ultimately shrugs it off.

NEW SITUATION

In Rosanne’s discombobulation, expressed adeptly in the paragraph below, the two incidents blend into one for the reader. The first time it’s either because she’s drunk, or because she’s had her drink spiked. The second time it’s because two contrasting men are giving her a different message (Keith says he’s an old pervert; he does not appear to be so). Roseanne doesn’t appear to understand the situation she’s got herself into. We don’t know for sure either.

Rosanne, listening, for a moment hadn’t known where she was. The music was soporific, the room was moving. The face of a man who often came to the bank was sliding about and overlapping itself; and she felt sick. ‘Guilt tells you about yourself,’ a voice was saying, and saying it again because she didn’t understand. ‘More than you want to know,’ was repeated too. ‘You’ve had a sleep,’ a man who often came to the bank said.

Taking Mr Ravenswood

When Mr Ravenswood talks about his own guilt, this leads Rosanne to think about her own motivations for being here.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

Do you think Rosanne will be back to Mr Ravenswood’s apartment? I don’t think so. Has she had an epiphany about Keith, though? Has she realised he’s her puppeteer? Does she ignore her gut instincts about the nice Mr Ravenswood and return to overtly horrible Keith?

Sometimes people return to the site of their trauma, trying to understand what happened as a way of processing. This post-trauma behaviour is common but little understood, and often used against victims in court; “If you think that happened, why would you speak to him again on the phone the next morning, huh?”

For more on that dynamic read the harrowing book Missoula by Jon Krakauer (who was unable to write another book after finishing that one).

Also, people tend to return to what they know, even if what they know his horrible.

RESONANCE

Readers are used to stories in which the trickster is tricked. There’s a universal truism that con artists are themselves the easiest people to con, because they think they’re smarter than everyone else. So we have been at least slightly primed by this plot to think that Mr Ravenswood is as villainous (in a different way) as Rosanne, and this is why ‘the universe’ has thrown two such characters together. All kinds of writers have loved this plot, especially male writers influenced by the tall tale tradition, like Roald Dahl and Paul Jennings. A tentpole example from recent years, by a woman, is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. We never seem to tire of this twist, possibly because it confirms something we’d like to believe: That bad people get their just desserts in the end, and also, bad people deserve each other (and ultimately end up with each other).

Yes, audiences love us some poetic justice. But William Trevor doesn’t hand out poetic justice on a plate. Real life doesn’t work like that at all. More often than we’d like to admit, we are left wondering just how bad someone really was, and how bad we ourselves could possibly be, in the right (wrong) circumstances, influenced by the right (wrong) people.

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Header painting by Anders Zorn (Swedish painter) 1860-1920 Impressions of London, 1890.