The Story of Lucy Gault
is a 2002 novel by Irish novelist and short-story writer William Trevor. Lucy’s story begins when she is eight years old and the “Troubles” break out in County Cork. Believing her to be dead, her parents flee, and Lucy spends the rest of her life alone in the family home, waiting for her parents to return. Trevor’s not-entirely-realist
tale functions in part as an allegory for the legacy of Ireland’s historical traumas. Upon publication, The Story of Lucy Gault
was hailed as “a book to be quietly cherished” by “one of the finest prose stylists writing today” (Publishers Weekly
The novel opens one night in the summer of 1921. Ireland’s final struggle for independence has begun, and on the Cork coast, three local boys attempt to burn down Lahardane, the “big house” belonging to the wealthy Protestant Gault family. Captain Everard Gault fires a warning shot at the boys, accidentally wounding one of them, Horahan.
Everard asks the Catholic priest, Father Morrissey, to pass on his apologies to Horahan’s family, but there is no response. The Captain writes the Horahans a letter and finally visits their home, but they refuse to engage with him. The Gaults begin to fear that they will face further violence. Although the Gaults have done nothing in particular to anger the townspeople, Everard chose to fight for Britain in the First World War, and his wife, Heloise, was born in England. Reluctantly, they decide that they must abandon their home and move to England.
Their daughter, Lucy, is eight, and so far, she has enjoyed an idyllic childhood, wandering the grounds of Lahardane and the nearby beaches. Her biggest worry is that her parents don’t seem to approve of the stray dog she has adopted. When Lucy learns about her parents’ plan to leave Ireland, she is distraught. On the night before the Gaults are due to depart, she runs away from home, hoping to delay the departure and force her parents to take her objections seriously.
However, in the woods beyond the house, Lucy breaks her ankle and is unable to go on or to return home. A series of mistakes lead the Gaults to the conclusion that Lucy has drowned in the sea. They leave Lahardane on schedule, unwilling to stay in a place where they will not only be in danger but also constantly reminded of their lost daughter. They inform their lawyer Mr. Sullivan and their servants Henry and Bridget that they are going to England as planned, but Heloise doesn’t want to return to her home country, and they wander through Europe instead, grieving together in exile.
When Henry discovers Lucy close to death and brings her home, Mr. Sullivan sends telegrams to the Gaults, but he cannot reach them. He sets off to search for them, but returns without finding a trace of their whereabouts.
Lucy grows up with Henry and Bridget, hoping all the while that one day her parents will return. At school, she is a strange, unpopular, out-of-touch figure, and when she graduates, she stays at the house, reading and keeping bees. She blames herself for the separation of her family and her parents’ grief, and this guilt forces her to stay at home, keeping vigil for her parents. She sees no one except for the servants, Mr. Sullivan and the Protestant Canon Crosbie.
Then one day, a young man accidentally arrives at Lahardane. Ralph is working as a tutor for the Ryalls family in town. He and Lucy fall in love, and he asks Lucy to marry him, but she refuses. She feels undeserving of happiness because she still has not received her parents’ forgiveness. When he returns from service in the Second World War, Ralph asks her to marry him again. When she refuses once more, he accepts that Lucy will never marry him. A little later, he proposes to another woman.
Meanwhile, Heloise and Everard have moved to Switzerland, where Heloise dies. After burying her, Everard continues to wander aimlessly by himself, eventually deciding to visit Lahardane, where he discovers that his daughter is still alive.
Understandably, Lucy’s relationship with her father is difficult at first. She is used to solitude, and he is desperate for companionship. However, over time they reach an understanding.
Ralph learns that Lucy’s father has returned and is tormented by his lost opportunity. Knowing that if he visits Lucy again he will succumb to the temptation to leave his wife, he stays away. For her part, Lucy resigns herself to remaining hopelessly in love with a married man.
Everard dies in his sleep. Lucy’s primary occupation becomes the care of Henry and Bridget, but she also begins to visit the local asylum. Among the patients is Horahan, the boy her father shot many years before. Ever since, Horahan has been tormented by the delusional belief that he killed Lucy, and he has been in the asylum for nearly twenty years. In between raving, delusional speeches, Horahan also tells Lucy the truth of what happened on the night he was shot.
When Horahan dies, Lucy marches in his funeral procession. Two nuns are struck by Lucy’s peacefulness as she marches and they come to visit her. The book closes with Lucy alone, at rest, aging herself now, and watching “the fading of the day.”
William Trevor, who died in 2016, was the author of eighteen novels and twenty short-story collections as well as plays and non-fiction titles. His honors include three Whitbread Prizes, five Booker Prize nominations, and the title of Saoi, awarded by Aosdána, the Irish arts association. The Story of Lucy Gault
is his sixteenth novel.