Susan Hill | Critical Review by Peter Kemp

This literature criticism consists of approximately 17 pages of analysis & critique of Susan Hill.
This section contains 794 words
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Critical Review by Peter Kemp

SOURCE: "Imitation Gothic," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4724, October 15, 1993, p. 19.

In the review of Mrs. de Winter below, Kemp complains that Hill's imitation of Daphne du Maurier's narrative style "is unstirred by any imaginative power."

In recent years, Susan Hill has taken to the literary equivalent of manufacturing reproduction furniture. With The Woman in Black and The Mist in the Mirror, she turned out a pair of antique-look ghost tales, modelled on M. R. James prototypes but also incorporating chunks of replica Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Now she is engaged in marketing another line of imitation: Mrs de Winter, her latest fictional commodity, is a simulated sequel to Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca.

Other than commercially, emulating that 1938 bestseller would be a profitless task, you'd think, and so it very soon proves. When the story starts—twelve years on from the fateful night Manderley went up in flames—Mrs de Winter, who has spent the intervening period living overseas with Maxim, has just returned to England with him for his sister's funeral. As she narrates what ensues, it rapidly becomes apparent that her prose style, never very distinguished, has sadly deteriorated during her long sojourn abroad. Not the most concise of communicators in Rebecca, she is now punishingly prolix. Parts of her story are, in fact, related in duplicate: weary of "running away, running away", she hopes Rebecca is "long, long dead" and "quite, quite forgotten", but "deep, deep fears" make her feel such optimism is "stupid, stupid".

When not caught up in this stylistic stutter, Mrs de Winter, as given voice by Hill, shows an extensive penchant for trios of adjectives. Dozens of instances of this strew her story. Though happy with "loving, solicitous, tender" Maxim, she is still tormented by thoughts of "tall, slender, black-haired" Rebecca and her "bold, amused, triumphant" gaze. With the reappearance of "motionless, black, gaunt" Mrs Danvers, a "deranged, deluded, vengeful" figure with a "terrible, relentless, insane" voice, "hard, bitter, dreadful" laugh and "bright, mad, staring" eyes, Mrs de Winter suffers "dreadful, restless, haunted" nights, seems to hear a voice saying "Go, go, go", and asks herself "What shall I do? What shall I do? What shall I do?"

One thing she does is to express with some profuseness her soulful sentiments about the English countryside ("a magic place, a scene from some fairy-tale and I sitting at the casement"). Among paragraphs heavily freighted with her sightings of flora and fauna, ornithological observations are particularly copious (suggesting that Hill may have simultaneously considered writing a sequel to du Maurier's story, "The Birds", the book abundantly comments on crows, seagulls, owls, an eagle, a robin, blackbirds, sparrows, larks, pigeons, ducks and geese). These not very vital nature notes are supplemented by long interludes of fervid, if somewhat vague, travelogue. Journeying round Europe, Mrs de Winter informs you that she has seen "beautiful things, breath-taking, unforgettable; houses and mountains and gardens and palaces, seas and skies and churches and lakes". She has marvelled over "the colours of individual pieces of food" on plates, and known cities such as "ancient, hidden, secret" Venice and "old, mysterious" Istanbul.

Though twelve years older, Mrs de Winter doesn't seem discernibly more mature than she was in Rebecca. Blushes and juvenile gaucheness still afflict her. But what appeared girlishness in the earlier book now seems retardation. Unaccountably, though a formidably wealthy middle-aged matron, she quivers timorously when Mrs Danvers, now reduced to companioning an elderly lady in Oxfordshire, visits her.

Just as the novel's lavish expenditure of banality in its descriptive passages seems designed to camouflage the fact that it hasn't got much of a plot, so Mrs de Winter's bewildering trepidation seems there to cover up the dearth of any real menace or suspense. The frissons in Rebecca—which gave it its famed appeal to adolescent girls—partly came from the young heroine's struggle to be accepted by adults who cow and snub her. Further Gothic thrills are transmitted by Maxim's saturnine sexuality and the mysteries of Manderley. In Mrs de Winter, though, Maxim has softened into a husbandly nonentity and Manderley is replaced by a cosy, rosy property in the Cotswolds. Bathos accompanies the reappearance of characters from Rebecca and the reworking of dramatic highlights from it: as when, peering from a lofty window in Italy, Mrs de Winter fancies she again hears Mrs Danvers urging her to jump and kill herself. There's a neatish twist by which Rebecca's concluding scene—the ashes of Manderley blown on "the salt wind from the sea"—is redone with a different set of ashes. But where the earlier book, fuelled by du Maurier's emotional turmoil, had a lurid energy that galvanized its story despite the inert prose, Mrs de Winter, written from no personal compulsion, is unstirred by any imaginative power.

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This section contains 794 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Kenneth Muir
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