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Critical Essay by Kenneth Muir
SOURCE: "Susan Hill's Fiction," in The Uses of Fiction: Essays on the Modern Novel in Honour of Arnold Kettle, edited by Douglas Jefferson and Graham Martin, The Open University Press, 1982, pp. 273-85.
Below, Muir assesses the achievement of Hill's fiction up to her hiatus from writing, discussing her narrative method, characterization, and themes.
When Susan Hill, to the dismay of her admirers, announced that she had decided to write no more novels, her reasons were complex. It was partly her feeling that the novel on which she was working, and which she destroyed, was inferior to her best, partly her newly found happiness in marriage and motherhood, and partly, one suspects, her realization that she ought to let her talent lie fallow. She had been writing since her schooldays and her mature work, written between the ages of twenty-six and thirty-two, included two volumes of short stories, a collection of radio plays, and six novels. She had won several prizes and was increasing her reputation with each successive volume, varied as they were. This seems, therefore, to be a convenient moment to consider her present achievement. It will be necessary in this brief essay to confine our attention to the six novels and the volumes of short stories. These are: Gentleman and Ladies (1968); A Change for the Better (1969); I'm the King of the Castle (1970); Strange Meeting (1971); The Albatross (1971); The Bird of Night (1972); A Bit of Singing and Dancing (1973); In the Springtime of the Year (1974).
Elspeth Thackeray, a character in 'The Peacock' (in A Bit of Singing and Dancing) who is taking a correspondence course on Creative Writing, is gently satirized for following the instructions on how to create character:
After observing people carefully you could then take a step farther on, you might invent a background for them, imagine them in their home environment, or at their place of work.
So she observes Daisy Buckingham, another guest at the hotel, and the central character of the story; but her observation tells her nothing of the inner thoughts and feelings—that she hated living in Africa, although she looked back on her stay with nostalgia, that she hated the hotel when she had stayed at it with her father years before, although it had been transformed by memory into a charming place, that she hoped her husband, although she recognized that he was a good man and a good husband, would die of a heart attack.
Obviously Susan Hill's method differs from Elspeth Thackeray's. She possesses to an extraordinary degree the quality which has been called the essential dramatic gift, the power of identifying herself with a wide variety of characters, all very different from the young graduate who wrote the novels and stories. Only one of them is told in the first person, but we look at events through the eyes of an eleven-year-old schoolboy, a mentally defective boy, a soldier in the trenches, a middle-aged railway clerk, a mad poet and his Egyptologist friend, the old man in 'The Custodian', the dying old woman in 'Missy'. It was presumably this quality that led one critic to compare Susan Hill to Tolstoy, though she is more akin to Turgenev or Chekhov.
When we are reading (as to Susan Hill when she was writing) I'm the King of the Castle, we see nearly everything through the eyes of Charles Kingshaw—his genteel, husband-seeking mother, his enemy, Edmund Hooper, his friend, Fielding, and his terrors, his hopes and his ultimate despair. He is given no idea of feeling that such a boy might not have, and the style never calls attention to itself, but only to the object, the feeling, the idea, or the landscape. Although an extraordinary tension is built up in the course of the book by the ordeals that Charles undergoes and by the temporary turning of the tables on his persecutor in Hang Wood, the story unfolds so naturally that we become conscious of the art only when we close the book and come to analyse it.
Susan Hill often uses old and middle-aged women as her personae; but the only one of her tales where a young woman is so used is In the Springtime of the Year, where the bereaved Ruth Boyce, widowed at twenty-one, is the character through whose eyes and memories we watch the action and her gradual recovery. This is accomplished through the affection and care of her fourteen-year-old brother-in-law, through the healing power of the countryside and of the village rituals (such as the decorating of graves for Easter Day), and through her ministering to the griefs and troubles of others. But although the dedication of the book may suggest that Susan Hill had herself suffered a bereavement, the heroine is differentiated from the novelist in almost every other way.
The second quality displayed by Susan Hill is what may be called the innocent eye. This is apparent not merely in the vividness of her landscapes, so that we seem to be seeing them for the first time, but also in the apparent avoidance of sophistication in the way in which she presents people's behaviour, however eccentric or cruel. This is what they did; this is how it happened. Another kind of novelist, for example, would have made explicit the sexual element in the friendships described in Strange Meeting and The Bird of Night. Here, and elsewhere, Susan Hill gains considerably from her reticence about sex and from her avoidance of psychological analysis. Her husbands and wives are mostly divorced or widowed or aged, and although the middle-aged booking-clerk in Gentleman and Ladies does marry for love at the end of the book, Mr Hooper has sexual fantasies about his life with Mrs Kingshaw, and the motor salesman in A Change for the Better picks up any available woman, Susan Hill is as reticent as the hero of Gentleman and Ladies when he proposes to Florence Ames at the seaside:
They began to climb one of the long, steep wooded paths up from the shore.
"You will marry me?" Gaily said suddenly, "won't you? When things are—are clear? That will be all right?"
They paused for a moment to recover breath.
"I would like that," she said. "Yes. I would like that very much."
They pause because they are middle-aged people going up a steep hill, not for a kiss.
To speak of the innocent eye does not imply that Susan Hill is unaware of the 'dark' side of life; many of her readers, indeed, feel that the atmosphere of her world is sombre and depressing. Her favourite English novelist is not George Eliot, but Dickens; and though she lacks his melodramatic intensity, his grotesque humour, and his flamboyance, she shares his appreciation of the odd and eccentric, a compassion for the aged, the lonely and the persecuted, and his obsession with violence. A summary of her plots would read like headlines from one of the more lurid Sunday newspapers. A half-witted boy murders his mother (and burns the house down), a teenager commits infanticide; two old men engage in a suicide pact; an eleven-year-old boy drives another to suicide; an old man is saved from death by cancer by dying of a heart-attack; a young agricultural labourer is killed by a falling tree; a nurse murders a geriatric patient because she fouls her bed; an old woman dies of food poisoning; a boy watches his father drown; a mad poet kills himself; and, sadder than all this violence, are the aimless and meaningless lives of many of her characters.
In Gentleman and Ladies the self-deceived Alida Thorne intrigues to have her invalid mother placed in a home, feeling guilty about it, although the mother is happier for the change. In the same book neurotic Isabel bullies her meek sister Kathleen, is furious that her other sister has left money to a hospital and jewelry to a friend, instead of to her, and buries the jewelry in the garden when the legatee refuses to accept it. The significance of the title A Change for the Better is that it is ironical. Mrs Fount, who runs a draper's shop with her mother, dreams vaguely, like the three sisters of Chekhov's play, of starting a new life; but when her mother dies she is unable to make a new start. Another character comments:
She is very young … not yet forty, and already she has given in, she is afraid of life, she will have nothing to look forward to in the future.
Susan Hill extracts some bitter comedy from the continual bickering between Mrs Fount and her dreadful mother. She is always defeated and by the end of the book she has become very like her mother. Such characters are defeated by life, defeated ultimately by their own personal inadequacies. The author treats them compassionately, but ruthlessly and realistically. The painful effect of the stories would be alleviated only by our recognition of their truth, if it were not for characters in all the novels, and in some of the stories, who stand out against the prevailing hopelessness.
Susan Hill, for all her objectivity, uses the novel, in Auden's famous phrase about the greatest art, to teach men to unlearn hatred and to learn love. The characters are divided into sheep and goats: those who are loving, life-enhancing, and filled with a purpose beyond themselves, and those who are possessive, unloving, and dying inwardly. In Gentleman and Ladies, the genteel rentiers of Haverstock are either snobs, who regard Hubert Gaily as common, or sympathetic, like Dorothea Shottery, who appreciates his goodness. The snobs are also the selfish ones, Alida Thorne and Isabel Lavender. It is characteristic of the good people that they admit to mixed motives and evil thoughts. Dorothea, for example,
had expected to get satisfaction from refusing Faith's jewellery, because it seemed an action on principle, and because there was always a surreptitious pleasure to be gained from snubbing Isabel.
Later in the book, when she is praised for her generosity, Dorothea thinks:
I am not generous. If the truth were known, it is only because I have for so long been lonely that I welcome demands for help. It is only that I feel that I may make a new friend and be rewarded with company.
Kathleen, on hearing of Isabel's death, thinks
I am not a vindictive woman … but I am glad that my sister is dead, for all my life I have suffered under her.
Even Hubert, whose affectionate and grumbling relationship with his mother is beautifully presented and who had dutifully stayed with her all his life, had wished at one moment that she were dead, since he could not apply for promotion elsewhere so long as she was alive.
Hubert's 'goodness' is illustrated through the book by his thoughtfulness for others—his joining in the funeral service in the first chapter, his helping an old woman to her seat in the bus, his mending of Mrs Shottery's gate, his organizing the village fair (not without satisfaction to himself). The goodness of Gaily is made explicit when Florence arranges for him to meet Mrs Shottery:
"I'd like to meet anyone—if you say so."
"Then you shall. She is a good person."
Nobody ever said a person was good, like that. They were nice, or all right, kind or likeable or easy to get on with. Not good, right out like that.
"I can't say I know any of what you'd call good people."
She turned to him in surprise.
"Not," Gaily said, worried, "not that I meet bad people. No, it's just-well, it's not a word you tend to apply, is it? You know …" He began to confuse himself. "I'm not sure what it means," he finished up, "a good person."
"Why," she said, "you are a good person! It is quite easy. That is what it means."
There is the same contrast in A Change for the Better between the life-enhancers and their opposites. The Founts, as we have seen, are spiritually dead or dying; but James, although born into a strange household from which adult males have been extruded, is saved, partly by his talents as a musician, partly by his determination to stand up against his mother and grandmother, and partly by the encouragement of his music teacher, Ralph Porlock. There is one very funny episode when James's grandmother goes off to interview Porlock because she suspects him of homosexual tendencies. He confronts her on the doorstep holding a meat-cleaver and causes her considerable alarm. She does not know that he was about to cut up a hare. He reluctantly invites her inside but does not ask her to sit down; so she perches on the back of a chair. She funks a direct accusation and her hints are too vague and confused to be understood. Porlock finally says:
"Madam, I do not yet know why you have come to see me. I am, as you have said, a busy man. I would be grateful if you would now speak out plainly."
Mrs Oddicut flushed. She could not now say anything about the time he and the boy spent here together, she could not ask what they talked about, and say that she did not think it altogether suitable.
So she pretends that she had come because James was in danger when he came down the cliff path at night:
"Things have happened there, girls have been—have been set upon. Accosted."
"Once, yes. In the middle of a summer afternoon."
"Nobody knows what may be the danger, then, on a dark winter's evening."
"Tush, madam. No more than the danger outside your own house."
Mrs Oddicut goes away 'red about the neck with anger'. Porlock smiled to himself 'because as he got older, he found the quest for the risible more and more fully rewarded.'
The foul-tempered Major Carpenter behaves intolerably to his sweet-tempered wife; but there is some comedy in his irrational behaviour, in his snobbery, and in his Blimpish prejudices:
The people of whom Major Carpenter disapproved were—almost all summer visitors, all conference members, the Jewish businessmen from Hampstead and engineering executives from the Midlands, solicitors and retired Diocesan Bishops.
Mrs Carpenter spends her time in making up for her husband's rudeness, and when he dies she is able to make a new, and happier, life for herself. Yet the reader can feel some pity even for the Major, who is upset by the death of an old friend, and himself afraid of dying.
We are given a glimpse of one happy household in the town, to which James Fount is invited by a school friend, Schwartz. He persuades his mother to let him go on holiday with the Schwartzes, although she had arranged for him to stay in an hotel with her. But at the end of the book she finds herself behaving just like her mother:
James Fount got off the cane chair and picked up his satchel.
"I'm going to tea with Schwartz," he said.
"I beg your pardon? How dare you tell me what you are or are not going to do, without so much as asking my permission."
"I'm sorry. May I go to tea with Schwartz?"
"Oh go on, go on, do what you like, I do not care for you. You have more feeling for your friend Schwartz and his family than you have for me."
James Fount left the shop.
I am saying all the things to him that I vowed I would never say, thought Mrs Fount. I am becoming more and more like my own mother was with me and I cannot help myself, for now I understand. I see it all and I am miserable and afraid.
We know that James will get his way and go to a boarding school on a music scholarship.
In I'm the King of the Castle, the victim, Charles Kingshaw lives in an unsympathetic or hostile environment. His mother, because she is so anxious to marry Mr Hooper, cannot be his confidante; Mr Hooper, though generous according to his lights, is unable to understand either his own son or Charles; and Edmund resents the invasion of his territory by Charles, and therefore persecutes him. The persecution takes understandable forms: locking his victim in a room containing a frightening collection of moths, putting a stuffed crow on his bed in the middle of the night, locking him in a shed, and so on. Near the end of the book, when Edmund is away, Charles meets Fielding, the son of a neighbour, normal, good-natured and friendly; but this friendship is ruined by the return of Edmund. This and his mother's imminent marriage to Mr Hooper increase Charles's unhappiness; and when Mr Hooper arranges to pay his fees so that he can join Edmund at his school, he despairs and commits suicide. When Edmund finds the body, he
thought suddenly, it was because of me, I did that, it was because of me, and a spurt of triumph went through him.
There had been many unpleasant and selfish and foolish characters in the previous books, but Edmund is evil. When all excuses have been made—family pride, snobbery, his motherless state, his father, the barbarous ideology of his school—Edmund is cruel and evil. This is made apparent not merely by his bullying, but by his refusal to respond to Charles's acts of kindness. In Hang Wood, when he is terrified of a thunderstorm, when he is afraid that they will starve to death, and when he is nearly drowned, he is cared for by Charles; yet when they are found Edmund accuses Charles of trying to drown him. Later in the book, when he breaks his leg in a climbing accident, he accuses Charles of having pushed him, although Charles had tried to help him to safety. The Fieldings merely provide a glimpse of a world outside the nightmare of schoolboy cruelty; to have given them a larger share in the book would have lessened the tension.
Characters in the earlier books had been cruel and selfish—Isabel Lavender, for example, or Mrs Oddicut—but here Susan Hill faces directly the mystery of iniquity: Edmund, although his cruelty is adolescent and merely verbal, is as evil as the demi-devil, Iago.
Strange Meeting was suggested by the first performance of Britten's War Requiem in Coventry Cathedral (1962), although some nine years elapsed before the novel was written. During the interval Susan Hill read a large number of books about the First World War, including those by Graves, Blunden, and Chapman. The Owen poem which provided the title is about the meeting after death of a German and an English soldier: in the novel the strange meeting is the close friendship between two English officers on the Western Front, and the death of one of them. The authenticity of the setting is the result of an amalgam of multitudinous sources, so that no direct borrowing can be detected. This is a remarkable imaginative feat. But the real subject is friendship rather than war: war provides a threat, a background, a quickener to the friendship. John Hilliard, the older of the two men, comes from a cold, respectable and conventional family, and he is himself reserved and emotionally inexperienced. David Barton comes from a warm, out-going, affectionate family, and he himself is loving and beloved. The contrast between the two families continues what we have seen in the previous novels; but Hilliard undergoes a conversion by love, so that when David is killed he is absorbed into the Barton family.
When he is home on leave at the beginning of the book, John is revolted by the uncomprehending attitude of his family to the realities of the war and by the sentimental attitude of a retired cavalry major. He hopes to be able to talk openly with his sister Beth, to whom he used to be close, and hears that she is to marry a middle-aged solicitor for security. When he gets to know David, he is astonished at his openness and the difference between their two families.
"No. I didn't want to come out here at all, I was in a blue funk. I'd have done more or less anything … but I'm fit and of age, I couldn't slip through the net. So I suppose I'd better make the most of it."
"Do you always tell people everything you're feeling?"
Barton looked round at him in surprise. "Generally. If I want to. If they want to hear." He paused and then laughed. "Good Lord, we're not at school now, are we?"
Hilliard did not reply.
"Besides, it's the way we were brought up. To say things, tell people what you feel. I don't mean to force it on anyone. But not to bottle things up."
The letters from the Barton family begin to include messages to John, and then letters to him:
He said again and again. "They don't know me. They don't know me," holding the envelopes, looking at the writing upon them, feeling the smoothness of the letter paper between his fingers.
As always, Barton laughed. "Of course they do!"
"They haven't seen me, we have never met."
"Oh, that's practically superfluous by now."
These friendly letters contrast painfully with those he receives from his own family; and, when he is badly wounded and in hospital, the affectionate letters he gets from Mrs Barton contrast with the visit of his mother:
"You look very beautiful, mother. You always look very beautiful."
She inclined her head, smiled at him, as Royalty would smile. She wore a dark fuchsia dress, full-skirted, and with a coat of deeper, more purplish red, a hat with purple feathers. When she walked away, the other men in the room looked up from their books and letters, and watched her go.
The theme of friendship is continued in the next novel, The Bird of Night, in more difficult circumstances. For Francis Croft is a great poet, who suffers from recurrent periods of madness, and the narrator, Harvey, looks after him with selfless devotion for many years. The title is taken from a Hölderlin poem, and the novel was written at Aldeburgh, where Britten composed his Hölderlin settings. Of the mad poets to whom Susan Hill refers,—Clare, Smart, and Blake—none was given to violence, whereas Hölderlin and Croft were. But we are meant to understand, perhaps, that when poets are mad, it is because the society in which they live is at fault. Harvey says:
And if he is mad, it is because one man's brain cannot contain all the emotions and ideas and visions that are filling his without sometimes weakening and breaking down.
Harvey tells the story thirty years after Croft's death and his narrative is interspersed with prose quotations from the poet's notebooks. Susan Hill does not, however, risk quoting any of Croft's poems (as Pasternak quoted Zhivago's), for Croft is supposed to be the greatest poet of his age, one who had written during the First World War, and afterwards developed, as Owen might have done if he had survived. Harvey is himself a writer so that by using him as the narrator Susan Hill can allow herself a more 'literary' style than in her previous books, with a good deal of imagery and some splendid Suffolk and Dorset landscapes.
It will be remembered that the start of Hölderlin's madness coincided with the death of the lady he called Diotima: Croft seems to have no interest in women—his madness begins when his brother shoots a bird. Harvey is jealous; and his resentment of the academics who pester him for information about the dead poet, although suggested by the theses and articles about Sylvia Plath after her suicide, may have been due to his possessive love.
Towards the end of the book Croft's father comes to visit him in the Battersea asylum, and there is a meeting between him and Harvey, which brings out the difference between the two men, and between Croft and his father. The father disapproves of Harvey for not having the poet sent to an asylum years before, 'in the privacy of some clinic—Austria—Switzerland … There is no history of insanity in my family.' His reputation as a poet adds to his father's fear that his madness will become public knowledge; and when Harvey remarks that 'very many men of seventy had lost their sons in the war', he replies:
I had rather he were dead than this, there would have at least been no shame in it. I should not have had to wake every morning of my life and fear for his future. At least I should have known.
Harvey realizes that 'there was no hope at all of sympathy left between us'.
The last of the novels, In the Springtime of the Year, has a less ambitious theme but a tauter construction. In the place of the first person narrative, the action is viewed through the eyes of Ruth. We learn nothing except what she sees and hears; our knowledge of the other characters in the book is her knowledge or her opinion, which we are willing to accept as true because she emerges as a kind and loving person. She is proud and independent and determines to come to terms with her bereavement on her own. She stays on in the cottage, refusing to see the clergyman who comes to bring spiritual comfort, and visited only by Jo, the one member of the family who is like her dead husband in temperament. He is one of the Hill characters who is sensitive, caring, and open-hearted, whereas his mother, Mrs Boyce, had resented Ruth's marriage with Ben, is conventional in her ideas, and regards Ruth's behaviour after the death of her husband as unfeeling because she does not weep in public and refuses to take a last look at the corpse.
She saw the expression on Alice's face, remembered what she had said that night. "You've not even feeling enough to cry." But she could not go upstairs, the sight of his body, lying in a coffin, which would soon be sealed up forever, would be more than she could bear. And it would mean nothing, now. She looked around the room. So they had all been up? Yes. She imagined the file of dark mourners mounting the stairs and peering down into the coffin. At Ben. Ben. How could they? How could so many people have touched him and looked at him, unasked, since the moment of his death, when she herself had not?
Mrs Boyce is a self-deceiver, hoping to live a vicarious life through her daughter, Alice, who would marry a gentleman and become the lady she might have been herself:
"I could have been Someone, Miss, had a real life, I could …"
"We all know what you fancy you could have been. A lady! we've heard it all our lives and do you suppose we believe it? Why should we? And does it matter? Because whatever you might have been is a day-dream, isn't it, an escape from the truth? You live in a day-dream. But this is real, this is what you are, here, a woman of fifty, married to a farm hand. Well why can't you be satisfied, why not make do?"
Alice, tired of her mother's fantasies, has an affair with a man she doesn't love. Ruth, although she cannot understand how any woman could behave in this way, nevertheless shelters her when she is repudiated by her mother, and goes vainly to intercede on her behalf. Just before this she has tried to comfort the clergyman whose beloved child has died, and who has lost his faith as a result and proposes to resign from Holy Orders:
Because she has died and now I know that everything I believed in and lived for has died with her. Because my life is a lie. I am a lie. How can I visit them, people sick, people dying and in distress, needing truth, what have I to say to them? How can I take services in the church and preach and pray and know that it is all a lie? I used to know what words to say, but there are no words, and there is no help for anyone. I think of how I went to people and talked to them, about death and goodness and consolation, and I feel ashamed, I knew nothing, I had never felt what they felt.
The naked grief of a professed and professional Christian prevents the reader from feeling that Ruth's grief for her husband had been alleviated too easily in the course of the book; and the clergyman's bereavement has been placed near the end both to show Ruth's concern for others and to remind us of what she herself had suffered. There is also a contrast between the possessive love of the clergyman and Ruth's selfless but reciprocal love for her husband which enables her to endure.
It is too early to assess Susan Hill's achievement, as her future work may well surpass what she has already done. She is younger now than George Eliot was when she published Scenes from Clerical Life; and the qualities we have outlined—the purity of her style, her ability to identify with a wide range of characters quite unlike herself, and her sensitive moral discrimination—are the best guarantee of her future development. She is one of the finest writers of the seventies: we may hope that she will emerge as the outstanding novelist of the last quarter of the century.
This section contains 4,887 words
(approx. 17 pages at 300 words per page)