Susan Hill Essay - Critical Essays

Hill, Susan

Introduction

Susan Hill 1942–

(Full name Susan Elizabeth Hill) English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, and children's writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Hill's career through 1996. See also Susan Hill Criticism (Volume 4).

Hill is largely known for a body of critically acclaimed works published over six years during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when she wrote six novels, two collections of short stories, and several radio plays. Comprised of brief narratives that rely on simple plots, Hill's award-winning fiction of that period avoids exploiting the human anguish—grief, loneliness, and fear—which they intensely realize. Her novels and short stories feature vivid landscapes charged with meaning and concentrate on both the conscious and subconscious workings of the human psyche. Critics have praised Hill's formal, precise use of language and her narrative technique, finding her reticent psychological analysis and restraint from sentimentality and explicit sexual reference remarkable by contemporary literary standards. Hill surprised critics in 1975 by publicly announcing that she had written her last novel, but she reversed herself almost a decade later and has returned to writing fiction occasionally. Kenneth Muir likened Hill's narrative gift and the gloomy atmosphere of her novels to Charles Dickens's, remarking that "she shares his appreciation of the odd and eccentric, a compassion for the aged, the lonely, and the persecuted, and his obsession with violence."

Biographical Information

Born February 5, 1942 in Scarborough, Yorkshire, England, a faded resort town similar to the settings of some of her novels, Hill attended grammar school in Coventry, publishing her first novel, The Enclosure (1961), her last year there. The next autumn she entered King's College at the University of London, taking a B.A. degree with honors in 1963, the same year her second novel, Do Me a Favour, appeared. Upon graduation, Hill worked as a literary critic for five years for Coventry Evening Telegraph and as a reviewer for various periodicals. Between 1968 and 1974 Hill wrote what she has termed her "serious books": the novels Gentleman and Ladies (1968); A Change for the Better (1969); I'm the King of the Castle (1970), which won the 1971 Somerset Maugham Award; Strange Meeting (1971); The Bird of Night (1972), which won the 1972 Whitbread Literary Award for fiction; and In the Springtime of the Year (1974), as well as the short story collections The Albatross (1971), which won the 1972 John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Prize, and A Bit of Singing and Dancing (1973). Meanwhile, Hill also wrote many radio plays, which she collected in the volume The Cold Country and Other Plays for Radio (1975). After marrying Stanley W. Wells, a Shakespearean scholar, on Shakespeare's birthday (April 23) in 1975, Hill stopped writing fiction and instead concentrated on composing radio plays and her monthly column—"The World of Books"—for The Daily Telegraph newspaper. The publication of the novel The Woman in Black in 1983, however, signaled Hill's return to fiction writing. Since then she has published other fiction—the novella Lanterns across the Snow (1987), the novels Air and Angels (1991) and Mrs. de Winter (1993), and the story anthology Listening to the Orchestra (1996)—in addition to many children's stories and books about literature, historical literary places, and English rural life.

Major Works

"A summary of [Hill's] plots would read like headlines from one of the more lurid Sunday newspapers," Muir observed. Hill's novels tend to focus on social misfits and outsiders situated in isolated yet highly atmospheric places and characterized largely through her use of language and dialogue. Referred to by Hill as her apprentice work, her first two novels are distinguished by their focus on male-female relationships: The Enclosure traces the dissolution of a marriage, and Do Me a Favour, though peopled with a large cast of characters, mainly records the vicissitudes of a relationship between a young woman writer and her journalist lover. Gentleman and Ladies recounts the bittersweet lives and sometimes cruel machinations of a group of elderly women in a small, rural village, one of whom is courted by—and eventually marries—a fifty-four-year-old bachelor who still lives at home with his domineering mother. A Change for the Better, set in "a world of private hotels, paid companions, and a genteel concern with keeping up appearances," as Catherine Wells Cole put it, relates a woman's futile struggle for freedom from her controlling mother, whose presence is minded even in death. I'm the King of the Castle portrays a bitter battle of wills between two eleven-year-old boys: one is the son of a newly hired, live-in housekeeper and the other the son of a recently widowed man, both of whom are forced to share the same place. Strange Meeting, notable for its convincing male perspective, relates the effects of a vital but doomed friendship on a reserved, introspective officer and his easygoing, generous comrade when they are thrown together in the trenches of Flanders during World War I. The Bird of Night, written in the form of a eighty-year-old scholar's memoirs, ruminates on half of a twenty-year friendship between the old man and a brilliant but insane poet, Francis Croft, speculating about the line between genius and madness. Reminiscent of a pastoral elegy, In the Springtime of the Year spans a year in the countryside and follows the gradations of grief endured by a young widow, whose husband accidentally died when a tree crushed him, and who comes to accept her loss. The Woman in Black, written in an elegant though past idiom and often compared to Victorian ghost novels, relates the story of a supernatural, sinister haunting, again narrated by a masculine voice. Mrs. de Winter purports to be a sequel to Daphne du Maurier's popularly acclaimed novel Rebecca (1938). Hill's short story collections form thematic refrains to her novels, favoring atmosphere over plot and examining the conditions of detachment, loneliness, and fear. For instance, The Albatross, a novella-length story set in a bleak fishing town, deals with a mentally challenged man seeking escape from his invalid mother, whom he eventually wheels into the ocean after burning their cottage; and "The Custodian" describes the devotion of an old man for the care of an apparently abandoned boy, whose father suddenly returns one day, leaving the man bereft of his sole reason for living. Notable among her substantial body of radio plays are Lizard in the Grass (1971), which recounts the experiences of an orphaned, highly imaginative schoolgirl who doesn't fit in with the others at a distinctly unfriendly convent; The Cold Country (1972), which concerns four hopelessly snowbound Antarctic explorers, only one of whom presumably survives; and Consider the Lilies (1973), in which a young girl slowly wastes to death while communing with a middle-aged botanist, coping with both his Blakean tendencies and overly ambitious assistant.

Critical Reception

The critical reception of Hill's writings has cooled somewhat since her prodigious literary debut, but signs of academic interest in her work, especially her early novels and stories, have emerged. Generally acknowledged as an accomplished stylist, Hill's lucid narrative technique and usually indeterminate yet powerfully described sense of place have received particular notice, as has her convincing display of a distinctly male perspective in some of her fiction. Hill's simple but effective narrative structures have fascinated scholars, who frequently have noted precision in the way she distances the story from readers: "By so structuring that tight enclosure … Susan Hill's persona come to life," Ernest H. Hofer explained, adding that "faithful adherence to structure … becomes a dynamic of exposure. We SEE." Commenting on Hill's reticence about sex, Maria Schubert observed that "the absence of explicit sexual reference … expresses a preference for an oblique mode of communication, almost innovative after years of the demonstrative breaking of sexual taboos, once doubtless a great merit in literature." Although some critics have suggested that Hill's fictions do not advocate a feminist perspective, others have shown that "the real issues behind her work are related to problems of female survival," as Rosemary Jackson stated: "It is no accident that Susan Hill's work has been so well received by a liberal literary tradition, for it ends by silencing its own timorous interrogation of some of the fatal and crippling effects of a patriarchal, 'male' culture and retreats into a familiar 'female' enclosure of defeatism." Mary Jane Reed summarized Hill's achievement: "Hill's style is clear and the structure of her work is simple. Her novels are a paradox, easy to read yet profound in exploring our complex behaviour and the universal problems we encounter—death, war, seclusion, even madness."

Principal Works

The Enclosure (novel) 1961
Do Me a Favour (novel) 1963
Gentleman and Ladies (novel) 1968
A Change for the Better (novel) 1969
I'm the King of the Castle (novel) 1970
The Albatross (short stories) 1971; also published as The Albatross and Other Stories, 1975
Strange Meeting (novel) 1971
The Bird of Night (novel) 1972
The Custodian (short stories) 1972
A Bit of Singing and Dancing and Other Stories (short stories) 1973
In the Springtime of the Year (novel) 1974
The Cold Country and Other Plays for Radio (drama) 1975
The Magic Apple-Tree: A Country Year (essays) 1982
The Woman in Black: A Ghost Story (novel) 1983
One Night at a Time (for children) 1984; also published as Go Away, Bad Dreams!, 1985
Through the Kitchen Window (essays) 1984
Mother's Magic (for children) 1986
Through the Garden Gate (essays) 1986
Lanterns across the Snow (novella) 1987
The Lighting of the Lamps (essays) 1987
Shakespeare Country (prose) 1987
Can It Be True? A Christmas Story (for children) 1988
Family (autobiography) 1988
The Spirit of the Cotswolds (prose) 1988
Suzie's Shoes (for children) 1989
The Glass Angels (for children) 1990
I Won't Go There Again (for children) 1990
Septimus Honeydew (for children) 1990
Stories from Codling Village (for children) 1990
Air and Angels (novel) 1991
Beware, Beware (for children) 1993
King of Kings (for children) 1993
Mrs. de Winter (novel) 1993
The Christmas Collection (for children) 1994
Listening to the Orchestra (short stories) 1996
Reflections from a Garden [with Rory Stuart] (essays) 1996

∗This work was adapted as the radio play Miss Lavender Is Dead (1970).

†This work includes The Cold Country (1972) The End of Summer (1971), Consider the Lilies (1973), Strip Jack Naked (1974), and Lizard in the Grass (1971).

Criticism

Times Literary Supplement (review date 15 September 1972)

SOURCE: "Poet's Pains," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3680, September 15, 1972, p. 1041.

[In the following review, the critic highlights the theme of insanity in The Bird of Night.]

There have been clues here and there in her previous books that Susan Hill was, like many of the rest of us today, troubled and fascinated by the apparently arbitrary way in which human beings are dismissed as "mad", by the possibility that the so-called insane are saner than the world cares to admit. But even considering the wide range she has so far covered, it would have been a rare guess that hit on the subject of Miss Hill's new and strange novel. The Bird of Night is in the...

(The entire section is 773 words.)

Alexander Theroux (review date 27 April 1973)

SOURCE: "A Tale of Madness," in National Review, Vol. XXV, No. 17, April 27, 1973, p. 479.

[In the review below, Theroux details the character of Francis Croft of The Bird of Night, observing Hill's "uncanny insight" about insanity.]

The "greatest poet of his age," as envisioned by Susan Hill in her novel The Bird of Night, is an owlish, manic-depressive Scot named Francis Croft, aet. 33, who courts death imprisoned in the land of catatonia, an insanitarium of self where his nerve ends, always exposed, show themselves each to be more sensitive than a rice-weevil's feeler. This isn't really a novel. It's a nervous breakdown. It's a...

(The entire section is 578 words.)

Times Literary Supplement (review date 25 January 1974)

SOURCE: "Weathering the Calm," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3751, January 25, 1974, p. 69.

[Below, the critic considers the representation of grief in In the Springtime of the Year and its effect on the novel.]

Some novels conjure up discreet, well lit interiors, where you notice people's accents, or opinions, or possessions. Others seem to happen in a moody, unpredictable out of doors, where what you attend to—though it sounds paradoxical—is the inner life, the spiritual "weather". Susan Hill's fiction is very clearly of this second kind. She invests her real energy in emotional events everything that is merely circumstantial or descriptive is tacitly...

(The entire section is 665 words.)

Irina Sofinskaya (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Susan Hill: A Soviet Critic's View," in Soviet Literature, No. 11, 1976, pp. 166-69.

[In the following essay, Sofinskaya identifies the hallmarks of Hill's fiction, especially her short stories, indicating the significance of psychology, place, and death for her narrative art.]

The Soviet reader first became acquainted with Susan Hill's work at the beginning of the year, when three of her short stories were translated into Russian and published in the magazine Inostrannaya Literatura ("Foreign Literature"). A collection of her stories to be published in English in Moscow is also in preparation. Articles about Susan Hill and the first reviews of her...

(The entire section is 1930 words.)

Donald A. Low (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Telling the Story: Susan Hill and Dorothy L. Sayers," in British Radio Drama, edited by John Drakakis, Cambridge University Press, 1981, pp. 111-38.

[In the essay below, Low discusses the connection between Hill's fiction and her radio dramas, emphasizing the role of dialogue and the spoken word in her narrative style in both genres.]

When we go to Heaven, all I ask is that we shall be given some interesting job & allowed to get on with it. No management; no box-office; no dramatic critics; & an audience of cheerful angels who don't mind laughing. (Dorothy L. Sayers to Val Gielgud, 13 January 1942)

...

(The entire section is 3203 words.)

Rosemary Jackson (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Cold Enclosures: The Fiction of Susan Hill," in Twentieth-Century Women Novelists, edited by Thomas F. Staley, Barnes & Noble Books, 1982, pp. 81-103.

[In the following essay, Jackson approaches Hill's fiction in terms of a tension between detachment from and desire for life, identifying the idea of coldness as its "imaginative centre" and relating its principal themes and motifs to feminist concerns.]

Susan Hill's fictional output has been substantial and has been well received by the English literary establishment. Between 1961 and 1976, she published nine novels, two short story anthologies, one collection of radio plays, and received recognition with...

(The entire section is 9403 words.)

Kenneth Muir (essay date 1982)

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,...

(The entire section is 4961 words.)

Mary Jane Reed (essay date April 1983)

SOURCE: "Recommended: Susan Hill," in English Journal, Vol. 72, No. 4, April, 1983, pp. 75-6.

[In the essay below, Reed compares The Bird of Night, In the Springtime of the Year, and Strange Meeting, emphasizing the humanity of the main character of each novel.]

Susan Hill's novels were not best-sellers when they were published in the early 1970s, nor would they be today, for they are short, have no complex plots, and do not exploit the sensual or bizarre. But each novel is a masterful probe into human emotions and needs. Her characters come alive not because of what they do but how they feel and react to others and to their environment. Hill's style is...

(The entire section is 1368 words.)

K. R. Ireland (essay date Fall 1983)

SOURCE: "Rite at the Center: Narrative Duplication in Susan Hill's In the Springtime of the Year," in The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 13, No. 3, Fall, 1983, pp. 172-80.

[Below, Ireland identifies the scene at Helm Bottom as the mise en abyme of In the Springtime of the Year, emphasizing its primary relation to the themes and structure of the novel.]

It is almost a decade since Susan Hill's last novel appeared. Similar to E. M. Forster in one respect at least, that of having written a handful of mature novels before giving up the form, she paradoxically invites, by her novelistic silence, a retrospective consideration of her work. Much-read...

(The entire section is 4283 words.)

Maria Schubert (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Susan Hill Focusing on Outsiders and Losers," in English Language and Literature: Positions & Dispositions, edited by James Hogg, Karl Hubmayer, and Dorothea Steiner, Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik der Universität Salzburg, 1990, pp. 91-101.

[In the following essay, Schubert discusses the ways Hill's marginalized, often female characters illuminate the main themes of her fiction, especially in Gentleman and Ladies, A Change for the Better, and I'm the King of the Castle.]

The problems of women as an underprivileged even an oppressed section of society are almost inevitably a subject for female novelists today. In her novels and short...

(The entire section is 5830 words.)

Anita Brookner (review date 24 October 1992)

SOURCE: "The Curious Incident of the Dog," in Spectator, Vol. 270, No. 8572, October 24, 1992, p. 34.

[In the following review, Brookner concentrates on gothic aspects of The Mist in the Mirror, admiring the novel's "certain pluckiness of tone."]

Yet another Victorian pastiche, this time by Susan Hill in her Gothic or ghost story mode. I say Victorian, though the period is uncertain. The stately clubman's tone is reminiscent of Henry James, while the multitudinous weather systems hint at Dickens: there is a transparent borrowing of the famous description of fog in the first chapter of Bleak House, although in this instance the identical syntax is applied...

(The entire section is 702 words.)

Toby Fitton (review date 30 October 1992)

SOURCE: "Directions from Afar," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4674, October 30, 1992, p. 21.

[In the review below, Fitton puzzles out the mystery of The Mist in the Mirror, noting that some questions remain "satisfyingly unanswered."]

The mood of [The Mist in the Mirror] is autumnal, very suitable for a ghost story set in a moist and misty past. Its general context is conventional, that of an M. R. James story. An aged habitué of a Pall Mall club urgently presses on a fellow-member, whose light conversation about ghosts he has overheard, the manuscript reminiscence of a personal experience which had distressed him as a young man. The more specific...

(The entire section is 569 words.)

Peter Kemp (review date 15 October 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 798 words.)

Rachel Billington (review date 7 November 1993)

SOURCE: "Still Dead after All These Years," in New York Times Book Review, November 7, 1993, p. 23.

[Below, Billington compares Mrs. de Winter to Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, finding the former derivative.]

That fascinating author Ivy Compton-Burnett, when asked whether she had ever thought of writing a sequel to any of her novels, answered: "No. But then my novels end with a full stop, as it were." Part of the magic of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (1938) is that it starts in the middle and finishes without a full stop, as it were. The temptation to continue such a publishing gold mine was obviously great.

"Last night I dreamt I...

(The entire section is 706 words.)

Kathryn Hughes (review date 26 November 1993)

SOURCE: "Play It Again," in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 6, No. 280, November 26, 1993, pp. 44-5.

[In the following review, Hughes laments the specter of "literary ventriloquism" that hangs over Mrs. de Winter, likening its demerits to Emma Tennant's Pemberley, a sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.]

Pemberley [by Emma Tennant] and Mrs de Winter comprise codas to two of English literature's most loved and enduring texts. Thus Pemberley tells the story of what-happened-next to Elizabeth Bennett, Mr Darcy and the rest of the cast of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Mrs de Winter, meanwhile, fast-forwards to a point...

(The entire section is 819 words.)

Ernest H. Hofer (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Enclosed Structures, Disclosed Lives: The Fictions of Susan Hill," in Contemporary British Women Writers, Narrative Strategies, edited by Robert E. Hosmer Jr., St. Martin's Press, 1993, pp. 128-50.

[Below, Hofer provides an overview of Hill's fiction, tracing the movement away from an "enclosed" narrative structure to a more "open" one.]

Susan Hill, now concentrating on writing plays and fiction for children, as well as idylls of country life, is chiefly known for a series of intensely realized narratives composed over a brief six-year period:

Quite suddenly, a door opened, something fell into place—it's hard to know...

(The entire section is 7368 words.)

Merle Rubin (review date 12 January 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Mrs. de Winter, in Christian Science Monitor, January 12, 1994, p. 17.

[In the excerpt below, Rubin finds that Hill's sequel is "a little duller and more predictable" than Daphne du Maurier's novel.]

For much of her professional life, British writer Daphne du Maurier was dogged by feelings of disappointment at not being considered a serious artist.

Rebecca, du Maurier's most celebrated novel, published in 1938 and shortly thereafter made into a classic Hitchcock film, is still widely read today. But its fame overshadowed her subsequent work, including such novels as My Cousin Rachel (1951), The Scapegoat...

(The entire section is 455 words.)

Gale Harris (review date Spring 1994)

SOURCE: "Dreaming of Manderley," in Belles Lettres, Vol. 9, No. 3, Spring, 1994, pp. 23-4.

[In the following review, Harris looks into the reasons why Mrs. de Winter fails "to replicate the success of [Daphne] du Maurier's Rebecca."]

What happens to a writer who has mined her craft to create a fantasy existence for herself and then finds that her inner conflicts no longer inspire the fiction for which she has become famous? Margaret Forster's new biography of Daphne du Maurier explores the development and decline of a woman who truly "lived to write." In a genre that receives little respect from critics, du Maurier's suspense novels introduced a unique...

(The entire section is 998 words.)

Charlotte Moore (review date 26 October 1996)

SOURCE: "Breaking Out in Spots," in Spectator, Vol. 277, No. 880, October 26, 1996, p. 46.

[In the following review, Moore profiles the characters in Listening to the Orchestra, questioning whether they know they are alive.]

'She had always kept her own company and her thoughts and feelings turned inwards. To tell things would be to her like undressing.' 'She' is the nameless young woman in the title story of Listening to the Orchestra; with the utmost delicacy and care her creator, Susan Hill, undertakes the task of 'undressing' her characters. Each of these four short stories exposes someone who is 'turned inwards', 'holding onto' themselves, but the...

(The entire section is 627 words.)

Robert McCrum (review date 8 December 1996)

SOURCE: "McCrum on Susan Hill," in Observer Review, December 8, 1996, p. 15.

[In the review below, McCrum offers praise for Listening to the Orchestra, which he observes "is a reminder of the virtues of the traditional English story."]

Susan Hill is, of course, an established English writer who first caught the attention of the reading public in the early Seventies, with her stories and novels I'm the King of the Castle (1970), Strange Meeting (1971), Bird of Night (1972), and A Bit of Singing and Dancing (1973). In recent years she has written for children, She is, in the bald, blunt language of the book trade, a 'name' author; a...

(The entire section is 718 words.)