Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 844
Susan Elizabeth Hill is a critically acclaimed English novelist and short-story writer whose production first reached its peak in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Her simply drawn novels examine the lives of small, sometimes eccentric people, who look for life and warmth in their often icy and sterile lives.
Born in 1942 to R. H. and Doris Hill in Scarborough, a working-class town on the east coast of England, Hill attended grammar school in Scarborough and Coventry and graduated with honors in English from King’s College, University of London, in 1963. Following her graduation, Hill reviewed books for the Coventry Evening Telegraph until 1969, when she became a full-time writer, reviewer, and broadcaster. In 1975, she married the Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells. They had a daughter and lived in Royal Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, and Oxfordshire.
Between 1961 and 1975, Hill published eight novels, three books of short stories, and one collection of radio plays. Her work was recognized by her receiving the Somerset Maugham Award (1971), the Whitbread Literary Award (1972), and the Rhys Memorial Prize (1972). In the late 1970’s, she decided that she would write no more novels. She considered the novel on which she was working inferior to her previous work, and she was enjoying marriage and motherhood. She considered giving up writing altogether for a while but remained active as a broadcaster and critic. Eventually, she returned to writing with a book exploring life in the Oxfordshire countryside and an autobiographical work entitled Family. In 1983, she returned to fiction with a thriller, The Woman in Black. She also focused on writing children’s books and book reviews. Hill returned to adult novels in the 1990’s with Air and Angels, a romance; The Mist in the Mirror, a gothic mystery; Mrs. de Winter, a sequel to Daphne du Maurier’s best-seller Rebecca (1938); and The Service of Clouds.
Hill’s novels are deceptively simple; they examine human emotions, especially “the need for human compassion.” Virginia Stirling, protagonist of The Enclosure, feels her love cooling for her theater-director husband, and she pulls selfishly away from him. In Gentleman and Ladies the spinster Alida Thorne selfishly commits her mother to a rest home. The older woman thrives there, but when Alida brings her home for a holiday, she declines and dies. A similar situation occurs in A Change for the Better, in which Deirdre Fount attempts to free herself from her mother and the small drapery shop they run. She finally decides to take her son on holiday; her son, however, wants to go with his own friends, not with her. Thus Deirdre, who has rejected her mother for her son, is herself rejected. In I’m the King of the Castle, Charles Kingshaw cannot find love and acceptance in the family of Hooper, a man Charles’s mother wants to marry. Hooper’s son Edmund, fearing that he will lose his position as “king of the castle,” terrorizes Charles. With his mother concentrating on her marriage schemes, Charles escapes from an intolerable situation by drowning himself.
In the later novels Hill’s characters seem to have more success finding love and compassion. In Strange Meeting, John Hilliard meets David Barton on the battlefield of World War I, and a deep friendship develops. Upon Barton’s death there, an isolated Hilliard takes up Barton’s avocations. Barton’s family even takes him in, and the emotionally cold Hilliard gradually adopts Barton’s optimism and openness. In one of Hill’s best novels, The Bird of Night, Harvey Lawson finds intimacy in his relationship with the brilliant poet Francis Croft, who is dependent on him. When Francis goes insane and dies, Harvey cannot recover the happiness that their love had produced. Ruth grieves over her husband in In the Springtime of the Year and does not gain solace through her uncaring relatives, but when she returns to the woods where her husband was killed, she finds renewal and compassion as she watches a small group of children burying a dead bird. The stories in A Bit of Singing and Dancing, and Other Stories continue with Hill’s prevailing theme—love, its loss, and the grief that follows.
Hill’s The Woman in Black is the frightening story of the spirit of a young woman which is denied rest because of the situation revolving around her death and the death of her young child. With the film version of The Woman in Black and the long-running stage production in London’s West End, Hill’s name and works became known to a much wider audience.
Events and emotions in Hill’s tales are developed through the use of “images of ice, winter, sterility, and detachment.” Hill’s concern with emerging from isolation and gaining human warmth has led her to a style of characterization that has gained critical praise. The elderly and frail characters, often women, strive in their own ways to find summer warmth, productivity, and closeness to others, but they usually fail. Death battles against life, lovelessness against love, fear against hope. Hill’s characters live in a depressing, polarized world.
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