(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."