I love Daphne Du Maurier. Who hasn’t read and been completely transfixed by Rebecca? I loved Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel so much I was scared for a long time to read another one of her books in case they fell short of the standard they had set and disappointed me. So it’s been a good few years since I dabbled in a Du Maurier and well goodness me have I been missing out!
Verity’s posts on Du Maurier’s prolific output and recent reissuing by Virago encouraged me to finally dig out and read my copy of Hungry Hill, which is a lovely first American edition that I picked up for a $1 at a sale in a library called Gaylord Memorial in South Hadley, Massachusetts, two years ago exactly. There is a picture of the libary below. I am ashamed to admit I still can’t write the name ‘Gaylord Memorial Library’ without stifling a chuckle. It’s the same when I see Cockfosters on the front of a Piccadilly Line tube. There is clearly a small part of me that will forever be 13.
But onwards! To Hungry Hill. It is a multi generational saga of an Irish family, the Brodricks, and their rise and fall from the early 1800s to the 1920s. I believe I am right in saying that it’s the only one of Du Maurier’s novels that isn’t set in Cornwall (please do jump in and correct me if I’m wrong!), but it does have Cornish people in it, so she doesn’t forget about the land of cream tea completely. The title comes from the name of the hill that dominates the landscape around the Brodricks’ home, Clonmere Castle, and the nearby town, Doonhaven. The Brodricks have an ancient quarrel with the Donovan family, who used to own Clonmere and who were outsed by the Brodricks a few generations before. When the first Brodrick we meet, ‘Copper John’, sets up a mine on Hungry Hill, old Morty Donovan curses him and says his family will never see happiness and that the Hill will have its way with them in the end:
“Ah, you can laugh” he said, “you, with your Trinity education and your reading and your grand progressive ways, and your sons and your daughters that walk through Doonhaven as though the place was built for their convenience, but I tell you your mine will be in ruins, and your house destroyed, and your children forgotten and fallen maybe into disgrace, but this hill will be standing still to confound you.”
All very ominous to begin with, but at first, all seems well and the story begins with a nice description of the cosy domestic life and material success ‘Copper John’ has.
But slowly, slowly, as the mine gets more and more successful and the richer the Brodricks get from the copper underneath Hungry Hill, the more tragedy seems to strike the family. It doesn’t happen in a supernatural way; Victorians were no strangers to deaths from illnesses and childbirth, etc, but the Brodricks do appear to be cursed when it comes to losing spouses, children, and so on, usually very suddenly and tragically. There is also the problem of depression, of restlessness, of indolence and of weakness that seems to strike the Brodrick males, leaving them struggling to make their way in the world despite the best efforts of the women in their lives. They seem to fall apart without someone to hold them up, and all too often, that influence is taken from them in their prime, leaving them broken and their children suffering as a result. Somehow, each death and destructive element that destroys the Brodrick’s happiness and ability to enjoy their wealth in each successive generation seems to derive from the ancient quarrel with the Donovans and the anger of the Hill that was defaced by the mine built to make the family’s wealth.
We see five generations of the Brodrick family throughout the book, and they are all exceptionally well drawn, emotionally engaging, and tortured in their own ways. In Hungry Hill Du Maurier has written a sweeping saga of a family destroyed by the people and the country they are trying to improve, and it is as much a story of a family as it is the story of a country resistant to change and of the war and misunderstanding between the upper and working classes. It isn’t suspense driven in the way Rebecca is, but it is still immensely gripping and I couldn’t put it down towards the end. The last chapter harks eerily back to Morty Donovan’s original warning to ‘Copper John’, over one hundred years before, and it is hard not to think that somehow, the old man’s words may have indeed placed a curse over the tragic Brodrick family.
This is one of the less read Du Maurier’s but I would highly recommend it; I am now going to delve deeper into Du Maurier’s canon myself…I think Jamaica Inn will be my next, judging from the good reviews I have read.