Susan Hill: An Exploration

So even though I jumped on the bandwagon and preordered (paying *gasp* full price) Howard’s End is on the Landing by Susan Hill several weeks ago, after hearing how good it was, I must confess that my previous experience of Susan Hill amounted to reading The Woman in Black and watching the stage version in the West End, nearly wetting myself in the process. (Yes, it is that scary, and yes, you should definitely go.)

So, before reading and passing judgement on Howard’s End is on the Landing, as it is apparently more of a memoir than the misleading subtitle ‘A Year of Reading From Home’ may suggest, I thought I should find out a bit more about Susan Hill. That included a cursory google search, as well as pulling the two books I own of hers off my shelves and actually reading them. So over the past few days I have been throughly Susan Hill-ed, reading In the Springtime of the Year and Mrs De Winter in quick succession. These are two incredibly different novels and have nothing to connect them bar the fact that Susan Hill wrote them. This has made for very interesting reading.

First up was In the Springtime of the Year, which I bought during my trip to Bronte land. During my research on Susan Hill I discovered that many people say this is her best novel, so I was quite pleased that I had found this one, and was looking forward to being surprised by its brilliance. In short, I wasn’t.

This novel is about a young woman named Ruth, who is 20, has been married for a couple of years, and lives quite contentedly in a cottage in the countryside with her much older husband Ben and their donkey, chickens, and so on and so forth. The story is set in an indeterminate period; I suspect anywhere between the 20s and 50s, as no cars, television, etc were mentioned as far as I can remember. It opens with a brief section describing Ruth in the throes of grief after the sudden, as yet unexplained, death of her husband Ben, and her chosen isolation from the well meaning neighbours and friends who have tried to offer help in the aftermath of her loss. It then goes into a second section, which describes the day it happened, and Ruth’s experiences of grief, and then the third part explores the process of Ruth learning to ‘move on’.

Now I don’t want to be too harsh about this, as Susan Hill says in the afterword that it is based on her own grief after losing a man she loved, presumably before she married her now husband. Therefore it must be a very personal book to her, tied up with the memories of that time and a cathartic way of expressing her grief. However, you would never know Susan Hill has experienced what Ruth experienced by reading this book. It wasn’t particularly emotional, or heartrending; in fact, I found it quite dull and flat. Ruth never came alive to me; I found her unsympathetic, undeveloped and I didn’t really care about her at all. Her character was never really explained, neither was her history, and the descriptions of Ben through her eyes, clearly designed to make the reader feel a depth of emotion towards him, were of a silent, untalkative man who never seemed to display much affection towards her. I had no idea why she had loved him at all, actually. Or why he had loved her, for that matter. There was also the rather strange character of Jo, Ben’s much younger brother, who came to help Ruth after Ben’s death; I found it very odd that this 14 year old child would be running a 20 year old girl bride’s home for her, and I just didn’t get the relationship or bond between them at all; it just wasn’t authentic.

All in all, I thought this was an unconvincing, badly characterised and not particularly well written novel. The subject matter should have been compelling, involving, emotional; and it was none of these at all. As this was based on Susan Hill’s real life experiences, I would have expected an injection of real, raw emotion in the story of Ruth’s grief, but it just wasn’t there. I didn’t enjoy it at all, and I had to force myself to finish.

So, my first dabble in Susan Hill since The Woman in Black was largely unsuccessful, but undeterred, I progressed on to Mrs De Winter, in which Susan Hill takes up the story of what happened to the De Winters and the inhabitants of their beloved Manderley from where Daphne Du Maurier left them on the final page of her legendary Rebecca. I love Rebecca, and I was dubious about this premise; I don’t normally like sequels of books that aren’t written by the original author. All of these ‘Pemberley’ and ‘Darcy and Elizabeth’ esque novels that attempt to extend what was already a perfectly fine and complete story don’t get very far with me. For me, they can never truly capture the style of the original, and the story they tell doesn’t carry much weight, as we can have no idea that the future they imagine for the characters was what their creator had in mind for them. But, nevertheless, I left my prejudices at the door and got stuck in to Mrs De Winter as if it were any other novel. And it was good. Full of suspense, full of menace, a real page turner. I can’t really describe the plot because it will give things away, but I will give a brief idea of how it starts; it opens with a funeral, for which Maxim and the still nameless Mrs De Winter return to England after a decade in exile. Mrs De Winter longs to stay, and is tired of traipsing around Europe with no home of her own; Maxim is less sure. They are reassured by their old friends that they have nothing to fear in returning to England now; it is all water under the bridge, Maxim was cleared, and what use would anyone have in dredging up those old stories again? The past is over, done with, finished. What need they be afraid of? Mrs De Winter manages to persuade herself of this, but when it comes to Rebecca, as it soon becomes very clear, the past can never stay buried for long…

I wouldn’t say this book was brilliantly written; Susan Hill has a penchant for over description, which does annoy me a fair bit, and there was many an unlikely coincidence, but it was a good read that I couldn’t put down, and for that, I give her praise. It wasn’t a faithful sequel of Rebecca; I didn’t feel the characters had the same three dimensionality that Du Maurier gave them, and Mrs De Winter came across as incredibly sappy, but as a sensation novel using the plot of Rebecca to tell its tale it worked well, though it wouldn’t stand alone at all.

I have come to the conclusion, judging from the three books of hers I have now read, that she is far better at writing suspenseful, sensation based novels than more mainstream ones; of course, my only example of a mainstream one is In the Springtime of the Year, so I may be wrong, but personally, I have not been induced by my experience of that to try another, so I suppose I shall just never know.

I am currently reading The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, as Mrs De Winter has made me want to launch straight back into my Autumn Sensation reading, and what better than to read a real life version? But after that, I will be sure to read Howard’s End is on the Landing, as now I feel a little more better prepared to appreciate a book of Susan Hill’s that is more memoir than anything else. I look forward to seeing what side of the camp I fall on; will I love or hate it? Stay tuned to find out!

20 comments

  1. Two experiences of Susan Hill: The Woman in Black and Howards End is On the Landing; I loved one and hated the other and because the second is personal I feel so strongly against it that I have no inclination to ever read another Susan Hill book again.Rebecca is my favourite novel and I have read the Sally Beauman (sister of Nicola?) "sequel", which was diverting but still no match for the original.

  2. What an interesting post! My only experience with Susan Hill has been The Woman in Black (purchased in Bath and read on the flight home), and I loved it. Howards End is on the Landing is in my shopping basket at The Book Depository, but I still haven't hit that 'complete purchase' button yet. I'm wondering if I can wait until the US release…

  3. GREAT post! I, like you, have read A Woman in Black and seen the stage production and absolutely LOVED both of them.I just recently ordered, and received, Mrs. DeWinter, so I read your review with bated breath. I think I made the right decision with this purchase.I enjoyed the Suspicions of Mr. Whicher — I hope you find it equally intriguing.

  4. Until I read Howards End… I had never read any Susan Hill. I am not sure it encourages me to look for any more of her stuff either. I just reviewed it this morning, and while I mostly enjoyed it, I had some big problems with. Mine is not one of the glowing reviews out there. Partly for the reason you mention, it is a memoir and not as her subtitle suggests.

  5. I had the exact same reaction to In the Springtime of the Year! I didn't make it all the way through even. Since then & since finding out she wrote a sequel to Rebecca, I've steered clear. I'll be interested to see what you think of Howard's End on the Landing.

  6. Did people scream when you saw it? We couldn't work out if it was stage managed or if it was real fear screaming so I'd love to know (gah my blogger profile is locked down at the mo but I'll check back here). I swear I came home in the dark and did not want to close my eyes to sleep in case I opened them to see the woman in black!

  7. Claire – Yes, I have no inclination either; I feel pressed to read Howard's End as I've bought it now, and all the discussions of it have intrigued me, but I won't be reading anything else of hers after that. There are far better authors out there for me to spend my time on.Sally Beauman was, I think, the first wife of Nicola Beauman's second husband. I've often thought about reading her sequel to Rebecca but haven't got around to it yet. It would be interesting to compare it to Mrs De Winter.JoAnn – Thanks! By the sounds of things I wouldn't spend your money just yet…personally I'm a bit disappointed that I have forked out for a new copy when it sounds like I could have very well waited to find it used in a charity shop. Oh well!Molly – Thank you! No, I don't think you'll regret Mrs De Winter; like I say, Susan Hill does do the sensation type novels well. I am loving Suspicions…I wish I had more time to sit and read it in one go…I am so intrigued as to what the outcome will be!Thomas – I am just off to read your review! It's interesting how people feel so extremely about Susan Hill; it seems to be love or hate! I am worried I will be disappointed with Howard's End and as I just said to JoAnn, I am regretting splashing out when normally I would wait for a new release until I found it cheaply second hand.Jenny – I'm so glad you felt the same! I was worried I was being really cold hearted! I'll be posting my review of Howard's End at some point this week…after Suspicions of Mr Whicher it will definitely be my next read.

  8. Jodie – I was screaming my head off and so was everyone else around me – out of genuine fear! I kept hearing the tune that music box played, and the creaking of the rocking chair…it freaked me out no end!!! It was kind of addictive fear, though – as much as I was terrified, I couldn't look away!

  9. Not all of Susan Hill's books appeal to me, but I am rereading her The Women in Black at the moment and thoroughly enjoying it the second time around. I'm going to take a pass on her sequel to Rebecca as Rebecca is one of my favorite novels and I'm happy to leave the ending as is. I would like to read her mystery series with Simon Serailler as I have heard good things about it. I probably won't be reading her book of essays anytime soon as I am determined not to buy anymore books for a while. Hopefully I will be able to get it through interlibrary loan later one. I've heard such varying things about it I think I can wait a while. Hope you're enjoying the Summerscale book–I really liked it when I read it earlier in the year.

  10. I have never read Hill and had wanted to read Howard's End is on the Landing, thinking it would be a reading journal. Apparently, as it is more like a memoir, I'm likely to just borrow it from the library but no rush. Will be interested to see on which camp you fall under, too, (and me).

  11. I still haven't read anything written by Susan Hill. I really need to get round to one soon. I'm going to try to get the Woman in Black soon and work from there. I have heard her more normal novels are average on a few occasions, so I don't think you are alone in that opinion.I hope you enjoy Whicher – I loved it!

  12. Danielle – Yes, The Woman in Black is excellent; I think Susan Hill is a master of suspense but pretty average at normal novel writing from my experience! If I knew what I know now, I'd be waiting for the library on the essays too but it's too late now! I am loving the Summerscale, can't wait to finish and find out whodunnit!Claire – I think waiting for the library is a good idea by the sounds of things so far. I am interested to see whether I will love it or hate it too….I am suspecting I will be disappointed but I shall go in with an open mind!Jackie – Thanks, I'm glad I'm not just being mean…or apparently missing something! As I said to Claire I think Susan Hill is a master of suspense and I can't deny The Woman in Black is a true classic of the genre, so I hope you manage to get hold of it soon and that you enjoy it. I am speeding my way through Whicher…it had me hooked from the first page and I am on tenterhooks! It being real is what makes it so exciting I think! Though, of course, a tragic tale.

  13. I haven't read anything by Susan Hill before but I just loved the sound of Howards End on the Landing that I have ordered a copy to be sent to me all the way over in Australia (if I wait for it to be published here I imagine I will be waiting a LONG time!!).

  14. In 2007, R and I went to see The Woman in Black at The Fortune Theatre…yes, there was screaming! The image of that rocking chair gives me the creeps too!I thoroughly enjoyed The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and it could lead to another venture out for you if you like. There are mosaic tiles, installed by the culprit, adorning the floor of the crypt in St Paul's Cathedral. I saw those tiles on my 2007 trip and read the book later, thrilled to recognize the work!

  15. Ooh, I went to see The Woman In Black a few years ago and once again there was lots of screaming!! It was a fantastic show though. At some point I guess I really should actually read the book, although over the past few days I've been dipping in and out of Howard's End is on the Landing and I can't say it's encouraging me to read any more of hers … I'll be reviewing it as soon as I've properly finished, but in the meantime I keep getting distracted by other things (which really can't be a good sign, can it? Sigh).

  16. Really interesting post Rachel. I havent tried In The Springtime of the Year yet or Mrs De Winter so I can't comment on those but I am pleased you liked the Rebecca sequel, they worry me as its a book I love so, so much I fear it could all be ruined and it appears it wasn't. I will be reading The Beacon soon by SH (Stuck-in-a-book Simon loved it) so will let you know my thoughst on that then.Simon

  17. Brilliant, glad to know they were real screams, as would ahve been a bit tacky if it was stage managed! We were in the circle so away from the screamers but close to the speakers – everytime the ghostly pony and trap noises came on I was freaking out and omg the music box terrified me.

  18. Karen – I hope you enjoy it. I am over half way through and I am liking it much more than I had expected.Darlene – Wasn't it terrifying?! I want to go back to St Paul's to see those mosaics now…if only prisoners were made to do such beautiful, and useful, work these days!Sophie – It is a fantastic show, and the book is very good as well – very chilling, though I saw the play first so I think I found the book as scary as I did because I had already seen the world played out in front of me. As I said to Karen I am finding Howard's End better than I thought but it is a dipping in and out of kind of book I think…Simon – Mrs De Winter is well worth a read – it doesn't ruin Rebecca at all. Susan Hill is a bit too hit and miss for me to want to explore her books more…I do like her suspense driven novels but I wouldn't rush out to buy them. I suppose that I just feel, with so many other authors jostling for space on my bookshelf, Susan Hill doesn't make my cut. I'll be interested to read your review of The Beacon, though; I'm always willing to have my mind changed!Jodie -Yes, they were VERY real screams!

  19. Hi – I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy ‘In the Springtime of the Year’ – it’s a long time now since I read it, but I remember feeling that, in its quiet, understated way, it was a very moving book. I’m surprised no-one has mentioned ‘I’m the King of the Castle’ by Susan Hill – one of the first ‘grownup’ books I read as a teenager. It’s a little in the vein of ‘Lord of the Flies’ – it gave me the shivers, and I’ve re-read it several times (and taught it as a GCSE text) since. I also liked ‘Strange Meeting’ but again, it was an understated, quietly poignant novel (set, as you might expect from the Wilfred Owen referencing title) during World War One.

  20. woman in black left us never disbeliving in the after life,what susan hill is to us is the best writer ever ,as you can see by my spelling l dont reed a lot but l try,l find being shut away
    helps you concerntrait my wife reads all the time.when l was at school over 45 years ago
    the only thing l was good at was maths english very bad if you are shut away it helps you to write spell and become a better person ,susan hill keep the writing up some of the younsters need help in todays world.you was fantastic on the tv god bless you.jason.

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