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!

Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

This has been my first foray into ‘sensation’ fiction since reading Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White several years ago so I was very excited to get back into the genre, which I thoroughly enjoy, as well as discover a new author in Mary Elizabeth Braddon.

As with a lot of the blockbuster novels of the Victorian era, this was produced originally for magazine publication, printed serially to keep addicted readers buying the magazine week after week (or month after month, as the case might be). This means that each chapter ends with a tantalising cliffhanger to keep the reader in suspense, and leave them desperate for the next keenly awaited installment. I enjoy this style of writing immensely, as there is nothing better than a book you can’t put down. I discovered after reading The Children’s Book that a good plot is something I can’t do without in a novel, and sensation fiction puts the plot above all other considerations. This does mean that the writing is decidedly ropey in places, and the characterisation could certainly be a lot better, but I am not complaining; Braddon wasn’t attempting to win any prizes with her writing; she wrote furiously, often with more than one serial on the go at the time, in order to put food on the table for her ten children (she was quite the woman!), and so she focused on writing a jolly good story more than anything else, and she certainly succeeded in doing so with Lady Audley’s Secret. I don’t know how the original readers coped with having to wait for their next installments; I was hooked from page one!

Now the plot itself is interesting in that, by about half way through, the solution to the central mystery is pretty obvious; it’s no mindbending Jonathan Creek episode, that’s for sure. This surprised me as I thought there would be a lot more build up and confusion and subterfuge than there was. However, there are several more secrets tied up in the mystery that keep the reader guessing until the very end, and there is a very nice, and very unexpected, final twist that I really didn’t see coming. So, there is plenty in this for the amateur detective to unpick, even though the clues are not the most well hidden.

The basic premise is this; a young man named George Talboys returns from Australia to England with a small fortune he has earned over the past three years. He abandoned his wife and child in England to go to Australia and swore he wouldn’t come back to them until he has earned enough to keep them in comfort. In high spirits he comes back to London, anxious to meet his much beloved wife again and share their newly found wealth. He bumps into his old schoolfriend, a young, goodnatured and idle barrister named Robert Audley, to whom he relates his good fortune. They go off to the pub to celebrate, and in this pub George has asked his wife to leave a letter for him to tell him where she is, so that he can go to her upon his return. George is surprised to find no letter waiting for him; then, deathly pale, he shows Robert the page of The Times with the death notices in; his wife’s name, Helen Talboys, is listed as a recent death, on the Isle of Wight. Shocked and disbelieving, George and Robert go to the Isle of Wight to see Helen’s grave; her father is there, and confirms her death. George is broken and devastated, and Robert takes him back to London to care for him in his grief.

Robert has a wealthy uncle, Sir Michael Audley, who owns a stunningly perfect house, Audley Court, in Essex. Sir Michael has recently married a beautiful woman, Lady Lucy, who was of humble origin; a governess in the local doctor’s house. Everyone who meets her falls in love with her; she is sweet and good and gentle and docile; everything the perfect Victorian ‘Angel in the House’ should be. Robert decides a visit to Audley would be the perfect rest for George, and so they set off for a trip to the country. However, one afternoon George disappears, never to be seen again, and the last person he was seen with was Lady Audley. Robert, devastated at the disappearance of his friend, sets out to discover what may have been his fate.

Dum dum dum. And so the mystery begins, and while, as I say, it becomes perfectly obvious what has gone on fairly quickly, there are also several other characters who have things to hide, and there is also the mystery of Lady Audley’s ‘secret’, which may, or may not, hold the key to it all…

It’s hard to properly review a book that depends so much on its plot, as I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice to say it is a wonderful slice of Victorian reading history, a terrifically good mystery story, and very difficult to put down; I highly recommend it. Also, it is very interesting from the point of view of portrayals of womanhood in Victorian Britain; Lady Lucy is on the surface a ‘wax doll’ – all innocently wide eyed and helpless, but underneath the surface she is something else entirely. Braddon makes frequent comments about the artifice of female beauty, and the daringness of making a woman who appears to so embody the Victorian feminine ideal into a villainess, hiding much darker depths under that tranquil surface, is perhaps not as obvious or shocking to us now as it would have been at the time. Also, the idea of madness as a female disease, as something that explained away ‘deviant’ behaviour in a woman, is raised, and I found it fascinating how anxious male characters were to find a medical excuse for villainy in a woman, rather than accepting that women, just like men, can have base and evil characters.

I really did thoroughly enjoy this; thanks so much to Simon for launching his Sensation Season; I know I’d never have picked this up if I hadn’t have been nudged to by his challenge. Next up on my Sensation pile is Collins’ The Moonstone…I can’t wait!