Her compressed and coded thoughts exploded between them

in certain circlesIn Certain Circles
by Elizabeth Harrower

I first heard about Elizabeth Harrower in a New Yorker article a couple of years ago that celebrated the republication of the elderly Australian author’s works. It included the intriguing detail that this would be the first opportunity to read her fifth novel, In Certain Circles, because back in 1971 the author decided at the last moment not to proceed with its publication.

There is no obvious clue to what Harrower could have disliked about her work, as this is a tremendously well written novel. Perhaps she didn’t like its negative tone, because this is not an uplifting read. It is deeply sad, but not due to big disastrous events. Its sadness is the type that comes from life’s disappointments, poor decisions that are only revealed to have been wrong several years later.

It doesn’t start out with an especially sad tone. When we meet main character Zoe Howard she is 17, fully aware of her beauty and privilege, living as she does at the opulent end of Sydney Harbour. Her older brother Russell was a POW during the war, forever changing his outlook on the world and the circles he wants to move in. He introduces her to his friends Anna and Stephen Quayle, siblings who were orphaned and left in the hands of a poor abusive uncle. Despite their very different circumstances, the four connect in a way that keeps their lives bound together far beyond Russell and Stephen’s shared university course.

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The silence, the astonishing silence

Mrs De Winter book cover

Mrs de Winter
by Susan Hill

I had no idea this book existed – a sequel to one of my favourite classics by a current author I admire – until I spotted it on a shelf in the holiday home. At which I of course ignored the five books I had brought with me on holiday and read this instead. Or as well as some of them. There’s a lot of books in that holiday home. I could probably have packed fewer books.

So if you couldn’t tell from the title, this is a sequel to Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier’s best-loved, and probably best, work. I’ll try to review this without spoiling that storyline but I’m not sure this novel would make sense without reading the Du Maurier book first anyway.

Hill picks up the story 10 years after Rebecca. Maxim de Winter and his wife are still in self-imposed exile, living in a hotel in an unnamed location in Europe, existing as peacefully and dully as they can. But they are forced to make a trip to England, to Cornwall, and it all comes flooding back, all that they have tried to forget. Mrs de Winter is still haunted by the ghost of Rebecca and convinces herself that someone out there has survived who wants her to remember, to suffer. Is she going mad or is there really something to be feared in the England she loves and longs to return to more permanently?

“We were here, home, back at last and my heart was full. I felt released, new born, desperate with a sort of sickness at the sight of the autumn fields, the trees and hedgerows, the sky and the sunlight, even the black flocks of swirling, flapping crows. I was guilty and ashamed, as if I were betraying Maxim and my loyalty to him as his wife, so that then, in a small pathetic gesture that only I could understand I deliberately turned my head away from the window and refused to look at what I saw and loved.”

The story is, like Rebecca, narrated by the second Mrs de Winter and I think Hill has got the voice spot on. I think that because I found her both sympathetic and deeply frustrating, just like I did with Du Maurier. (Possibly because I recognise a lot of myself, or at least some of my worse qualities, in her – the silly fantasies and fear of what people might think of me.) As in the original, there are many painful moments that might have been avoided if she would have just spoken honestly with her husband. She convinces herself that she is shielding Maxim from pain, but of course all secrets will be revealed in the end.

Hill is known for her ghost stories, so was a great choice to capture the tone of Rebecca and give it a believable extension, with some returning cast and some new characters. Maxim is still a snob and his wife is still a self-conscious mouse. But they have changed in these 10 years. Maxim has become, to an extent, reliant on his wife, while she has become stronger, at least insofar as she knows what she wants now. Whether she has the strength to make it happen is another matter entirely.

“That was the moment I saw the eagle. It is something I shall never forget, the blue sky and the silence, the astonishing silence, and then, out of nowhere, that magnificent, soaring bird, high over the crag…But it was wrong, it was spoilt, even this very rare and yet very simple joy had been tainted.”

If I were to find fault with this book it would be that I would have wished for Mrs de Winter to have grown stronger still in the intervening years, less afraid of speaking her mind; in other words to have learned her lesson. But while that would be the perfect happy ending, it wouldn’t have made for a very good sequel. This novel relies on all that positive character-building falling apart far too easily. As with Rebecca, it is largely the narrator’s weakness and self-doubt that allow the horrors to become real. Let’s face it, a stronger woman would have fired Mrs Danvers and destroyed all Rebecca’s belongings pretty early on. But just as Du Maurier convinced us that that wasn’t the second wife Maxim wanted, Hill convinces us that Mrs de Winter still has her reasons for feeling nervous, for keeping secrets.

“We were far apart, I thought suddenly, and yet I did not understand why or how it had happened. We had come through our trials into calm seas, and been as close as it is possible for two people to be. Now it had gone, that completeness, and I wondered if marriage was always like this, constantly moving and changing, bearing one this way and that, together and then apart, almost at random, as if we were floating in it, as in a sea.”

Hill really has done an excellent job of capturing that voice, of making this feel like the sequel Du Maurier would have written, so why was I not bowled over by it? I think perhaps I love the original too much to have all my dreams for what happened next shattered by this brilliantly rendered answer to every question. Of course it wasn’t all light and happiness after the curtains were drawn, Du Maurier made that pretty clear from page one of Rebecca. But until I read this I could dream that a few years later it would all be however I wanted it to be.

Was it a mistake to read this? I hope not. I thoroughly enjoyed being back in that world, reading a love letter to England and also a subtle attack on the stiffness of “society”. I enjoyed the prickling at the back of my neck during the haunting scenes, the growing sense of foreboding and the relief of the moments of happiness in-between. I just have to try to keep this as one possibility of what happened next and still allow myself to dream what I will the next time I re-read Rebecca.

Published in 1993 by Sinclair-Stevenson.

Source: Borrowed from holiday home library.