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.

This is not only something in my mind

The Small Hand

The Small Hand
by Susan Hill

After I finally got round to reading I’m the King of the Castle last year I decided I really should more of Hill’s work, especially her ghost stories. I bought this on a whim. I suspect it’s not her best.

This is in many ways a classic ghost story. It’s set in modern times but with an older protagonist and recognisable settings (an empty house, fusty libraries, a remote monastery in France, the botanical garden in Oxford) so it has the atmosphere of those Victorian ghost stories.

“All I could hear were the birds settling down, a thrush singing high up on the branches of a walnut tree and blackbirds pinking as they scurried in the undergrowth. I got out of the car and, as I stood there, the birdsong gradually subsided and then there was an extraordinary hush, a strange quietness into which I felt I had broken as some unwelcome intruder.”

Rare book dealer Adam Snow is on his way home from visiting a client when he gets lost in poorly signposted country lanes and finds himself at the entrance to an old abandoned country house. While standing at the edge of the overgrown garden he feels a small child’s hand in his own, but of course there is no child there. This begins both a small obsession with the house and a series of ghostly episodes that threaten to drive Adam crazy or even kill him.

“As I stood in the gathering stillness and soft spring dusk, something happened. I do not much care whether or not I am believed. That does not matter. I know. That is all…I know because if I close my eyes now I feel it happening again, the memory of it is vivid and it is a physical memory. My body feels it, this is not only something in my mind.”

I found this novel a bit predictable though still a good ride and beautifully written, but it didn’t scare me. At all. Which is a real failing in a ghost story. And I even read this alone in bed late at night.

I did like the spooky settings, particularly the mountain-top monastery with its amazing hidden library and the descriptions of stillness and quiet there. I could imagine a fantastic mystery story set there, but maybe I’m just thinking of The Name of the Rose!

Published 2010 by Picador.

Source: I bought it secondhand.

It was only a series of feelings

I'm the King of the Castle

I’m the King of the Castle
by Susan Hill

I think I may have left it a little too long to write this review because I was struggling to think of coherent things to say. Which is not to disparage the book. I really enjoyed it. I had just fried my brain a little with too much stuff.

This is the story of a fight for supremacy between two 10–11 year old boys. Hill perfectly captures how to them it is of utmost importance, while to their parents there is nothing of import going on. Edmund Hooper lives quietly with his father in their big old family home. He is dismayed when his father employs a new live-in housekeeper, Mrs Kingshaw, who brings her son Charles along. He is even more dismayed when it quickly becomes apparent that Mrs Kingshaw is as much a candidate for second wife as she is housekeeper. Her son is equally dismayed by this idea, partly due to jealousy of his mother’s time, but primarily due to the increasing possibility that he will spend his entire life being bullied by Hooper.

The style is slightly odd and stilted, which I suppose you could say reflects the awkwardness and distance between all these characters who ought to be intimately linked. Kingshaw thinks at one point:

“He wanted to say I’ve come here and I don’t like it [but] I’ve got to stay here [so] why can’t we make the best of things? He was willing to put himself out, he would even, just at this moment, have said he would do whatever Hooper wanted, would acknowledge him as a master of his own territory. But he couldn’t put any of it into words, not even to himself, it was only a series of feelings, overlapping one another like small waves. He was confused.”

The relationship between the boys is cleverly created. Physically they are approximate equals but Hooper has confidence and the home territory, giving him the advantage. He terrorises his prey by subtly observing Kingshaw’s many fears and playing on them. Hooper is also the cleverer of the two, knowing just how to behave in front of their parents so that they suspect nothing. Kingshaw is not a sweet innocent, though. When he gets a chance to have the upper hand he takes it, usually.

There are moments of genuine childish play in the middle of it all that give you hope that the parents will be right after all, that two boys of the same age will always become friends if thrown together. But almost as soon as these moments begin, the seeds of doubt are being sown, as the boys size one another up.

On an aside, I bought the really quite beautiful Penguin Decades edition, with cover art by Zandra Rhodes. I am such a sucker for pretty books.

First published 1970 by Hamish Hamilton.