My theme of paperbacks-I-took-to-Edinburgh continues; on the way back, I read most of The Bird of Night (1972) by Susan Hill, and then finished it later that weekend.
I’ve read quite a few of Hill’s novellas over the years, though mostly the ones that have come out more recently – so it was interesting to see how she was writing 40+ years earlier in her career. There is even a very young, quite morose, picture of her on the back of my 1976 Penguin paperback, when Hill was presumably around my age. Unlike me, though, Hill had already published six novels by the time The Bird of Night hit the shelves.
The opening sets the tone of the novel:
Once, during the summer we spent at Kerneham, Francis locked himself in the church for a whole night. I found him there, at five o’clock the next morning, huddled up beneath the pulpit. It was cold. He could not feel safe anywhere else, he said, and then he began to weep, as so often happened, and shouted at me through his weeping, to understand the truth, that he deserved to be locked up, why would I not admit that and see to it, why had I driven him to do it for himself?
That is what I remembered this morning but I do not know why one bubble should break upon the surface rather than another. I should be content that I remember.
Francis is Francis Croft, a renowned and garlanded poet (though Hill wisely gives us, as far as I can recall, no lines of his poetry – his greatness is not tested on the page); the narrator is Harvey Lawson. He is describing their relationship from the distance of years – where he is the protector of Croft’s reputation. Or, rather, he keeps mostly schtum about Croft and insists that there are no papers to share (though there are). And his reflections take him back to their shared history: they meet incidentally, and develop an intense and restless friendship. It is intense chiefly because of Croft’s mental illness and descents into madness.
And this is the trajectory the novel follows. Somehow it is hard to describe the plot; it is more a portrait of a friendship (or more? It is never clear). But the faint structure matters little, and that is because of the strength of Hill’s writing here. I always think she’s at her best when she is looking in detail at the minutaie of relationships between individuals, or characters’ introspections and self-analysis (and how rare is that? Usually that’s where authors fall down). Here is Harvey describing looking after Francis during his most troubled times:
But the cycle of Francis’s madness was never a regular or predictable one. I had prepared myself for days, perhaps weeks, spent closeted in that dismal flat by candlelight, having to comfort and support him through his deepest apathy and depression. Certainly, for the next two days he stayed in bed or sat slouched in a chair looking as though he were half drugged, his eyes blank and all his attention turned inward upon himself. He hardly spoke to me and when he did answer a persistent question, it was with a monosyllable. He would not shave or eat or read, but only sat up once in a while and muttered to his own hands. “It’s all wrong, I tell you, it’s all wrong.” Once I caught him staring at himself in a mirror, his face very close to the glass. He looked puzzled. “I’m afraid we have not been introduced,” he said to his reflection. “I do not know your face. Should I know your face? Is this a good party?”
Much of the novella follows this pattern – a detailed, nuanced, and interesting depiction of mental health and a troubled friendship.
Of the many ways in which Hill writes fiction, I think this might be my favourite – something like an extended character study. I have read somewhere that Hill doesn’t rate this amongst her best novels, but I would put it up with In the Springtime of the Year as containing the best of her writing that I’ve read.