Gothic Transformations and Musical Appropriations in Susan Hill's Novel the Bird of Night

Article excerpt

Susan Hill has frequently written and spoken movingly about the seminal effect of Benjamin Britten's music on her writing. The Sea Interludes from Britten's opera, Peter Grimes (op. 33, 1944-5), for example, had a 'startling impact' on her when at school, reminding her of 'the bleak North Sea coast beside which [she] was born'.1 Hill feels 'drawn to [Britten's] imaginative world, the writers whose work he set to music, and the landscapes he wrote about'.2 She describes the Interludes as 'the key to opening the door to my own great burst of my best work' and only has to play his music to want to write.3 Hill's affinity with Britten is multi-faceted and enduring, even since his death in 1976. Both writer and composer have strong associations with the East Coast of England, the writer hailing from Scarborough and the composer from Lowestoft, where his home literally faced the sea. Their fiction and music are often set in isolated locations and conjure up images of desolate landscapes, the sea in its wild and hostile moods, and gloomy or dreamlike scenes.

Hill and Britten are inspired by the stories of outsiders. These include children, solitary men on the margins of society, victims and their persecutors, and those deemed inadequate or mad. The themes of Britten's music have been described in Michael Kennedy's biography as alternating between 'innocence destroyed or betrayed' and 'innocence, purity and grace themselves . . . often triumphant and bewitchingly celebrated'.4 This duality in Britten's music finds a sympathetic ear in Susan Hill, but her work tends towards a stronger emphasis on the dark side of human nature. Britten's opera, Peter Grimes, presents many of these themes and reveals yet another combination of influences on Hill's work. The opera was based on the 'Peter Grimes' section of George Crabbe's 1810 narrative poem, The Borough.5 Significantly, Crabbe himself was born by the sea at Aldeburgh, where Britten lived for many years after moving out of Snape Maltings. Crabbe's poem tells a violent tale of child neglect and torture, in which the fisherman, Peter Grimes, sadistically and serially murders three young parish boys apprenticed from the workhouse as his slaves. In addition, for more or less a decade from 1970 onwards, Hill spent the depths of winter in Aldeburgh, writing novels and short stories in a cottage overlooking the sea. The 'ghosts of the place', she testifies, shaped the first flourishing of her work.6

A fascination with intimidation, exile and the liminal places between land and sea occurs in Britten and Crabbe. Residual effects from their work can be seen in Hill's I'm the King of the Castle (1970), a novel about two young boys in which the stronger boy bullies the weaker and causes his death, and in The Albatross (1971) in which an inadequate young man kills his mother. The Woman in Black, though written in the early 1980s, again reveals Hill's continuing interest in the haunting and haunted places of East Anglia, and in the consequences of ostracising those perceived as weak or failing. Death by drowning features in all three of these works. Thus, the artistic connection between Crabbe, Britten and Hill stems from their focus on the menace of certain locations and their interest in transgression of socalled normative behaviour. Both of these motifs are commonly found in Gothic literature.

It is indisputable that Britten was the dominant artistic influence on the first phase of Hill's fiction up to the mid-1970s. Hill acknowledges that his War Requiem (op. 66, 1961), which she heard in 1962 when it was first performed, had a profound effect on her imagination. Listening to the music crystallised her thoughts and emotions about the First World War and provided one stimulus for her to write the novel, Strange Meeting (1971). In a comparative way to the intertextual debt to Crabbe's poem, there is a literary antecedent to both Britten's music and Hill's novel about the soldiers of the Great War. …