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

By Scullion, Val | Gothic Studies, May 2005 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

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


Scullion, Val, Gothic Studies


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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?