Whilst preparing for my Du Maurier December posts, I decided that I would read her 1943 novel, Hungry Hill, rather early on. It was the book which I can safely say I was least looking forward to. I generally find du Maurier’s historical fiction rather mesmerising, but on the face of it, nothing about Hungry Hill really appealed to me at all.
I love visiting Ireland, the country in which the story of Hungry Hill takes place, but I do not tend to enjoy books which are set there. Largely, those which I have encountered thus far follow the same kind of pattern; they are generally familial sagas in which none of the generations are particularly likeable, they often share similar themes, and they tend to become a little predictable and quite unexciting in consequence. The storyline of this novel, too – ‘It is a passionate story of five generations of an Irish family and the copper mine on Hungry Hill [previously a beloved picnic spot of the children] with which their fortunes and fate were so closely bound’ – held very little appeal for me. Despite this, I thought that as du Maurier is one of my favourite authors, I would purchase the novel anyway, mainly to see how she rendered her material, and to discover whether she could make the story an interesting one for me.
The novel is split into five separate parts, every one of which follows a member of each consequent generation of the Brodrick family, who live at Clonmere Castle. The first part begins in 1820 with patriarch ‘Copper John’, the second in 1828 with his son ‘Greyhound John’, the third in 1837 with his brother’s son, known as ‘Wild Johnnie’, the fourth in 1858 with Henry, and the fifth in 1874 with his son, Hal. The novel’s epilogue is set in 1920, and deals with John-Henry, the sixth generation of the family.
Almost the entirety of the first generation whom we are introduced to are not very likeable; they largely exude a sense of pompousness and self-importance from the very beginning, thinking themselves above everyone else merely because of their father’s projected wealth. The local community feels animosity toward the mine – and, in turn, the Brodricks – as, when it was established, rather than calling upon the local workforce to man it, John Brodrick shipped over miners from Cornwall. Hostility between the two reigns from the very beginning, and, somewhat predictably, the ore soon begins to be stolen.
Du Maurier demonstrates the odd and, in some ways, very fitting of-the-time family relationship which exists within the Brodrick clan. Despite this, some elements of the family dynamic are a little peculiar; John Brodrick’s ‘natural brother’ Ned acts as his agent, but is ‘careful never to presume upon his relationship in any way, so that John Brodrick was always “Mr Brodrick” and his nieces “the young ladies”‘. As one might expect in a novel which begins in 1820, sexism within the family is rife. In the first generation – as is traditional, of course – the boys are sent to Eton and Oxford University, but the girls receive no education whatsoever. No Brodrick child is more treasured than the eldest son, Henry. Whilst slightly different things do happen to each generation’s protagonist within Hungry Hill, details and many aspects of personality are repeated. It felt rather predictable, particularly as it went on.
Whilst Hungry Hill is well written, there are very few characters with whom one is able to sympathise. The descriptions are well rendered, but are certainly quite dreary on the whole, and set the tone well in consequence. In a few instances throughout, the dialogue which du Maurier has crafted feels a touch too modern for the period in question; an odd and quite jarring mistake, since she normally excels at such things. Whilst some of the scenes are quite vivid, this has not been sustained throughout, and parts of the novel which should be dramatic are rendered rather flat and insipid. Many of the facts and technicalities which du Maurier weaves in tend to feel quite dull and repetitive; it feels as though one is reading a piece of non-fiction at times.
It perhaps goes without saying that Hungry Hill is my least favourite du Maurier to date, and if she had not penned it, I would never have picked it up. In some ways, it presents an interesting portrayal of days gone by, but I personally believe it to be the weakest of her historical novels. Whilst part of this is certainly due to the fact that the book does not appeal to me, it does not feel as though its atmosphere and storyline have been captured as well as books such as The House on the Strand and Rebecca. The characters within Hungry Hill are also not overly memorable. Hungry Hill feels something of an anamoly in du Maurier’s otherwise sparkling literary career.