At time of writing, the furore surrounding an article Susan Hill wrote for the Spectator threatens to overshadow the launch of this latest novel. In the piece Hill explains why she pulled out of an event at a bookshop which refuses to stock Trump autobiographies while handing out perceived anti-Trump novels for free. She sees this as a form of censorship, but in turn has been criticised for non-attendance.
Hill herself has withdrawn from the cyber-fuss with the comment that it has “all got completely out of hand”. The storm in a teacup is a shame, because From the Heart is the perfect antidote to online hysteria.
The story is set in the early 1960s when Philip Larkin says sexual intercourse began. It is an interesting time for novelists. Ian McEwan explored the stilted nature of a sexual relationship in the same era in On Chesil Beach, and Hill’s characters are cut from the same sensible-but-naive cloth.
A middle-class, bookish heroine, Olive, is on the cusp of adulthood. Her emotionally distant mother dies while she is studying for her A levels and she leaves her role as consort to her widowed father at Masonic Ladies Nights to attend teacher training college. Surrounded by friends getting engaged, she assumes she will do the same. Just as her adult life is beginning, however, a fledgling relationship, which is eminently suitable, ends in unexpected pregnancy.
Rejecting the path laid out for her – a quickie wedding with her respectability intact – she takes the only other route available, an unmarried mothers’ home and the adoption of her child.
Fans of Hill’s previous novels will be surprised, perhaps, with the gentleness with which Olive and her choices are handled. The author is known as a master of horror; the terrifying The Woman in Black is, after all, her most famous work. But here even Olive’s more traumatic experiences – the death of her parents, the sudden end of a deeply felt love affair – are portrayed as merely a part of life. Olive’s reaction to them is of her time. Stoic, she deals with inner turmoil with a measured control which is reflected in Hill’s pared back writing.
The descriptions of her intense feelings, when they come, are therefore all the more powerful. Olive is allowed to remain with her son for the first few weeks of his life and she comes to know “every atom of his long body, every expression on his face as they changed fleetingly, as when a cloud comes over the face of the moon.”
Every new parent can identify with this all-consuming love, and the feeling of dread which builds up as their inevitable separation approaches is palpable.
Olive finds solace in literature and Hill scatters texts as literary clues throughout the story. She meets the father of her baby as he plays Faustus, the character who makes a deal with the devil only to be eternally damned. In her first job after her pregnancy, Olive finds Gerard Manley Hopkins and his Christian message almost unteachable. Perhaps most tellingly, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, with its witch hunts, is the school play during her short-lived teaching placement.
While From the Heart is by no means advocating a return to days when pre-marital sex, single mothers or same-sex relationships could be publicly scorned, the novel is pointing to a degree of dignified forbearance as one route to contentment. As such, it is ironic that the very loud and public fuss around the launch – which looks to be turning into something of witch hunt of its own – might mean that the message will be drowned out. ■
*From the Heart by Susan Hill, Chatto & Windus, 224pp, £10.99