Author: Daphne du Maurier
Publication: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1943, hardcover
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: Ireland, 1820-1920
Plot: This is a multi-generational saga following the fortunes of an Irish mine-owning family, who are cursed by the peasants who once owned their land. The book consists of five sections, each focused on a different generation as the feud continues. In 1820, “Copper John” Brodrick, a prosperous man of enterprise and father of five hopeful children, makes an alliance with one of the local gentry, Robert Lumley, to work the copper mines on their joint property, Hungry Hill. He is excited about this long-planned venture but it causes ill will in the community: the Donovan family is bitter about having many years ago lost the land now owned by the Brodricks and curses the family, promising that the hill will go on standing after the mine is in ruins and the Brodrick house destroyed. Brodrick ignores the diatribe and pursues his dream of a prosperous mine but his descendants do not possess his work ethic. Like many Irish landowners of the time, they are insensitive to the needs of the less affluent and ignore the endless ill-will of the Donovan family to their downfall. Brodrick’s son John marries Lumley’s granddaughter (the most vivid character in the book, Fanny-Rosa) and the line continues, with various complications, through 1920.
Audience: Fans of historical fiction, especially dynastic sagas full of Shakespearean foreboding
My Impressions: du Maurier’s writing is always evocative and convincing, and I can easily envision Clonmere Castle, the Brodricks’ beautiful (at least in 1820) but isolated estate. Her descriptions of nature are also vivid, although the setting is Ireland, not her beloved Cornwall. However, I can see why Hungry Hill is not one of her most popular or best known books because, although it is a compelling read, it is somewhat depressing due to its Greek tragedy-like inevitability of doom. It is full of characters who are self-destruction and ignored this reader’s pleas to exhibit common sense and shape up (don’t you hate it when you beg a character not to make fatal mistakes and he or she plunges onward anyway?). John Brodrick is driven by his ambitions and makes no effort to see any other point of view, setting the stage for a hundred years of disaster:
He dismissed Simon Flower from his head with little trouble, having a great contempt for people he did not understand. . .The story starts at a moment of optimism as Copper John, a widower, is excited about his new mine and proud of his family but nearly everything is downhill after that, and it is like Game of Thrones in that the author kills off her characters almost as soon as one gets engaged in their narrative. Copper John’s sons have been expensively educated in England but his three daughters have only each other and the local doctor for company, although there is a garrison of officers on nearby Doon Island who provide some entertainment. The daughters, although interesting, are secondary to the curse that primarily follows the sons of the house (although the women don't have much fun either). John-Henry, who inherits what is left of the property in 1920, when Ireland continues to be at war with itself, is unimpressed:
“As far as I can discover,” he said, “no Brodrick has ever done anything but die young or drink himself to death.”I wonder what a modern day publisher, editor, and staff would think of du Maurier? Would they beg her to go on tour to meet her fans? Would they criticize her downbeat endings? Would they appreciate her brilliance or be annoyed that she wrote at her own speed and never wrote the same book twice? "Why doesn't this heroine have a name?" I can hear my old publisher complaining. Our editorial meetings were full of sometimes-misguided attempts to make our forthcoming books more marketable. For example, sometimes we made the authors take a pseudonym if their recent sales had been weak or we'd change the title of a book (which sometimes upset the author). Still, as someone who loves several other du Maurier books, I still enjoyed adding to my knowledge of her work.
Hungry Hill, the Movie: Once the movie of Rebecca was so successful, I suppose it was inevitable that all of du Maurier’s work would be considered for the silver screen but I hadn't known about this one. The Hungry Hill movie was made in 1947 with du Maurier sharing the screenwriting with Terence Young (who later directed several James Bond movies), and starred Margaret Lockwood as Fanny-Rosa and Jean Simmons as her sister-in-law Jane Brodrick, my favorite character. I'd like to see it! My erstwhile acquaintance Leonard Maltin gives it two stars: “Based on Daphne Du Maurier’s book focusing on 19th century family with their vices and virtues highlighted; capable cast. . .” Here is a clip.
Netflix is doing a remake of Rebecca (pet peeve – why do remakes when there are so many great books that could be amazing movies or mini-series?) and I read this week that Kristen Scott Thomas is going to play Mrs. Danvers. I suppose she is too old to play Rebecca but I can see her as that charismatic but polarizing figure over the elderly Mrs. Danvers.
Source: Personal copy. My hardcover is a first American edition with the original dust jacket shown above.
Daphne du Maurier Reading Week: There is a literary festival going on this week in Fowey, Cornwall, where du Maurier lived, which includes bestselling authors Diane Setterfield and Ruth Ware, lectures, and (how fun) a walking tour of du Maurier’s favorite places. For those of us who are fans but can’t make it to Cornwall, Blogger HeavenAli is featuring du Maurier reviews on her blog all week. I chose Hungry Hill because I thought it would be more fun to feature one of du Maurier's lesser-known titles. If you have never read any of her books, I suggest starting with Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, or The House in the Strand. If Ali does another du Maurier week next year, I think I will try Mary Anne or The Glass-Blowers which I may have read long ago but do not recall.
Giveaway: I also have a Hungry Hill paperback I would be happy to send to someone eager to complete a collection. Please leave a comment speculating on the heroine's name in Rebecca. If more than one person asks, I will pick a name.
LitCrit: I had just finished this post when Simon from Stuck in a Book posted a link to a fascinating article by editor Sheila Hodges, who writes that the first book she edited of du Maurier's was Hungry Hill, du Maurier's seventh novel and ninth book. During my years in publishing I witnessed many authors who badly needed editing but wouldn't accept it or editors who were afraid the author would jump publisher if criticized. Hodges says du Maurier was very cooperative during the editorial process (although stood her ground when she felt strongly). I wonder if Hodges could have done something about the unrelieved gloom and meandering of Hungry Hill if it hadn't been the first book they worked on together.