When I was a teenager studying for my ‘A’-levels, one of the English Literature set-texts was Waiting for Godot, and I struggled to understand it; particularly the relationship between Pozzo and Lucky. In case you’re not familiar with Beckett’s play, when they first appear Lucky has a rope around his neck, which Pozzo uses to control him. When they enter in the second Act the rope is still in place, although shorter than before, and Lucky is leading Pozzo, who is now blind. So why doesn’t Lucky escape? Our English teacher postulated the symbolism (master/slave; ringmaster/performer; sadist/masochist). She then went on to tell us something very personal: how she once went out with a man who told her he loved her but tried to control everything she did; how she stayed with him because she thought she loved him and couldn’t envisage life without him.
The Bird of Night, winner of the 1972 Whitbread Best Novel Award and shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the same year, portrays a similar relationship dynamic, albeit in very different circumstances.
Despite its rather spooky sounding title – Susan Hill is, after all, best known for her ghost stories, most notably The Woman in Black, which has been adapted for stage and screen – The Bird of Night is most definitely not supernatural. It is the story of Francis Croft, “the greatest poet of his age”, and his descent into madness as told by his partner, Harvey Lawson (the men meet at a house party a few years after World War 1) with excerpts from Croft’s papers diaries and letters.
Hill’s husband is a Shakespeare scholar so it’s not stretching the imagination too far to suggest that the title might be a quotation from Julius Caesar: “And yesterday the bird of night did sit/Even at noon-day upon the marketplace/Hooting and shrieking.”
In Shakespeare’s play, a “bird of night” (an owl) hooting in the middle of the day is one of numerous warnings preparing the audience for Caesar’s death.
It’s a pity I didn’t see it as a warning not to read the book. Francis and Harvey are largely unsympathetic characters: Francis egotistical, self-centred; Harvey too passive, too accepting.
Somewhere towards the end of the book Harvey is asked by a doctor “‘But are you prepared to go on devoting your life to looking after him?…Why? Because you feel you started and cannot choose but go on?’ ‘Because I love him.’”
It’s Pozzo and Lucky all over again and I’m still no nearer to empathising with the ‘Lucky’ mind-set than I was as a teenager in that English class 35 years ago.
Interestingly, in a Guardian interview in 2003 Hill is quoted as saying that The Bird of Night is “weak” but “when it got the Whitbread, I thought, oh well, better keep quiet about that”.
Rating: 0 (Don’t bother)
Susan Hill is undoubtedly a good writer and if you want a recommendation, The Woman in Black is the obvious choice (highly recommended). Dolly: A Ghost Story is also worth reading. If Ghosties and Ghoulies and things that go bump in the night aren’t your cup of tea, then try I’m the King of the Castle, also highly recommended. These three books have been the subject of some of my earlier blog posts (just click on the links).