Jemma Morgan finds Susan Hill’s From the Heart to be a poignant exploration of a woman’s experience in the 1950s, but urges us to tackle issues of inequality in the present, rather than simply looking back at the past
Susan Hill is celebrated for her Christmassy ghost tales, but her newest book, From the Heart, is free from the supernatural and deals with far more real issues. Considering its short length, the novel explores a range of themes. It is a story about coming of age, as well as coming out, set in the 1950s, a time when being in a relationship or even having feelings for a member of the same sex often led to being turned away by family and friends.
Our protagonist is Olive Piper, a young woman with a passion for literature. While at university, she meets a boy. He eventually propositions her for sex and she says yes, without really knowing what this means. After a few awkward sessions, she ends up pregnant. However, Olive doesn’t have any feelings for the father and refuses to marry him. Instead, she runs off to a home for unwed mothers to give birth. She becomes attached to her child, but unfortunately is forced to give her baby away. Once she has left the home, she goes in search of work and eventually finds a teaching position where she is confronted with feelings she never imagined she would have; love for another woman.
Many have made connections between this book and Hill’s own experience of leaving her husband for another woman in 2013. Regardless of this speculation, the story itself is a poignant tale that highlights the turmoil that women experienced in the mid-20th century, especially when you read other ‘real-life’ stories of Olive’s kind. In an article for the Guardian, one woman, Veronica Smith, talks about her experience of having an illegitimate child. She says, “I, and thousands of women like me, were coerced into giving up our children.” Once you realise that situations like those that occur in the book actually happened, Olive’s story becomes so much more real.
As someone who has enjoyed Hill’s prose style before, I was excited to open up this book. The diverse themes were a bonus. When I got home, I sat down and continued to read until I was finished. However, I was quite perplexed by the style that Hill was going for. It was straight-forward and chatty making the novel an easy read, but it was broken up by a bunch of rhetorical questions. These made me question, not what Olive might do, but why there were so many: “Do I?”, “She wouldn’t…what? Wouldn’t what?”, “Did she?” I’m all for interrogatives in fiction, after all, who isn’t? However, I felt as though there might have been a few too many in the book. It broke the flow and pulled me away from the story.
As a main character, and given all that Olive has gone through, you would assume that our troubled protagonist would be more of an active, emotional character, but this does not seem to be the case. Instead, she is rather passive. I’m conflicted on how I feel about this. On the one hand, the unemotional writing style may be indicative of how Olive perceives the world because of the troubles she has faced throughout her life. For example, when someone in the family dies, her reaction seems underwhelming: “Olive had not realised that people could die in that way, walking, talking – dead.” There’s none of the crying or panic that is usually associated with the death of a loved one. Her father, on the other hand, “had been badly shaken, and deeply upset.” It seems that he had carried the emotions for the both of them. Perhaps the subtext is that her grief has forced her to become detached from her emotions and look at things in a matter-of-fact way. On the other hand, this makes it hard to truly identify with her character. I sympathise with what she has gone through, and I’m moved by what real women went through, but I cannot feel a connection with the character.
I attended a signing by Hill in March. As she is a woman for whom I have a great amount of respect, I was excited to say the least. I sat in Waterstones, nervously flicking through From the Heart until she arrived. When she entered, I hung on her every word. She talked about what society was like in the 1950s and how she wanted to reflect this in her book. She told the audience of how single mothers faced similar treatment to Olive, but even if it seemed cruel, the matrons believed they were doing what was best. After the talk, I began thinking about how things have greatly improved for both single mothers and the LGBTQIA+ community. But then I thought more and more about it and realised that this is not the case. In April 2017, a story was brought to my attention; hundreds of gay men were subjected to abhorrent treatment in Chechnya and an estimated three men were murdered. Not only this, but ‘conversion therapy’ is still practised in Pray the Gay Away’ camps.
From the Heart highlighted something for me – we’ve come far, but not nearly far enough. The book seems to want to say, “look how bad things were” without acknowledging that human rights have not improved as much as they should have. Occasionally some people forget that LGBTQIA + people are exactly that; people. The treatment Olive received is heart-wrenching, but we must not forget that discrimination in the real world is still happening. I think the book emphasises the need to look at the world now, as well as looking back at how things were.
It seems as though as Hill tries to juggle two separate themes simultaneously, one often fell a little flat. While the book does nudge you to think about the horrendous treatment women received during the 20th century, with such important themes it really should be more of a firm push than a nudge. Perhaps the book could have benefitted by being a bit longer. Olive only thinks of her son sparingly, but for such a heavy topic, a mention here and there is a little underwhelming. I do think Olive coming to terms with her sexuality was a much stronger part of the narrative. Even though I thought of Olive as quite passive, towards the end of the book she starts to find herself and we get a much rounder, more emotional character due to her coming to terms with her feelings for women.
All in all, I really enjoyed this book, despite any flaws that I found with it. After all, I did sit and read it through until the end in one sitting. If you want a brief insight into what life was like for single mothers and women who developed feelings for other women in the mid-20th century, then it is worth taking a look at this novel. I will warn you before you do that the ending may just make you tear up; it jumps up and startles you, even if you manage to see it coming.
From the Heart is published by Chatto & Windus and is available to be purchased here.
The image is of the book cover. The backgroud is a green, black, read and white pattern made of interlocking shapes. Over this and to the right side of the middle of the cover is a white rectangle with the title “From the Heart” in blue, handwritten font and the author’s name “SUSAN HILL” beneath is in red capital letters.