Jacob’s Room Is Full Of Books Susan Hill Profile £12.99
In this delightful book Susan Hill recalls a year’s worth of reading, set against the changing seasons and scudding bird life outside her rural Norfolk home and interlaced with pen-portraits of past friends and grumbles about modern literary life.
Hill has written 13 novels since 1963, several short story collections and the highly praised Howards End Is On The
Landing, to which this tome is a sort of sequel. She has known a remarkable array of people: John Piper, Iris Murdoch, JB Priestley, the Duchess of Devonshire. She even snuck in to see the Duke of Windsor’s body while it was lying in state, three months after her own fiancé died in 1972.
The first thing you notice is the clarity and simplicity of her prose. The second is quite how much and how widely she reads, and even rereads. Dickens, Nabokov, Henry James and Virginia Woolf crop up, but also the contemporary likes of Zadie Smith and Rachel Cusk. She casually mentions using her annual holiday in France to work her way through novel cycles such as Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet and Evelyn Waugh’s Sword Of Honour trilogy. She is not a snob, enthusing about Robert Louis Stevenson and Raymond Chandler, and she loves children’s books and The Beano. The odd sacred cow gets slaughtered: Hill has never read Jane Eyre and thinks Jane Austen is ‘not as good as she is cracked up to be’. Throughout, she potently evokes the joy of discovering a new author or re-evaluating a favourite, the pleasure of sitting outside on an autumn day wrapped up in a story. ‘Reading is magic. Books are magic,’ she says. She has a ‘physical relationship’ with her library, scrawling notes, folding pages, regretfully letting go of past loves to make way for new ones. The authors, painters and musicians she knows or knew are vividly sketched in a few paragraphs if Hill is fond of them, diplomatically anonymised if not. She has the habit, not uncommon to those who consider the literary life a vocation, of moaning about it. She decries the snobbery and vanity of authors, the laziness of students for whom her bestseller The Woman In Black is a set text, and the malignant spread of creative writing courses, whose adherents write to ask where she gets her ideas from. She’s not a fan of festivals or prizes, though admits she’s benefited from both. The countryside and the weather are as deftly painted in as the people and the books. Born in Scarborough, Hill has lived all over the place and has a countrywoman’s eye for landscape and wildlife. While she often mentions her children and grandchildren, and a premature middle daughter who died, she doesn’t touch on her current situation. (In 2013, Hill left her husband of almost 40 years, Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells, for Barbara Machin, who adapted her Simon Serrailler crime novels for television.) But this is not an autobiography: it’s a richly idiosyncratic memoir of a bibliophile. Best of all, it ignites a passion for books one hasn’t read, or even thought of. I’m now off to read The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde.