As she began work on this 1943 saga, du Maurier told her publisher, Victor Gollancz, that it would be ‘endless, full of birth and death, and love and disaster.’ Especially disaster. The story begins in 1820 as Copper John, patriarch of the Anglo-Irish Brodrick family, prepares to mine Hungry Hill for copper. Unfortunately, he neglects to ask permission of the hill first, and for the next hundred years, malevolent as Caradhras, it visits its vengeance on one generation of the family after another.
The book, while long by wartime standards – the first British edition has tiny print and incredibly narrow margins – isn’t long enough for a chronicle of five generations. Successive family members are born and rapidly grow up only to be whisked from the scene by the latest catastrophe, which has often been telegraphed pages in advance. The men, apart from Copper John, are flawed and weak; the women are stronger, but overwhelmed by circumstances. By the beginning of part four I was wishing the Balrog would just come out of the mountain and put them all out of their misery.
However, this was exactly where the book started to pick up for me. Du Maurier’s most powerful novels focus on a single drama played out among a small number of characters, and are written in the first person. Hungry Hill has a vast cast, a wide scope and third-person narration. Towards the end of the book, when the narrative concentrates on telling the story of the last days of the mine and of the impact of its closure on the community, it becomes much more compelling. This is a novel about decline and decay, a theme all too relevant to a twentieth-century readership who had lived through two world wars and the Great Depression and were about to witness the final days of the British Empire. It’s not exactly the escapist commercial read the critics condemned it as, but on the other hand it’s not as good as it could have been. Like the mine itself, it’s an ambitious undertaking which suffers from fluctuating fortunes and in the end, fails to pay off as richly as hoped.