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Review of Hungry Hill - Ann Willmore

In 1942 Daphne du Maurier moved to Fowey in Cornwall with her three young children. Ferryside, the family home, had been requisitioned as a naval headquarters, her mother and two sisters were living in a house on the Esplanade in Fowey and Daphne rented a house at nearby Readymoney Cove. Tommy was still away for most of the time and it was in this continuing wartime setting that Daphne wrote her next novel, Hungry Hill.

Hungry Hill is a family saga of epic proportions, based on the Irish ancestors of Daphne du Maurier’s friend Christopher Puxley. The story spans the years 1820-1920 and follows the lives of five generations of a family of Irish landowners called Brodrick who live in a castle called Clonmere in Southern Ireland. The book is divided into five sub-books and an epilogue and each part deals with the life of the main character of each successive generation. The story is enormously detailed and includes numerous characters, which can lead to confusion as each generation of the family tend to have the same names.

In this review I have only referred to the characters directly linked to the main storyline and I have included a simple family tree to help you follow the plot. When you read the book you will discover all the other characters and the parts that they play in filling out the background of the novel.

The background to the story of Hungry Hill and the key to the whole plot is the fact that the Brodrick’s land had originally belonged to the Donovan clan and far back in time the land had been taken from the Donovans by the barons who had later handed it to an early member of the Brodrick family. The Donovans had never been able to forgive the Brodricks and eventually a situation had arisen whereby a member of the Donovan family had shot a member of the Brodrick family in the back.

The story opens with John Brodrick visiting the home of his friend and neighbour Robert Lumley where they sign a partnership deal to open a copper mine on nearby Hungry Hill. John Brodrick is the head of his family and owner of Clonmere, he is a widower with five children and from now on he is known as Copper John. On his way home Copper John drives to Hungry Hill where he gets out of his carriage and looks at the site that is to become the mine. As he stands there a disreputable looking man comes up to him. He is an old adversary called Morty Donovan and he has heard the rumours about the forthcoming mine. The two men exchange a few words and Morty curses Copper John saying that he should have asked permission from the hill before starting the mine………”Ah, you can laugh” he said, “you with your Trinity education and your reading and your grand progressive ways, and your sons and your daughters that walk through Doonhaven as though the place was built for their convenience, but I tell you your mine will be in ruins and your home destroyed and your children forgotten and fallen maybe into disgrace, but this hill will be standing still to confound you.”……… Copper John ignores Morty Donovan, assuming that his words are jealous ramblings and he gets back into his carriage and heads for home.

Copper John’s two sons have been educated at Eton and Oxford. Henry, the older son and heir to Clonmere has travelled, while John the younger son had started a law career in London. Both sons come home to Clonmere and their three sisters as often as possible. Henry, like his father, is a business man interested in the running of the mine and the estate. John is a dreamer and loves the country life, fishing and exercising his greyhounds. He hates the way the mine has marred some of the beauty of Hungry Hill and he is uncomfortable in his fathers company. He is known as Greyhound John and he is in love with Fanny Rosa the wild and beautiful granddaughter of Copper John’s partner Robert Lumley.

The mine employs a lot of Cornishmen and a great many of the local population. Copper John works them hard but treats them fairly and in the main things go well until it becomes apparent that copper is being stolen and there is unrest among the workers at the mine. On night word reaches Copper John that some of the local workers are heading towards the mine bent on trouble. Copper John, his two sons, the manager of the mine and a number of others form two groups and go up to the mine to try to catch the workers who are causing the trouble. As Greyhound John and his group wait on the side of the hill a very drunk Morty Donovan comes by, he is in a little donkey cart and tells them that the mine is on fire. The men hurry to join the other group and sure enough, some of the troublemakers are setting fire to the Cornish workers cottages and smashing up the cleansing sheds. At the sight of Copper John and the others, some of the workers try to run away but others are still in the cleansing sheds and to put a stop to the chaos Copper John lays some gunpowder and blows up the cleansing sheds with several of the troublemakers still in them. This incredibly harsh course of action is compounded by a sudden change in the weather which turns to cold torrential rain. Amazingly Copper John has no more trouble from the workers, but two things occur as a result of that night. The first is that Morty Donovan is found the next day, dead with a broken neck having fallen from his donkey cart in a drunken stupor and the second is that Henry becomes very ill with a chill that he catches as a result of the appalling weather on that terrible night.

Henry never fully recovers and later he dies, leaving Greyhound John as the new heir to Clonmere. John has no interest in the mine or the estate and spends his time racing his dogs. After a while he marries Fanny Rosa and they live a happy and chaotic life at Clonmere and in the other houses that Copper John owns across the water. Greyhound John and Fanny Rosa are staying at Clonmere during the time that they are expecting their first child. On day Fanny Rosa decides to go out for the day with Jane, Copper John’s youngest daughter. Greyhound John is also out, in Doonhaven, visiting his friend Dr Armstrong when he gets an urgent message to go to the mine where there is a problem. Dr Armstrong goes with him and when they arrive they discover that a new part of the mine is flooding and two men have already drowned. Everyone works hard to control the food but it soon becomes obvious to Copper John that the only way to stop the flood will be to blow a hole in the side of the mine and divert the water away from the shaft. This is a courageous course of action, but it works. The diverted water thunders down Hungry Hill destroying the road and everything in its path, but the mine is saved. Tragically Fanny Rosa and Jane are coming back along the road and their carriage is caught in the torrent of water. Fanny Rosa is saved, but Jane is drowned and later that night Fanny Rosa’s child is born. It is a boy and he becomes known as Wild Johnny. Greyhound John and Fanny Rosa have a second son called Henry and then three more children follow.

One day when Greyhound John, Fanny Rosa and their children are all staying at Clonmere trouble breaks out in Doonhaven. It involves a skirmish between the clerk to the mining company and Sam Donovan, his sister Mary and her husband James Kelly. The clerk has a blunderbuss with him as protection because he carries sums of money from the mine to the post office in Doonhaven. During the skirmish he fires the gun, meaning to scare the Donovans, but inadvertently he shoots and kills James Kelly. Copper John and Greyhound John have to attend court and the clerk is acquitted. A few days later Greyhound John’s two greyhounds are poisoned, they die a cruel and painful death and Greyhound John knows that the Donovans have done it as a way of seeking revenge.

Greyhound John is a peace loving man and he cannot bear the continual feuding between the Brodricks and the Donovans. He sets of to find Sam Donovan and make peace with him. Greyhound John finds Sam looking after his brother Denny who is unwell and goes in to talk to them both. He has a drink with them and by the time he leaves he believes he has made some level of progress with them. When Greyhound John arrives home he finds his friend Dr Armstrong is visiting, they talk and the conversation soon turns to the concern the doctor has about a number of cases of diphtheria in the area. He says that the cases are mostly isolated and the people are being looked after by family, for example Denny Donovan, whose brother Sam is caring for him. It is not long before Greyhound John becomes ill. Fanny Rosa removes the children to the far side of the castle to protect them and inevitably Greyhound John dies.

Fanny Rosa adapts to widowhood fairly quickly and with her son Johnny as the new heir she has an important role at Clonmere. Johnny is a badly behaved, wild and spirited child. He torments people, gets into trouble and is allowed to do what ever he wants including mixing with the young Donovan children. Fanny Rosa never disciplines Johnny but despite all this freedom he is never really happy and is certainly not popular with people, unlike his warm and caring younger brother Henry. Johnny and Henry follow family tradition and are educated at Eton, but while Henry goes to Oxford, Johnny joins the army. He is involved in the war in the Crimea and is left harder and more troubled than ever. One day when Johnny has been in the army for about ten years, Fanny Rosa meets him at his London flat and they join the rest of the family for dinner. An enchanting young woman called Katherine is with the party and Johnny is immediately attracted to her. She is so calm and gentle and she offers to help Johnny to sort himself out. It is only at the end of the meal that Henry announces that he and Katherine are to be married. Johnny makes his excuses and leaves, contorted with jealousy that his brother has the love of this wonderful woman. The next morning Johnny receives a telegram telling him that Copper John has died. Johnny is now the owner of Clonmere.

Johnny leaves the army and he and Fanny Rosa move into Clonmere. Johnny is not liked by anyone at the mine or on the estate and he quickly becomes disenchanted with life in the castle. One day he meets Jack Donovan and his sister Kate, who he has not seen since childhood. Jack Donovan and Kate become Johnny’s only friends and he moves them into the Clonmere gatehouse. Fanny Rosa is appalled by Johnny’s action but he will not give up this strange friendship so Fanny Rosa decides to leave Clonmere and begins a new life in Nice. Johnny takes Kate as his lover and after a while she becomes pregnant. Henry and his wife step in to help sort out this shameful situation and they arrange for Jack and Kate to go to America and make a fresh start. They also make plans for Johnny to travel abroad for a while so that the scandal can have time to settle. The night before Johnny is due to sail he goes to Henry and Katherine’s house hoping to see Katherine one more time. They are out so Johnny goes on a drinking spree. He is found dead two days later surrounded by bottles.

When Henry, Katherine and their baby daughter Molly move into Clonmere an atmosphere of loving calm falls upon the great house. The mine thrives under Henry’s care and the estate workers all love the latest owners of Clonmere. Henry and Katherine have two more children, a son called Hal and a daughter called Kitty. Tom, Henry’s best friend from Oxford days moves into the area and becomes parson of the local parish. He marries a young woman called Harriet and later they have a daughter Jinny. The only thing to mar their total happiness is that Dr Armstrong shows concern about Katherine’s health and warns Henry that she should not have any more children. From time to time Henry hears from his mother Fanny Rosa. She always wants money, which seems odd as she has a generous allowance, but Henry is a rich man and he sends her what ever she asks for.

When the mine is fifty years old Henry and Katherine organise a grand celebration, with a party at Clonmere for family and friends and a supper which they all attend up at the mine with all the workers. Henry gives the workers a pay rise to mark the anniversary and a happy time is had by all. Sadly on the way home a drunken man steps into the road and is crushed under the wheels of Henry’s carriage. The man is Jack Donovan, back from America and he is killed instantly. As part of the celebration for the fifty years of the mine Henry announces that he is going to build a new wing at Clonmere. It is for his beloved Katherine and will contain the most beautiful rooms imaginable.

Work begins on the new wing and continues for months, during this time Katherine becomes pregnant again and despite everything that Dr Armstrong does for her the child survives, but Katherine dies. The child is a girl called Lizette and she is crippled with a club foot. For Henry life without Katherine is no life at all. He halts the work on the house and pays off the workers. Relatives take Henry’s children into their homes and Tom and Harriet help with their care. Henry then rents Clonmere out on a seven year lease and goes abroad. When he has recovered from the initial shock he settles in London, buys a house there and sends for his children, their governess and the babies nurse. Life continues for the family in London and Henry’s son Hal follows the family tradition by going to Eton. A letter from Fanny Rosa asking for rather more money than usual prompts Henry to take a trip to Nice to see his mother.

When Henry arrives at his mother’s home in France he discovers that she has become a compulsive gambler. She is in a very poor state and clearly can no longer take care of herself. She justifies her gambling by saying that it helps her to forget her dear son Johnny, whom she still misses dreadfully. A woman called Adeline lives next door to Fanny Rosa, she is an army widow and a capable woman with lots of common sense. She helps Henry to get his mother into a nursing home and is such a tremendous support to him that he asks her to marry him.

Henry returns to his children in London with his new bride and his children are horrified that this woman has replaced their mother’s memory. The remainder of their childhood is strained and difficult and they are only really happy during holiday time when they can escape the London house for the homes of their relatives. Adeline is devoted to Henry but jealous of any time he spends with his children. This makes times such as Mollys coming out or events at Hal’s school very difficult. Hal leaves Eton and goes to Oxford. When he has been there for two years Molly meets and marries a young man called Robert O’Brien Spencer. His home is a few miles from Clonmere and Henry allows Molly and Robert to open up Clonmere for Christmas and take Hal, Kitty and Lizette with them. The youngsters stay at Clonmere until the end of January. They have a wonderful time recapturing their childhood and showing Lizette the family home. Tom, Harriet and Jinny make them very welcome and make sure that have everything they need as do other relatives in the area. Hal and Jinny get on particularly well. When it is time to leave Lizette goes to live with Molly and Robert and Kitty goes to stay with other relatives leaving only Hal to return to the London house.

Adeline considers Clonmere to be a wasteful drain on their income and she wants Henry to sell the property, but he can only do this if his heir agrees. Hal will not agree and a bitter argument ensues. Many harsh words are uttered and Henry bans Hal from his home for ever.

Hal goes abroad and lives in Canada for several years. At first he writes to Jinny, but then the letters stop and she doesn’t hear any more. One day when and Hal is about thirty he returns to Ireland and goes to see Tom, Harriet and Jinny. Soon afterwards Hal and Jinny marry and set up home in the little cottage in Doonhaven where Dr Armstrong had lived before he died. Hal gets a job as a clerk at the mine. Copper mining has been replaced by tin mining, but apart from that every thing is much the same. Some of the locals find it strange that a Brodrick is working at the mine like the rest of the local folk, but they don’t understand that Hal is estranged from his father. A young man called Jim Donovan also works at the mine.

As time goes by Hal settles into the work and he and Jinny have a baby son called John Henry. The value of tin begins to drop as mining in South Africa becomes a cheaper and easier option. Suddenly Henry sells the mine and Hal and all the other workers are shocked. Tom points out that it is a shrewd business move on the part of Henry and not a personal slight on Hal or any of the workers. The new owners of the mine make some changes. The have the men working longer hours on more difficult and more dangerous seams, but they pay a lot more money and the workers are happy. Of course the new owners are just getting as much tin as possible out of the mine as quickly as possible while there is still a market for the tin and after a few months the close they mine down altogether.

Some of the skilled workers get work in the mines in South Africa, others emigrate to America and a few of the older people are glad to accept that they need not work any more, but there are many men who are devastated by the loss of their jobs and a feeling of unrest spreads around Doonhaven. Tom receives a letter from Henry saying that he has business which is bringing him back to Ireland. Hal is nervous about seeing his father again and the evening before Henry is due Hal goes out walking towards Clonmere and up to the deserted mine. As he walks Jim Donovan and his pals come along and engage Hal in conversation. Hal and Jim argue about the closure of the mine and as Hal walks away Jim and his friends begin to stone him. As Hal turns back towards them his face and eyes are cut and he falls to the ground. The gang grab Hal and tie him up and blindfold him before carrying him closer to the mine and leaving him. Hal struggles to free himself, but he is unable to see through his swollen and cut eyes and he looses his footing and falls down the mine shaft.

A few days later Jinny dresses John Henry smartly and takes him to Clonmere to see Henry. Henry is nothing like the gay young man who everyone loved when he moved to Clonmere with Katherine, he is tired and bitter and he has nothing to offer Jinny or her son except the promise that John Henry will inherit Clonmere one day.

The story moves forward to 1920. John Henry has served in the navy and fought in the war. His grandfather is now dead and so John Henry has returned to Ireland to claim Clonmere as his own. On his way he stops in the town to visit his great aunt Lizette. The town is full of soldiers and there is fighting and skirmishes on the streets for the Irish rebellion is happening right before his eyes. John Henry stays the night in a hotel and spends the evening in the bar. He has a drink with some soldiers and there is a familiar looking man in the bar reading a paper. When the bar closes John Henry asks the barman if he knows the man who was reading the paper because he looked like a familiar face from his local town. The barman replies that it will be a pity if he is because he will have seen John Henry drinking with the Black and Tans.

The next morning John Henry sets off for Clonmere. On the way he is stopped by a road block. He is taken from his car at gun point and dragged to a cabin some distance away. His car is confiscated for “The Cause”. John Henry is guarded for three days and at times he believes that he will be shot. His guard gives him food and whiskey and on the third night John Henry sleeps quite well. When he wakes, the cabin door is open, his guard has gone and outside on the grass is a newspaper. The headline on the paper shows that a fire has destroyed Clonmere and suddenly John Henry realises why he has been held captive. He makes his way to the ruins of his home and as he stands there a young man with a herd of cattle comes towards him. The young man is Eugene Donovan and John Henry realised that the man in the bar was Eugene’s brother Michael. Eugene and Michael may not have lit the match that burnt Clonmere down, but Michael certainly passed the word to the right people that the owner of Clonmere had been seen drinking with the enemy.

John Henry asks Eugene what he wants and he replies that he wants to graze his cattle on Clonmere land and build a cattle shed out of the Clonmere stables. After all John Henry is a gentleman and can afford to travel and to build himself a fine house elsewhere. The Donovans are back on Clonmere land and the words of Morty Donovan’s curse have been fulfilled.

Hungry Hill was published in May 1943 and was a best seller at the time, even being made into a film on which Daphne assisted with the screen writing. The success of this book was probably more to do with Daphne du Maurier’s popularity as a writer, following the success of Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and Frenchman’s Creek, than the quality of the novel itself. It is a long rambling tale and it is clear that Daphne du Maurier was writing about a place of which she knew very little. Indeed, until the epilogue there is not even a mention of the political and social troubles that are such a big part of Irish history.

Hungry Hill is really one of Daphne du Maurier’s forgotten books and there is not even a great deal written about it by the critics and reviewers of her work. Reading it now, it comes across as a very sad story and the reader is inevitably drawn into the plot as the characters spiral from one tragedy or disaster to the next and as each member of the Brodrick family moves further from the strong and determined character of Copper John, as one by one their faults and weaknesses are revealed.

It was a clever ploy on the part of Daphne du Maurier to use the Donovan curse to bring the men in the Brodrick family down, because it provided her with the vehicle she needed to expand on the male characters of the novel. In a lot of Daphne du Maurier’s writing she stresses the freedom of men to do as they wish, compared to the constraints of women. In this novel she shows that if men use that freedom inappropriately they can fail as well.

Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier (Victor Gollancz 1943, Doubleday 1943)

Further reading:

Daphne du Maurier by Margaret Forster (Chatto & Windus 1993) (Published in the US as Daphne du Maurier – The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller (Doubleday 1993)
Daphne – a Portrait of Daphne du Maurier by Judith Cook (Bantam Press 1991)
Daphne du Maurier - Haunted Heiress by Nina Auerbach (University of Pennsylvania Press 1990)
Daphne du Maurier by Richard Kelly (Twayne 1987)

© A. Willmore 2002.

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