Susan Hill’s classic novel Strange Meeting tells of the power of love amidst atrocities.
‘He was afraid to go to sleep. For three weeks, he had been afraid of going to sleep . . .’
Young officer John Hilliard returns to his battalion in France following a period of sick leave in England. Despite having trouble adjusting to all the new faces, the stiff and reserved Hilliard forms a friendship with David Barton, an open and cheerful new recruit who has still to be bloodied in battle. As the pair approach the front line, to the proximity of death and destruction, their strange friendship deepens. But each knows that soon they will be separated . . .
What we say – review by guest reviewer: Eoin Howe
From the latter months of 1914, the Western Front of the First World War had solidified into a line of fortifications and trenches stretching from the sand dunes of the North Sea, to the rocky border of Switzerland. In this thick belt of churned up land, millions of men would fight, and die, before the end of the war in 1918. The existence of this “Front” was bizarre enough, and any description brims with superlatives, but one that is seldom noted is the peculiarity of its Gendered existence; For, due to the nature and culture of the militaries of the time, and the displacement of the local civilian populations, women were to be allowed no nearer the Front than serving as nurses in hospitals behind the lines (with some few individual, and notable, exceptions). For perhaps the first time in history, Mankind had succeeded in creating a vast, mono-gendered, entirely masculine environment, in which to destroy its sons.
I make note of this as a side-bar to reviewing Susan Hill’s classic, Strange Meeting, because so many previous reviewers have commented on it as “a remarkable feat of imaginative and descriptive writing” (The Times) -the seeming implication that a war novel by a woman is somehow more noteworthy than one by a male writer, despite most of these never having experienced conflict either. Perhaps there is something so gendered, so masculine, about war, that it loudly demands to be examined by male authors, from an entirely masculine perspective. This is a shame, and nonsense. The experiences of the Trenches, in this example, would tax any imagination that had not been a participant- and even then, taxed the descriptive powers of someone who had, as many Great War writers attest.
Hill’s book is a magnificent achievement because of the depth and beauty of its humanity, not ‘despite’ its authors gender, but perhaps because of it. Often, novels about war written by men merely rehash tired old tropes of heroism and sacrifice, “War is Hell” clichés and great wallows of self-pity, without illuminating the subject appreciably, or finding time to include any real character amongst its subjects.
“Strange Meeting”, on the other hand, is all about character, building layer upon layer of small incidents on top of each other to create a wonderful portrait of two young British Officers, thrown together by the war. The main character in the book is John Hilliard, a Junior Officer in a British Infantry regiment (‘Junior’ in this sense meant a first or second Lieutenant, or ‘Subaltern’, who led a Platoon in the field- although in practice the majority were also extremely young, between 18 and 24 years old). Returning from hospital, where he was recuperating from a leg wound, to his regiment, he finds nearly every person he knew gone, and a new batch of replacements just arrived. Hilliard is in his early twenties, but already prematurely aged by the war- he suffers from problems sleeping, nightmares, and a general nervousness he is unable to put his finger on, all symptoms of what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Another of his symptoms is a general malaise about everything, a loss of pre-war certainties and assumptions. The war no longer makes any sense- life no longer makes any sense. All he has left is his duty, however reluctantly carried out. Recovering at home, staying once again in his childhood bedroom, he realised that he no longer had anything in common with his family, even his beloved sister, after the experience of the Front. Hilliard is a man who is completely alone, despite being surrounded almost constantly by others.
Back in France, however, he is introduced to his new billet-mate, with whom he will be sharing an apple loft until the regiment returns to the line. David Barton, this young officer (even younger than Hilliard- Barton is fresh from school, not even in his twenties) has yet to experience the reality of the Trenches, and so is as yet untouched by the inevitable savagery and sorrow of the war. Despite his reluctance to engage with other people, Hilliard finds himself drawn to Barton’s kindness and innocence, and is drawn into his world via the sharing of long letters to a large and loving extended family.
What follows is an extremely sweet and poignant love story. The book serves not just as an astonishing evocation of the reality of the Western Front, but also a pitch-perfect description of two human beings coming to the realisation that someone else in the world understands them, at an intuitive level, perhaps even more than they understand themselves. In this depiction of human love in its purest form, of two people who, even in the most unlikely of situations and circumstances, fit together so perfectly, that neither one can really remember what it was like before they met, that the book really excels.
In wonderfully clear and calm passages of descriptive prose, Hill layers together what could almost seem indescribable- why, and how, people come to like each other. To quote one passage as an example that easily stands for the rest, as John ponders what Barton actually feels about the war:
“Hilliard did not know. But this was superficial, nevertheless, for the ease they felt in one another’s company was so great now. Hilliard had never shared so much of himself before, never been so simply content. There were times when he caught Barton’s glance, or walked behind him down the trench, when they sat in their dugout in the evening, reading or doing paperwork, listening to the gramophone, when Barton laughed suddenly, teasing him- at those times, he felt a welling up of pride and pleasure and love. Then, he wanted to say something, though he never did.”
It is in completely ignoring the sordidly modern clamour for detail of the men’s relationship that Susan Hill really gets under the skin of these young Edwardian gentlemen, whose society and mores are as radically, incomprehensively different from our own as peacetime is from The War. The kind of relationship that develops between these young men, and which boundary lines of sexuality it extends to, is treated as inconsequential. Hill herself, in the afterword, comments that:
“Among the questions I am most often asked about Strange Meeting… is ‘Were Hilliard and Barton homosexual; was their relationship a fulfilled and physical one?’ …I did not intend the conclusion to be drawn that (they) had a physical relationship, though I suppose that if they had it would not greatly alter anything else that happens to or between them in the book.”
The story of the Great War for the British Subaltern was not a happy one. The average life expectancy for a Junior Officer at the front, from arrival to death or severe wounding, was two weeks. Almost the entire generation of British Public schoolboys, reaching the age of 18 in any of the five years of the war, were completely wiped out. Their destruction helped create Modern Britain, in more ways than one, but of course, we cannot know what kind of a world that generation might have created had they lived.
This novel is a fitting tribute to those very young men, and a fitting tribute to humanity in general. It is one of the finest novels about the war I have ever read, and I have probably read more than most. Its central theme, and its dedication to that theme, is admirable, fascinating, and moving. I will allow Susan Hill the final word, as it is impossible to better: “I hope (Strange Meeting) is not thought of only as a novel whose ‘subject is war and the pity of war’, for, more than anything else, it is about human love.”