Here we go with a close reading and analysis of Susan Hill’s Strange Meeeting, where the two protagonists, Hilliard and Barton discover, and create, a deep and enduring connection.
‘Tell me,’ Barton said simply. He still lay on his stomach, hands dabbling gently in the water.His legs were very long, reaching back through the grass towards Hilliard.
He had been waiting for someone, just as Garrett had waited for him. Waiting for Barton. Though he had not known it.Long ago, he would have talked to Beth. Not now. There had never been anyone close enough.
‘Go on. Tell me.’
Hilliard did so. It was not so difficult after all.’
This moment of friendship lifts Hilliard from years of loneliness and quiet despair. The penalties imposed perhaps by his upper middle class upbringing at this time. Barton is new to the front and to Hilliard and it is the natural warmth and spontaneity of Barton that gives Hilliard the freedom and permission to talk and to release ‘himself’.
When I first read this description I was struck by the careful observation about Barton’s legs. Barton is lying down, enjoying the physicality of being within his own body, relaxing as if he were elsewhere, perhaps back home, away from the war. He is naturally enjoying nature. A profound irony when all around grossly unnatural evenst are taking place.
Hilliard notices the way that Barton’s legs are ‘reaching’ towards him. A gesture of intimacy and compassion, as he need no longer, feel so alone. He can release the words and feelings trapped in his own body by the war and his unyielding upbringing. The length of Barton’s legs are also remarked upon. Barton’s height may make Hilliard feel protected, less inhibited by a need to demonstrate ‘manliness’ and thus to reveal his vulnerability. It is as if the weight of responsibility can be given away. Hilliard literally unburdens himself to Barton who is quietly waiting for him- speaking is only a part of the whole experience after all.
Some times, someone allows us to feel close enough to speak-in all senses.
When David Copperfield discovers the body of his childhood friend Steerforth on the beach at Great yarmouth, David notices the position of the ‘arm’ of Steerforth, which is in the same relaxed position as when he was at school.years before.
This observation redeems the fallen Steerforth in terms of David’s affection. He remembers a more innocent, natural time, when he loved Steerforth as a heroic figure, without the burden of his adult knowledge of Steerforth’s corruption. ( See Martha Nussbaum’s superb reading, ‘Steerforth’s Arm’.)
In Susan Hill’s novel, this affection between men is never compromised. Barton does not betray his friend. When he says, ’Tell me‘ he utters a gentle imperative that Hilliard is brave enough to answer. The ‘order’ here is compassionate and healing-unlike the monstruous orders that surround them during the first world war.
The physical naturalness and proximity of Barton’s body become symbolically significant to Hilliard. He gives himself permision to dare; to speak out and release his pent up, secret words. We do not hear them, but Barton does. He is Hilliard’s most private listener, the secret friend he has always wanted, where respectful, tender sanctuary is assured. Respect given and acknowledged.
The tenderness of this meeting here is palpable.
‘On attends toujours’ once wrote the novelist Marguerite Duras, and here we are moved to observe and to hear, that the waiting for Hilliard is over. He has found his soulmate listener.
Wonderful writing. Quietly romantic and luminous. You can hear the intimacy as much as read it. A very special moment in time, that transcends even death.
Dr Janet Lewison
How to analyse a text quickly!
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