I read Dolly in the lead up to seeing The Woman in Black stage play (in that time of naive optimism as opposed to my current state of hostile sulking). In honour of that most
auspicious of occasions disappointing anticlimax, I decided to delve into Susan Hill’s latest ghost story – Dolly. And no, it isn’t a biography of the busty country and western singer.
I read this in a single evening. That wasn’t because it’s a gripping page turner and impossible to put down so much as it being a novelette – weighing in at a mere 150 odd pages.
Dolly is the creepy tale of two young cousins – Edward and Leonora – who are sent to stay with their peculiarly named aunt Kestrel for the summer. Edward is characterised as a serious and thoughtful youngster who is eager not to upset his elders. Orphaned and somewhat lonely, he looks forward to meeting his cousin for the first time and hopes to make a new friend. He would be sympathetic, even appealing if it weren’t for his being so wet and utterly dull.
When Leonora arrives at the quiet house in the fens it soon becomes clear that she is not going to be the acquiescent playmate aunt Kestrel and Edward had hoped for. She has little care or consideration for anyone. A spoilt yet equally lonely child, she lives a bohemian lifestyle, travelling around Europe and the far east with her mother and a succession of her mother’s lovers.
Leonora is a child possessed with a terrifying temper, used to getting her own way in all things – except one. Peculiarly her mother has always declined to acquire for her the doll which she longs for: an Indian Princess bride. Aunt Kestrel attempts to acquire a doll for the girl as a birthday gift – and in a well meaning gesture travels to London to buy one for the tempestuous girl. The repercussions of this kind act have grave consequences upon the lives of the two cousins.
Leonora suffers from the same characterisation that besets many of Hill’s women: she is an evil bitch but utterly unexplored. There is some suggestion that she is a prize madam because she is neglected and spoilt by her mother in equal measure. You could also argue that Leonora is herself a doll: she wants to be the exotic princess but is forced into the role of mother. Child and mother relationships are obviously problematic for the girl, firstly as daughter and later in the story as a parent herself.
There is also an undeveloped suggestion that Leonora has some supernatural ability or sense. As in Hill’s other ghostly tales, women are portrayed as the perpetrators of supernatural malevolence while their weak menfolk are its victims. This would be ok, except that Hill never develops her female characters. Think of the Woman in Black, we know very little about Jennet and Alice, beyond what is necessary for the plot. Then there are the myriad of male characters who lose their children – yet we never meet a grieving mother. There is something very old fashioned about portraying women as malevolent creatures in league with the devil and never allowing them to express any deeper thoughts or feelings.
Dolly leaves the reader to make up their own mind about some of the eerie occurrences. I am becoming increasingly frustrated by Hill, churning out short stories when the material begs for further exploration. Without more for the reader to question or hypothesise over, we are left with a feeling that the story is simply incomplete rather than tantalisingly mysterious.
There seems to be something supernatural about Leonora and perhaps the family more widely – yet this is not developed, it is simply there to hint at why the supernatural events occur. This would be ok – I don’t demand a Hollywood style explanation for everything – but coupled with under developed characters and a jarringly rushed ending, it just feels like bad writing. The supernatural element manifests itself through the doll and the repercussions of its ‘death’. The only other occasion when anything of this nature occurs, is when Leonora sees her reflection in the pond, seemingly disfigured. Is this simply a visual representation of Leonora’s inner evil? If it is, this is both unsatisfactory and ridiculously old fashioned. Women who are evil become disfigured physically because they are corrupt – for a writer whose women are uniformly one-dimensional, characterising them by their looks adds insult to injury.
For all that, the book does work well as a horror story. It has a pervasive sense of loneliness and disappointment rather than horror or fear, but this is an interesting take on the more familiar approach. It leaves you unsettled and draws you into the story very effectively. It is a poignantly difficult read, never allowing any of its characters to become maudlin or overtly sympathetic, despite the sadness of their experiences.
Loan it from the library, buy it from a charity shop or wait until you can get in on Kindle for 99p – paying £10 for the hardback is really asking too much for such a frustratingly short story. Read it in winter, preferably by an open fire to get the most of the ambience.