Susan Hill’s 1973 widely anthologized short story “How Soon Can I Leave?” relates the relationship of Miss Roscommon and Miss Bartlett, two unmarried women living in the coastal town of Mountsea. Hill’s simple, straightforward style of writing is evident in this story. Sparse yet realistic details provide the reader with a complete picture of the characters and situations, making the story interesting and absorbing.
Miss Bartlett, a woman in her 40s, comes to Mountsea, though the reader does not learn how or why. After winter storms fl ood her waterside cottage—perhaps symbolic of life itself—she moves in with Miss Roscommon, an older woman who enjoys domestic pursuits and having someone to benefi t from them. Their relationship appears to be mutually benefi cial: Miss Roscommon has someone to watch over, and Miss Bartlett has a safe place to pass the winter. One winter turns into seven years, all following a similar pattern, with Miss Bartlett making crafts for sale and Miss Roscommon running the business and domestic sides of their lives. Then, Miss Bartlett’s 47th birthday, along with a visit to Miss Roscommon by her young niece and her new husband, bring Miss Bartlett to an emotional crisis of sorts. She decides to move out of Tuscany, Miss Roscommon’s house, and settle into her little cottage again. Once there, she will make new plans for her future.
She postpones this decision-making again and again, however. The reader has already learned that this is typical of Miss Bartlett—she makes very few intentional commitments because she believes that committing to one plan or place means permanently ruling out any other path. Hill describes Miss Bartlett’s life as drifting, similar to the sections of the pier that break off into the sea during the fi erce winter storms that were the initial cause of her living arrangement with Miss Roscommon.
These same winter storms slowly wear at Miss Bartlett’s determination to be independent from her former housemate. She wishes there were someone to comfort her during the storms that frighten her. Though she has rebuffed Miss Roscommon’s recent efforts to take care of her, one particularly harsh storm changes Miss Bartlett’s resolution to live on her own. She returns to Tuscany in the morning to reestablish their friendship, though she envisions herself refusing Miss Roscommon’s tendencies to treat her as a child or pet. Yet instead of presenting the cheerful reunion the reader expects, Hill ends the story with a twist: Miss Roscommon has died in the night, during the storm, alone.
A few themes and ideas are constant in the story. Hill makes frequent use of contrast, both obvious and subtle. Miss Roscommon and Miss Bartlett are the most noted example. Miss Roscommon is a no-nonsense sort of woman, while Miss Bartlett is perceived by others as dreamy and artistic. Contrast is shown in other areas of the story as well, such as Miss Bartlett herself. She tells herself that she is an independent adult capable of any adventure or journey she can dream, yet her outward actions seem to demonstrate the exact opposite. Even the weather in the winter and in the summer are contrasted with each other.
In addition, the story explores ideas of childhood and independence. Children who are different and misunderstood by adults are featured in other works by Hill, a subject that stems from her vivid memories of her own childhood. In this story, Miss Bartlett is the child. She recalls scenes from her girlhood that she has allowed to defi ne her adulthood. Although Miss Bartlett’s mother is dead at the time of the story, she is in fact a character because her presence is so vivid in Miss Bartlett’s life. When her mother is not discussed, Miss Roscommon takes over the role of Miss Bartlett’s deceased mother.
Hill, Susan. “How Soon Can I Leave?” In Penguin Modern Stories. London: Penguin, 1971.