Hunting for Daphne du Maurier in a book shop is never a simple task. Dependant on the whims of the book seller, she may be displayed prominently in the classics or literature section, tucked away on the Young Adult shelves or demoted to romance and ‘chick lit.’ Despite her prominence as one of the best selling British authors of the 20th century, she is sometimes absent altogether, wheeled out only when one of her works is adapted for film or television. Journalists and critics are still debating the quality of her work, was she a literary genius? Or a middlebrow hack writer?
When I first picked up a copy of Rebecca, I wasn’t sure either. The most famous of her novels has all the hallmarks of a gothic romance, and yet is executed with great skill and originality. Rebecca is innovative in its use of the nameless first person protagonist. It has a masterful control of narrative pace, taking time over evocative descriptions of its Cornish setting, while elegantly baiting the reader with hints of suspense. Most significantly, it is a re-writing and response to Jane Eyre. Du Maurier takes Charlotte Bronte’s classic and transposes it to the 20th century. The two have since become inseparable in my mind. Maurier picks up on the uncomfortable conclusion to Jane Eyre and uses it to her advantage, making the narrator accomplice in the very deceit that she has been subjected to. To place Rebecca in the romance genre is to miss-sell it entirely. It is not a wish fulfilling romance with a happy ending. Rather, it engages intimately with the literary canon, asking the still pertinent question – how far have we really come in the power relations between men and women since 1847?
Although I thoroughly enjoyed Rebecca, I wondered if it was something of an exception to du Maurier’s usual fare. Was she a romance writer with one book that transcended the genre? Reading The Scapegoat, put this question firmly to rest. The Scapegoat‘s protagonist-narrator is a young, idealistic man who meets his doppelganger in France and switches places, assuming the role and dysfunctional family of a French Count. The premise is admittedly far fetched, yet the book seems to acknowledge this. At first it appears to be a rags-to-riches fairy tale but, like Rebecca, it subverts this trope to offer a disquieting view of family responsibility. The Scapegoat reminded me strongly of Dumas’s work, it asks similar questions – how much are we the masks we wear, and is it possible to ever escape them?
My Cousin Rachel likewise features a male protagonist-narrator. A brooding, entitled and prejudiced young squire dealing with the potentially dangerous widow of his late guardian. Like Rebecca, Rachel features a femme fatale who has no actual voice in the text. We are never given her side of the story, only that of the unreliable narrator. The entire novel revolves around the question of Rachel’s innocence or guilt and yet her judge is, for numerous reasons, incapable of convincing us of either case. I was fascinated by the way du Maurier reversed the trope of the fallen woman. The Victorian heroine ‘giving up her virtue’ for love and an unfulfilled marriage proposal is here entirely inverted in a financially powerful but unwordly male figure. I found this the most unsettling of the three novels, and the most ambiguous, showing du Maurier at the height of her talent.
These books are all, in my mind, worthy of critical acclaim. Which leads me to ask, why have they failed to find a solid place in the literary canon? I propose that their very popularity works against them. They are not difficult books to read and their excellent use of pacing and mystery makes them page-turners. Du Maurier’s books have been marketed as genre novels, sporting lurid bodice-ripper covers in the 60’s and 70’s but I would argue they fail to meet the requirements of the romance genre. Although some are historical in setting, they are not overly interested in history. As keen as I am to champion literary qualities amongst genre fiction, these books do not, in my mind, belong on the genre shelves.
Another major factor in their mixed reception is gender. Adaptations of du Maurier’s books by Alfred Hitchcock receive critical acclaim as cinematic classics. Of course, the audience for these is not assumed to be exclusively female. Despite her ability to create convincing and complicated male protagonists, Daphne du Maurier is rarely marketed in a ‘gender neutral’ way, and I have no doubt that her name and image effect the critics’ position on her work.
So, are these books ‘literary’ fiction? While I have my issues with the inherent snobbery in this distinction, I will go so far as to say that I consider Daphne du Maurier on par with many of the finest writers of the 20th century. Her work engages with the Western literary tradition, responding to classics and placing them in a modern context. Her use of the first person narrator is experimental and innovative. Her protagonists and antagonists both demonstrate moral ambiguity. Her narratives are frequently unsatisfying and disturbing in their refusal to conform to our expectations. Her style is alternately simple and highly detailed. She poses intriguing psychological and sociological questions without offering easy answers. The fact that her novels are also eminently readable does not undermine these qualities in the least. Rather, it enhances them, as the reader is unable to maintain an objective distance from her powerfully engaging characters.