books

Daphne du Maurier, a Vindication

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.

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Summer Reading: The Enchanted April

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922) is really a spring book, about awakenings and new beginnings, with pages full of flowers and April showers. However it also has the atmosphere of summer holidays; of the seaside, of white dresses and warm breezes and hours spent lying in the shade. As a summer break read it is ideal, for it focuses on the space for self reflection and personal change that a good holiday can provide.

In the first chapter Mrs. Wilkins discovers an advertisement in The Times, “To Those who Appreciate Wistaria* and Sunshine. Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let Furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.” She soon convinces three other women to join her on a month long holiday, escaping husbands, would-be-lovers and dreary London weather.

I learnt of The Enchanted April by way of the film made in 1991, a classic in its own right, which I had the pleasure of watching a few years back. The film is quite true to the book, and manages to capture the wonderful light of San Salvatore, as well as perfectly casting the lead characters (except perhaps Lady Caroline.) What it cannot hope to replicate though, is the charm of von Arnim’s prose, her gentle wit and the fact that most of the text is spent exploring the characters’ meditations, largely about themselves. It is not a story in which much happens externally; a few visitors arrive at the castle, some furniture is moved, there is a disagreement over the catering expenses. Whenever it looks as though something truly dramatic might happen it is always averted, usually thanks to Lady Caroline – “But he was reckoning without Scrap”! This subverts our narrative expectations with subtle humour, setting up the conditions for melodrama and then sorting everything out in a polite English manner before it becomes a problem.

From all of the above you might think this a dull, conservative sort of book and nothing could be further from the truth. Each of the women is escaping from something: an inattentive husband, excessive good-works, a surplus of attention or the memories of her glory days – and each, through a process of self reflection and sun bathing, comes to personal realisation and acts upon it. In the second half of the book their reverie is disturbed by the arrival of male guests and each of these is a wonderfully well realised character in himself. I loved von Arnim’s ability to create good outcomes from selfish motivations, showing that some people do the right thing for the wrong reasons, but this can still facilitate happiness.

The Enchanted April is a gentle book, and would probably make less of an impact if it were published today, but it is quietly revolutionary. The women each claim an independence, even within their existing relationships. Many early 20th century classics are about broken marriages, affairs and women fighting to free themselves from restrictive circumstances. Elizabeth von Arnim does something else, she works inner transformations and expresses the longings of most people as fairly simple, and happiness as something that can be found by looking at the world in a different, perhaps Italian, light.

Skye M. W.

Image: Roses, Peder Severin Krøyer, 1893 (I could live in this painting.)

*What a pity it is we don’t commonly use the spelling ‘wistaria.’ Is there any prettier name for a flower than wistaria? Wisteria sounds too much like hysteria and that is all wrong.

Reading on Public Transport

There is a singular advantage to public transport over the freedom of personal conveyance; since all responsibility for directing the vehicle is given over to another one can use the time usually stolen by a journey to read.

There are, of course, other ways to make use of this idleness. Staring out the window and contemplating any subject that drifts across one’s awareness may be equally profitable, as might sketching other passengers, or in lieu of pen and paper, inventing clever projects and ambitious ideas without any obligation to get up and initiate them. Some choose to have loud personal conversations, seemingly oblivious to their being surrounded by thirty curious strangers. These too, may provide a diversion, though, like a hospital waiting room with the television playing midday soaps, something that can only be endured for so long.

Reading, however, is the best of these options. To begin with there are so few portions of a busy day in which no guilt need be attached to something as indulgent as a good book. Public transport and in particular buses, which are never in a hurry, provide an opportunity like no other. This is also an ideal time to engage in reading something arduous or long unfinished, as the option to switch to a more exciting book is removed. The activity of reading additionally acts to separate the reader from fellow travelers in such a way that few dare approach or speak to them, so solemn they appear. While statistics are currently unavailable it seems likely, based on anecdotal evidence, that passengers are less inclined to sit next to an individual who is reading and, if forced to, will keep to themselves out of respect for this sacred state of concentration.

The varieties of transportational reading are many. Newspapers were once a popular choice but seem lately to have fallen out of favour. Paperbacks are conveniently lightweight and still widely available. Students may be easily identified by sheaves of exam notes, text books or unit readers, and indeed university routes provide a final chance to at least glance at those readings one is about to confidently discuss. For particularly long or scenic journeys, audio books provide the perfect solution, likewise for overly noisy or crowded buses, or when one does not wish to advertise their choice of fiction. Failure to remember to bring reading material has led to resourceful alternatives, such as surreptitiously reading over a neighbour’s shoulder or developing an unusual fascination for bus timetables.

It should be noted that there are various potential dangers involved in this occupation. The most prominent; becoming overly engrossed in the text and missing one’s stop. This can, however, have the benefit of extending the journey so that a few more chapters might be got in and a charming anecdote made of the late arrival. Another threat is the rare but persistent friendly reader. The friendly reader, unlike the genuine bibliophile, does not subscribe to the code of introversion generally accepted among the truly bookish. He will start by asking what it is you are reading (even if the cover is angled in such a way that he can read the title for himself) and then proceed to engage you in conversation, despite any aggravated tone of voice or raised eyebrow you might employ as deterrent. This discussion will quickly veer from your choice of book to his personal tastes and reading habits and soon become a monologue from which there is no easy escape. The best you can hope for is that his stop comes before your own and, failing that, it must be considered how far you are willing to walk.

The question then, is how best to select reading material for such occasions. On a practical note, the book should be neither overly large, heavy or fragile, as one may be forced to read standing up, in which case it must be held in a single hand. Short stories are an excellent option, as one or two may be completed during the journey, leaving the reader with a sense of satisfaction. One should never carry a book they are ashamed to be seen with. This is, after all, public transport and one’s choice of book is as likely to draw notice as one’s hat. Some readers have even been known to select books entirely on this criteria, choosing an impressive French or Russian novel to complete their look. These frauds can be easily identified by how often they turn the pages. Finally, anything overly popular or controversial at the time should be avoided, as this is likely to attract the attention of both the friendly and over-the-shoulder reader.

Despite the inherent dangers, the avid reader should take full advantage of public transport for the opportunity it presents to both catch up on neglected reading and feel infinitely superior to those playing video games on their phones.

This mock-essay was inspired by Kenneth Grahame’s Pagan Papers (which you can read here.) The Merriam-Webster assures me that ‘transportational’ is indeed a word, though the OED begs to differ.

Skye M.W.