Virago, £8.99, 224pp. £8.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Doll: Short Stories, By Daphne du Maurier
Friday 10 June 2011
For copyright reasons, there is no Collected Stories of Daphne du Maurier. If published, I believe it would prove Du Maurier to be one of the finest English short story writers. Known primarily for her novels (even then, mainly for Rebecca), Du Maurier's daring and unsettling short works are little discussed. When they are – as in the case of "The Birds" and "Don't Look Now" – it is because of their film adaptation by two great directors, Alfred Hitchcock and Nicolas Roeg.
Du Maurier wrote short fiction throughout her life, though mainly in two bursts of creativity: as a young experimental writer in the late 1920s, and as a more confident writer from the late 1930s and 1940s with success behind her. The Doll contains hitherto-uncollected stories from the early period, largely gathered here by Du Maurier expert Ann Willmore, and introduced with elegant clarity by Polly Samson.
Short, pithy tales published in American and British magazines, they give insight into the writer's central concerns. They become considerably more complex in later stories – "The Apple Tree", "The Little Photographer", and "The Bluest Eye", as well as the major novels: Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, The Scapegoat and The House on the Strand.
From the Bacchanalian vigour of "East Wind" to the haunting prescience of "The Happy Valley" (which weirdly presages the writer's own long residence in the house Menabilly), they demonstrate Du Maurier's psychological acuity and unexpected subject matter and theme. The quirky narratives play on the reader's sensibilities through compelling personae, events and dialogue rich with suspense, emotional or sexual surveillance and tension, and her particular calling card of "menace" – the term the Du Maurier family significantly used for sexual attraction.
Performance in private and public was the lifeblood of Daphne's theatrical family, but for this very private woman it signified an unwelcome surveillance from which she was always trying to escape. Just before beginning "The Doll", after good times in Paris, Berlin and London, she decided that Cornwall was where she wished to put down roots, to be alone and independent. Her jealous father (with whom she may have had a semi-incestuous relationship) was vying for her attention with a 42-year-old married cousin, Geoffrey. Daphne was desperately trying to escape their dominance and the expectation she would become the family's next thespian.
The stories – written to assert this new sense of purpose – have the bravado, ruthless clarity and over-simplification of youth, but a youth that can often see the emotional wood through the trees. In "Tame Cat" there is a chilling threesome of a young woman, her mother and mother's partner, "Uncle John", who attempts to lure the girl: "She understood everything now. Mummy, her beauty gone, a frightened jealous woman, envious of her own youth; while he, smooth-tongued and deceitful, worked for a new alliance." This abuse of care, and the often vicious power-play between men and women, produce striking stories such as "The Limpet" and "And His Letters Grew Colder".
Du Maurier is often discussed as quintessentially English, suggesting a certain parochialism in her work. But the writer was educated in Paris and, with her French ancestry, always alive to European writing. The tone of cynicism, themes of metamorphosis and doubleness, and narratives of class and sexual violence, all seem to derive as much from her wide reading of French and Russian figures such as Chekhov and Maupassant as from the English-language writers she admired – Emily and Charlotte Brontë, and her adored Katherine Mansfield.
In "The Doll", there are distinct echoes of the unstable, unreliable narrators of Edgar Allen Poe. But there is also a bolder project. Drawing on Victorian technological advances and the new sexologies around her, Du Maurier creates a mechanised sex doll to whom the female protagonist and object of fevered male desire (significantly named Rebecca) claims attachment. Daphne unsettles the reader with doubts about the authenticity of the spectacle described and the sanity of the narrator.
Du Maurier employs well the assured balancing of uncanny possibilities, the clever manipulation of unconscious fears and desires, and the bitterly wry sense of absurdity that were to characterise her finest fiction.
Helen Taylor edited 'The Daphne du Maurier Companion'
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