Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1322
Daphne du Maurier came naturally by her dramatic bent. Having eschewed a career in acting, she turned instead to writing, creating the settings of her novels as a vivid stage on which her melodramas could unfold. Most often, she wrote about what she knew: the craggy, tempestuous coasts and climate of Cornwall. With the playwright’s flare, she elicited as much suspense from her setting as from her characters and plots. Du Maurier yearned to write light romance, but it was not in her nature. “I may determine to write a gay, light romance. But I go for a walk on a moor and see a twisted tree and a pile of granite stones beside a deep, dark pool, and Jamaica Inn is born,” she told Current Biography in 1940. Du Maurier’s readers can only be glad for the writer’s solitary walks, for Jamaica Inn and the writer’s many other haunting novels and stories rank among the finest spine-tingling page turners ever written. Her books contain passion, jealousy, evil, and murder, with surprise heaped upon surprise.
While du Maurier’s works may not probe the depths of human experience, they create worlds and peoples that haunt long after the books are finished. Du Maurier believed in her own brand of predestination, a reincarnation of the human spirit. Evil is inevitable, in her view, but not insurmountable. People are, however, condemned by their very nature to a vision that exceeds their grasp. Du Maurier’s interest in character took a backseat to her fascination with personality types symbolic of abstract qualities of good and evil. She told Barbara Nichols in an interview for Ladies’ Home Journal, I am not so much interested in people as in types—types who represent great forces of good or evil. I don’t care very much whether John Smith likes Mary Robinson, goes to bed with Jane Brown and then refuses to pay the hotel bill. But I am [emphasis in original] passionately interested in human cruelty, human lust, and human avarice—and, of course, their counterparts in the scale of virtue.
Although critics have complained about her melodrama, plot contrivances, shallow characterization, romanticism, sentimentality, vague motivations, and moralizing, such commentary probably misses the point. Du Maurier’s unfailing appeal to her readers is fundamental: She tells a good story, and she tells it well. Unsurpassed as a teller of gothic tales tinged with horror or the supernatural, she is worth studying if only for her pacing, which moves from plot twist to plot twist with consummate ease. A romance writer in the best sense of the label, she creates engaging heroines blessed with immense inner strength. Her heroes helped to establish the model for modern romances: dark of complexion, dark of spirit, silent, enigmatic, harboring some unspeakable secret. Her settings evoke the foreboding ambience of Cornwall’s precipitous cliffs and misty moors, the perfect backdrop for the dramatic events that so astonish and delight du Maurier’s readers.
Among the most memorable opening lines in English literature is the first sentence of du Maurier’s best-known work, Rebecca: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” In a landscape of words, du Maurier takes her readers to Manderley to hear the rustle of leaves, smell the flowers in the garden, luxuriate in the opulence of the estate’s drawing room. As ominous waves pound the Cornish coast, the dark tale unfolds. Maxim de Winter, the brooding, detached master of Manderley, marries in haste while abroad and brings his new bride home to Cornwall. The new Mrs. de Winter (whose given name is never revealed) recounts her tale entirely in flashback, compelling the reader to stay with her as the reason for her departure from Manderley is slowly brought to light.
What begins as a Cinderella story—this young girl of modest means swept off her feet by a wealthy, powerful gentleman—soon turns sinister. The narrator is haunted by the lingering influence of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca, who died in a sailing accident. Rebecca’s presence is perpetually felt; even the name of Rebecca’s boat, Je reviens (French for “I return”), suggests its owner will not depart, either in body or in spirit. Manderley itself seems keeper of Rebecca’s mystique, with its forbidden halls, haunted rooms, and secret passages accidentally discovered. Beautiful, witty, flirtatious, and strong, Rebecca looms large—her power all the greater, even as a memory, for its contrast to the reticent nature of de Winter’s diffident second bride. The narrator imagines she can hear Rebecca calling to the dogs and Rebecca’s evening dress rustling on the stairs. The housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, exhibits fierce loyalty to the first Mrs. de Winter and sullen contempt for the second. Cruelly, she plots to displace the narrator from Manderley and drive a wedge between its master and mistress.
The ensuing labyrinth of deceptions, betrayals, and revelations spellbinds readers and proves that the new Mrs. de Winter is not without resources. Determined to uncover the truth and break free of Rebecca’s legacy, she counters the housekeeper’s wicked lies and her husband’s silent brooding with a resolute search for the truth. In a surprise ending, she rises whole and victorious, her nightmare ended and justice served. Manderley was great and corrupt, just as was Max’s dead wife. Readers find it satisfying to learn that love can be deep and enduring enough to overcome an adversary as powerful as Rebecca.
Critics praised Jamaica Inn as a tale nineteenth century adventure writer Robert Louis Stevenson would have been proud to write, and du Maurier admitted it was similar to—and inspired by—his Treasure Island (1883). The rain-swept Cornish coast in raw November portends danger, but orphan Mary Yellan is determined to keep the promise she made to her dying mother—to make her home with her victimized Aunt Patience and brutish Uncle Joss. Working at the dilapidated Jamaica Inn, where thieves and smugglers come to divide their spoils and pirates plot their next raids, Mary discovers a secret about her father’s death. Alone and afraid, Mary feels a sexual (although not romantic) attraction to Jem Merlyn, Joss’s younger brother and a domineering ruffian not above violence. In the background lurks the mysterious vicar of Altarnum, who hides a few secrets of his own. With its twisted motives, midnight crimes, smugglers, and secrets, this is du Maurier at her best. Although depicting a rather pessimistic view of the plight of women as helpless and subservient, the fast-paced adventure gains fresh popularity with each new generation of readers who discover it.
The House on the Strand
In du Maurier’s penultimate novel, The House on the Strand (the last among five du Maurier books featuring a maleprotagonist), the narrator, Dick, travels back to fourteenth century England, his journeys made possible by an experimental drug concocted by his scientist friend and mentor, Magnus. A stereotypical “nice guy,” Dick marries an American who is already mother to two sons. Dick is no fan of women (including his wife), judging the feminine point of view trivial and restrictive, but he changes his mind when he becomes entranced with Isolda, a woman of the fourteenth century who is saddled with a faithless husband. Dick develops as a pathetic character who longs for perceived glories of the past but can find no fulfillment in any epoch, past or present.
Combining historical fact with psychological analysis, the book paints the same haunting atmosphere so apparent in du Maurier’s earlier works, this time using the Kilmarth house in Cornwall and its rich history as both setting and theme. Dick’s unwillingness to be pulled away from his time travels reflects du Maurier’s own total immersion in her fantasy worlds. When writing, she lost herself in the lives of her characters, finding real life little more than a distraction and an annoyance.
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