Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2542
Daphne du Maurier was a storyteller who had good stories to tell and knew how to tell them. It is this union of good plot and good style that accounts for her enormous success as a writer of popular fiction. Her stories are products of a fertile imagination fueled by her love of history and her sense of place. She also brought to her writing the keen psychological insights necessary to develop believable characters and to explore human conflicts, especially those between the sexes. Such tension helps build suspense, but the element of mystery in a du Maurier story depends even more on her fascination with the deceptiveness of appearances. In most of her works, things are never quite what they seem, and no one is above suspicion.
Du Maurier’s ability to tell a story is evident in the technique she uses to set the mood in the beginning lines. In deceptively simple language she moves quickly into the story, not only establishing atmosphere but also creating suspense. Often she achieves this effect by using a first-person narrator to give the story greater credibility. In The House on the Strand, Dick Kilmarth is transported back to medieval times by a drug he has found in the basement of the family’s ancestral home on the coast of Cornwall. “The first thing I noticed,” he says, “was the clarity of the air, and then the sharp green color of the land.” He then remarks on the lack of softness in the landscape and the way the hills do not blend with the sky but stand out “like rocks, so close that I could almost touch them.” It seems that all his senses have been “in some way sharpened” except for the sense of touch. “I could not feel the ground beneath my feet,” he says, adding, “Magnus had warned me of this.” It is an ominous remark that raises a number of questions. Just where is Dick Kilmarth, and how did he get wherever he is? Why is his sense of touch dulled? Who is Magnus? As du Maurier proceeds to answer these questions, she raises even more, until Dick’s experiences seem to be taking place even as she writes. This technique of mixing answers with new questions is one she uses throughout to keep readers turning the pages.
The opening lines of Rebecca establish the atmosphere so palpably that when Hitchcock made the film, he felt compelled to use a voice-over to achieve the same effect. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” the narrator says. “It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter for the way was barred to me. . . . Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me.” Du Maurier was actually describing the first time she stumbled upon Menabilly, the neglected, old country house in Cornwall that inspired Rebecca and in which du Maurier later lived for many years. So intense was her feeling for Cornwall that she charmed language into making that feeling almost tangible.
“The Birds,” another story filmed by Hitchcock, opens with a line that, though innocent enough, sounds a chilling note: “On December the third the wind changed overnight and it was winter.” This is followed by a brief glimpse of the mellow autumn that had just ended and then a hint of something troubling ahead: “The birds had been more restless than ever this fall of the year, the agitation more marked because the days were still . . . [and] there were many more [birds] than usual.” Bit by bit du Maurier builds the suspense until there is no escaping the horrible realization of just how threatening the birds really are.
The theme of the deceptiveness of appearances haunts the pages of My Cousin Rachel, in which Philip Ashley is never sure whether his seductive cousin is a murderess or simply a charming flirt. In Rebecca, the young, new wife suffers throughout the novel because she misreads her husband’s moods and motives. No one seems to know Rebecca, not even Mrs. Danvers, who is obsessed with her. In “Don’t Look Now,” the bereaved parents, visiting Venice to forget the death of their daughter, are enmeshed in a web of deception to a point where they can no longer trust their own senses. In The House on the Strand, Dick Kilmarth reaches the point at which hallucination becomes more real than reality. Like him, many of du Maurier’s characters are as deceived about themselves as they are about others.
Du Maurier’s interest in the tension between the sexes stemmed from turbulent and confused feelings that characterized her own relationships. Her writings on this conflict also mirrored many of the concerns of women of her day, especially women who had achieved independence without feeling quite comfortable with it. Her heroines frequently want to assert themselves but are afraid to take the risk. They defer to men whom they then resent.
The narrator of Rebecca is an example. Her lack of self-esteem is reflected in the fact that throughout the book she is known only as Mrs. de Winter, a name she shares with the first Mrs. de Winter, the legendary Rebecca. The second Mrs. de Winter is half her husband’s age and thoroughly uncomfortable in his world. He is the wealthy, dashing lord of the manor while she is the shy, penniless orphan afraid of her own shadow. Here du Maurier is exploring the turmoil within a young girl who longs to feel liberated and equal but who cannot escape feeling trapped and inferior.
Other characteristics that account for du Maurier’s enormous popularity are those commonly associated with the gothic novel, a term used to describe a type of novel that reached its peak in the novels of the Brontë sisters, especially Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). The common ingredients include a remote country house, a poor innocent young girl (usually a governess), a brooding and mysterious older man, and a sinister presence of some sort or other lurking in a remote part of the house. Although only Rebecca fits this mold, du Maurier makes use of the gothic atmosphere in so many of her other novels (Jamaica Inn, Frenchman’s Creek, The King’s General, My Cousin Rachel) that the impression remains that she was mainly a writer of gothic romances. As such she inspired a whole generation of modern writers to do the same, and her influence continues to be felt in such writers as Mary Stewart, Mary Higgins Clark, and Ruth Rendell.
First published: 1938
Type of work: Novel
A wealthy widower marries a penniless girl and takes her to Manderley, where she is intimidated by the housekeeper and the mystery of Rebecca.
Rebecca is the novel that made Daphne du Maurier famous and that remains her best-known work. Rebecca has been called a modern Jane Eyre, and there are certainly striking similarities between the two novels. In each there is a shy, poor, and rather plain heroine who takes up residence in a grand country house. Once there she is terrorized by strange goings-on, falls in love with the master of the house (an older man), and lives to see the house burned to the ground by a deranged woman. The differences are few but important. Du Maurier’s heroine is not a governess but the second wife of a man whose tempestuous first wife died under questionable circumstances. The new wife’s shyness is made more painful when she compares herself with the exotic Rebecca.
In Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester’s first wife is alive but mad and stands in the way of his marrying Jane. In the du Maurier story, Rebecca is dead but her spirit haunts the halls of Manderley and puts a strain on the marriage between Maxim and his new wife. Throughout the novel the new wife is convinced that her husband is brooding over the death of Rebecca. This misconception is reinforced by Mrs. Danvers, the sinister housekeeper who keeps Rebecca’s boudoir exactly as it used to be. She does her best to poison the heroine’s mind, even to the point of encouraging her to jump from a high window.
Maxim is distraught because the truth is that he killed Rebecca in a fit of rage, put her body in a boat, and scuttled the boat. The reader finds out later that Rebecca had deliberately goaded Maxim into killing her because she had just learned she had a terminal illness. The tension between Maxim and his young wife eases once this cloud of secrecy is lifted. Meanwhile, Mrs. Danvers, sensing defeat but unwilling to surrender, sets fire to Manderley and perishes in the conflagration, just as the mad wife does near the end of Jane Eyre.
Du Maurier said that not giving her heroine a name became a challenge to her in writing the novel. For readers it has remained the perfect way to suggest the heroine’s low self-esteem, especially since the story is told through her eyes. Above all, however, is du Maurier’s superb sense of atmosphere that, once established in the haunting opening lines, continues unflawed until the last chilling lines when the de Winters realize that the crimson glow in the sky is not the sunrise but Manderley in flames. Du Maurier’s obsession with Cornwall can be felt in every line, and it is this total sense of place that gives Rebecca its magic. Du Maurier began writing the novel when she was in Egypt with her husband while he was stationed there. In an effort to shut out the stifling heat, the harsh light, and the teeming masses, she returned in her mind to Cornwall’s chill mists and stormy seas, its craggy promontories, and its windswept beaches. The result was a modern but ageless love story—with a twist.
The House on the Strand
First published: 1969
Type of work: Novel
An unhappy husband uses drugs to escape, through time travel, to the fourteenth century and back.
In The House on the Strand, Dick Kilmarth experiments with a hallucinogenic drug that transports him back to fourteenth century Cornwall, just before the onset of the Black Death. His initial encounter is so overwhelming that he knows he must repeat it, even though he suffers horrible aftereffects. The more he finds modern life unsatisfying, the more he is compelled to return to a time when people and events seemed bigger than life. Du Maurier cleverly manipulates the parallels between Dick’s real and imaginary worlds so as to enlist sympathy for Dick’s rejection of the real world. Dick, who is married to a shrewish woman named Vita, who has two loutish sons from a previous marriage, is thoroughly disenchanted with the emptiness and boredom of modern life in general.
In contrast, the life of the fourteenth century is given all the sweep and pageantry of a medieval melodrama. Du Maurier, with her flair for historical romance and her devotion to Cornwall, is able to bring that distant drama to life and give it such immediacy that it makes Dick’s preference for those times quite understandable. Near the end of the story Dick chooses to return to the fourteenth century even though he knows that he will be returning to a time when England was about to be ravaged by plague. During his rational periods he is aware that his life in the fourteenth century is all a fantasy and that he is killing himself pursuing it, but he would rather live vicariously in the glorious past, even if it is a dream, than die of boredom in what is called reality. In the end, the choice is no longer his to make.
As in Rebecca, the psychological realism of the novel gives credence to its extraordinary events. The novel develops some of du Maurier’s favorite themes: the tension between the sexes, the power of the past over the present, and the deceptiveness of appearances. Added to this is du Maurier’s boldness in writing such a controversial novel. In daring to write of mind-altering drugs, she could have expected to alienate her followers, offend the moralists, and be laughed at by the youth of the 1960’s, who might have accused her of invading their turf. All these things happened, but the book sold well anyway.
First published: 1952 (collected in The Apple Tree: A Short Novel and Some Stories, 1952)
Type of work: Short story
A farmer and his family in Cornwall are terrorized by hordes of killer birds that mount a deadly attack on their isolated farmhouse.
“The Birds,” one of Daphne du Maurier’s most chilling short stories, is in the collection The Apple Tree. The shock lies in the idea of birds as destroyers. People usually associate birds with things like freedom and beauty and music. However, in this story, du Maurier drew on her own experience with vicious seagulls. She imagines once-innocent creatures suddenly mutated into merciless killers bent on destroying humanity.
The story focuses on the heroic efforts of disabled farmer Nat Hocken to protect his family from the hordes of birds that relentlessly try to invade the family’s cottage. Nat does odd jobs around the neighborhood, and on his way home one evening in early December, he notices that there are more birds around than usual and that they have become strangely aggressive. When he arrives home, he hears on the radio that all over England something has happened to the birds. “The flocks of birds have caused dislocation in all areas,” says the broadcaster, and there is something sinister in the word “dislocation,” for it suggests that the order of nature has been broken and humanity has lost its dominion over the birds and beasts. When the government and the military admit that there is nothing they can do, Nat is forced to rely on himself to survive. It is survival of the fittest, and he knows who will win.
Birds peck at Nat’s eyes one day, and he is viciously attacked by gulls the next. One day when the birds calm down a bit, Nat goes to check on his neighbors, only to find their mutilated bodies next to the telephone. That night, as the birds mount an attack, Nat works ceaselessly to plug up every access to the cottage as thousands of birds descend upon the house, breaking the windows and screaming down the chimney.
Finally, unable to resist any longer, Nat settles back and listens as even the tiniest of birds join in the final assault. As the end approaches, he wonders “how many millions of years were stored in those little brains, behind the stabbing beaks, the piercing eyes, now giving them this instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.”
In addition to the gradual layering of horrifying detail, du Maurier also heightens the effect of the story by focusing only on Nat Hocken and his family. Defenseless, alone, doomed, they seem to be the last people on earth—and perhaps they are.
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