du Maurier, Daphne 1907-1989
English novelist, short story writer, playwright, biographer, and autobiographer.
The author of popular Gothic romance novels, including Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, du Maurier also wrote short stories variously described as mystery, suspense, and horror. Among the best known are "The Birds" and "Don't Look Now," which, like several other du Maurier works, have been popularized through film adaptations. Regarded as a talented storyteller, du Maurier used inventive details to animate formulaic plots, and she demonstrated a particular flair for evoking a suspenseful atmosphere in her short stories. Sarah Booth Conroy has commented that du Maurier's stories "have the quality of deja vu, legends half remembered, old wives' tales and episodes from epics, with the inevitable but always shocking 'Boo' at the end."
Du Maurier was born in London to a prominent family. Her mother was an actress and her father was a popular matinee idol and theater manager. Du Maurier was educated privately, and as a young woman rejected a career in acting in order to become a writer. Her first published works were short stories and articles printed mostly in women's magazines. In 1931 she gained notoriety with the publication of her first novel, The Loving Spirit, which she wrote during a ten-week stay at her parents' country home on the coast of Cornwall. The Loving Spirit became a best seller and gained a degree of critical acclaim. Her first collection of short stories, The Apple Tree: A Short Novel and Some Stories (1952), first revealed the writer's macabre side. Du Maurier lived most of her life in Cornwall with her husband and children; she produced more than twenty novels and several collections of short stories there and often used the Cornish coast as her setting. She died in 1989 at the age of eighty-one.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Du Maurier's short stories portray mysterious and fantastic events that intrude upon the lives of ordinary people, often having a catastrophic effect. In "The Birds," human assumptions about the natural order of the world are challenged when birds suddenly turn predatory toward humans. The main character of the piece cannot avoid being destroyed by this inexplicable phenomenon, and the story ends with him, barricaded in his home, listening to the birds peck and scratch their way through the windows and doors. "Don't Look Now" is the story of a husband and wife vacationing in Venice to recover from the recent death of their young daughter. The couple are drawn into further tragedy by a mysterious chain of events over which they seem to have no control. Du Maurier was interested in human psychology and the circumstances that push people toward mental breakdown. These concerns figure prominently in The Breaking Point (1959), which she described as a collection of stories in which "the link between emotion and reason is stretched to the limit of endurance, and sometimes snaps." One story in this collection, "The Alibi," portrays a middle-aged man who feels oppressed by his ordinary life and finds a sense of power and control in fantasizing about murder. His fantasy is realized, for better or for worse, when he is accused of a murder that he committed only in his mind.
Du Maurier's short stories have received mixed critical responses. While some critics have faulted them for what they perceive as contrived, unbelievable plots and shallow characters, others have argued that du Maurier's narratives are highly imaginative and that her skill as a writer lies in her ability to make compelling use of suspense, atmosphere, and surprising plot twists. John Barkham has commented: "In every case Miss du Maurier painstakingly creates her atmosphere before she begins spinning her web. No fleeting moods or impressions here: the style is deliberate, the pace leisurely, and the stories hold up as stories."