A MARRIED COUPLE LAUGH together in a restaurant. They’re playing a game, making up stories about the strangers around them. Because they take the game so very seriously, we come to understand how little fun they are otherwise having. If only I can keep this going, the husband thinks, if only, if only… He can’t.
This is “Don’t Look Now,” the story that made me fall in love with Daphne Du Maurier’s work, and it is lovely and wistful and unsettling. Though she’s best known as a novelist, Du Maurier’s strange, often beautiful stories deserve to be more widely read than they are. Like her novels, they are built around elements of suspense, romance, and the supernatural, but they are less fettered by plot contrivances, and the best of them are heartbreaking. They show that Du Maurier, whose name is still associated to her detriment with middle-brow romance, is an altogether weirder and more modern writer than this slapdash categorization implies.
“Don’t Look Now,” which is available, along with her other strongest stories, in a great New York Review of Books classics edition, follows a couple named John and Laura on a trip to Venice, meant to rekindle their marriage after the tragic death of their young daughter, Christine. One of the unusual things about Du Maurier is that she wrote often and well from the perspective of men, and “Don’t Look Now” takes on John’s tense, rationalist point of view. He begins the story watching his wife anxiously for signs of hysteria and grief. Instead, after meeting a pair of Scottish sisters who claim to see Christine’s ghost, Laura is happy — and her happiness unnerves him more than anything else could have.
It’s these other women, the sisters, who upset the story’s fragile equilibrium and set it on its way. They keep referring to the “gift” of second sight, which John simultaneously refuses to believe in and is frightened by. Are these women harmless? Why is Laura so drawn to them? (Interestingly, given the story’s setting, “Venetian tendencies” is a euphemism Du Maurier used in life to refer to attractions between women.) John can’t trust his wife’s happiness, which feels to him like a betrayal, as it might to any grieving parent whose partner seems to be moving on.
“Don’t Look Now” brilliantly dramatizes the perils of looking — you can look too closely, or not closely enough, or sometimes both at the same time. What you think you see can’t be trusted; what you refuse to see may be your downfall. The story is rife with doubles, dark alleys, and confused or mistaken identities. What makes it more than a ghost story though, is how spookily tender it is. Its subject is the vulnerability of the family unit to the world outside, and the desperate, tenacious work of parents to protect it.
Many of Du Maurier’s works were made into films, notably Hitchcock’s Rebecca and The Birds, but Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 adaptation of “Don’t Look Now” is the one that most successfully captures Du Maurier’s special tone, the ghostly sensitivity of grief. Roeg made glorious use of color; the way red water spreads across a slide John is examining is both luscious and lurid. It also features intense chemistry between its leads, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, who are famously rumored to have had sex for real during their love scene. I don’t think it’s true, but the way it’s filmed — scenes of the couple getting ready for dinner afterward, happy and relaxed, are interspersed with ones of them in bed — creates one of the sweetest depictions of married intimacy ever seen, and makes the terror of what happens later all the more affecting.
I screened “Don’t Look Now” once in a film and literature class, and afterward a fraternity brother who hadn’t spoken all semester raised his hand and said emphatically, “That was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen.” True; but terror isn’t the whole of it. What both Roeg and Du Maurier understood is that the blurred line between fantasy and reality — the realm of subjectivity — is not just the scariest, but the loneliest place to be.
A similar psychological dexterity animates two of Du Maurier’s other great stories, “The Birds” and “Monte Verità.” The first, in Du Maurier’s version, is a study in one man’s attempt to keep his family safe in an England forever scarred by war. The second is a bizarre tale of a young wife who leaves her husband to join a mountaintop cult of beautiful, ageless women. Instead of getting angry, he remains slavishly faithful to her for the rest of his life. Her husband’s best friend, also in love with her, finally tracks her down her years later, and it’s clear that to the end, neither of these men understands her life at all. It’s a story that celebrates a woman choosing spiritual fulfillment over marriage, and a difficult life over an easy one; and it also comments on how tirelessly men romanticize women, even — or maybe especially — after they’re gone.
In truth, not all Du Maurier’s stories are winners. 2011’s The Doll and Other Stories collected a number of her early stories from the 1930s which had since fallen into justifiable obscurity. Most of them read more like quick sketches than complete narratives. Even here Du Maurier’s portrayals of men, women, and sexuality feel remarkably contemporary. The title story, for example, is about a man whose infatuation with a woman fails because she is obsessed with what seems to be a male sex doll she keeps hidden in her apartment. In fact, almost all the stories about relationships debunk fantasies about romantic attachment, as the characters in them learn that real people can never live up to their prior imaginings. And did I mention there is a male sex doll?
Du Maurier was born into a family of artists who made a living from their creativity — practical bohemians. Her father, Gerald, was a celebrated London actor who was starring in a production of “Brewster’s Millions” on the day Daphne was born, and her grandfather, George, was a novelist whose book Trilby introduced the character Svengali to the world. Though greatly privileged, Du Maurier never saw her writerly inclinations as divorced from the need and desire to make money. She published her first novel in her early twenties and almost immediately became a best-selling author, her sales buoyed, as she no doubt knew, by her well-known name, youth, and good looks. All her life she both worried about and prided herself upon her commercial success, scrutinizing her accounts more closely than her reviews. Her marriage to Major “Boy” Browning had its ups and downs — Browning was haunted by his service in two wars, and Du Maurier herself was not the easiest personality — but the union held, with Du Maurier as its financial anchor.
Her first major work was Jamaica Inn, a violent adventure story about rum smugglers and the heroine — you can’t help but call her “plucky” — who stands up to them. Jamaica Inn is pretty much a bodice-ripping page-turner, full of brooding, physically powerful men against whom the slight, youthful Mary Yallin barely stands a chance. It firmly established Du Maurier as a “romantic” writer, an identification she found increasingly irritating as her career went on.
And indeed, the romantic part of the book — which is to say, the love story — takes up a very small part of a substantial book, while Mary’s feelings about her attraction to the man in question are clear-eyed to say the least. She knows that she wants to have sex with him, whether or not it’s going to turn out well, and pretty much shrugs her shoulders at the prospect’s inevitability.
There was a common law of attraction for all living things, some similarity of skin or touch, and they would go to one another. This was no choice made with the mind. Animals did not reason, neither did the birds in the air. Mary was no hypocrite; she was bred to the soil, and she had lived too long with birds and beasts, had watched them mate, and bear their young, and die. There was precious little romance in nature, and she would not look for it in her own life.
If romance is ordinarily associated with fantasies about the consummation of heterosexual love, then this book is seriously anti-romantic. In fact, its main thrust is that no one can help Mary save herself and stop the smugglers; her aunt is a pathetic weakling, and her few allies let her down. She is on her own. Jamaica Inn is about a young woman who simply refuses to admit that she is outgunned. And in the end, though she winds up with the guy she wants, her relationship with him seems more like the vehicle towards a new life than such a life’s central component. After witnessing Mary survive betrayal, assault, near-rape, emotional isolation, and countless solo expeditions in bad weather across unforgiving moors, the reader is pretty sure that she’ll be okay with or without him.
Over a long and lucrative career, Du Maurier produced an astonishingly varied array of work: stories, plays, historical novels, biographies, and memoirs. Sad to say, the books that best establish her range (her biography of Branwell Bronte, for example, or her chilling, incest-themed study of evil, The Progress of Julius) are among her least read — though Virago has been issuing new editions of these over the past few years. Instead, it was the 1938 blockbuster Rebecca that solidified Du Maurier’s reputation, then as now, as a major twentieth century writer.
Starting with its lyrical opening line (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”) Rebecca exerts a dream-like hold. In a plot that owes more than a little to Jane Eyre, the young nameless narrator weds older man of the world Maxim de Winter and goes to his estate, Manderley, where the memory of his dead first wife Rebecca casts a long shadow. Wife Number Two is cowed by the situation, and in particular by Mrs. Danvers, the skeleton-faced freakshow of a servant who specializes in materializing out of dark corners and remarking how much better the first Mrs. de Winter was at, well, everything.
Though the narrator talks incessantly about her affection for her husband, they are alienated from each other for most of the book, and the closest they come physically is when she sits at his feet and he pats her head like a dog’s. There is no sexual tension between them; there is only her anxiety over her place in his home. Her feelings toward Mrs. Danvers, de Winter’s business partner Frank, and even the dead Rebecca crackle with more energy. Once again, the hetero love story is tangential to the narrator’s coming of age journey. Though men can be overbearing and powerful, in Rebecca it is is the mysteriousness of other women — Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers in particular — that fuels the narrative.
Du Maurier knew she wasn’t a wizard with plot, and that she relied more on bravado and style than impeccable construction. “I simply must make what is a fantastically impossible story read with complete conviction,” she once wrote to her publisher. Rebecca functions on a kind of Heisenberg uncertainty principle of narrative propulsion. From where the narrator stands, so young and confused, her perceptions of others are murky, shifting constantly, and the endless doubts and conflicts created by these shifts are precisely what keep us turning the pages.
The suspense is buttressed, on every page, by intensely creepy atmosphere. Du Maurier makes excellent use of setting, both the house itself, “secretive and silent as it had always been, the grey stone shining in the moonlight of my dream, the millioned windows reflecting the green laws and the terrace…a jewel in the hollow of a hand,” and the physical landscape surrounding it, from its terrifyingly red rhododendrons to the little cove by the harbor where the sea gives up the secrets of a murder. Manderley is far more of a character than Maxim de Winter; many more words are spent on it. Indeed, one of Du Maurier’s strengths is the way she uses place not simply to create a mood but as a shortcut to the most profound emotions. Manderley is the home our young heroine (like Mary, virtually without family) craves, and yet it withholds itself from her. It’s not marriage that makes her a woman; it’s Manderley. When she finally gains confidence and grows up, she is able, for an all-too brief and tantalizing moment, to be the mistress of that home, to feel at ease, to be rooted in the world
It’s possible that some of Du Maurier’s unconventional descriptions of women arose from the fluidity of her own sexual identity. Though she stayed married to “Boy” for decades and they had three children, she was not always faithful (nor was he). As a teenager, and again later in life, she had infatuations and probably also physical relationships with other women, including a major crush on Ellen Doubleday, wife of her American publisher. Margaret Forster, in her excellent 1993 biography, quotes a letter from Du Maurier to Ellen in which she describes having thought of herself as a boy as a child, only to suppress this part of herself as she got older (Menabilly is the country house she rented and lived in for over twenty years, while her husband worked in London):
And then the boy realized he had to grow up, and not be a boy any longer, so he turned into a girl, and not an unattractive one at that, and the boy was locked in a box forever. Daphne Du Maurier wrote her books, and had young men, and later a husband, and children, and a lover, and life was sometimes lovely and sometimes rather sad, but when she found Menabilly and lived in it alone, she opened up the box sometimes and let the phantom, who was neither girl nor boy but disembodied spirit, dance in the evening when there was none to see.
It’s a melancholy image, suitable for a writer whose stories often conjured supernatural presences: the phantom who can dance only when no one else is watching. And it is striking, after reading this letter, to look back on the number of female characters in Du Maurier’s work who are described as boyish, both in moments of spirited physical courage (Mary Yallin) and ones of heartlessness (Rebecca de Winter).
If this genderless spirit is connected to Du Maurier’s feelings about sexuality, it may also reflect the tensions of a career woman with weighty financial responsibilities. She worked her whole life, supported her household to the end, and rarely interested herself in the more domestic duties of that household. Forster’s biography hilariously describes her getting ready for big events and visits by putting flowers in vases and then flopping down, exhausted. Her family mattered tremendously to her, but so too did the time she spent alone, writing. And indeed, though virtually all her books feature some kind of romantic narrative, her most vibrant characters tend to be isolated and lonely, seeking connection yet only sometimes achieving it.
The label of “romantic writer” both buttressed Du Maurier’s commercial success and put her in another kind of box, one that continues to limit the critical reactions to her work. Even today the mass market editions of her books bear the swooping fonts and velvet-drape images also found on romance novels by Nora Roberts and Johanna Lindsey. There is a lot of talk these days about taking genre fiction seriously, but the hierarchy of genres remains firmly in place. Think about how often the term “literary thriller” appears in publisher’s jacket copy as opposed to “literary romance.” Then think about how many of Du Maurier’s books are widely read compared to those of Graham Greene, to name another writer whose work both embraced and transcended the genre boundaries of his era.
Du Maurier’s work is not exactly subversive of a romantic paradigm. It’s just stranger, and infinitely less categorizable, than the paradigm is able to suggest. It is lovely, and sometimes rather sad, just as she wrote to Ellen Doubleday. A lost child is glimpsed again, around the corner in Venice. The scent of flowers reminds a woman that she doesn’t feel at home. These ghostly moments are not exactly about romance, but they are about loneliness and love — and how often, despite our best efforts, the two are forced to exist together, side by side.