There is a whiff of apology about the beginning of this book. Daphne du Maurier is known to be a trashy writer of escapist romance: you’re likely to find Jamaica Inn, Frenchman’s Creek and Rebecca in the teenage section, and the other titles practically nowhere – so why this ardent study? By the end of it, though, Nina Auerbach has achieved quite a rehabilitation. This du Maurier is not one of a brace of representative low-culture populists. Nor is she reduced to her exemplary anti-climactic, 20th-century life. We are fed just enough of the lame glamour of the du Maurier clan, the coy code words and the repressed bisexuality, to clarify the way inherited themes were reworked, with shocking bleakness, into stories of inheritance that were so unorthodox and so freakish as to be invisible.
The first image is of summer camp during the 1950s where, next to jolly healthy girls who don’t even read trash, Auerbach is a lone intellectual devouring Hungry Hill by flashlight. Published in 1943, it’s a saga of feudal decay that opens her American eyes to the possibility of another way of ordering the world. ‘I had always assumed that every generation started life over again in a new beginning; I was stricken by the tragedy of the recurrent Johns and Henrys, each a diluted version of the last, all disintegrating under the inheritance that is their only identity.’ Auerbach keeps thinking she has outgrown that girlish fascination, but time after time ‘I read her again and fall back into her world.’ As a Victorian scholar herself, she feels an added pang of kinship at the writer’s entanglement with history: a reclusive, embittered dreamer living off imagination and dashed hopes, du Maurier obsessively searched the past in her writing. And like the past, like the family myths in the suffocating web of recurrence, like Rebecca and her boat Je reviens, ‘Daphne du Maurier seems never to end. She can only return, and for me, at least, she always has.’ The title Haunted Heiress is not just a mocking nod to the melodrama she’s associated with: it rehearses du Maurier’s pathology, presenting it as a genealogical curse that doubles back and forth, collapsing generations together in strange forms of incest, possession or reincarnation. With du Maurier, family (and its political dimension, property) was the beginning and end. All promises and disappointments were locked inside it, feverishly reproducing themselves.
Auerbach accordingly devotes a chapter to family antecedents in which the key figure is perhaps the grandfather, George. Even more decisive for her writing than the pressures exerted on young Daphne by her amorous, possessive father Gerald – who played Captain Hook/Mr Darling on the stage and passed on a dire Peter-Panishness to her – were the now forgotten bestsellers of a man who spoke to the anxieties of the 1890s. Peter Ibbetson (1891) was an earlier Peter Pan, the fantasy of a cloudless boyhood in pre-Haussmann Paris, that could be returned to by means of imaginative concentration, or ‘dreaming true’. There is a semi-incestuous guiding spirit, and fusion with ancestors; by the end, du Maurier/ Ibbetson’s mother has become his daughter and his childhood self, his own lovely grandchild.
Here was a storehouse of themes, to be raided by the real descendant throughout her life, from the ancestral time-travel of The House on the Strand to the spiritualist element in The Scapegoat or Don’t Look Now; from nostalgia and fear of the modern world (figured in the decay of estates such as Manderley or the imminent end of all history in The Birds) to the phantom of incest and the interchangeability of beings and energies. This last can occur across time and generations or in the present – both possibilities are explored in The Scapegoat, where two physically identical but morally distinct men swap lives. Not only does the unattached but lonely John find himself forced into the complex identity of his alter ego, Count Jean de Gué, but his physical resemblance to de Gué’s mother and daughter bestows a past and a future on him, drawing him into the human chain. Taken to extremes, such permeability leads to the parasitical appropriation of one psyche by another in tense, complex contests of invasion and evasion, which are also, in many of her novels, ramifications of George du Maurier’s central conceit in Trilby (1894), where the pantomime-Jew Svengali pours his creative genius into the receptacle of a passive female body.
Yet, while du Maurier was herself colonised by the dreams of the men in her family, she tended to give the tale a sour, disenchanted twist. Part collaborator, part saboteur, she punctured her forbears’ illusions about themselves in cool family chronicles and vandalised their naive fantasies in her fiction. The cherished past is now a clamp on the present, condemning it to repetition. If periods and generations cannot be kept clearly apart, then history is always apocalyptic: ‘this was a place resembling, in its barren desolation, all the most hideous features of a 20th-century landscape after disaster,’ says the narrator travelling back to plague-ridden England in her lurching penultimate novel, The House on the Strand (1969). In contrast with the live spark of immortality passed on by Ibbetson’s ancestors, the return of a mother from the grave in The Loving Spirit (1931) brings only ineffectual comfort to an anguished son. And The Progress of Julius (1933) is a nastier anti-semitic horror story even than Trilby, with digs at her grandfather in person: ‘Just as George’s dream city’ – Paris – ‘becomes, a generation later, Julius’s nightmare, George’s charm dissipates into Julius’s avarice and sadism.’
The greedy, power-crazed Julius was a bit much, but the more suave and self-deceiving protagonists of her male plots are simply less blatant, in Auerbach’s view: ‘her later novels would tell the ugly story of Julius elliptically and discreetly, but not differently.’ Most of du Maurier’s narratives highlight masculine debility and violence – the flip side of that eternal boyishness – and they do it best in an eerily convincing male voice; she had an extraordinary capacity to project herself across genders, inhabiting the other as it inhabited her. Familial woman-sacrifice recurs as an attempt by weak men to escape their demons, often in obscure psychic concert with another man, dead or alive. Maxim kills Rebecca, Philip kills his cousin Rachel by an act of omission, and Julius, true to his overwrought foreign nature, wastes four women in all. These examples are taken from the novels, but the short stories, some very warped indeed, are full of them. Such murders are never planned, and never quite liberate their perpetrators either. The death of the unhappy wife in The Scapegoat (1957) seems about to release the entire family inherited by the impostor from his double, causing the original ‘possessor’ to return, with uncertain consequences; most probably, the traps will close back again.
Du Maurier’s treatment of women is more of a problem, from a feminist point of view. Was she a misogynist because she, too, yearned to be a boy, neglected her daughters and worshipped her son, and painted females as wives or witches, but always victims? They are sacrificed, twisted into submission, or gnawed from within, like the women in The Parasites (1949), riddled with tumours. Auerbach argues that ‘du Maurier’s women are doomed, not because they are weak – almost always, they are saner and more self-sufficient than her men – but because they are not really women. Like du Maurier herself, they do not love enough.’ It’s one of the unresolved issues raised by this book. Auerbach herself prefers the male-centred novels, driven by active, complex characters she can identify with. ‘I wince at traditional femininity, in and out of books, and so did du Maurier.’ Don’t we all? At least until recently, it was always more fun to be a boy. So if these fictional women are granted no escape in fiction, that’s because real women were granted none in life, as far as the novelist could see.
The nameless second wife in Rebecca (1938), cowed and haunted by her predecessor, trying to content her sullen man and repress her dislike for him, is no doubt less inspirational than her other predecessor, Jane Eyre. And in Jamaica Inn (1936), which also dresses down the combative Brontë spirit (this time of Wuthering Heights), the heroine finally realises that as a woman ‘she had no will of her own.’ But to equate a disabused realism with misogyny is to forget that feminism was born from a similar diagnosis of female oppression, as well as a desire not to live like our mothers; what du Maurier lacked was any inkling that we need not do so. As a scowling teenager and ultimately conformist adult, she kept her own boy-self stowed away, she said, in a ‘box’, and pretended it was he who escaped to fall in love with women. Her determination in real life to play the wife to the bitter end, like the heroine of Frenchman’s Creek, was a choice she never questioned. It seems grimly appropriate, as though destiny really were written into the genes, that she should marry a man whose nickname was ‘Boy’ and whose military bombast was the mask of a nervous wreck.
Du Maurier’s politics, too, are a swampy area for Auerbach (who has already had to put up with misogyny, anti-semitism and anti-Americanism). The pessimistic conservatism of her ideas about gender extended to ideas about government. Neither an individualist nor a collectivist, du Maurier cared more for the inbred hierarchies of feudalism. The social body is typically figured as an estate, meaning a family line, faithful dependants, cottage industries; an emotional and material legacy that has to be managed. And landowners, like husbands, are fated to manage, even if they do so with blind futility or arrogance. The estates are often on the road to dereliction, and so was England in du Maurier’s view, owing to an almost mystical incompetence within, as well as a threat from without, in the symbolic form of Jews, Italians, assorted revolutionaries, and finally Americans – imagined in Rule Britannia (1972) as wanting to turn the whole country into a theme park.
The crucial theme of invasion and collaboration in du Maurier remains a contradictory one nonetheless. (It is a deep, unanswered question in Britain as a whole, always fantasising about invasion but denied the chance in both world wars to know for certain how it would react.) Auerbach bridles at the way wartime collaborators, in the French setting of The Scapegoat, are presented as defending truer values than the selfish, manipulative Resistance hero: du Maurier’s political allegiances are ‘evilly feminine’ in that ‘they are always a defence of home,’ as opposed to nation. But she didn’t think defence of either was necessarily a good thing or even possible, and the threat of nuclear war confirmed her dry sense of doom. In The Birds, an undermining of yet another ancestral work, An Englishman’s Home (1909) by Guy du Maurier, Daphne rewrote her uncle’s patriotic script, gutting it of the heroics in the face of an alien, inhuman invasion that cannot even be collaborated with. Discussing the political and family paradoxes of The Flight of the Falcon (1965), Auerbach relents enough to propose that ‘collaboration – and the dissolution it requires – is the subject of these novels. Collaborators embrace a protean identity that becomes what an occupying presence makes of it.’ Since unstable identities lie at the heart of du Maurier’s story-telling, the various unholy partnerships, surrenders, resistances or mutations she describes (whether psychic or political) should perhaps be seen as metaphors for one another; signposts of recurrence in the stream of an exhausted linear time that is about to peter out.
Brilliantly tracking the criss-cross implosion of themes, Auerbach doesn’t quote more than she has to. One barrier, I think, to du Maurier’s recognition as a serious writer has been her indifference to the raw material of language. Editors at Gollancz had to rewrite for grammar and spelling, and a photograph in Margaret Forster’s biography shows a dictionary as the only book on the desk. Her technique was unliterary in general, innocent of Modernist experimentation or self-consciousness. All content and no form: a recipe for oblivion. Yet thanks to the absence of authorial intrusion, or of any knowing archness at all, the clarity of the first-person voice makes us feel at one with the narrator’s madness; we are possessed by every changing mood, hypnotised by the fantastic delirium of events. This trick of emotional close-up, balanced by what Auerbach celebrates as the writer’s ‘cool amorality’ and ‘defining weirdness’, should have kept more of the sixteen novels and eight collections of stories in print. While the loveless world (and death-throes of a class) which they describe may not be to everybody’s taste, it is bizarre that du Maurier should have been dismissed as a lightweight romancer for girls. In an eye-opening final chapter, Auerbach puts the blame on the screen adaptations.
Most people will only know her work from the dumbed-down, sentimental parody the movies made of it. Many of her novels and stories were adapted for cinema and television; Auerbach skewers each version with precision. Even Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now prettified the original. She has especially revealing things to say about Hitchcock, and what she presents as his du Maurieresque struggle against collusion with an author he despised. A reversal of assumptions is proposed: Hitchcock ‘grumbled about how hampered he was by her simple-minded femaleness – or, as Robin Wood puts it, “the indigestible novelettish ingredients” of her work – but I suspect that du Maurier disturbed him because she wasn’t novelettish enough. In her books, he found a sensibility even more perverse than his own’ – and did his level best to neutralise it.
The film Rebecca begins ominously (for du Maurier) with
Joan Fontaine’s insufferably churchy reading of du Maurier’s opening paragraph in bowdlerised form. Like the wife in the novel, Fontaine dreams that she went to Manderley again, but she sees no perverse erotic growths there and she omits the uncompromising line, ‘there will be no resurrection’ . . . Fog pours all over Manderley most of the time, obliterating the precision of the novel’s scrutiny . . . suggesting that Manderley’s domestic mystery is a matter of hokey special effects, not an exposure of power.
The movie marriage is as sentimental as the novel’s is business-like. That dramatic first meeting on the cliff, implying that love will save, and the idyllic honeymoon captured on Super-8 (‘Big kisses in the sun superimpose themselves over tears in the drawing room’) are entirely Hitchcock’s invention. He ‘makes Manderley the problem, not marriage or Maxim’, presenting ‘an affectionate young couple who make the mistake of wandering into a sinister house, one in the power of a crazy woman, which fortunately burns down at the end’.
In this version Maxim is innocent of his first wife’s death, because the Motion Picture Production Code, seconded by the image-conscious Olivier, could not have the hero be a murderer who gets away with it. So, after goading him to kill her (‘a marital favour he is too inept to fulfil’), Rebecca falls backward and hits her head. ‘The end is a triumph of young love, not the stricken exile we see in the novel . . . Like his Mrs Danvers, Hitchcock’s Maxim cares only for love and marriage: when he sees his wife outside the burning mansion briskly walking the dog, he collapses with relief in her arms with never a mention of [the anguish over] the estate that possesses him in the novel.’ All this was very puzzling to the author, who thought she was writing about the degradation and subservience of marriage, but not even the book’s reviewers had seen that.
Having shown that the only ‘novelettish’ ingredients of Hitchcock’s du Maurier are his own contributions, and that his Birds is a particularly vicious travesty, Auerbach has a fascinating insight: the later Hitchcock was full of repressed du Maurier. Suspicion is the Rebecca he dared not make. In Strangers on a Train, which more crudely anticipates the doubles in The Scapegoat, ‘two men who are not so much distinct characters as tentacles of a shared murder recapitulate the primary du Maurier relationship.’ And his great film Vertigo, with which she had nothing to do, ‘spirals in and out of du Maurier’s image of a multiple revenant’. Kim Novak poses as a woman obsessed with ancestors; James Stewart’s Scottie, a mental invalid and an accomplice in murder like so many of du Maurier’s men, tries to transform Novak into the woman he became obsessed with, setting about the task with the rage of a Svengali; ‘no adaptation of a du Maurier novel is as true as Vertigo to her possessed storytellers and dislocating perspectives.’
If modest Daphne ultimately took possession of the cinematic genius who had crushed her so deviously, in the manner of one of her own characters, might she not also lurk behind other great men (or women, such as Highsmith)? One Hundred Years of Solitude suddenly seems to owe a curious debt to Hungry Hill. Like the recurrent Henrys and Johns of the Brodrick dynasty, the first of which are always ‘charming, affable and weak’ and the second ‘brooding, unstable and self-destructive’, the Buendía family’s Aurelianos and José Arcadios are defined in character and destiny by their names. They are similarly drained of vitality down the generations, and both sagas spiral through recurrence and linearity towards the destruction of civilisation, represented in microcosm by Clonmere and Macondo. In the bright light of Auerbach’s book, all sorts of unsuspected hauntings and legacies may become visible.