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Book Review: "Daphne du Maurier: Haunted Heiress"

Filed under: Clips

Celebrating du Maurier’s ornery genius

By Emily Gordon

Sunday, February 6, 2000

Daphne du Maurier: Haunted Heiress. By Nina Auerbach. University of Pennsylvania Press. 180 pages. $24.95.

The very name of Daphne du Maurier brings with it a gothic tremble, a pungent, unsettling perfume. It calls up a world at once lofty and macabre — not unlike Manderley, the gorgeous trap of a mansion in Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” the 1940 film adapted from the novelist’s best-known book.

But du Maurier, who died in 1989, was no Lady Novelist, fastidious, proper and accommodating. Rather, as scholar Nina Auerbach makes admirably clear in a new study of du Maurier’s life and career, she was an upper-crust, ornery, sexually ambiguous snob who also wrote superb fiction.

The cruel joke, as Auerbach argues, is that the only works that are even vaguely familiar to modern readers — “Rebecca,” “My Cousin Rachel” and other female-centered novels and stories — are also her least compelling.

Indeed, as Auerbach goes on to demonstrate, du Maurier wrote her best fiction about powerful men.

“Throughout Daphne du Maurier’s novels,” Auerbach writes, “the falls of men are more compelling than those of women because her men have everything to lose while women are humbled by definition.”

Thus, now-forgotten novels like “Hungry Hill” and “The Scapegoat” are miles better than, say, “Rebecca,” with its spooked, wilting narrator and dead heroine.

Furthermore, du Maurier the person was considerably more complex and self-contradictory than many readers have assumed.

Though a relentless and unsentimental family historian, her own autobiographical works are notably devoid of modern memoirs’ seamy detail — a restraint Auerbach admires. Still, there are a few juicy bits in “Haunted Heiress,” including du Maurier’s affairs with Ellen Doubleday (her publisher’s wife) and actress Gertrude Lawrence.

What Auerbach does disclose of her subject’s character doesn’t always inspire admiration. But she never feels the need to conceal her ambivalence about, in her unapologetic description, this “strange writer and unlikable woman.”

She loathes du Maurier’s crypto-fascist politics, and lets us know it; the novelist’s preferential treatment of the men in both her life and her books makes Auerbach itchy.

Yet in her open intelligence about the inevitable conflicts that a strong personality will produce in both scholar and devotee, Auerbach somehow ends up making the reader more sympathetic to her celebration of du Maurier’s decidedly ungothic realism, and ultimately more interested in reading du Maurier.

“I like surprises in my life, in my friends, and in the narrators of novels I read,” she writes with characteristic candor. “I gravitate to evasion of categories and, in fiction and life, escape from plot conventions.”

It’s clear, then, that “The Haunted Heiress” is not a conventional biography, nor a traditional academic monograph.

Throughout, there are informal asides and second-guessings that would never appear in a more standard academic text.

This relatively loose structure allows for the inclusion of odd, provocative connections: between, say, the metaphoric connections between du Maurier’s grandfather’s trade as a glass-blower, the fragile Glasses of Salinger fame and “The Glass Menagerie.” There is also an engaging chapter devoted solely to describing and critiquing the numerous films made of du Maurier’s books and stories (including, of course, “The Birds”).

Auerbach employs plenty of traditional, albeit cranky, literary criticism here along with the psychoanalytic speculation and ’50s flashbacks.

Without descending into jargon, she roots out the themes — including the “doubleness and self-fabrication” that plagued the du Maurier family; ghosts and potent ancestors; shades of incest; boyish girls and Peter Pans; tragic epigones and so on — that recur throughout du Maurier’s work.

And so, at long last, Auerbach banishes the malign image of Daphne du Maurier, Romance Novelist.

“Romance is inherently a soothing and tender genre that aims to reconcile women to traditional lives whose common denominator is home,” she writes, within a description of some particularly bitter denouements. “I find it odd and ironic that such brutal depictions of emptiness should be given the label `romance.’ “

In the end, Auerbach manages to make the now-standard rescue of an unjustly pigeonholed woman writer newly outrageous and winsomely fresh. To paraphrase “Rebecca’s” wan narrator, we can never go back to du Maurier again — at least not the du Maurier we thought we knew. Thank God for that.

(Originally published in Newsday; reprinted in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

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