I began to wonder why Man had evolved at all

letters-from-menabillyLetters from Menabilly: Portrait of a Friendship
by Daphne du Maurier and Oriel Malet

I bought this book while we were on holiday in Fowey back in July. It’s described on the cover as written by Daphne du Maurier, edited by Oriel Malet, but Malet’s contribution is far more than editing du Maurier’s letters.

Malet was in some ways du Maurier’s opposite: a fellow writer, she was critically lauded but never sold well; where du Maurier was such a homebody she even resisted trips to London to do research, Malet moved to Paris to live out the dream of being a true artist. They first met at a publishing party in the early 1950s, when du Maurier was in her 40s and Malet in her 20s. Du Maurier took the younger author under her wing, inviting her to stay at Menabilly when she became unwell and needed to get out of London.

The book opens with a glossary of Daphne du Maurier “codewords” and the letters are indeed riddled with them, from “Tell-Him” for a long boring story, to “Silly Values” for anything selfish, superficial or materialistic, and most notably “Peg” for a person in real life who inspires a fictional character. Malet provides a fairly lengthy introduction to their friendship, including a detailed description of her first visit to Menabilly, but that isn’t her only interjection.

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The white sea-mists of early summer turn the hill to fantasy

TheKingsGeneralThe King’s General
by Daphne du Maurier

I picked this book to read while on holiday in Fowey. Du Maurier wrote this historical novel while living at Menabilly, and loosely based it on the house’s occupants during the English Civil War. In her author’s note she calls it a “blend of fact and fiction” – as far as I can tell, the names of people and outcomes of battles are correct, their personalities and feelings about each other are presumably invented.

It’s a slightly uneven novel, weaving a questionable romance into what is otherwise a fascinating mix of characters and events. The narrator is Honor, who structures her story around the Grenviles, a pair of siblings who came into her life when she was a young child. Richard Grenvile is dashing but pretty much a bastard. For the first part of the book he doesn’t even come across as the roguish antihero he later becomes, he’s just nasty and it’s a little hard to see how Honor could, as she does, fall in love with him. Then again, she’s very young and nice girls falling for bad boys is a classic trope for a reason, right?

Richard’s sister Gartred Grenvile is similarly beautiful and treats people like dirt. She is an interesting baddie, always acting out of self-interest rather than any inherent evil. This puts her at times in an uneven truce with Honor, while at others they are clear enemies.

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Literary tourism: Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall

Fowey harbour

Fowey has a lot of things going for it but let’s face it, the main reason I wanted to go there was for its links to Daphne du Maurier, one of my favourite authors. Fowey is a very pretty small town and cargo port on the south coast of Cornwall, on the estuary where the River Fowey meets the English Channel. Its centre two or three streets are packed with tourists and it has far more bars and restaurants than its own small population could support. Its steep hills afford most of the town excellent views of the water, which is always full of boats. Across the other side of the estuary you can see the villages of Polruan and Boddinick, reachable by regular ferry services from Fowey.

Ferryside

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Holiday bookses

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While in Cornwall this past week, I read two books and bought five, plus I talked Tim into buying another three that I kinda want to read too (all our purchases are pictured above). I don’t really do book bans, and any vague notions of one that I do have are always suspended while on holiday, but five books in a week feels like a lot. Then again, we found some lovely bookshops, and I always want to support great bookshops.

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Even the moonlight could not give it beauty

the-birds-and-other-storiesThe Birds and other stories
by Daphne du Maurier

This is an excellent collection of short stories. The tales are all weird, spooky, dark with flashes of humour.

The title story is the one that Hitchcock adapted into the film of the same name, but there is little resemblance between book and film. Both are excellent but I was surprised by quite how different they are. Du Maurier’s story centres on farm labourer Nat who lives on the Cornwall coast with his wife and two children. There’s no glamorous California or pet shop but there is the added peril of children being in danger. The birds on the attack are truly terrifying.

However, my favourite story was “The apple tree”, in which a widow becomes convinced that a sick old tree is taunting him with the spirit of his dead wife. It sounds ridiculous but is in fact a brilliant story that includes many of the same themes as Rebecca.

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She would fling these pin-pricks in the air

MyCousinRachelMy Cousin Rachel
by Daphne du Maurier

I really truly thought I had read this before and that picking it up on holiday would be a re-read, but it became increasingly clear that this was entirely new to me. It’s nice when you find a new-to-you book by a favourite author, right? This was Daphne du Maurier’s last real big success, though she wrote several more books after it, and is often held up as her greatest work (yes – even greater than Rebecca, some say).

Philip has been raised by his cousin Ambrose since he was orphaned young and together they run an estate in Cornwall. Philip is a young man, while middle-aged Ambrose has never married. Until, that is, he travels to Italy for his health and meets his distant cousin Rachel. She’s a half-Italian widow in her 30s who shares Ambrose’s love for gardens and he is soon besotted. But can she be trusted? And is naïve Philip going to be forever spoiled by knowing her?

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Undercurrents

RebeccaRebecca
by Daphne du Maurier

This was, appropriately, the final book in the Discovering Daphne readalong run by Savidge Reads and Novel Insights. I have been looking forward for months to re-reading it, and was a little sad at how quickly I flew through its pages when this week finally came.

One of the reasons I highly rate this book (and no doubt many others would agree) is the great pleasure of re-reading it. This was my third reading (I think) and I loved looking out for the hints of what is to come, as well as spotting the red herrings that had misled me previous times. Knowing the story allowed me to linger over the detailed gothic descriptions when I was in the mood and skim over them when I wasn’t. Despite knowing the outcome, I was still excited by the build-up of tension and on tenterhooks in all the right places. I’m convinced – du Maurier was officially a wonderful writer.

Briefly, this is the story of the second Mrs Maxim de Winter. Or rather, she is the one who tells the story, but for a lot of the time it isn’t about her at all, it’s about Rebecca. Rebecca was Maxim’s first wife and died tragically young, just a year before he met and swiftly married his second wife.

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Twists and turns

Don’t Look Now and other stories
by Daphne du Maurier

Though I’ve read quite a few du Maurier novels and even a guidebook to Cornwall that she once wrote, I hadn’t tried her short stories before this week. Thanks to Discovering Daphne, an event/readalong run by Savidge Reads and Novel Insights, I have now, and I’m glad.

The title story was of course made into a successful and critically acclaimed film of 1973, a film I have never seen and only had a rough idea of the storyline to, so I was able to come to it without foreknowledge. I think this greatly helped with my enjoyment of the story so I won’t reveal more of the plot than I knew beforehand: it’s a horror/thriller about a couple who travel to Venice following the death of their child. That’s all I knew (well, okay, I knew there was also something to do with a red coat, but then that’s really it).

As always, du Maurier is greatly skilled at creating complex, believable characters. All of these stories have some element of horror, but for the most part that horror comes from within, from the very human flaw of misreading a situation or other people, from imagining something that isn’t real. When there are “real” horrors, they tend to be somewhat banal, nothing like the troubled or possibly disturbed minds of the characters.

Another great skill of du Maurier’s that is evident here is her ability to describe diverse locations, imbuing them with real atmosphere. (This must be a skill she developed over time because it was something I found specifically lacking in scenes set outside of Cornwall in The Loving Spirit.) This book ranges from Venice to Crete to Ireland to Jerusalem to East Anglia, each time taking a character away from their home in England to a strange new location. There’s the schoolmaster on holiday who gets caught up with a strange American couple. There’s the young actress who decides, following her father’s death, to track down his former best friend. There’s the working class vicar who reluctantly agrees to guide a group of rich strangers around holy sites. And there’s the electronics engineer whose boss seconds him to work on a secret project that combines science fiction and spirituality.

All these stories have a certain tendency to mislead the reader, or at least I personally felt many times that I had been led down one path and was then blindsided by the story’s very different conclusion. As horror goes, there is none of the gore or violence you might expect. Or if there is it’s not described in any detail. These stories are all about the psychological, and even when it gets a bit supernatural or spiritual, the emphasis is on its effect on people rather than whether or not the apparently supernatural is real.

I think “Don’t look now” in particular will bear repeated readings, if only to hunt for the clues to how things turn out that I missed first time around. I think it is the best written and cleverest story in the collection, though none of them was by any means bad. They all share the same fish-out-of-water, sinister atmosphere, yet they are very different. I’m looking forward now to reading the other du Maurier short story collection I have, The Breaking Point.

This collection first published 1971 by Victor Gollancz.

Time-travelling horrors

The House on the Strand
by Daphne du Maurier

I read this book as part of Discovering Daphne, an event/readalong run by Savidge Reads and Novel Insights. I seem to have skipped the book that they both raved about (Mary Anne) and chosen to join in with another that didn’t entirely bowl me over.

This is one of du Maurier’s stabs at science fiction (though Tim and I are still debating whether Rule Britannia counts as SF or even speculative fiction). In this instance she’s looking at time travel, but with a curious twist, and really it’s a book about a marriage in trouble and the effects of addiction. Intrigued? I was.

First off, I was thrown to have a male narrator. I don’t think du Maurier does a bad job of giving Dick Young a realistic male voice, but I never warmed to him. He’s middle aged, has just quit a publishing job he disliked in London and is trying to find an alternative to the future his American wife has planned, which is to work for her brother’s publishing firm in New York. To give him some breathing space, his good friend Magnus (or, “the Professor”) has loaned Dick his cottage in Cornwall for the summer rent-free. The only catch is that Magnus has persuaded Dick to try an experimental drug he has produced – a drug that takes the mind back six centuries in time while the body remains in the present.

It’s an unusual idea and du Maurier has thought through the practicalities. Each “trip” lasts a few hours so Dick can sneak them in when his wife and stepsons are not around, though he cannot hide the side-effects from them. It being a small community – and indeed an even smaller one in the 14th century – Dick quickly gets to know the characters that he sees on his trips and is increasingly fascinated by their lives – who is sleeping with who, who is loyal to who – in a way that he would never care about gossip in his own world. He is particularly intrigued by the beautiful Isolda, who he learns early on is married but does not care for her husband.

There are drawbacks to this method of escaping from reality. Dick is seen wandering aimlessly through field and marsh after his invisible cast. He starts to conflate past and present, confused about what has happened in reality. He gets bad tempered with his family and his wife’s friends, constantly distracted by where this or that particular manor house from the 14th century must have stood. He looks up the people from the past in local archives, obsessing about every detail of their lives. He starts to need more of the drug for it to work and suffer worse side-effects.

All of which is gripping and well written and a believable picture of dangerous drug addiction. The problem is, all of the stuff in the past I found deadly dull. The relations between people and their allegiances I found confusing; for the first half very little happens in the past; and I just didn’t care about any of the historical characters. Which is a problem when we are supposed to believe that they are fascinating enough for Dick to become obsessed. The thing is, this is another case where du Maurier has been doing her historical research and has used genuine historical figures of significance to her (in this case the people who lived in and near her beloved Fowey) to build a story around. But she has put in too much of the dull stuff you can learn from archives – names, dates, facts – and not enough character and storyline. It’s a shame when she has used her research so well in other books (e.g. The Glass-Blowers).

It’s fascinating and shows that du Maurier had many strings to her bow, but it’s not her best. Next up in Discovering Daphne? Don’t Look Now and other stories, to be discussed next Sunday.

First published in 1969 by Victor Gollancz.

The start of her career

The Loving Spirit
by Daphne du Maurier

I read this book as part of Discovering Daphne, an event/readalong run by Savidge Reads and Novel Insights. Unfortunately, a combination of bad planning and ill health means I’m a week late finishing this book but it does feel appropriate to have read the bulk of it at the seaside!

This was du Maurier’s debut, a love letter to Cornwall as much as a novel, but also an ambitious family saga. It covers four generations of the Coombe family, from 1830 to 1930. Each section concentrates on one family member, each of whom has inherited a wild streak, the “loving spirit” of the title. It starts with Janet, who wishes she had been born a boy so that she could go to sea and is never quite content with her devoted loving husband, for all that she does love him. Then there’s her middle son Joseph, the love of her life, the boy who really does run away to sea and have great adventures and lead women on while never loving any of them the way he loves his mother. Then there’s Joe’s oldest son Christopher who disappoints his father by not wanting to become a sailor, but with that old family restlessness ends up trying to make his fortune in London. And finally there’s Christopher’s youngest, Jennifer, a strong and independent woman determined to break away from her controlling mother and grandmother and return to the family’s roots in Cornwall.

It’s a beautifully written, warm, engaging book, but it does have its flaws. For the first two generations du Maurier has her characters speak in strong Cornish dialect, which added a certain country charm and “ye oldeness” I suppose but also smacked of condescension. Maybe that’s just me. The relationship between Janet and Joseph troubled me. I know that a mother and son can have a stronger bond than a husband and wife and there’s nothing wrong with that, but something about the obsessive quality du Maurier describes made this particular relationship a bit wrong. There were a lot of times when I felt that everything moved too fast, that there was too much sketching out what has happened while time passed and not enough current story. And I didn’t like how down on London du Maurier was, with absolutely nothing good to say about the capital, though at least she was kinder to Bristol when it got a brief mention.

But for all that I still greatly enjoyed the book. Each of the central characters was engaging and sympathetic and I did like the way the language of courtship developed from incredibly polite and formal to teasing sarcastic banter. The descriptions of the sea and Cornwall are so detailed and evocative that the town of Plyn was almost a character itself. In fact, while none of the love stories or deaths roused much emotion in me, the final homecoming to Plyn did bring a tear to my eye.

There’s a lot of what I would guess were du Maurier’s pet “issues” in this book. She clearly thinks country is better than city, especially for children. She doesn’t hold stock with prim and proper, preferring openness and honesty. She believes in children knowing the facts of life rather than it all being a frightening mystery. She believes in the strength of women, in them holding jobs and speaking their minds and having options beyond “wife and mother” if they want them. And she believes in good, honest, simple lives – hard work, loving family, friendly neighbours – rather than building fortunes or being fashionable. Which is all fine, though you might argue she presses the point home a little strong. Of the many many characters in this book the odd one who broke the general trend would have perhaps evened things out.

See also: reviews on Savidge Reads and Novel Insights. Next up in Discovering Daphne? The House on the Strand, to be discussed next Sunday.

First published in 1931 by William Heinemann.