Think buried treasure: When previously undiscovered works by a writer you love come to light, it seems miraculous. You thought, dolefully, that there wasn’t any more --- and suddenly, there is! The catch is that these “lost” novels or stories may prove disappointing. If, for example, you are looking for another REBECCA, you won’t find it in THE DOLL, this collection of 13 youthful stories by Daphne du Maurier. You will, however, get a fascinating glimpse of a writer in the process of becoming herself.
"THE DOLL is uneven and imperfect, but rich in potential. If you are a du Maurier fan, you won’t want to miss it."
Du Maurier has always been hard to pin down. Because her books were (and are) bestsellers, critics sometimes peg her as a mere genre writer. But which genre? True, there are elements of romance and suspense in REBECCA, FRENCHMAN’S CREEK, JAMAICA INN, MY COUSIN RACHEL and others. However, they are also remorselessly unsentimental and resistant to pat formulas: "She satisfied all the questionable criteria of popular fiction, and yet satisfied too the exacting requirements of 'real' literature," wrote her biographer, Margaret Forster. Furthermore, du Maurier had a taste for the macabre that is especially evident in her mature short stories (gleefully exploited by Alfred Hitchcock when he turned her work into movies).
In THE DOLL, du Maurier’s jaundiced view of the human psyche is already on full display. The majority of the tales involve unhappy couples. Here, the twentysomething author affects a brittle, cynical tone (the 1920s and 1930s, when most of the stories were written, were the heyday of Noel Coward; could he have been an influence?). “Frustration” and “Weekend” have a wry satirical edge; in “A Difference in Temperament,” “Tame Cat,” “Nothing Hurts for Long” and “And His Letters Grew Colder,” a parade of cruel, fickle men and women suggests that du Maurier believed it was foolish to expect enduring love (and indeed, her own marriage was not known for fidelity or contentment). You get the sense of a young woman trying on dresses that are too old for her.
Nor does she seem at ease in two related monologues by a London streetwalker (“Piccadilly” and “Mazie”). It’s as if this privileged writer were slumming, venturing into an unfamiliar neighborhood and voyeuristically observing the consequences of poverty and powerlessness. Still, in the second of these stories, there is a moving scene in which Mazie and a passerby, a seemingly sensitive young man, gaze at the Thames and dream about escaping to the sea --- in her case, to a better life. And then the man shockingly turns into just another customer. (A warning: Here and elsewhere, du Maurier is guilty of the casual racism and anti-Semitism typical of her class and era.)
More indicative of her later achievements are what you might call psychological horror stories. A couple of them --- skillful if not subtle --- depict full-out monsters (“The Vicar”; “The Limpet”), characters so apparently benign and yet so evil in their impact that they might as well, Dorian Gray-like, have hideous portraits hidden in the attic. And the title story, about a man obsessed with a violinist named Rebecca (!), involves a mechanical sex doll whose image lingers distastefully in the mind. Du Maurier’s prose is overwrought, yet the portrayal of Rebecca in “The Doll” --- a strange, beautiful, conflicted woman --- is clearly a forerunner of the first Mrs. De Winter in her best-known novel.
The anticipation of REBECCA is even stronger in “The Happy Valley.” In dreams, a frail young woman glimpses her future life via a house that appears, by turns, to be occupied and deserted. Houses figured prominently in du Maurier’s life, as did a keen sense of place. Menabilly, her beloved home in Cornwall, was the model for Manderley in REBECCA; in THE HOUSE ON THE STRAND, a house called Kilmarth, also in Cornwall, is the setting for the protagonist’s time-traveling adventures. “The Happy Valley” is laden with the sort of lush, evocative descriptions of land and sea that make du Maurier’s work so atmospheric. It prefigures REBECCA, too, in featuring an unnamed female narrator who wanders uncertainly between real life and fantasy.
There is a similar mystical power in “East Wind,” the first story in THE DOLL and one of the strongest. The hypnotic narrative voice has the cadence of legend. This is simple, poetic writing, quite a contrast to the sometimes overheated style of her other stories. Du Maurier’s evocation of natural forces and the way they can turn on human beings (cf. her story “The Birds”) is front-and-center here. In a way, it is a retelling of the Garden of Eden myth: An island of innocents, untouched by the outside world, is struck by an eerie wind that also blows in a ship.
Everyone is affected by this momentous event, particularly Jane, the wife of the chief fisherman. “Jane closed the cottage door behind her and ran out onto the cliffs. The tall grass bathed her ankles and the wind leapt through her hair. It sang in her ears, a triumphant call.” The sea and the weather become fused with the repressed yearnings of the islanders, and Jane’s bid for sexual freedom ends in tragedy.
Although du Maurier, writing in her diary, called this story “sordid, perhaps, brutal and essentially primitive,” it doesn’t strike the modern-day reader that way. The raw power of “East Wind” is far more compelling than her attempts at sophistication. Moreover, the story expresses du Maurier’s own divided soul: a reckless, impassioned dreamer, adventurer and wanderer lurking inside a conventional wife and mother. That tension, which so many of us feel, is what animates her best, most enduring work.
THE DOLL is uneven and imperfect, but rich in potential. If you are a du Maurier fan, you won’t want to miss it.