April 25, 2000
by Kay Kimbrough
DAPHNE DU MAURIER: HAUNTED HEIRESS
University of Pennsylvania Press
Auerbach's study of the author of REBECCA presents a valid case for du Maurier as a feminist writer rather than a writer of escapist stories for romantic adolescents or bored housewives. The term "heiress" in the title of her study refers to du Maurier's place as daughter of the famous actor Gerald du Maurier, manager of Wyndham's theater and first to play the part of Captain Hook in PETER PAN, and granddaughter of George du Maurier, author of TRILBY and other novels and illustrator for PUNCH. Like her ancestors she became famous in her own time, although today she is known more for the movies made from her novels than for her writing.
According to Auerbach, du Maurier was "the heir designate from childhood" to the family talent which was to be handed down through the male line, thus becoming a woman writer who portrayed female characters with traditional male traits. Young girls and mature women who devoured her works in the forties and fifties possible found an escape from the roles then assigned to them by society, roles that kept them in supporting and submissive relationships to men. "Despite the fiat of her contemporary Virginia Woolf that we as women 'think back through our mothers,' many women don't. Since, among the du Mauriers, women thought incessantly of the men in their care and scarcely at all of their daughters, the loyalty Woolf exhorted women writers to feel would have been wasted on Daphne, ....In Daphne du Maurier's case, thinking back through her fathers brought treasure and fruitful terror; thinking back through her mothers would have meant renouncing thought."
Du Maurier was a prolific professional, publishing seventeen novels, six biographies, four books of non-fiction, two plays and eight collections of short stories. Auerbach laments the fact that du Maurier is known today as the "author of REBECCA," for she thinks the "biographies and stories are startlingly brilliant." Auerbach is John Welsh Centennial Professor of History and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, and her specialty is Victorian England. While attending summer camp in Maine at the age of twelve, she discovered du Maurier in bimonthly trips to town during which she shopped for paperbacks in a drugstore. She read THE KING'S GENERAL and HUNGRY HILL, both of which she still finds good reading.
Auerbach's adult interest in du Maurier began in 1989, while "having a strangely camp-like semester in Seattle." She feels as out of place in Seattle as she did at camp: "The city seemed to me marvelously strange." She again sought adventure through books found in "the city's boundless and wonderful used book stores. There, I found more Daphne du Maurier fiction than I knew existed. I dived in again."
Auerbach found du Maurier perfectly suited to Seattle, "a city that seemed to me as eerie as she was," and useful for her professional responsibilities, which included a seminar that required TRILBY. It was du Maurier's rebellious women characters who resisted the Victorian heritage of George, author of TRILBY, who fought against the role of brow mopper and tray server her mother and grandmother played in "a context of Victorian fantasy, masquerade, and ontological play." Her novels are grim and violent, expressing the anger of the child Daphne, who was never docile and sweet.
Chapter Six, "Movie Star," is a denunciation of the movies that male directors have made of du Maurier's novels, including the Hitchcock films REBECCA and THE BIRDS. Auerbach accuses him of turning these stories into "women's movies," of "capturing" du Maurier, of turning "her terrible birds into lovebirds." Auerbach sees du Maurier's "most powerful novels" as prophetic of the doom of England: "The central fact of Daphne du Maurier's England is a decomposition consummated in the stark allegory of 'The Birds.'" All the important novels end with doomed characters living in an empty, sterile nation.
Auerbach does find Nicolas Roeg's film adaptation of DON'T LOOK NOW, a novella, "strange" and "wonderful." Despite her opinion that it is the best of the movie adaptation, she condemns Roeg for changing the focus from sexual antagonism to "a rapturous celebration of married love." She accuses the male directors of feminizing du Maurier, transforming her horror stories into romances with happy endings.
Whether this book provokes popular or scholarly interest in du Maurier's work, it stands on its on as an honest appraisal of a writer who has been wrongly labeled a writer of women's fiction. Her books are never sentimental, only occasionally romantic, and never feature happy endings. Reading Margaret Forster's biography of du Maurier is enough to prove that du Maurier identified with Rebecca and not with the second Mrs. de Winter, who ended up as a brow mopper and a nursemaid in foreign hotels, a prisoner in exile. Auerbach's judgment is exact: "Her combativeness is her female insignia."