Friday, 19 February 2010

Daphne du Maurier: Top 5

5. The Kings General
Set during the English Civil War, this is not everyone's cup of tea. I have a friend, a fellow du Maurier obsessive, who hated it. But for me, this is one of those books that can be lived in. Honor is an endearing narrator, with whom I share a particular state of mind: "...the fall of the year was always my bad time. My Autumn melancholy." This early admission sets the tone for the rest of the book - it is melancholic, but this is a mood that du Maurier excels in presenting well. I was reminded of The King's General by last year's wonderful television drama The Devil's Whore - same era, same violent and oppressive atmosphere, and both are stories of bloody battle told from the point of view of a woman, who naturally must stand outside the action, but is in that case perhaps better placed to comment on it.

4. Jamaica Inn
It is a little twee for my usual taste, I'll admit, but I spent my summers as a child and teenager in Devon with my grandparents, and the descriptions of Mary's long walks across Dartmoor in howling gales touches a nerve. This is a Wuthering Heights for the West Country, though less involved.

3. Rebecca
I'm not putting this at the top for two very simple reasons: one is that I found the ending too drawn out; the other is that I came to it with a weight of expectation that, whilst largely being met, means that there are two other du Maurier's that, having come to blind, I found slightly more extraordinary than I did Rebecca. None of this takes away from the fact that it is absolutely right that Rebecca has become regarded as a modern classic. I don't think I will ever get over the simple but oh-so-revealing fact that the narrator is never given a name; her name is referred to twice, and in both instances we learn that it is an unusual name, but otherwise, she remains only the second Mrs de Winter. How clever, again, then, that the title of the book is that of a character already dead when the story begins. Du Maurier's genius shines through in this book, these and other simple literary tricks pulling us every which way as we fall under the spells of the various characters. She is here a mistress of storytelling, Rebecca a masterclass in writing. Who can forget those monstrous blood-red rhododendrons or the chilling Mrs Danvers? Rebecca haunts the reader as Rebecca haunts the second Mrs de Winter.

2. The House on the Strand
Is this an odd one to rate so highly? Possibly, but not to those who have read it. I think The House on the Strand must surely have become by now something of a cult classic. It is the strange tale of a man who takes a new drug invented by a friend, and finds himself transported back in time to fourteenth century Cornwall. A rather basic and unconvincing plot, yes, so why does it work so well? I'll be honest and say that unlike some of du Maurier's other brilliant works, where one can pinpoint the techniques she uses to draw the reader in, it is hard to say exactly what is so appealing about The House on the Strand. It just works. I have yet to meet anyone who is prepared to give it a go who hasn't raved about it afterwards, and although one can see the inevitable tragedy coming from a mile away, one cannot quite see to whom this tragedy will fall, and so it is no less affecting for its obviousness.

1. My Cousin Rachel
The second book of my choices in which du Maurier takes on a male persona with which to tell the story (The House on the Strand being the other). Yet stylistically, My Cousin Rachel owes more to Rebecca, in that we, with the narrator, do not know the truth until the very end (and in the case of Rebecca, possibly not even then...) My Cousin Rachel is for me the very epitome of how-to-tell-a-story. It is technically flawless; du Maurier guides us confidently through twists and turns, distracting us with irrelevances at just the right moments, dropping bombshells when we are least prepared. We are certain, as is Philip, the narrator, of our convictions by the end - and then, in du Maurier's greatest denouement, she shatters all we had come to believe. It is another haunting novel; dark, bleak, candlelit, questing; du Maurier at her absolute finest.


Mrs. B. said...

What an excellent post! I love Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel. Jamaica Inn I just couldn't get through somehow. I haven't read the other two but have The House on the Strand on my wishlist. I love DDM. Her life also was fascinating. Have you read Captivated by Piers Dudgeon? It's about the Du Mauriers and J.M.Barrie.

Lulu said...

I haven't read that one, no, but I'll look it up. The Justine Picardie novel about her got terrible reviews when it came out a couple of years ago, so I haven't bothered with that... I have read one of Daphne's biogs of her family, which was OK, but not as spellbinding as her novels. I've read 10 du Maurier's altogether - I'd like to get through them all one day!

Cath said...

I have no trouble understanding why The House on the Strand is so high up on your list. I too had to be encouraged to read it but when I did - wow! A complete pageturner. My favourite was always Frenchman's Creek but I haven't read it since I was a teenager so am not sure how well it would stand up these days. And I absolutely adored her childhood biography - Myself When Young, but haven't read any of her others biographical works; I really must sometime.

Lulu said...

I enjoyed Frenchman's Creek, but it is a little formulaic. I think you might find it a little less inspiring if you were to re-read it now. Her descriptions of the Creek itself are still wonderful, of course...

Vintage Reading said...

I'm not fond of Jamaica Inn either, too melodramatic. My Cousin Rachel is fabulous. Never read The House on the Strand, must give it a go.