The long-harboured snobbery of the literary establishment over genre fiction has, I must admit, been matched only by my own misconceptions. The greatest being that Du Maurier was a writer for women only, whose tastes resided in a form of melodramatic romance. How wrong I was. The recent reissue of her back catalogue - in the light of Jane Dunn's new biography ('Daphne Du Maurier and Her Sisters,' Harper Press) - reveals a writer with tastes both uncanny and, by contrast, purposefully comedic; highlighted in her shorter fiction. (Other collections in the series, such as 'The Birds,' 'Don't Look Now' and 'The Breaking Point' each harbour tales with these moods).
Couched within are themes showing her as sceptical of her fellow woman's motives in relationships as she is with men's; while emotions are things that might be subjectively interpreted in a multitude of ways. Here in each case, (bar one), the protagonist is unaware, and so unskilled, in his or her ability to handle the situation they find themselves in.
Written between 1926 -32, with Du Maurier only in her early twenties, she treats her subject matter as if her puberty had felt more like an open wound to grit one's teeth against and challenge than a stage in life from which to project. Each scenario depicts the fatal consequences of perceived betrayal in sexual mores; be it on a long-isolated isle suddenly and fatally exposed to an unforeseen landing. ('East Wind'); or an unstable narrator delusionally in love with a woman who may - or may not - be as disturbed as himself and who already harbours a partner - a silent and still mechanical mannequin. Or not...? This title tale is, for lovers of the uncanny, a masterpiece of ambiguity, where we are left to question, but never solve, the narrator's true perception.
In 'Tame Cat,' a girl (most likely Du Maurier herself, as you feel is so often the case) receives the key-to-the-door with excitement and anticipation for the future that also suddenly, cruelly, condemns her.
The girl's ultimate contempt for the man who's perceived her in the way he has is undoubtedly the author's own, and yet also sounded is a certain pity. That both are victims of circumstance; their natural programming. Another sub-theme through the tales.
'Maizie' parallels the previous tale with the girl - now, one of the streets - wishing to escape from the strictures circumstance has forced upon her, only to discover she is, almost literally, upon the bed she's already made. Episodes of sleeping sickness act as precursor to a premonition in 'The Happy Valley'; another tale in Du Maurier's canon of the uncanny.
Of the 'comedies,' 'The Limpet' is the supreme example. A narration by one who sees herself the wronged and innocent party through each life we witness her at the same time destroying. A more wry, telling portrait of a gold-digger even Dorothy Parker would've been hard=pressed to match. 'Frustration,' a lesser and lighter tale, is no less blackly comic. A couple engaged for seven years finally agree to get hitched. What subsequently plays out in their attempt to so do is the domino-effect scenario where everything that can go wrong - does.
If you've purposely been avoiding Du Maurier merely for her fame, I'd advise a serious re-think on her shorter fiction. Her clear-sighted understanding of male/female relationships, a healthy cynicism underlying, easily bridges the gap of the passed eight decades.
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An occasional, covert glance at other enticing items...Pushkin Press have made a welcome reissue of Stefan Zweig's back catalogue in paperback, with his short fiction to be collected in a hardback volume this autumn....Dadelus have republished Stefan Grabinski's first collection - 'The Dark Domain' - as an e-book...the ever productive Mark Valentine has a new collection 'Herald of the Hidden', out on Tartarus, as are his main poetical, mystical contributions to 'Star Kites'....finally, for now, Swan River Press have just made available the first issue of 'The Green Book'; a quality bi-annual overview of Irish supernatural literature....
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