Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Daphne Du Maurier Part One: REBECCA and MY COUSIN RACHEL

Du Maurier was one of the writers I thought of when I conceived of this project. It’s striking to me that she could, at one time, be so famous, and now be virtually forgotten. There’s still Rebecca, of course, although I’m not sure how many people really read it anymore. And occasionally there’s reissue projects: some feminist press reissued a bunch of early Du Mauriers, I seem to remember, and U Penn did a few of her more, I guess “famous” isn’t the right word anymore, “known” books.( I have their copy of The Scapegoat, actually). But she doesn’t occupy the place in the popular consciousness she once did.

There’s a lot of Du Maurier out there, and it was harder here than it has been to pick “representative” books. Rebecca and Echoes of the Macabre, which have her two short stories “The Birds” (yeah, the basis of the Hitchcock movie) and “Don’t Look Now” (which became a famous Seventies flick) were easy, but other than that? I decided to skip her straight novels like The Parasites and (for the most part) her historicals like Jamaica Inn, although you can make a good case for both, and I’d be interested to see recommendations along that line.

I decided instead to concentrate on the “uncanny” side of Du Maurier, which meant the aforementioned books, My Cousin Rachel, The Scapegoat, and The House on the Strand. Most of these don’t work – but she does have her moments.

What’s mainly interesting to me about Rebecca is not so much that it’s a Gothic. Quick working definition of Gothic: stories which play around with supernatural explanations but ultimately have rational explanations. (Yes, I know you can define “Gothic” other ways. This is just for here.) I’ve been reading a lot of John Dickson Carr, the Golden Age mystery writer, for example, and he’s a Gothic writer– rather a classic one, in fact. He sets up explicitly supernatural situations that have explicitly rational explanations: it’s a very canny update of Ann Radcliffe and The Mysteries of Udolpho.

What’s interesting to me about Rebecca is that it’s a reversal: it’s an explicitly rational story that yet, kind of, is a supernatural story. It’s a ghost story without an actual ghost – yet that doesn’t make the ghost any less real. Sort of. In a way. Du Maurier walks the tightrope very neatly here through most of this, playing this vibe of “not a ghost/ghost” as long as she can. She’s a real master of atmosphere, and allows the reader to slip from tedious ‘reality’ to something out of a grim fairly tale effortlessly, and you need that in a story like this, which is really nothing BUT the atmosphere. It’s a damn hard thing to make essentially “nothing” work in a story.

The problem with the book is that once you get the major reveal, that Rebecca was loathsome, not wonderful, the energy just deflates, like a balloon losing its air. Maxim’s subsequent efforts to avoid getting nabbed for Rebecca’s murder just aren’t that interesting – all of a sudden we’ve stepped into another, lesser story. The last bit of Rebecca is not good, although the very last scene is haunting and memorable. So, not a perfect book, I think it falters at the end, but a near-masterpiece in its way.

My Cousin Rachel is essentially Rebecca told from Maxim’s point of view. It’s too derivative to be very interesting, although it is sort of interesting as a commentary on Rebecca. One aspect of Rebecca that’s not much thought about is that we only have Maxim’s word for the awfulness of Rebecca, and he’s not exactly the most reliable of narrators. Try looking at that story again, with this in mind. Or try looking at it with the sense that the unnamed narrator herself is not reliable – at least, not in all respects. She's insecure and jealous, and it's interesting how eagerly she falls into the conniving at the climax.

Ah, well. You can go on like this forever, it's the glory of the book. Rebecca is really just a magnificent achievement in many respects – a story built almost completely out of whispers and echoes and unstated implications and wisps in the wind.



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