Review of The Parasites - Ann WillmoreDaphne du Maurier's ninth novel was published in 1949. It was called 'The Parasites' and it was the first book that she wrote in the writing hut that had been built for her in the grounds of Menabilly. The Parasites is a contemporary novel set mainly in London, Paris and at the Wyndham family country estate, and its theatrical background reflects a lifestyle familiar to Daphne, whose own upbringing is woven into the storyline.
'The Parasites' is a psychological study of the people who make up the Delaney family, namely Pappy, Mama and their three children Maria, Niall and Celia and the effect they have on one another and on Charles Wyndham, who is married to Maria. Pappy is a singer, a larger than life, warm, flamboyant character who loves to entertain and who needs to be surrounded by people. Maria is his daughter from a brief relationship with a Viennese actress. Maria is fair haired, tall, slim and attractive, a born actress with lots of confidence. Mama is small, remote and single minded about her dancing. Niall is her son from an even briefer affair with a French pianist, he is dark haired and pale. When he is young he is lacking in confidence and later has little self motivation or sense of direction, despite a real talent for composing music. Celia is the child of both Pappy and Mama, she is plump and plain, a peacemaker, who puts others before herself and busies herself looking after people. She is a good artist and writes stories. Charles is a mild mannered gentleman who comes from a titled family far removed from the bohemian lifestyle of the Delaney family.
The story of 'The Parasites' takes place on a wet Sunday afternoon and evening at Farthings, the home of Charles, Maria, and their children, on the Wyndham country estate of Coldhammer. Charles, the children, and Polly the children's nanny, live at Farthings all the time, while Maria lives in her own flat in London and pursues her career as an actress. She goes down to Farthings at weekends, as do her brother and sister.
Maria, Niall, Celia and Charles are all ensconced in the living room. Maria is lounging on the settee, Niall is tinkering on the piano and Celia is mending some of the children's clothes when suddenly and uncharacteristically Charles loosed his temper and calls them all parasites...............
'And that's what you are, the three of you. Parasites. The whole bunch. You always have been and you always will be. Nothing can change you. You are doubly, triply parasitic: first, because you traded ever since childhood on that seed of talent you had the luck to inherit from your fantastic forebears: secondly, because you've none of you done a stroke of ordinary honest work in your lives, but batten upon us, the fool public who allow you to exist; and thirdly, because you prey upon each other, the three of you, living in a world of fantasy which you have created for yourselves and which bears no relation to anything in heaven or on earth.' p13.
.........He storms out for a walk leaving Maria, Niall and Celia to discuss what he can possibly mean. Celia is very uncomfortable and fears that nothing can be the same again now that he has spoken so harshly, perhaps she should no longer stay at Farthings so often. Maria is a chameleon, and has a habit of adopting the persona of her character from her current play. When Charles met her she was playing the gentle and ethereal part of the leading lady in Barrie's play Mary Rose. If Charles believed that she was of that character he will have been sorely disappointed to find out that she is not. Niall admires Charles' strength as a man and readily admits that he is weak by comparison. The three of them reflect on Charles words and on their lives from early childhood.........
As they are half/step brother and sisters, the three children are all of a similar age. Pappy and Mama tour together with their show and the children go with them, soMaria, Niall and Celia share an unusual and privileged childhood as they travel from one theatre to another and one city to another across Britain and Europe. Home for the Delaney family is a series of hotel suites and when Pappy and Mama are working, Truda, who is Mama's dresser, looks after the children. The children often go to the theatre and play together or amuse themselves while their parents rehearse. There is always a last night performance party and Truda takes the children along to the theatre to join in the excitement. Maria thrives on the glamour and the theatrical atmosphere, but Niall is white faced and sick with nerves on these occasions, with Truda taking care of him. Celia just wants to be with her beloved Pappy and they all share in the glory of being part of the famous Delaney family.
Back in the living room; Maria, Niall and Celia discuss the final holiday that they all spent together in Brittany. It was a hot summer after a busy tour and Mama seemed more tired than usual. The three of them are young teenagers now and play together less that before. Maria makes friends with a man called Michel Laforge, he is years older than Maria and wants to write a ballet for Mama. Michel and Maria spend hours alone together on the beach and Michel falls for Maria. There is a piano at the villa where the family are staying and Niall finds that he can play it, he is a natural, picking out tunes with increasing ease. His ability to play the piano draws him closer to Mama than ever before and he is happier than he has ever been. Celia goes to the beach with Pappy or stays up at the villa sketching. One afternoon Niall and Mama go for a walk along the cliff top, while Celia stays at the villa sketching. Maria is down at the beach with Michel, he takes her into a cave and one imagines that they make love. As they leave the cave they hear a terrible scream. Mama has slipped down the cliff and as she falls her scarf gets caught and she is strangled.
After Mama's death nothing is ever the same again. Pappy continues to tour and takes Celia and Truda with him, but Niall is sent to boarding school in England and Maria begins her acting career by joining a touring theatre company. Maria finds life tough as the other people in the theatre company think she has only got the job because of her father's name. Niall finds life even harder and runs away from school to join Maria. They spend a precious couple of days together, before he is taken back to school by one of the teachers and during this time an unbreakable bond is forged between Maria and Niall. Meanwhile Truda tells Pappy that he is ruining Celia's life by keeping her with him because she has no opportunity to make friends or meet people of her own age. Pappy tells Truda that he could not go on if he did not have Celia with him. Celia overhears this conversation and realises that she will be tied to him for ever.
Pappy, Celia and Truda move to a house in London and Maria, who has the leading role in a play at the Haymarket Theatre, moves home to live with them. On the day of the first performance the weather is cold and snowy. Niall arrives from school and gives Maria a ring which she always wears from that day on. Niall takes Maria to the theatre and Pappy and Celia follow later on. Maria is charged with nervous excitement, but her success is so important to Niall that he is white faced and sick with nerves and cannot even go into the theatre to see the performance. Instead he paces about outside in the snow and as he walks a tune comes into his head which takes over from his anxiety about Maria. The opening night is a huge success and after the performance Pappy throws a party to celebrate. Maria is the centre of attention, particularly from the leading man. A friend of Pappy's called Freada talks to Niall, she has not seen him since he was a child, but he feels comfortable with her and tells her about the tune in his head. Freada is a cabaret singer and she asks Niall if he will go to her flat the next day before he returns to school, as she is leaving for France and wants to hear the tune before she goes. The party begins to break up and Maria has disappeared. Niall does not wait until the next day; he goes to Freada's flat at two o'clock in the morning. She is not even surprised, she feeds him, he plays her the tune and she asks him to stay the night. Niall doesn't go back to school, the next day he leaves for Paris with Freada.
Pappy and Celia are the last to leave the party. Pappy has drunk so much and the weather is so bad that he is incapable of starting the car. A medical student stops to help them. He drives Pappy and Celia home, helps Celia to get her father into the house and puts the car in the garage for them. He says he will phone Celia the next day, but he never does.
Back to the present again; Maria, Niall and Celia talk about how they felt in those days. Maria was happy. She enjoyed success with the play and had a secret affair with her leading man. Niall enjoyed the freedom of life with Freada, he was idle and Freada nagged him, but he began to carve a career writing songs which was the only thing he knew how to do. Celia had a busy routine caring for Pappy and doing her drawing if there was ever any spare time.
Some time after Niall and Freada's move to France, Pappy and Celia go to see them and Maria decides to visit at the same time. While Freada entertains Pappy and Celia at her flat, Niall meets Maria off the train and takes her to her hotel. After a while they go out for a wander round Paris and a trip on a boat. They both agree that they want to be together but want very different things from life. Much later they meet up with the others in a night club where Freada is singing to some of the dance tunes that Niall has written. Niall gets all the attention and applause and for once in her life Maria is ignored.
Back in the living room again; Maria, Niall and Celia hear Charles come back from his walk and go straight upstairs. Maria says that she really married Charles so that she could be the Honourable Mrs Charles Wyndham. She also admits that Charles has always been jealous of Maria's close relationship with Niall. They look back at the first time Maria's family visit her at Coldhammer after her marriage and the clash between the two very different families. The Delaney's hopeless timekeeping, the odd relationship between Niall and Freada, and the total disregard for all that is important by Wyndham standards makes for an uneasy visit!
When Maria has her first child, Caroline, she has to leave the stage for a while. Motherhood does not come naturally to her and a nurse cares for Caroline most of the time. On one occasion the nurse has to go out and Maria asks Celia to come and help. Unusually Celia has other plans, so Maria is left literally holding the baby. After a while panic sets in and Maria calls Niall who takes her and the baby up to London where his musical review is rehearsing. Niall has a flat above the theatre and they go upstairs. The baby sleeps and Niall and Maria can be alone. The phone rings but they ignore it.
Meanwhile the reason that Celia was not free to look after Caroline becomes clear. Pappy has persuaded her to go to see a publisher friend of his with her drawings and her stories. Mr Harrison, the publisher, is very impressed with her work and asks her to sign a contract for more pictures. This all takes a long time and Celia is away from home for much longer that she intends. When she finally returns home she finds that Pappy has gone out in the car and the maid is concerned because he seemed confused before he went out. Celia eventually discovers that he has been admitted to hospital having suffered a stroke. She phones Maria, but the maid says she is out. She phones Niall but nobody answers the phone.
Celia spends the next three years nursing Pappy until his death and all thoughts of drawing have to be abandoned. The war begins and Celia plunges into war work, still putting her drawing to one side because of other peoples needs. Maria has more children, but returns to her acting career and Niall leaves Freada behind as his fame as a writer of popular tunes goes from strength to strength. If he is in London he spends time with Maria, if not he phones her, but they are always close. Charles is responsible for the family estate and during the war he goes off to do his duty. Years drift by with Maria only seeing Charles and the children when she goes down to Farthings for the weekend or if they make a special trip to visit her in London.
Back in the living room it is time to go and change for supper. As Maria, Niall and Celia go to their separate rooms they continue to think about Charles' outburst. Niall remembers that Freada had said Charles was a good man and that Maria would make him suffer. She had said that the problem was that Maria and Niall should have been twins and that neither of them knew the meaning of the word love. She would have agreed with Charles that they were parasites. Niall realises that he was certainly a parasite feeding on Freada until he outgrew his need for her and that he always had and always would feed on Maria.
Maria goes to her room and runs her bath, taking all the hot water without a thought for the others. She thinks about Charles, who she does love in her own way, but she has always loved Niall more than anyone else. She admires Charles and how strong and brave he was in the war. She thinks perhaps he found it distasteful that while men and women were fighting for their country, she and Niall benefited from the war as her success as an actress grew and Niall's tunes became more and more popular. Maybe that is why he called them parasites. She is proud of how Charles runs the Wyndham estate and believes he will deserve the title of Lord Wyndham when his father dies, but she feels like a guest at Farthings, it does not belong to her; it is not part of what she is.
Celia is anxious; she knows she is a parasite. First she fed on Pappy, never leaving him, remaining safe looking after him and never having to make the decision to go out into the big wide world alone. Then she threw herself into war work, again preventing a need to make decisions and take control of her life, and finally spending so much time at Farthings, helping with Maria's children, the mending, the running of the house, anything rather that stand on her own two feet. She knows the time has come to stop being a parasite at Charles' expense. She goes downstairs for supper and overhears Charles talking on the phone. It is clear that he is planning something.
Charles, Maria, Niall, Celia and Polly sit down for an uneasy supper. As soon as the meal is over and Polly leaves the room Charles makes his announcement. He says he has no more to give and things must change. Niall says he will be going away to write some proper music rather than his dance tunes. Celia says she will be pursuing her drawing and writing career and so will not be coming down to Farthings and Maria suggests a holiday as soon as her play closes. But it is too late, Charles wants a divorce. He has fallen in love with someone else, a woman he has met locally who understands him, shares his interests and who will enjoy living his sort of life. Maria is stunned, but quickly recovers herself.
Celia returns to her London home the following morning. A few days later she has to see her doctor in Harley Street. He tells her she has fibroids and will need an operation, so now there is no chance that she can ever have children of her own. When she arrives home from the doctor's appointment she has two letters waiting for her. The first is from the publisher, saying that they would still like her to do the drawings for them. The second letter is from Maria's daughter Caroline, saying that she would rather live with Celia than at Farthings now that her parents are getting divorced. Celia makes her choice, she throws the letter from the publisher onto the fire and starts to make plans for when Caroline comes to live with her.
Maria returns to her London flat and quickly recovers from the shock of Charles' news. If she can portray the divorce as being by mutual agreement she will save face. She is however cross with Niall who left Farthings on the Sunday night following Charles' outburst and has not been there for her since. She goes to the theatre for her evening performance and there is a message asking her to phone Charles. She thinks this might mean reconciliation, but instead it is to say that Charles' father is dying. So Charles will be Lord Wyndham, but Maria is not destined to play the part of his Lady Wyndham. As she prepares for her performance she is visited by a man called Mr Laforge, who has a play he wants her to read. Here is a name from the past, as he is Michel's son. A telegram arrives. Maria never opens telegrams before a performance, so she does not read it.
When Niall leaves Farthings on that fateful Sunday night, he drives to the coast where his little sailing boat is moored. He decides that Maria does not need him at the moment and must come to terms with what has happened first. He spends a couple of days pottering about on the boat and tries to write some serious music. A tune for Maria pops into his head, blocking out any chance of writing anything else. Niall decides to sail to France. He goes to the village to get some provisions and while he is there he sends Maria a telegram saying.........
'Darling, I love you. I'm going for a sail. I have written you a song. If you get this telegram it will mean one of two things. Either I have reached the shores of France or the boat has sunk. I love you again. Niall.' p345
Niall sets sail, happy to be sat back doing nothing. After a while he sees that there is a trickle of water in the bottom of the boat, the trickle becomes a stream and the water begins to rise. He has no baler, the pump does not work, but the sea is calm. He thinks not of Maria, but of Truda and her broad safe lap when he was a child. The sea will be like Truda's lap when the time comes.
When 'The Parasites' was published it received mixed reviews, but it was well received by Daphne du Maurier followers and sold in vast numbers both in the UK and America. It has not stood the test of time like her ever popular Cornish novels, but it still captivates the reader from start to finish and is the first and probably only one of Daphne du Maurier's novels which includes real comedy. Daphne du Maurier is often portrayed as shy and reclusive, but people who knew her refer to her as someone who could be very funny and make people laugh. This is certainly reflected in chapter 16 of 'The Parasites', where there is a wonderful description of the visit that the Delaney family and Freada make to Coldhammer to stay with the Wyndham family shortly after Maria marries Charles. As you read it you will laugh out loud.
Like many of Daphne du Maurier's novels, there are so many layers that reading the book again always gives you more. This is an undoubtedly readable book and an excellent story in its own right. However, to someone who is interested in Daphne du Maurier as a person and a writer and who knows a lot about her, this book is so much about her and her early life that it becomes a quite remarkable read. Daphne du Maurier said herself that Maria, Niall and Celia were all facets of her own personality. The fact that Niall sailed away and possibly drowned was symbolic of that side of her personality. When Daphne wrote 'The Parasites', even she did not know if Niall had drowned or not.
The character of Pappy was based on Daphne's father Gerald. He was a famous actor manager who loved to entertain and be surrounded by people. He also needed his children and did not want to let them go in the same way that Pappy clung to Celia. As a child and young adult, Daphne's relationship with her mother was uncomfortable and remote and this is reflected in the character of Mama. The J M Barrie plays, London theatre-land and many other references scattered throughout the book link it to Daphne's life.
The other thing to comment on is the handling of the emotional involvement between Maria and Niall. Although they were not technically brother and sister, their relationship borders on incest and that was a daring subject to include in a novel in the late 1940's.
The Parasites by Daphne du Maurier (Gollancz 1949, Doubleday 1950)
© A. Willmore 2003.