In Praise of Daphne du Maurier by Parul Sehgal
Daphne du Maurier in 1936
In 1937 an Englishwoman, bright and bored and drowning in children, sat down and sketched out a story. Very roughly, the book will be about the influence of a first wife on a second, she wrote. Until wife 2 is haunted day and night … a tragedy is looming very close and crash! Bang! Something happens.
But to women, some women, my kind of women, this book is something more, not merely beloved or popular but foundational. Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life, Muriel Spark’s Jean Brodie declared, and so it is with Daphne du Maurier. What begins as a taste for her twisty plots, briny wit and bracingly bleak view of marriage becomes an addiction (and one that can withstand some very purple prose).
There is the pleasure of her plots, those marvellously efficient machines. Like Wilkie Collins before her and Sarah Waters today, du Maurier had a preternatural understanding of how to engineer suspense; she knew how to make you wait and want and when to deliver the final blow. The Birds, her short story that was the basis for the Hitchcock film, is such a perfect piece of narrative tension, it feels less written than administered; it acts upon you with unerring, hypodermic efficiency.
Few writers have watched and captured women with such conspicuous pleasure as du Maurier, the way they walk and wear coats and unscrew their earrings. The way they pin up their hair and stub out their cigarettes; the way they call to their dogs, break horses, comfort children, deceive their husbands and coax plants from flinty soil. Few writers (Elena Ferrante comes to mind) have been so aware of how women excite one another’s imaginations.
If the story had involved vultures, or birds of prey, I might not have wanted it, Hitchcock said of adapting The Birds, in which flocks of crows and sparrows kill off the inhabitants of a small town. The basic appeal to me is that it had to do with ordinary, everyday birds. Do you see what I mean
Beyond ‘Rebecca’: A du Maurier Starter Kit
The trouble with walking in Venice, according to a character in du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now, is that it becomes compulsive: “Just over the next bridge, you say, and then the next one beckons.” So it is with du Maurier. Here are a few directions to continue your journey.
MY COUSIN RACHEL: Is Rachel her husband’s victim or murderer? I cut my teeth on this knotty little thriller and still haven’t made up my mind.
DON’T LOOK NOW: SELECTED STORIES OF DAPHNE DU MAURIER: Taut, occasionally surreal stories, including “The Birds” and “The Blue Lenses.”
FRENCHMAN’S CREEK: Pure confection: A romance between a pirate and a noblewoman that’s also a love letter to du Maurier’s beloved Cornwall, England.
JAMAICA INN: Pirates, terrifying uncles and a very creepy inn. Du Maurier at her gothic best.
THE SCAPEGOAT: Strangers on a train, curious doppelgängers, swapped identities. Du Maurier in fine Patricia Highsmith mode.
Parul Sehgal is senior editor of The New York Times Book Review. The Enthusiast is an occasional column dedicated to the books we love to read and reread.
A version of this article appears in print on July 7, 2017, on Page C17 of the New York edition with the headline: Novels That Make You Wait and Want.
(c) Parul Sehgal 2017.