Daphne du Maurier, and the Anti-Romantic Short Story - by Setara Pracha
To celebrate the newly-launched website I have reviewed a couple of the earliest short stories with the aim of stirring discussion amongst new readers, and those who are already familiar with the mordant and sometimes brutal humour of the short fiction.
Daphne du Maurier is primarily regarded as a novelist and this genre label has marginalised her short fiction, which is more daring and experimental than her longer works. In my opinion her reputation as a writer of romances is misleading, as in fact the short stories dissect marriage and present the less flattering aspects of heterosexual relationships. The plots are primarily located in urban or foreign settings and provide a contrast to du Maurier’s reputation as a Cornish novelist.
However, du Maurier returned to the short-story form throughout her writing career and these comments come from the preface to Best Stories of Phyllis Bottome, 1963. The quotation makes clear her views on the issue of genre and literary status:
The short story […] still lacks recognition as work of art. A novel, to the uninitiated, sometimes wins respect for its length alone. So many thousand words on paper suggest hard work if nothing else, whereas a short story, consisting of a few pages only, is assumed to be none off without thought or great concentration, a money-spinner for a magazine.
Du Maurier’s stories were often published in magazines before a major collection was launched. The tales of manipulation and deceit are in contrast to the cheery advertisements for 1950s domestic products that frame them. The stories under discussion here were first published by Todd in the Early Stories collection in 1955 but page references are to the Virago edition of The Rendezvous and Other Stories (2005).
There are 18 stories in the first edition and some of these are thematically twinned. One example of such a paring are Leading Lady and The Lover, both of which offer protagonists who skillfully employ the trappings of romance to successfully further their careers. Margaret Forster’s 1993 biography suggests that this has its origins in du Maurier’s awareness of her father Gerald’s philandering but her exposure to the art and artifice of the theatre extends to keen observations about the prevalence and, indeed, necessity of pretense in the field of romance. The Lover and Leading Lady follow each other in Early Stories and both works offer examples of sexual manipulation for worldly gain. The dialogue is influenced by du Maurier’s theatrical background, and the professional outmaneuvering of the gullible by expert manipulators is laced with acid humour (1). This theatrical influence upon her writing is clearly outlined in her biography of her actor-manager father, Gerald (Penguin, 1970). As with her mocking depictions of the clergy these are the insights of one who has witnessed the charade.
Leading Lady has an urban location that complements this fifteen-page depiction of calculated femininity as a means of controlling men. An ageing actress uses her professional skills to ensure the patronage of a rich sponsor and the infatuation of a rising actor. Her lies eliminate the young actor from the cast of the upcoming play. Du Maurier’s titles are often witty and ambiguous and the Machiavellian Mary Fabian leads the way while unwitting men blunder in her wake, never realising they have been played by a professional actress, on-stage and off. The ‘Leading Lady’ cozens the big producer with flattery, telling him ‘you’re an absolute genius’, while she thinks ‘The fatuity of this man!’ (141–3) (2). The worryingly good minor actor is manipulated with maternal vulnerability into worshipful adoration until the ‘light of a fanatic is in his eyes’ (162). The free indirect mode invites the reader to share the thoughts of the protagonist and succinctly portrays an experienced female bored by a younger man.
If he went on much longer she felt she would scream. It was incredible that anyone should talk so much. What a fool he was! She turned her rising yawn into a smile. ‘You know, you remind me of myself,’ she told him (149).
Du Maurier’s playfulness is usually missed because of a focus on the macabre elements of her fiction, but in this briefer form the humour is more evident. The Lover is the obverse story to Leading Lady centralising a male whose romantic expertise procures free lunches, cars, and useful introductions. Du Maurier’s stories can be ironic mis-titles, hence, The Lover could be retitled The Cad or The Player, other examples in this collection include Nothing Hurts for Long and Fairytale.
Here, romance is a charade seen from the male perspective. The reader is compelled to see women from a gigolo’s point of view, and a series of clingy and pathetic women are mercilessly exploited for financial benefit. As in Leading Lady devious charm delivers results and after the first two pages of dialogue between a clingy woman and her indifferent ‘Lover’ the description of women as ‘damn silly’ seems an accurate statement (179). The familiar refrain of Cole Porter’s Let’s do it — Let’s fall in love is playing in the background while the Lover thinks:
[w]hat an effort it was, this continual lying. If one told the truth for one moment there was the devil to pay. Women were a cope — a decided cope. Still, difficult to live without them — one way and another (178).
The humour bites when his latest conquest decides to abandon her wealthy husband and run away with him, declaring:
We love each other. I don’t care about losing my money; we could live in a garret, in a tent.
Du Maurier’s keen eye for human behaviour delivers consummate artistry.
He forced a laugh. “Aren’t you wonderful!” Surely she would not dream of losing her head to such an appalling extent! Women had no sense of proportion at all. “Just think, you and I starving in a garret,” she went on, dreamily. “Yes, but it would be the action of a cad,” he said quickly. “I should never forgive myself. How could I be so brutal to drag you away from all your comforts and luxury! It would be criminal.” He struck his fist upon the table. Rather dramatic, this. He almost believed it himself (179).
This story shows the influence of family friends and actors Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, and the dialogue is reminiscent of Coward’s play Private Lives, staged at the Phoenix Theatre in London in 1930 starring both Coward and Lawrence.
These two stories are well-crafted and amusing vignettes of social interaction highlighting professional success due to determinedly unethical romantic manipulation. However, in typical du Maurier style no character is wholly sympathetic and the reader is not encouraged to feel pity for the victims or ‘marks’ whose behavior ranges from the weak to the bullying.
The short story is a more experimental and daring form than the novel and du Maurier’s short fiction incorporates psychopaths, disability, and human-animal hybrids in its range of topics (see Panic, The Alibi and The Chamois). She uses the narratives to explore topical issues such as corporal punishment and private ones such as corruption and exploitation within the family (see The Lordly Ones and Piccadilly).
Virago recently reissued two collections of the short stories in 2015 and they offer a caustic commentary on twentieth century society leavened with arch humour at the foibles of human nature. Daphne du Maurier’s writing is currently enjoying a renaissance and her short fiction is diverse collection of literary gems.
(1). For extensive coverage of du Maurier’s background and the theatrical influence upon her writing see Daphne du Maurier, Gerald (London: Penguin, 1970).
(2). Du Maurier, The Rendezvous and Other Stories (London, Virago, 2005). All further references to Leading Lady and The Lover are from this edition.
(c) Setara Pracha 2016
Setara Pracha is a lecturer and researcher in the English Department at the University of Buckingham. She has just completed four years of research into the short stories of Daphne du Maurier for her doctoral thesis ‘A Pathology of Desire: The Dismembered Self in Daphne du Maurier’s Short Stories’. Her other research interests include twentieth century women’s writing; postcolonial writing; the short story. firstname.lastname@example.org