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A series of Daphne du Maurier related blogs from Stephen Alexander

Stephen Alexander is a London-based writer with a PhD in modern philosophy and literature whose intellectual project can be described as a form of perverse materialism.  His background is in modern European philosophy and literature, with particular reference to the work of Nietzsche and DH Lawrence.  He writes a blog which, he tells us, circulates amongst a tiny number of mostly academics and artists, and which reflects his field of work.  He also discusses many aspects of contemporary popular culture, such as film and fashion. 

He has written several pieces on du Maurier's fascinating and often astonishing work, although he says his knowledge of her writing is limited to the better-known texts.  We will leave you to decide if he is being modest in his understanding of du Maurier's work.

All these du Maurier related blogs plus many more on other subjects can be found on Stephen’s blog here: http://torpedotheark.blogspot.com/2020/

These are the first of what we hope will be a number of Stephen's blogs on the subject of Daphne du Maurier's writing. 

Index:

The Blue Lenses – To See More Clearly Than Ever Before
Jamaica Inn - Make Way for Pengallan!
Jamaica Inn - Francis Davey: The Vicar of Altarnun.


To See More Clearly Than Ever Before - Notes on The Blue Lenses,

by Daphne du Maurier

"There comes a moment in the life of every individual
when reality must be faced."

I.

They say that dog owners gradually begin to resemble their pets, and people smile at the idea.

But what if everyone were to suddenly lose their human features and be seen with the head of the creature that best expresses their inhuman qualities; not so much their true nature, as what might be termed their molecular animality - would we still find this gently amusing?

I suspect not: in all likelihood, initial astonishment would quickly give way to horror, as the writer Daphne du Maurier brilliantly demonstrates in her extraordinary short story The Blue Lenses (1959) …

II.

Marda West is recovering in a nursing home, following an operation on her eyes. The day has finally arrived for the bandages to be removed and for a pair of blue lenses to be fitted. Her surgeon reassures her that she will see more clearly than ever before.

As someone who has also undergone restorative eye-surgery, I can vouch for Marda's anxious anticipation; the hope that patience would be rewarded at last; the fear that the anonymity of darkness will continue. To see again is to be born again. To rediscover the wonder of the world in all its glamourous objecthood: a wardrobe, a chair, a wash-basin, a window, a vase full of flowers ...            

"The dim light caused by the blue lenses enhanced the charm, the softness of all she saw. It seemed to her, rejoicing in form and shape, that colour would never matter."

What does concern Mrs West, however, is the fact that her nurse, has the head of a cow! The head of a cow - with wide horns, large eyes, and broad nostrils - atop the uniformed body of a woman, carrying a tray with a glass of milk.

She thinks at first that Nurse Brand must be wearing an animal mask - but, no, she isn't. And nor is her surgeon wearing a mask when he comes into the room with a dog's head, ears pricked, and looking as if he might at any moment begin to yap and wag his tail. Marda begins to laugh at the absurdity of the situation.

However, when she looks down the corridor leading from her room and sees that everyone is in on the deception (as she believes it to be) - including a weasel-headed maid and a pig-headed porter - then "the first sharp prick of fear came to Marda West."

Bovine Nurse Brand leads her back to bed and gives her a sedative. But when she wakes up, things remain just as queer. She finds reassurance in the fact that the inanimate objects of her room have remained what they were: the chair is still a chair, not a mushroom; the table is still a table, not a haystack; and there is nothing false about the carnations, as fragrant and as graceful as always.

But the people have all become-animal: Nurse Sweeting is a kitten; Matron is mutton-headed in every sense of the term. "Why was it only people had changed? What was so wrong with people?"  

Marda decides that either she has gone insane, or it's the lenses that must be to blame; they were faulty in some way and creating an optical illusion. Or magical, and bestowing upon her some kind of hyper vision. And yet why then had her own face remained unchanged in the mirror? They had to be wearing masks; masks designed by some genius mask-maker "that merged with the body, blending fabric to skin" - for there was no obvious join to be seen.   

She awaited the arrival of her favourite nurse, Nurse Ansel, the bewitching night-nurse. She trusted Nurse Ansel above all others; Nurse Ansel wouldn't lie to her. It was quite a shock then when Nurse Ansel entered her room and slid slowly into view - with the head of a snake on a long, twisting neck: "Marda West felt sickness rise in her stomach, choking her ..."

And she knew that what she saw was real: but it was real with the reality of evil. Thus, it's not coincidental that Deleuze and Guattari speak of man's becoming-animal as a demonic process that challenges the idea of a human being as something essential. Nurse Ansel didn't resemble a snake, and she wasn't identifying as a one; she was a viper.

However we choose to describe it, du Maurier's tale is not simply an imaginative fantasy and she, like D. H. Lawrence, is "another of the writers who leave us troubled and filled with admiration" precisely because she was able to tie her work to "real and unheard of becomings". Hers is a genuinely black art.*     

Marda awaits her husband. Naively, she thinks he will save her from the waking nightmare in which she finds herself. But husband Jim, for all his familiar trappings - umbrella and bowler hat - now has the unmistakable head of a vulture:" The brooding eye, the blood-tipped beak, the flabby folds of flesh." Seeing the vulture and the serpent-nurse in conversation together, she knows that they are intimate and in collusion against her: "The two communicated in silence, sympathy between them."

In a fabulous passage, du Maurier reveals Marda West's fears of what horror is yet to come: would the bodies begin to change too, "hands and feet becoming wings, claws, hoofs, paws, with no touch of humanity left to the people about her"? And what about Jim's steady and reassuring voice? "When the human voice went, there would be no hope." Then she would be all alone, surrounded by the savage cruelty of beasts on all sides, making their jungle noises and cries. 

Marda decides she has to escape. And so, she creeps out of the nursing home in the middle of the night, passed the fish-faced night-porter, and out on to familiar streets of central London. But alas, there is no escape for the woman with the blue lenses:  

"When she came to Oxford Street she paused, wondering of a sudden where she should go, whom she could ask for refuge. And it came to her once again that there was no one at all [...] No one was human, no one was safe [...] Down Oxford Street she ran [...] the night all darkness and shadow, the light no longer with her, alone in an animal world."

This is the breaking point for Marda West: the moment when the link between emotion and reason is stretched to the point beyond endurance, and something snaps. Of course, this isn't as rare as people think - and you don't need to see the people around you suddenly transformed into beasts.

Indeed, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote twenty years earlier: All life is a process of breaking down ... One that combines big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside with blows from within that you don't feel until it's too late (i.e., until you realise with finality that in some regard you'll never be the same person again).**

Having evidently collapsed in the street, Marda wakes up back in the nursing home. The porter, she's told, had luckily decided to follow her and was there when she needed him.

The blue lenses had been removed and replaced with another pair that enable her not only to see the world in colour but as it was - as it should be - fully human and free from animal-headed monsters. The doctors reassure her all will now be well; they talk about a trapped optical nerve or some such thing as having caused her terrible ordeal.

Nurse Ansel was there to hold her hand and to smile at her with understanding. Marda admires her hazel eyes, clear olive skin, and beautiful dark hair: "How could she have seen Nurse Ansel as a snake!" She was so pretty, so gentle - a woman whose very presence promised friendship and loyalty.

All, then, as well, as the sun came "streaming through the window, throwing light on the roses, the lilies, the tall-stemmed iris". Even the hum of traffic outside sounded friendly. "Instead of darkness, light. Instead of negation, life."

But of course, this being a horror story - which is to say, true to the transparence du mal that shines through the moment you rub the surface of the world too hard, in a vain attempt to make it ever-more ideal - it doesn't end here ...  

Marda West decides to apply her face-cream and powder and to paint her lips; to dab some scent behind her ears:

"The fragrance filtered, becoming part of the warm, bright day. She lifted the hand-mirror and looked into it. Nothing changed in the room, the street noises penetrated from outside, and presently the little maid who had seemed a weasel yesterday came in to dust the room.  She said, 'Good morning', but the patient did not answer. Perhaps she was tired. The maid dusted, and went her way.

Then Marda West took up the mirror and looked into it once more. No, she had not been mistaken. The eyes that stared back at her were doe's eyes, wary before sacrifice, and the timid deer's head was meek, already bowed."

And that, gentle readers, is just about the most perfect ending to a near-perfect short story that you could ever ask for.

Notes:

Daphne du Maurier, 'The Blue Lenses', The Breaking Point, (Virago Press, 2009), pp. 44-82. All lines quoted and paraphrased above are from this edition. 

* Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi, (The Athlone Press, 1996), p. 244.

** F. Scott Fitzgerald, 'The Crack-Up', in The Crack-Up with Other Pieces and Stories, (Penguin Books, 1965), p. 39.   

************************


Jamaica Inn - Make Way for Pengallan!

What are you all waiting for? A spectacle? You shall have it!
And tell your children how the great age ended. Make way for Pengallan!

I.

It can never be stressed enough: a novel is one thing and a film is something else; even the most faithful of screen adaptations is a radically different work of art and can only be analysed in and on its own terms. Thus, whilst it can be amusing to compare and contrast the book with the movie - or the movie with the book - it's a largely pointless exercise.

I was reminded of this whilst recently watching Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (1939), his version of Daphne du Maurier's novel published three years earlier, based on a screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Joan Harrison.   

Many critics dislike this film; Michael Medved lists it in his fifty worse movies of all time, which, I think, is ridiculous. Having said that, Hitchcock himself was far from happy with the work and du Maurier was also less than pleased with the adaptation. [1]

Personally, however, I think Jamaica Inn has much to recommend it and contains some memorable scenes, all of which involve Charles Laughton as the astonishing figure of Sir Humphrey Pengallan, the amoral (and possibly insane) mastermind behind a gang of murderous ship-wreckers working the Cornish coast who uses the proceeds from the sale of the stolen goods to fund his lavish and decadent lifestyle.

II.

When asked to make a toast to the ideal of Beauty by a guest at his dinner table, Pengallan instructs his butler, Chadwick, to bring him his favourite porcelain figurine, so that he may be inspired. When challenged by the same guest  - "But Sir Humphrey, it is not alive" - he replies that it's more alive than half the people round his table and fondles it with fetishistic fascination, like a genuine agalmatophile.

Pushed to provide an example of living beauty, Pengallan decides to introduce his beloved Nancy: "The most beautiful creature west of Exeter." This turns out to be a fine-looking horse, rather than the young woman anticipated, much to the bemused astonishment of his guests. One thinks of Caligula and his horse Incitatus ... 

Pengallan is, however, also partial to young women. No surprise then when he takes an immediate shine to Mary Yellan, played by the lovely nineteen-year-old Irish actress Maureen O'Hara. When Mary arrives unexpected and uninvited at his house, he half removes her coat in order to admire her exquisite shape, as if she too were a prized object or animal. Keen to display his literary leanings, Pengallan then quotes to her from Byron:

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes
[2]

Unimpressed, Mary amusingly responds: "Thank you, sir, but I didn't come for poetry, but for a horse."

My favourite scene between Mary and Pengallan happens towards the end of the film, however, when the latter kidnaps the former, ties and gags her, and tells her that he plans to make her his own now that she has no one else in the world. He drives her, still tied up and covered by a heavy cloak, to the harbour, where they board a ship bound for France. It's what's known in BDSM circles as a Sweet Gwendoline scene. [3] 

But my favourite scene of all comes at the climax of the movie and involves Pengallan jumping to his death from atop a ship's mast rather than surrender to the authorities. Addressing the crowd below, he says: "What are you all waiting for? A Spectacle? You shall have it! And tell your children how the great age ended. Make way for Pengallan!"

If and when I jump to my own death - which, as a philosopher, would be my preferred method of suicide (thereby continuing a noble tradition which can be traced from Empodocoles to Gilles Deleuze) - these are the lines I shall recite.  


Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Hara
Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Hara

Notes:

[1] Although when interviewed Hitchcock referred to Charles Laughton as a charming man, one doubts he was happy with the latter's meddling with the film's script, casting, and direction, which, as a co-producer as well as the lead actor, Laughton doubtless felt he had every right to do, insisting, for example, that his own character be accorded greater screen time and that O'Hara be given the role of Mary. Laughton's method of acting - described in some quarters as ham and in others as camp - was also a problem for Hitchcock, though, again, I love his portrayal of Pengallan as a dandy libertine mincing around to the beat of a German waltz.

As for du Maurier, she was so disappointed by the adaptation that she briefly considered withholding the film rights to Rebecca which, as film fans will know, Hitchcock directed the following year, 1940, to great critical acclaim (and du Maurier's complete satisfaction). 

[2] Byron, She Walks in Beauty (1814). Readers who wish to read this short lyrical verse in full can click here to access it on the Poetry Foundation website: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43844/she-walks-in-beauty

[3] Sweet Gwendoline is the chief damsel in distress in the works of bondage artist John Willie, who first appeared in Robert Harrison's girlie magazine Wink from June 1947 to February 1950, and who invariably finds herself tied up and in need of rescue. I am aware, of course, that in this era of #MeToo such scenes of sexual sadism involving violence against women are no longer viewed in the same way.

Readers who are interested in watching Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn can do so on YouTube by clicking here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tx_1kYfIupU  The scenes I mention above are at 9.30-14.50, 1:26-1:28, and 1:37-1:38. 


************************

Jamaica Inn - Francis Davey: The Vicar of Altarnun


James Duke as Francis Davey
(Salisbury Playhouse 2004)

I.

Albinism or, as it is sometimes known, achromia, is a rare congenital disorder characterised by the complete or partial absence of melanin in the skin, hair, and eyes. It is believed to affect approximately 1-in-20,000 people, mostly in Africa where it is often still regarded with superstitious fear resulting in persecution and acts of atrocity.

Having said that, the portrayal of people with albinism in Western culture is also largely negative and there are legitimate concerns that this engenders or, at the very least, reinforces, prejudice and discrimination.

It was, therefore, a little disappointing to discover Daphne du Maurier exploiting the evil albino plot device in her celebrated novel Jamaica Inn (1936), although it would be unfair to expect a woman born in 1907 to share 21st-century concerns surrounding this issue.

And besides, even if Francis Davey, vicar of Altarnun and criminal mastermind, is something of a fictional stereotype, he remains a truly fascinating figure ...

II.

I think the first thing to note is the manner in which Davey's albinism is used to distinguish him not from the heroes of the book - for in truth, there are none - but from the darkness of his cohorts in evil and, indeed, the elemental darkness of the Cornish landscape itself. The whiteness of his skin and hair makes him stand out, but is not, of course, a sign of innocence; it is, rather, a sign of his unnaturalness.

Thus, while Joss Merlyn may be a monster, he remains all too human. Davey, on the other hand, is a freak who has something inhuman about him. Du Maurier, a mistress of the uncanny, is always good at blurring the line between brutal realism and queer gothic fantasy and with Davey she gives us a character about whom nothing is certain: he might be just a man after all; or he might be a fallen angel or demon. He certainly presents himself as both outcast and anti-Christ and it's his dark paganism rather than white hair and skin, that ultimately capture our interest.    

III.

Although his concealed presence has previously been sensed in an empty guest room at Jamaica Inn, it's not until she is lost on the moors that Mary Yellan finally encounters Davey in the flesh - and even then he is a ghostly figure "lacking reality in the dim light" [94]. Softly-spoken, his voice nevertheless contained a calm, persuasive authority and Mary can tell he is a man of good breeding. But then she notices his blind-looking hypnotic eyes for the first time:

"They were strange eyes, transparent like glass, and so pale in colour that they seemed near to white [...] They fastened upon her, and searched her, as though her very thoughts could not be hidden, and Mary felt herself relax before him, and give way; and she did not mind." [95]  

His house - to which he escorts her - is strangely peaceful and enchanting, but at the same time it is also unreal:

"This was a different world from Jamaica Inn. There the silence was oppressive and heavy with malice; the disused rooms stank of neglect. Here it was different. The room in which she was sitting had the quiet impersonality of a drawing-room visited by night. The furniture, the table in the centre, the pictures on the walls, were without that look of solid familiarity belonging to the day." [97]

After speaking of her life at Jamaica Inn, Mary is driven home by Davey and she is shocked to discover a reckless quality to his character:

"He made no effort to rein in his horse, and, glancing up at him, Mary saw that he was smiling. 'Go on,' he said, 'go on; you can go faster than this'; and his voice was low and excited, as though he were talking to himself. The effect was unnatural, a little startling, and Mary was aware of a feeling of discomfiture, as though he had betaken himself to another world and had forgotten her existence." [104-05]

He was certainly not like any parson she had met before and she "wondered why he had not used the conventional phrases of comfort, said something about the blessing of prayer, the peace of God, and life everlasting" [166]. The answer, as we discover, is because Francis Davey is a devil in disguise; his face itself is nothing but an expressionless white mask that doesn't even betray his age.  

Until the very end, however, Mary continues to trust him - even after looking at his uncanny paintings with their alien atmosphere and discovering a sketch in his desk that depicted his congregation assembled in the pews and himself in the pulpit:

"At first Mary saw nothing unusual in the sketch; it was a subject natural enough for a vicar to choose who had skill with his pen; but when she looked closer she realised what he had done.  This was not a drawing at all, but a caricature, grotesque as it was horrible. The people of the congregation were bonneted and shawled, and in their best clothes as for Sunday, but he had drawn sheep's heads upon their shoulders instead of human faces. The animal jaws gaped foolishly at the preacher, with silly vacant solemnity, and their hoofs were folded in prayer. [...] The preacher, with his black gown and halo of hair, was Francis Davey; but he had given himself a wolf's face, and the wolf was laughing at the flock beneath him." [261-62]

This picture - regarded by Mary Yellan as blasphemous and terrible - provides good reason to rather admire Davey; he may be a murderer, but at least he has a sense of humour and artistic talent and these things compensate for a good deal. In fact, push comes to shove, I might prefer the company of Davey to that of Jem Merlyn. The latter may have a certain roguish charm and knicker-invading smile, but he has many depressing limitations.

In other words, if I'd been Mary Yellan, I just might have taken my chances with the vicar rather than thrown in my lot with a horse thief who promises only hard times and homelessness; "'with the sky for a roof and the earth for a bed'" [299].

For Davey not only offers an experience of the wider world - "'You shall see Spain, Mary, and Africa, and learn something of the sun; you shall feel desert sand under your feet ...'" [282] - but access to another world altogether; a primeval world of pagan splendour, when men were not so humble "and the old gods walked the hills" [274].    

Both men, by their own admission, spoke a strangely different language to poor Mary Yellan, the latter's romantic nomadism in contrast also to the former's pagan esotericism. I have, in my time, been a sucker for both, so I understand the appeal of each; the open road versus the road to hell paved with purple flowers.

It's not an easy choice, but, in this instance, Davey's offer of a queer alliance is arguably the more interesting. Jem offers Mary the chance to live like a gypsy; Davey promises that he'll teach her how to live "as men and women have not lived for four thousand years or more" [278]. Mad neo-pagan fantasy ...? Perhaps. But still his words "found echo in her mind" [280].  

Ultimately, however, Mary doesn't have to make the choice: Davey, who has abducted her and taken her onto the moors, is shot and killed by Jem Merlyn and it's his wagon she hops on board in the end (whilst recently buried Aunt Patience turns in her freshly dug grave) ...


See: Daphne du Maurier, Jamaica Inn, (Virago Press, 2003). All page numbers given in the above text refer to this edition of the novel.


© Stephen Alexander May 2020.



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