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The Pathology of Desire in Daphne du Maurier’s Short Stories

The Pathology of Desire in Daphne du Maurier’s Short Stories (2022)

Dr Setara Pracha

Senior Research Fellow, University of Buckingham

Last night I dreamt I went to Cannon Hall again...

I was unaware at the time but my association with Daphne du Maurier began long ago.

When I was seven, I attended King Alfred’s School in north London and I had a friend who lived in Hampstead in a big old house with iron gates and a gravel drive. There was a terrace in the private garden and we had fun sleepovers. She subsequently became an artist and over the years we lost touch, but when I researched du Maurier family photographs for my doctoral research, I recognised a place I knew I had visited. I was grown-up before I encountered Daphne du Maurier’s writing, and with pleasing symmetry, the facts are worthy of a du Maurier plot.

My doctoral research had led me back to an author in whose childhood home I too had played.

As a fledgling academic at the University of Buckingham I was given the Women Writers module to teach and I swiftly realised that this was a chance to present new, and forgotten, authors to my fresh-faced undergraduates. Daphne du Maurier was an ideal candidate for inclusion as a literary experimenter, the author of the first gothic novel of the twentieth century, the mistress of the short story form and... a gimlet-eyed observer of human foibles with a keen sense of the ridiculous. Hitherto, students might not be aware of her work and I knew the short fiction contained controversial elements to provide material for stimulating tutorials, the core element of teaching practice at the University of Buckingham.

However, when I suggested to my colleague that du Maurier was a great candidate for my revision of the module, the professorial response was couched in the pejorative lexis of ‘middle-brow’, ‘uncanonical’ and ‘popular’. This enraged me, as it called to mind literary sage Arthur Quiller-Couch telling his close friend Daphne that, ‘the critics would never forgive her for writing Rebecca.’ 

Question: Was the subtle, engaging fiction of a sophisticated writer which critiqued her times, gender, politics and the Establishment to be thus relegated? 

Answer: No, because my thesis topic had finally found me.

I spent three years researching my PhD project, rereading all reviews, criticism and primary texts; visiting Fowey and the festival; happily foraging in the archives at the University of Exeter. To my delight in my reacquaintance with her corpus I found Daphne du Maurier to be both immensely readable and insightful, shocking, mordantly funny, and grim. As she is habitually regarded as a novelist I decided to concentrate on her stories, short and long, as this overlooked genre demands great artistry to create and yet tends to be marginalised academically. (Something I know the author was grumpy about). I wanted to reposition du Maurier as a writer worthy of greater academic respect, and, the short story form as one that merits more attention. Unlike the novel form, a story demands the creation of an entire world with brevity and though entertaining, du Maurier’s narratives were clearly more than ripping yarns. 

At first reading her short fiction seems to handle the human body realistically but this belies the symbolic subtext, which often focuses on one somatic area such as the feet or eyes, allowing a broader discussion of impairment, articulation, gender or disability. And, although she is not known as a modernist her work lingers on the fringes of the movement and elements of fragmentation, temporality and open-endedness can be found throughout the corpus. The twin aspects of desire and the corporeal were the core of my reassessment which posits du Maurier as writing her critique of British society on the human form.

This week sees the publication of that research in book form, a proud moment following many public talks, and a paper presented at the first international conference on Daphne du Maurier in Le Mans in 2019. My hope is that her family, scholars and fans will be pleased that this research puts Daphne du Maurier back in the intellectual limelight as a literary giant where she belongs, and I trust that somewhere, somehow, she knows and is glad.

Buckingham, 2022

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