It seems like this was destined to be a Hitchcock-themed week, even though we didn’t plan it this way. Our Tuesday post and this one were planned completely separately, but there is no denying that Daphne du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock are inextricably linked, so it’s a happy coincidence for those who are fans of both! –Ed.
Most writers would probably kill to write a string of popular best-selling books spanning four decades and be created a Commander of the British Empire for their efforts, but it’s arguable that, in Daphne du Maurier’s case, she might have been better off having written just two books.
du Maurier will always be linked to one of the great novels of the 20th century, the brilliant Rebecca. Despite modern covers that attempt to fool readers into thinking that the book is aimed at the 50 Shades audience, or possibly the crowd that prefers tamer romances, this one is not a piece of entertaining fluff. It’s a mature, unflinching look at adults who are less than perfect, but who do what they must and deal with the consequences as best they can.
Rebecca also contains one of the most memorable (some people say the best) opening lines in literature: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”… a haunting preview of what is to come and perfect for the novel.
It’s a bit sad that, while attempting to recapture the magic of her first hit, du Maurier focused on the romantic elements of the novel and produced a string of books that has since been completely dismissed by the establishment – with some justification – as mere time-passers not worthy of a second look.
The true tragedy is that the dismissal of her work often extends to Rebecca itself (which is both ignorant and unforgivable) and to her other noteworthy book: The Birds and Other Stories.
That du Maurier was a master of suspense is clearly evident from the fact that Alfred Hitchcock decided to film no less than three of her tales: The Birds, Jamaica Inn and Rebecca – and it’s arguable that The Birds is Hitchcock’s most famous film (although, admittedly, he has so many that it could be quite an argument!). Nevertheless, that’s not the way she’s remembered, and most people wouldn’t be able to connect The Birds with her at all.
It’s their loss.
Originally published as The Apple Tree, the title was changed and the book was reissued as a companion to the film in 1963… and it’s well worth reading.
It’s a book that clearly shows that du Maurier was wasting her time with romance. While love interests were fine to sustain the plot, what she really, truly did well was a kind of weird suspense, a mix of slightly surreal elements that never let the reader understand whether events are caused by natural or supernatural forces, or even if, perhaps, the characters are imagining it all.
It’s a slim book, and has six stories in it, but, with a deft touch, explores everything from adultery to cults with much the same effect as Rebecca, but in bite-sized chunks. Anyone wanting to learn how to write a modern suspense tale – or wishing to consume one, need look no further. Even though they are well over a half-century old, they feel perfectly modern (if one overlooks technology, of course). The prose is that good.
And the title story feels very different from the film… so even if you think you know the tale, you don’t (also interesting to read the original material as Hitchcock did, to see what inspired him about it).
Of course, this review is being written for Classically Educated, so we’d be truly remiss if we failed to mention that a beautiful edition of this one was Published by Easton Press, although we don’t know if it’s currently available (ebay should help if not…).
All in all, we strongly recommend you pop into the local bookstore, buy these two du Maurier books and make a comment to the clerk about how sad it was that she never wrote anything else. It would be a small white lie, and who knows – you might possibly be starting the restoration of her reputation.