Apologies for my absence from the blogosphere for the last couple of days – I was feeling under the weather. But I’m back now, and ready to launch into a ferocious Thursday of – wait, hang on, it’s Friday – yes, a ferocious Friday of book reviews. And this week I have been mostly reading…
Daphne du Maurier!
Yes, it’s true. For years I resisted du Maurier because, if I’m honest, my mother liked her – and my mother’s staple reading in later years was ‘Miss Read’. I despise Miss Read (why the inverted commas anyway? Other writers who use a pseudonym don’t put the name in inverted commas!) as I consider her to be Enid Blyton for adults – but my mum always had her nose in some flowery volume entitled ‘Village Post Office’ or ‘Village Shop’. I doubt it was the kind of village that had ‘the only gay’ living in it – no, it was a world utterly cleansed of real life, and hence the only place she felt comfortable.
But I could not have been more wrong about du Maurier. She is a dark, enigmatic writer whose jagged rocks lurk under a smooth, light surface. In her best-known book, ‘Rebecca’, the ghost of a glamorous and successful woman overshadows a new wife. Rebecca seems to be everything the new wife is not; she tries in vain to fill her shoes and to get on with the housekeeper who, it seems, was in love with Rebecca – but discovers in the end that her husband hated his first wife and that Rebecca was manipulative and spiteful – charming but deadly; everything that she, so calm and uncomplicated and loving, is not. Of course there are feminist issues with this – not to mention homophobic ones – but it’s not simply a question of the new, submissive and loving wife versus the old, dead and dangerous one: du Maurier is capable of subtlety and ambiguity and it was well said of her that she hovers between popular fiction and great literature in a way no other writer does.
The novel I am currently reading, ‘Hungry Hill’, deals with the issue of the British in Ireland – albeit at some political distance – by telling the story of a copper mine. ‘Copper John’ is a typical industrialist determined to extract copper from the hill (the name is a reference to some distant memory of famine) but the local Irish resist, telling him he should have asked permission of the hill first. John considers this to be so much nonsense, but there is a justice in it which he fails to recognise and which appears to bring down a curse on his family. It’s a conflict of interest, a fight between the poetic and the practical and on another level, a colonial and an environmental struggle: modern readers are more likely to sympathise with the Irish view. But once again du Maurier resists telling a simple tale of ‘good’ natives versus ‘bad’ colonisers: the family who run the mines seem to be cursed as generation after generation things go wrong for them and the mines never yield the promise they seemed to hold. But the locals are no heroes either; they are generally sly, manipulative and idle. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between.
So I was wrong about du Maurier. But nothing on earth or under it, will convince me that ‘Miss Read’ is worth reading.