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Roles of a Lifetime.

Daphne du Maurier: Haunted Heiress

by Nina Auerbach

Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1999 180 pages, $24.95

WHEN Daphne du Maurier died in 1989, The New York Times obituary identified her solely as "the author of Rebecca and other highly popular Gothic and romantic novels." Although she was a prolific writer of serious biographies, plays, family chronicles, memoirs, and short stories, du Maurier continues to be dismissed as a "women's romance writer."

Victorian scholar Nina Auerbach is the perfect critic of du Manner's work precisely because she is not enamored with Rebecca--a book she considers to be "masochistic, derivative and only quasi-coherent"--and prefers such novels as My Cousin Rachel and The Scapegoat. Daphne du Maurier: Haunted Heiress is more than a biography or a critical literary analysis; it is a tribute and a defense, as Auerbach attempts to rescue her subject from the threat of obscurity and to understand her own identification and fascination with a woman who's far removed from herself in nationality, politics, and class.

In Auerbach's hands, du Maurier emerges as a unique and complex writer whose mature works proved so disturbing that they've either been ignored or distorted beyond recognition. Anerbach writes engagingly of du Maurier's affairs with women, of her complex relationships with her famous father and grandfather, and of the films based on her work (four by Hitchcock alone) -- films that both immortalized and trivialized her. In so doing she challenges both mainstream and feminist assumptions about what constitutes "women's writing" and about what motivates women to write in the first place.

A professor of history and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, Auerbach is the author of numerous books, including Our Vampires, Ourselves. Throughout her analysis, she skillfully intertwines her own lifelong relationship with du Maurier's work. She first developed a passion for du Maurier at summer camp when twelve years old, and has revisited her works over the years, each time struck anew by their originality and depth:

My experience with Daphne du Maurier has always been the same. I devour her, leave her, and vaguely decide that she has satisfied some immature neurotic need in me that I no longer have. Then some years later I read her again and I fall back into her world. As I write this, she is dead, pigeonholed and dismissed. I, however, am now an English professor in my fifties with the confidence to affirm that from 1955 to the present, I've read Daphne du Maurier, not because I need a childish escape, but because she's a complex, powerful, unique writer, so unorthodox that no critical tradition, from formalism to feminism, can digest her.

Auerbach divides du Maurier's books into two types: her well-known female-centered stories and her obscure but more intriguing male-centered ones. The latter take as their protagonists powerful, unstable men, haunted by the past, and murderous toward woman. Writing totally from a male perspective in these chilling novels, du Maurier offers profound insight into male identity, male bonding, and heterosexual relationships at their most deadly.

Auerbach reads du Maurier's fiction as coded chronicles of the du Maurier family itself. The "inheritance" referred to in the title is the artistic legacy passed on to her by two generations of talented du Maurier men, her father and grandfather. The young Daphne lived in the shadow of her famous father Gerald, actor and manager of Wyndham's Theater and creator of the role of Captain Hook in the stage version of Peter Pan. Spoiled, charming, and utterly self-absorbed, Gerald was himself a kind of Peter Pan, worshipping youth and draining the women who loved him. Daphne and Gerald's was a complex relationship, with incestuous overtones ("I wish I was your brother instead of your father," he told the adolescent Daphne, "we'd have such fun"). It was no coincidence that the great passion of Daphne's life would be actress Gertrude Lawrence, one of Gerald's ex-lovers.

The more profound influence was that of her grandfather George, author of the best-selling novel Trilby and creator of Svengali. An emigre from France, George believed himself to be the descendent of a doomed aristocracy, and romanticized the family's distant past. Auerbach spends much of the book exploring the ways in which Daphne challenged as well as perpetuated his views. Certainly she reworked many of his artistic themes, but in her novels the past holds more terror than comfort, and her view of humanity proved darker than anything her literary forbears could have envisioned.

Even as an adult, du Maurier yearned to be a young boy--an obsession shared by all the du Maurier men. It was as a "young boy" that she pursued the women in her life. In her 1949 correspondence with Ellen Doubleday, wife of her American publisher, she claimed that she wasn't "that unattractive word that begins with 'L'" but instead "a boy of eighteen all over again." From today's perspective, such notions come across as self-hating, but these impersonations constituted more than "male identification." Du Maurier experienced her lesbianism not as a fixed identity but as a created role, to be enjoyed and discarded at will, and her lesbian relationships were ones in which the theatrical and the erotic merged. The role of etemal youth--a self she referred to as "the boy in the box"--offered Daphne an androgynous ideal that liberated her from the limitations of gender and served as a catalyst for further transformations.

To her credit, Auerbach doesn't evade du Maurier's negative qualities: her elitism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny. By no means a feminist, du Maurier saw herself as one of the select few who could transcend her gender. Auerbach clearly struggles with her own attraction to such a woman: "Even as I write this book, I wonder what makes me disinter a woman so coldly exclusive, so dismissive of women, so eager to banish outsiders as 'honks'--her code for 'lower class'--so condescending about Jews. For Daphne du Maurier, to know the past was to know herself. For me to know Daphne du Maurier is, perhaps, to know, and to love, an enemy."

In many respects, du Maurier was freer from the constraints of gender than the women writers who followed her, as witness her open disdain for mothering or for nurturing of any kind. Through her ability to take on and discard identities, she enjoyed a "daring ontological flexibility" that Auerbach finds appealing. Nor does Auerbach see du Maurier's male legacy as entirely negative. The women in her family were absorbed in their men. Referring to Virginia Woolf's dictum that women writers "think back through our mothers," Auerbach contends that: "In du Maurier's case, thinking back through her fathers brought treasure and fruitful terror; thinking back through her mothers would have meant renouncing thought."

Auerbach saves her discussion of du Maurier's "romances" for the end. Examining the three novels she likes the least--Frenchman's Creek, Jamaica Inn, and Rebecca--Auerbach convincingly argues that du Maurier was never a romance writer. Romances generally serve as seductive inducements to women to accept traditional roles. The domestic settings in du Maurier's world, however, are too abusive to lure even the most gullible woman into subservience. Du Maurier herself regarded Rebecca as a grim novel that exposed the power imbalance within marriage. Her view of family relationships was a relentlessly brutal one, and all her novels are based on the fundamental incompatibility of the sexes. "No true harmony can exist between a man and a woman," she wrote. "They rub on each other's nerves. They do not work in tune."

Auerbach ends with a discussion of films, for it is through her films that du Maurier is primarily known. Alfred Hitchcock based four films on her works: Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, My Cousin Rachel, and The Birds. Although each became a milestone in his career, Hitchcock despised what he termed "the indigestible novelettish ingredients of her work." In actuality, however, the books were far more sinister than his sentimentalized versions of them, and he consistently endowed them with a moralism that du Maurier didn't share. Auerbach speculates that du Maurier disturbed the director, not because her views were too sanitized, but because they were too perverse, too like his own. Her full influence on Hitchcock appeared only later in films not based on her novels, more complex films like Vertigo and Strangers on a Train.

Auerbach's greatest obstacle in convincing us of du Maurier's literary merit lies in the fact that, with the exception of Rebecca, nearly all of her books are out of print. It is difficult to defend the legitimacy of works that so few people have read. Auerbach also assumes a familiarity with du Maurier's life that few readers may have. Although not a biography, the book would have benefited from more background on du Maurier's extramarital affairs, her upbringing, and the despair of her later years. Such information would have helped to contextualize these works and enrich our understanding of them.

Nevertheless, Auerbach succeeds in restoring her beloved author to the realm of respectable literature, deepening our appreciation for a writer now threatened with literary oblivion. Taking du Maurier as a case study in literary reputation, Auerbach reveals how easily women's works can be dismissed or distorted if their visions become too threatening to men, as when they hit too close to home.

Carol LeMasters' writings have appeared in The Bloomsbury Review, Feminism and Psychology, and Hypatia, among other publications.
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Title Annotation:Review; Daphne du Maurier: Haunted Heiress
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2000
Previous Article:The French Conundrum.
Next Article:Intimations of Mortality.

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