Daphne du Maurier and the Borders of the Uncanny, Gothic, and Weird

Daphne du Maurier had a fascinating career that spanned various genres and defies easy categorization. Associated most strongly with thrillers and often classed as a “romantic novelist,” there is also an argument to be made for her as one of the 20th century’s key authors of gothic horror and the uncanny.

Over the course of 17 novels and many short stories, du Maurier produced a body of work rich with the strange, the atmospheric, and the dark. Because she was both a woman and a writer of popular fiction, she was (and still is) frequently overlooked in spite of her literary brilliance. Du Maurier wrote tightly plotted romance novels that were bestsellers, none of which should preclude them from being appreciated as works of depth with a keen interest in exploring humanity’s darker aspects, particularly with respect to gender and sexuality. It’s no wonder her work wound up being adapted by filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and Nicolas Roeg.

But if the films have overtaken some of her stories in terms of pop culture recognition, du Maurier’s original novels and short stories still retain incredible imaginative power and skill. They also contain more elements of the speculative and the fantastic than the average reader might expect. Rebecca takes place in the creepy gothic mansion of Manderley, and the text itself is haunted by the eponymous dead wife. The House on the Strand (1969) features drug-induced time travel. Doppelgängers recur throughout her work, particularly in The Scapegoat (1957), where the doubles swap places. And this is before we get to her short stories, which frequently engage with the Weird and the uncanny to a more explicit extent than her novels. Du Maurier is a master of the unreliable narrator, from the unnamed second wife who narrates Rebecca (1938) to the misogynistic and paranoid Philip Ashley of My Cousin Rachel (1951).

Her stories are frequently told from the point of view of deeply damaged characters, warped by passions and jealousy. Thus, while all her work is eminently readable, the seductive surface of du Maurier’s polished prose and expertly constructed plots often hides disturbing ambiguities and contradictions. Like speculative authors Christopher Priest and Nina Allan, du Maurier reminds us that we are all unreliable narrators, our worldview shaped and distorted by our personal perspectives and biases, and that we trust the teller of these tales at our peril.

Rebecca remains du Maurier’s best-loved novel, with good reason. The book is the story of the second Mrs de Winter, a naïve young woman who falls in love with the brooding and handsome wealthy widower Maxim de Winter, but upon their marriage finds herself and Maxim’s sprawling, sinister estate of Manderley haunted by the absence of his first wife, the mysterious and glamourous Rebecca de Winter. Du Maurier’s novel draws on a rich gothic tradition extending back to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), but with her own indelible spin on it. Although she dies before the start of the book, Rebecca’s ghostly presence is felt on every page. Partially this is through the malignant presence of her avatar, Mrs Danvers. The housekeeper of Manderley and Rebecca’s family maid since Rebecca’s childhood, Mrs Danvers’ unhealthy obsession with her departed mistress leads her to set herself against the new Mrs de Winter.

From the novel’s iconic opening line—”Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”—du Maurier creates an atmosphere rife with dread and tension. Manderley is an unforgettable setting, possessed of forbidding, dream-like atmosphere that perfectly reflects the narrator’s anxieties about the role of “wife” she is now expected to play. As such it expresses du Maurier’s own considerable anxieties about the societal role of woman, mother, and wife, all of which she felt uncomfortable with to varying degrees. Du Maurier was a married woman and mother who had several affairs with other women and who occasionally talked privately about being a boy trapped in a woman’s body. Her complex relationship to her own sexuality and gender, and her discomfort with performing femininity, inform many of the dark undercurrents of forbidden desire that run through much of her work, and her frustrations with the societal expectations placed on her as a woman are manifested in many of her stories.

Du Maurier would return to the themes and ideas of Rebecca in her later novel My Cousin Rachel, perhaps her most powerful work. The novel is du Maurier’s most incisive exploration of gender, examining the societal restrictions placed on women and the failings of a society steeped in toxic masculinity that raises men to hate and fear women. Like Rebecca, whilst My Cousin Rachel doesn’t feature any explicitly supernatural elements, it is still suffused with the gothic on every page. While Rebecca is a posthumous character, Rachel is a living presence, and although she is presented to the reader through the viewpoint of Philip Ashley, she gets to argue her own perspective, something Rebecca never got to do:

She gestured with her hands. ‘How can I explain to you?’ she said. ‘Don’t you understand that my position, as it is, is untenable, simply because I am a woman? Your godfather would be the first to agree with me. He has said nothing, but I am sure he feels that the time has come for me to go. It would have been quite otherwise, had the house been mine and you, in the sense you put it, in my employ. I should be Mrs Ashley, you my heir. But now, as it has turned out, you are Philip Ashley, and I, a woman relative, living on your bounty. There is a world of difference, dear, between the two.’ (213)

In this speech, Rachel points out exactly how restrictive her prospects are as a woman and a widow left out of her husband’s will, having no agency or control over her own finances or her own place in society. Can we blame her if, like Rebecca, she takes on the persona of a femme fatale in order to regain some semblance of agency in an inherently misogynistic society? Rachel’s experience as a woman forced into the ambiguous roles of lover and/or charlatan is contrasted with Philip, who has been raised by his abusive and deeply misogynistic older cousin, Ambrose Ashley. Ambrose essentially has moulded Philip into his own image, creating a duplicate version of himself who will eventually inherit his entire estate in Cornwall, sharing his own twisted views and prejudices. When Ambrose falls in love and marries Rachel while on holiday in Florence, Philip is consumed with rage and jealousy, blaming Rachel for Ambrose’s mysterious death. Upon meeting Rachel, however, Philip falls for her charms just as his guardian did, desiring to possess her as his own. The novel’s complex exploration of gender roles and its sharply drawn and troubling characters make for a striking and disturbing read.

As mentioned above, doubles are another of du Maurier’s favourite motifs. Philip and Ambrose Ashley are so similar that on first meeting him, Rachel wonders if indeed there is any difference between the two. Doubles also form the basis of The Scapegoat, a novel that in some ways anticipates Christopher Priest’s speculative masterpiece The Affirmation (1981). The Scapegoat tells the story of John, a depressed Englishman, who while on holiday in France meets Jean de Gué, a French aristocrat who looks and sounds exactly like him. The two of them get drunk together, and in the morning John wakes up to find that Jean has stolen his identity, leaving him to fall into Jean’s life.

John finds himself living at Jean’s chateau, yet another house full of dark secrets and hidden desires, where he is drawn into Jean’s eccentric family and tries to fix the mess Jean has made of his life and his inherited glass business. Meanwhile Jean is in England, systematically destroying John’s life. The novel is a profound exploration of identity and selfhood. Is John the irresponsible Frenchman’s lighter side, or is Jean the timid Englishman’s repressed dark nature? This ambiguity is reflected in this exchange when the two first meet:

He was the first to break the silence. “You don’t happen to be the devil, by any chance?”

“I might ask you the same question,” I replied. (10)

Du Maurier’s career is bookended—almost!—by two timeslip novels. Her debut novel, The Loving Spirit (1931), is a family saga that spans four generations of the Coombe family, who are united by Janet Coombe, whose spirit touches the lives of her son, grandson, and great-granddaughter. Janet Coombe benevolently watches over the lives of her descendants, bringing them back to their roots as shipbuilders in Cornwall. Her second to last novel, The House on the Strand, is more explicitly fantastical in its exploration of Cornwall’s past. It tells the story of Dick Young, a forty-year-old man who becomes disillusioned with the modern world and his married life. His old school friend Professor Magnus Lane suddenly comes back into his life and offers him an escape in the form of a drug that transports Dick back in time to fourteenth-century Cornwall. Dick finds himself in the manor of Tywardreath, the home of the charismatic Sir Henry Champernoune and another classic du Maurier house full of sinister domestic secrets and intrigue. With each trip, Dick is drawn further into the seductive world of the past and becomes more and more withdrawn from the present day, even though his attempts to interact with the past prove futile. The novel is a haunting exploration of a man’s vain attempt to find solace in the escape of the past.

Du Maurier’s short fiction is frequently darker than her novels, as well as more explicitly supernatural or Weird. Many of her best stories can be found in the two collections, The Birds and Other Stories (originally published in 1952 as The Apple Tree) and Don’t Look Now and Other Stories (originally published in 1971 as Not After Midnight), although fans will also want to check out The Rendezvous (1980), The Breaking Point (1959), and The Doll: The Lost Short Stories (2011), each of which contains some brilliant and macabre du Maurier gems. Both The Birds and Don’t Look Now deserve to be counted among the great single-author collections of Weird fiction. Every story across both volumes is a brilliant and focused tour de force of atmosphere, tension, and dread, often involving or invoking the supernatural—but as always with du Maurier, the true horror comes from her characters and the way they treat each other.

“Don’t Look Now” in particular is a brilliant microcosm of du Maurier’s obsessions and recurring themes, featuring hauntings and doubles, a grieving couple, and a male viewpoint character nursing resentment towards his wife. “Not After Midnight” features a reserved Englishman whose holiday in Crete leads to him coming under the spell of the Greek god Dionysus, unlocking his repressed debauched and destructive side. And “The Way of the Cross” chronicles a dysfunctional group of tourists’ visit to Jerusalem, where the various pressures and tensions between them are brutally dragged to the surface.

The Birds is the older collection but is just as powerful, with its title story a chilling work of survival horror exploring nature turning against humanity that is quite different from Hitchcock’s slicker film version. “The Apple Tree,” in which a widower is haunted by his dead wife, whose spirit resides in the apple tree in their garden, is in many ways companion piece to My Cousin Rachel, again exploring the ways in which a society built around toxic masculinity trains men to fear and loathe women. “Kiss Me Again, Stranger” is a subtle and moody vampire story. Perhaps the most haunting piece in the collection is “Monte Verità,” in which a young man’s wife is tempted away to join a mysterious immortal sect living in the mountains. The story is full of wonder and strangeness, a moving exploration of fate and the seductive power of nature.

Du Maurier’s other works are interwoven with the fantastical and the strange, from the moody gothic Jamaica Inn (1936) to the romantic pirate fantasy Frenchman’s Creek (1941) to the bizarre near-future SF of Rule Britannia (1972) which, with its future UK brought to bankruptcy after leaving the European Economic Community, oddly anticipates Brexit. Although her work doesn’t fall neatly into any category of speculative fiction, the speculative, the gothic, and the strange inform nearly all of du Maurier’s fiction. From her complex explorations of gender and sexuality to her vivid evocations of dreamlike states, her novels and short stories are full of concerns and themes explored by many pioneers of feminist SFF, such as Ursula Le Guin, James Tiptree Jr, and Joanna Russ. Her short fiction deserves a place of price in the pantheon of 20th century Weird fiction—though no matter how you classify du Maurier’s work, adventurous readers of speculative fiction, fantasy, and the gothic will find much to love in her uniquely haunting, fascinating tales.

Jonathan Thornton has written for the websites The Fantasy Hive, Fantasy Faction, and Gingernuts of Horror. He works with mosquitoes and is working on a PhD on the portrayal of insects in speculative fiction.


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