The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne de Maurier The Birds and Other Stories

Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) is back in fashion. For anyone interested in her work, The Birds is the obvious starting point, although fans of the Hitchcock movie will be disappointed with the source material.

Du Maurier’s short story is a John Wyndham-esque tale of sudden disaster, as nature takes revenge on humanity for reasons that remain mysterious.

Nat, a local farmer,witnesses random bird attacks on people, a harbinger of a disaster that will plunge Britain into chaos. We see the story from the perspective of a family living on a remote outcrop in Cornwall where the sea comes nearly to their door. Their battle for survival is far from the main scene of the action, so that much of the drama comes from their inability to get news over the radio. They, like us, have no idea what is going on.

Unfortunately, the story is so sparse that there is no room for anything that isn’t part of the main narrative. Nothing here is as memorable as the scene in the movie where Melanie (Tippi Hedren) is driving her car with two lovebirds in a cage, and the birds sway from side to side in time to the movement of the vehicle.

Like J.K.Rowling, du Maurier is a female author who enjoys writing about male protagonists. This gives her the opportunity to cast a critical eye over a particular class of men of her time: the 1950s upper-middle-class male. These men had somehow managed to create a society that served their needs and those of few other people.

The 1950s was a period of dull consensus in Britain where the men in suits were in charge. They were quite sure of how to run society. The Birds is a satire on this blind faith in the powers-that-be. Faced with an inexplicable, all-encompassing disaster, a change in the nature of reality, Nat maintains his belief that the authorities will be able to work it all out. He is one of the stupid winners of life’s lottery, sure that his system works.

Maybe they’ll try spraying with gas, mustard gas. We’ll be warned first of course, if they do. There’s one thing, the best brains of the country will be on it tonight … They’ll have to ruthless’ he thought. ‘Where the trouble’s worst they’ll have to risk more lives … As long as everyone doesn’t panic. That’s the trouble. People panicking, losing their heads. The BBC was right to warn of us that.’

Is it a coincidence that this collection of short stories appeared in 1952, just three years after the Soviet Union developed their first atomic bomb?

The original title story, The Apple Tree is an excoriating attack on this dull breed of men, whose main concern is how poorly served they are by their servants. Secure of having done his duty in the Second World War by a minimal amount of tractor driving, our narrator believes himself to be on friendly terms with the local community, never realising how much people dislike him.

Du Maurier never lets up in her first-person narrative of this bore’s thoughts as he whines about everyone and everything, only taking solace in his whiskey and his afternoons with his newspaper in his club. Alas, he cannot quite escape his past. The narrator’s wife was driven to neuroses by her husband’s constant passive-aggressive behaviour, and now she returns to haunt him in the form of an apple tree. Perhaps, or it may all be just in his imagination.

The Apple Tree is a clever inheritor to the Henry James tradition. Just as in The Turn of the Screw, we are never sure whether supernatural events are taking place, or if everything is the product of a mind on the point of insanity.

In most of the stories in this collection, du Maurier plays with the uncanny, without ever really stepping into the world of fantasy and horror as we know it today. Her tales are grounded in reality: a bitter, hard reality. The story Kiss Me Again, Stranger, takes a very different approach to the Second World War and how it had affected people’s lives.

In this story, we see people who are angry and vengeful about how the war has treated them. It’s a brave approach from a time when many people just wanted to celebrate victory. Two years later, Graham Greene wrote a similar tale of angry survivors in the ruins of London in The Destructors.

There are more than a few echoes of Greene’s writing in du Maurier’s stories, and vice versa. The best story in this collection, The Little Photographer, has a classic Greene setting of a bored wife in a hot, exotic country:

She reached for cotton-wool and wiped away the offending varnish from her other finger-nails, and then slowly, carefully, she dipped the little brush into the chosen varnish and, like an artist, worked with swift, deft, strokes. When she had finished she leant back in her chaise-longue, exhausted, waving her hands before her in the air to let the varnish harden — a strange gesture, like that of a priestess.

Even today, the story drips with wealth and indolence. It must have seemed like something from another world to readers in austerity Britain: in 1952, rationing of bread and clothing had only ended a few years previously (in 1948 and 1949 respectively: rationing continued for many years after the end of the Second World War).

Once again, du Maurier casts a cold eye over her protagonist: a woman who uses other people to satisfy her every desires, until she discovers that the “little” people too have wishes and desires of their own.

This volume is a classic collection from an era when the short story was king, and a favoured tool of the finest authors of the day.

For more on du Maurier, check out Gary Dalkin’s posts on her work on Amazing Stories, which was my inspiration.

15 responses to “The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

  1. Thanks Alastair. I’m glad to have inspired you to read The Birds! Really interesting to read your take on these stories. I must admit that since a recent visit to Cornwall I’ve become a little obsessed with Du Maurier. Margaret Forster’s biography, simply titled Daphne du Maurier is a fascinating, if frustrating read. Frustrating in that it almost entirely neglects the importance of the films both on the author’s life and on her enduring reputation. Would she be forgotten now if it were not for the film versions of Rebecca, The Birds and Don’t Look Now? But then I read Captivated: J. M. Barrie, Daphne Du Maurier and the Dark Side of Neverland by Piers Dudgeon, which fills in gaps left by Forster in a really intriguing way. Much speculation, but also much of genuine interest. Meanwhile I’ve written more about du Maurier’s Cornwall on my own blog here: The post includes a lot of photos, including some of those oh so dangerous Cornish birds…

    • Personally, I don’t think du Maurier would be remembered today if it weren’t for the films. Certainly, they help keep her name in the public eye. It;s funny how the film makers just take the bare bones of her plots and then make up their films around it. Hitchcock seems to have done that a lot. His treatment of Raymond Chandler was appalling (although they did have a big row too) – check out Raymond Chandler- A Life by Tom Williams for more on their unhappy working relationship!

      • Exactly Alastair, du Maurier would, like so many mid-20th century writers, now be all but forgotten were it not for the films. It makes it particularly frustrating that the Forster book all but ignores them. Nothing about the deals that went into the making of them, and almost nothing du Maurier thought about them, or how much money she made from them. We don’t even learn if she went to any of the premieres or met the filmmakers! We never know if she met Hitchcock, or what she thought of him…

        I will look up the Chandler biography. Hitch certainly didn’t have the highest regard for writers. He did tend to view their work as source material. Which as Donald Spotto argues in The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, despite not being a writer himself he essentially forged into disguised autobiography.

      • It sounds like a very strange omission to me because the most fascinating part of an author’s biography is usually the moment when Hollywood calls … and then chews them up and spits them out!

      • This is how strange it gets. There is a point when du Maurier is so worried about money that she writes to her publisher, Victor Gollancz, asking how much she can expect to make from sales of Rebecca. There is not one word that right around this time the film version of Jamaica Inn was in production, for which du Maurier presumably received a not insignificant payment for the screen rights. Equally odd that there is no mention of what she thought at the time of her novel being filmed by the most famous film director in the country. A man who had worked with her own father, Gerald, himself a very notable actor. The first mention of the existence of the film of Jamaica Inn is when Forster quotes a letter from du Maurier to a friend saying that the film is dreadful and not to bother going to see it!

  2. A mention of John Wyndham, I have yet to pick up any of du Maurier’s work, although I have Rebecca floating about. I may have to put this up the list a little further, which is impressive for me as one who tends not to read to many short story collections.

    • I don’t read too many short stories either but there’s something special about the early twentieth century when so many people were writing them: perhaps because it was a main source of their income due to people buying literary magazines, and before TV took over people’s free time.

  3. Interesting. I thought the source for The BIrds was a short story where a young couple in the woods are randomly attacked by various birds. I’ve read that, but this sounds different. Could I have read an excerpt possibly?

    • Well people are randomly attacked by birds in the fields and the village and there is a point where the whole family is attacked, but it’s not really about a young couple being savaged by the local bird life. The parents in the family are middle-aged and the attacks take place over a time period of a few days. So it sounds like you might have remembered a particular moment from the story. Having said that, the story does contain that iconic moment from the film where the birds’ beaks start hammering through the wood of the door!

  4. I didn’t know the movie The Birds was based on her short story. I only knew of her from Rebecca. I don’t read too many short stories anymore, but what a great art form when done well. Another excellent review.

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