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.