Du Maurier's spectacular tales unsettle readers
For copyright reasons, there is no Collected Stories of Daphne du Maurier. If published, I believe it would prove du Maurier to be one of the finest English short story writers. Known primarily for her novels (even then, mainly for Rebecca), du Maurier's daring and unsettling short works are little discussed. When they are - as in the case of The Birds and Don't Look Now - it is because of their film adaptation by two great directors, Alfred Hitchcock and Nicolas Roeg.
Du Maurier wrote short fiction throughout her life, though mainly in two bursts of creativity: as a young experimental writer in the late 1920s and as a more confident writer from the late 1930s and 1940s with success behind her. The Doll contains hitherto-uncollected stories from the early period, largely gathered here by du Maurier expert Ann Willmore, and introduced with elegant clarity by Polly Samson.
Short, pithy tales published in American and British magazines, they give insight into the writer's central concerns. They become considerably more complex in later stories - The Apple Tree, The Little Photographer, and The Bluest Eye, as well as the major novels: Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, The Scapegoat and The House On The Strand.
From the Bacchanalian vigour of East Wind to the haunting prescience of The Happy Valley (which weirdly presages the writer's own long residence in the house Menabilly), they demonstrate du Maurier's psychological acuity and unexpected subject matter and theme. The quirky narratives play on the reader's sensibilities through compelling personae, events and dialogue rich with suspense, emotional or sexual surveillance and tension.
Performance in private and public was the lifeblood of Daphne's theatrical family, but for this very private woman it signified an unwelcome surveillance.
Just before beginning The Doll, after good times in Paris, Berlin and London, she decided that Cornwall was where she wished to put down roots, to be alone and independent. Her jealous father (with whom she may have had a semi-incestuous relationship) was vying for her attention with a 42-year-old married cousin, Geoffrey. Daphne was desperately trying to escape their dominance and the expectation she would become the family's next thespian.
Du Maurier is often discussed as quintessentially English, suggesting a certain parochialism in her work. But the writer was educated in Paris and, with her French ancestry, always alive to European writing.
In The Doll, there are distinct echoes of the unstable, unreliable narrators of Edgar Allen Poe. But there is also a bolder project. Drawing on Victorian technological advances and the new sexologies around her, du Maurier creates a mechanised sex doll to whom the female protagonist and object of fevered male desire (significantly named Rebecca) claims attachment. Daphne unsettles the reader with doubts about the authenticity of the spectacle described and sanity of the narrator.
Du Maurier employs well the assured balancing of uncanny possibilities, the clever manipulation of unconscious fears and desires, and the bitterly wry sense of absurdity that were to characterise her finest fiction.