- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2009

By Daphne du Maurier, Edited and with an introduction by Patrick McGrath
New York Review of Books, $15.95, 384 pages paper

Daphne du Maurier was one of the most successful and popular English writers of the 20th century: Fame and fortune came her way and she even became a Dame of the British Empire. But as far as the academy and the world of literary critics were concerned, she got no respect. As the introduction to this collection of her short stories succinctly puts it:

“During her lifetime she received comparative little critical esteem. ‘I am generally dismissed with a sneer as a bestseller,’ she once said, for it pained her deeply that she was not regarded as the serious writer she took herself to be.”

Du Maurier was not suffering from delusions or ideas above her station: she was indeed a serious writer, a brilliant innovative practitioner of her craft, as these stories consistently demonstrate. Why then was she for so long denied her due?

Part of the answer lies in the natural tendency of elevated literary and academic circles to scorn writers who are very popular: W. Somerset Maugham is another writer whose popularity and wealth prevented him from getting the respect he deserved. But in du Maurier’s case, being derided as a “woman’s novelist” played a considerable part in her dismissal by the male-dominated and -oriented critical establishment and, perhaps because of this, she is now, two decades after her death, becoming the beneficiary of feminist literary revisionism.

About time too! For Du Maurier really was an extraordinary writer, highly individual (perhaps belonging to no identifiable school or group of writers also contributed to her being marginalized) and powerful both in her prose style and in her choice of subjects. As befits the granddaughter of George du Maurier, whose classic Victorian novel gave us the truly iconic character Svengali, she had a flair for the dramatic and for surprise. Yet her twists are never just gimicks. To take the most celebrated example, the fact that the Mrs. de Wynter who narrates her most famous novel, “Rebecca,” has, unlike her eponymous predecessor, no first name makes and continually underlines the fundamental dynamic of the book: The corrosive sense of inferiority that blights her life amid that overwhelming presence. It is as fine an example of novelistic technique as you will encounter anywhere.

And there’s plenty of that same technique on display in these stories, which show off du Maurier’s distinctive touch. Two of the tales included here were made into celebrated movies of the same name, “The Birds” by Alfred Hitchcock (who had also brought “Rebecca” to the screen) and the title story by Nicholas Roeg. Each film captured the powerful and deeply strange story that du Maurier had conjured up out of her corruscating imagination, but those who know only the movie version will gain all manner of insight as well as pleasure from encountering the original.

The brooding beautiful but sinister Venetian locale of “Don’t Look Now,” so powerfully evoked in du Maurier’s prose, haunts the movie as well. Interestingly enough, though, Hitchcock - with his distinctive foreigner’s insight into, and penchant for, capturing particularly American locales - chose to move his version of “The Birds” from its original setting in her home region of Cornwall across the world to another wild coastal terrain, California’s Sonoma County. Readers of the story thus have the fresh opportunity to feel du Maurier’s particular affinity for that rocky maritime part of southern England and to savor her knack for writing about it:

“On December the third the wind changed overnight and it was winter. Until then the autumn had been mellow, soft. The leaves had lingered on the trees, golden red, and the hedgerows were still green. The earth was rich where the plough had turned it…. It pleased him when he was given a bank to build up, or a gate to mend at the far end of the peninsula, where the sea surrounded the farm land on either side. Then, at midday, he would pause and eat the pasty that his wife had baked for him, and sitting on the cliff’s edge would watch the birds.”

Here, and throughout these peerless stories, du Maurier has an uncanny capacity for sketching landscapes and locales to provide the perfect background for the pyrotechnics of her plots, and these juxtapositions are key to the success she can achieve.

Indeed, it is the preternatural blend of realistic description and wildly weird, often supernatural, happenings that makes these tales so irresistible. Du Maurier’s ability to evoke the matter of fact details of quotidian existence makes her forays into uncharted experiential waters believable. Whether she is writing about the fantastic consequences of an eye operation gone awry or the timely apparition of her country’s greatest naval hero, Adm. Lord Nelson, at a critical moment for a World War II convoy, du Maurier manages to stay sufficiently grounded in reality for her imaginative flights to actually seem possible. No small achievement indeed, for readers of these wonderful stories will go to places and feelings they never dreamed of - all because Daphne du Maurier possessed such an amazing imagination and such a capacity to make it all seem credible in her sturdy prose.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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