- - Friday, January 20, 2012

By Daphne du Maurier
Harper, $14.99, 224 pages

Romance, upper-class hypocrisy, the misunderstandings seemingly inherent in male-female relationships and the sudden rush of passion are contrasted with the natural beauty of the English countryside - sometimes bucolic and sometimes wild and stormy. This is the world of Daphne du Maurier’s elegant and ironic stories.

Written in 1930, before the author was 23, the best stories show a mature insight into the conflicted relationship between men and women. Some have elements of gothic mystery; most reflect the disappointment, even anguish, of love gone awry. All are entertaining.

“East Wind” and “The Doll” are sensual, erotic tales. The former takes place on a rocky island, “a barren, rugged place, with great jagged cliffs that run steep into deep water.” Guthrie and Jane lived in a cottage up on the cliff, “content in each other, unmindful of desire, ignorant of distress.” When the wild east wind rose, a brig anchored in the island’s sheltered harbor to wait until the wind died down. Its crew came ashore and plied the locals with brandy. Guthrie and the men drank, and “the women danced with the sailors.” Jane remained in her cottage but was awakened to a moment of passion by one of the sailors. The story ends in a violent moment of rage.

In “The Doll,” it is not nature that rages through the story, but the passion of a man falling in love with a beautiful musician. The narrator pursues her “until [his] love for her became an obsession, a terrible driving force.” But the young violinist keeps him at arm’s length. When he finally enters her private world and discovers the object of her own passion, he is so shocked that “*omething cracked inside [his] heart.”

In the charming and lighthearted “Frustration,” a young couple marries after waiting seven years. They have no money and decide to spend their honeymoon camping. It rains, the tent falls in, and they cannot find their borrowed car. Nevertheless, they set out for London in relatively good spirits. They find rooms and jobs but in an ending reminiscent of O. Henry or Guy de Maupassant.

There is a bitter aftertaste in “And Now to God the Father.” A young Oxford University man comes to a vicar, a narcissistic man of the world, for help. His girlfriend (“she was nobody, you know, just acted as companion to some old lady …”) is pregnant and believes he would marry her. “Well, naturally,” the boy says, “it was impossible. How could I marry her? She’s pretty and sweet, but I’m not sure she’s even a lady, and I don’t really love her. Besides, what on earth would the family say?”

The vicar remembers that the boy’s family is rich, that the family castle “was one of the beauty spots of England [where] he would be invited often.” He promises to take care of the situation, and he does. When his callous words to the girl have a cruel result, the vicar quickly manages to forget her. “He lost himself in the beauty of his own voice. At last he paused, he ended [his sermon] on a note of supreme victory. The world was his.”

Hypocrisy of another sort is the cynical theme of “Tame Cat.” A young woman comes home from boarding school in Paris, thrilled at being “grown up” and looking forward to a life shared with her mother. She is greeted coldly by “mummy” but warmly by “Uncle John,” the man who has been taking care of her mother’s affairs, a “little, sleek, tubby man, with his small moustache, carrying their bags at stations, handing bread and butter at tea, answering the telephone, and keeping the engagement-book up to date; …smiling, obsequious, humble … Uncle John.” Her awakening to Uncle John’s sleazy desires, the real relationship between the two adults and her mother’s jealousy is a bitter lesson.

Perhaps the most delightful stories collected here are the mordant tales of love gone awry. In “Week-End,” two young people - “[t]hey were in love” - drove to the country for a weekend at the seaside, “scarcely [speaking] to one another at all. They both of them felt that words would spoil the perfect harmony.” They called each other pet names; they splashed in the sea; they rented a boat and anchored in a secluded bay and had a nap. When it was time to head back, the young man could not restart the motor. His confidence dwindled; her admiration for him disappeared; it began to rain. “When they motored up to London on Sunday evening they scarcely spoke to one another at all.” They were no longer in love.

More touching is the couple who genuinely love each other but whose feelings are never synchronized: “There was something about the feeling of being alone he could not explain to anyone, not even to her. The delicious sense of utter irresponsibility, of complete selfishness.” She, on the other hand, “could never imagine doing things apart from him.”

“And His Letters Grew Colder” is an epistolary story. XYZ has just arrived from China bringing a greeting from Mrs. B’s brother. The one-sided correspondence begins with his request to call on Mrs. B. XYZ’s short letters become ever more flattering, insistent and, finally, passionate. A love affair follows: It begins slowly, rises to a climax and fades when XYZ loses interest, while Mrs. B now yearns to be with him. The story ends with a cryptic telephone call.

The stories conclude with unexpected twists, sometimes a sharp knife thrust, sometimes a chuckle, but always illustrative of du Maurier’s gift for language and her eye for nature.

• Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.



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