More Fun to Be a Boy

Lorna Scott Fox

  • Daphne du Maurier: Haunted Heiress by Nina Auerbach
    Pennsylvania, 216 pp, £18.50, December 1999, ISBN 0 8122 3530 4

There is a whiff of apology about the beginning of this book. Daphne du Maurier is known to be a trashy writer of escapist romance: you’re likely to find Jamaica Inn, Frenchman’s Creek and Rebecca in the teenage section, and the other titles practically nowhere – so why this ardent study? By the end of it, though, Nina Auerbach has achieved quite a rehabilitation. This du Maurier is not one of a brace of representative low-culture populists. Nor is she reduced to her exemplary anti-climactic, 20th-century life. We are fed just enough of the lame glamour of the du Maurier clan, the coy code words and the repressed bisexuality, to clarify the way inherited themes were reworked, with shocking bleakness, into stories of inheritance that were so unorthodox and so freakish as to be invisible.

The first image is of summer camp during the 1950s where, next to jolly healthy girls who don’t even read trash, Auerbach is a lone intellectual devouring Hungry Hill by flashlight. Published in 1943, it’s a saga of feudal decay that opens her American eyes to the possibility of another way of ordering the world. ‘I had always assumed that every generation started life over again in a new beginning; I was stricken by the tragedy of the recurrent Johns and Henrys, each a diluted version of the last, all disintegrating under the inheritance that is their only identity.’ Auerbach keeps thinking she has outgrown that girlish fascination, but time after time ‘I read her again and fall back into her world.’ As a Victorian scholar herself, she feels an added pang of kinship at the writer’s entanglement with history: a reclusive, embittered dreamer living off imagination and dashed hopes, du Maurier obsessively searched the past in her writing. And like the past, like the family myths in the suffocating web of recurrence, like Rebecca and her boat Je reviens, ‘Daphne du Maurier seems never to end. She can only return, and for me, at least, she always has.’ The title Haunted Heiress is not just a mocking nod to the melodrama she’s associated with: it rehearses du Maurier’s pathology, presenting it as a genealogical curse that doubles back and forth, collapsing generations together in strange forms of incest, possession or reincarnation. With du Maurier, family (and its political dimension, property) was the beginning and end. All promises and disappointments were locked inside it, feverishly reproducing themselves.

Auerbach accordingly devotes a chapter to family antecedents in which the key figure is perhaps the grandfather, George. Even more decisive for her writing than the pressures exerted on young Daphne by her amorous, possessive father Gerald – who played Captain Hook/Mr Darling on the stage and passed on a dire Peter-Panishness to her – were the now forgotten bestsellers of a man who spoke to the anxieties of the 1890s. Peter Ibbetson (1891) was an earlier Peter Pan, the fantasy of a cloudless boyhood in pre-Haussmann Paris, that could be returned to by means of imaginative concentration, or ‘dreaming true’. There is a semi-incestuous guiding spirit, and fusion with ancestors; by the end, du Maurier/ Ibbetson’s mother has become his daughter and his childhood self, his own lovely grandchild.

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