Magazine article The Spectator

The Ascent from Boots Library

Magazine article The Spectator

The Ascent from Boots Library

Article excerpt

THE DAPHNE DUMAURIER COMPANION edited by Helen Taylor Virago, £9.99, pp. 424, ISBN 9781844082353

There was a time not so very long ago when a sustained festschriftstyle tribute to Daphne du Maurier from her literary admirers, with a forward by the Rector of the Royal College of Art, would have been altogether unimaginable. The critical establishment during her lifetime found something irksome about her fecundity of talent, commercial success and mercurial versatility and, perhaps a touch envious of her existence as a Cornish châtelaine married to a general in the royal household, refused to take her seriously.

Whatever du Maurier's social status, her novels and short stories, mapping a world of transgression and dishonesty, were emphatically unrespectable. Women leading unfulfilled lives in suburban villas furtively borrowed them from the public library (when such places existed) and devoured each unimproving chronicle of feisty heroines setting convention at nought, skulduggery at the manor or brushes with the macabre in the hope that some of the writer's subversive knowingness might rub off on them.

Not surprisingly, her work makes excellent cinema. The Birds, even if its star Tippi Hedren was merely the umpteenth casualty of Hitchcock's obsession with glacial blondes, saw the horror movie genre transformed under the director's touch.

Nick Roeg's Don't Look Now was an elegantly framed Venetian flesh-creeper and vehicle for Alec Guinness's protean gifts.

As for Rebecca, while the movie may not be altogether true to the narrative (still less so, we gather, if Hitchcock hadn't been reined in by his producer David O. Selznick) the battle between du Maurier's two heroines, living and dead, is one of the screen's epic duels.

Homage to both the book and the film provides the apex of The Daphne du Maurier Companion's festal pyramid, in a section whose very title, 'The Lasting Reputation and Cultural Legacy of Rebecca' indicates just how much the critical climate has altered. What was once written off as a mere overblown novelette designed for Boots' Library readers is now viewed as a multi-layered psychodrama, incorporating elements of fairytale (Cinderella meets Bluebeard) more than a few hints from du Maurier's beloved Brontës, and a seasoning of lesbianism in the relationship between Rebecca and her devoted Mrs Danvers, who may or may not have started the fire which consumes Manderley at the story's close. …

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