This week Ali is hosting another of her Daphne du Maurier Reading Weeks. Du Maurier is one of my favourite authors and over the years I have managed to read all of her novels and short story collections, finishing last May with Castle Dor (my choice for the last Reading Week). I still have plenty of her non-fiction books left to read and hope to post a review of one of them later this week, but today I thought it would be interesting to look back at my journey through her fiction. Below are my thoughts on her novels and short story collections – and to make things more fun, I have ranked them in order of favourite to least favourite!
1. Rebecca – This was the first novel I read by Daphne du Maurier when I was sixteen and many years and several re-reads later it is still my favourite. This story of the second Mrs de Winter, haunted by the memory of her husband’s first wife, is a classic for a reason. From the famous opening line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, to the very last page, it’s a wonderful, atmospheric read.
2. The House on the Strand – I started reading this on New Year’s Day in 2011 and knew immediately that it was going to be one of my books of the year. It’s a time travel novel set partly in 14th century Cornwall, but it wasn’t the historical storyline that interested me so much as the method of time travel itself and the implications it has for the lives of our present day (1960s) characters.
3. My Cousin Rachel – If a newcomer to du Maurier’s work asked me what they should read next after Rebecca, this story of a young man who can’t decide whether or not his cousin Rachel is a murderer would be my recommendation. The plot is obviously very different, but it has a similarly dark and brooding atmosphere.
4. The Scapegoat – I love stories about mistaken identities, twins and doubles and this is a wonderful variation on that theme. It’s a book that I’m particularly looking forward to re-reading at some point, as I seem to have interpreted it quite differently from a lot of other readers and am curious to see if I still have the same theories about it.
5. The King’s General – Although this well-researched historical novel didn’t make it into my top four, it’s another favourite. Set in 17th century Cornwall during the English Civil War, it’s the story of Honor Harris, the victim of a tragic accident that threatens to destroy her future, and Richard Grenvile, the King’s General in the West. Part of the novel takes place at Menabilly, du Maurier’s own home which was also the inspiration for Manderley in Rebecca.
6. Frenchman’s Creek – It took me a while to get into this story of Dona St Columb and her love for a mysterious French pirate, but once I did I was swept away by it. I loved the dreamlike atmosphere and the beautifully described setting. Du Maurier’s sense of place is always wonderful but I found some of the images in this book particularly vivid.
7. Jamaica Inn – I first read this as a teenager after finishing Rebecca, which proved to be a mistake as although it’s a great novel in its own right, I think it suffered from being read immediately after a book I had loved so much. I decided to read it again a few years ago and this time I really enjoyed this Gothic tale of smugglers and shipwrecks set on the Cornish coast.
8. The Parasites – After a slow start, I loved this book about three siblings looking back on their childhood and wondering whether they really were ‘parasites’, as a family member once described them. Since reading this book several years ago, I have read some biographies of du Maurier and can see how some elements of the novel were inspired by her own childhood. Despite the title, this book contains some of the funniest scenes in all of du Maurier’s work.
9. The Loving Spirit – This was du Maurier’s first novel and having heard that it wasn’t as good as her later books I wasn’t expecting too much from it. However, I was very pleasantly surprised. The book is divided into four parts each telling the story of a different generation of the Coombe family, a shipbuilding family from Cornwall, and is an impressive achievement from a twenty-four-year-old author.
10. Hungry Hill – I love a good historical family saga and although this is a very bleak and depressing one, I still found it an interesting read – and nothing like The Loving Spirit, her other family saga. This one is set in 19th century Ireland and follows a copper-mining family over five generations. The characters are unpleasant and unlikeable and they suffer every kind of misfortune and tragedy you can imagine, but there was still something very compelling about this novel and I think it deserves a place in the middle of my list.
11. The Flight of the Falcon – Most of the details of this one have faded from my memory now, but although it wasn’t a favourite, I know I did enjoy it. I do remember some wonderful descriptions of the fictional Italian university town of Ruffano and a plot involving the re-enactment of the ‘flight’ of the city’s 15th century ruler, Duke Claudio.
12. Julius – This is probably the darkest and most disturbing of du Maurier’s novels – the story of an ambitious, ruthless man who manipulates everyone around him in order to get what he wants. Despite the unlikeable character (one of the most horrible people I’ve come across in fiction), and some anti-Semitism, I found this a gripping novel with some beautifully atmospheric descriptive writing.
13. I’ll Never Be Young Again – This ‘coming of age’ story is one of several du Maurier novels to have a male narrator and I think she writes from a man’s perspective very well. Richard is an immature young man at the start of the novel but his life begins to change through his relationships with Jake, a friend with whom he travels around Norway, and Hesta, a woman he meets in Paris. I came to this book having only read Rebecca and Jamaica Inn and found it completely different, but surprisingly good.
14. Rule Britannia – This is an unusual du Maurier novel in which our protagonist, Emma, wakes up one day to find that the UK has broken away from Europe to form an alliance with the US, creating a new country known as USUK. Published in 1972, this novel may once have seemed like pure fantasy but has a new relevance in post-Brexit Britain! It’s fascinating, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as most of her other books.
15. Mary Anne – A book of two very different halves for me. I loved the first half, which describes (in fictional form) the early life of Mary Anne Clarke, du Maurier’s great-great-grandmother, who is born into a poor London family in the 1770s but goes on to become the mistress of Prince Frederick, Duke of York. The second half of the novel is devoted to several political scandals and court cases in which Mary Anne became involved and I found these quite tedious to read about, which is why this book isn’t higher on my list.
16. The Glass-Blowers – This historical novel based loosely on du Maurier’s own ancestors and set during the French Revolution should have been just my sort of book, so I was disappointed not to have enjoyed it more. I felt that it didn’t have quite the sense of time and place that some of her other books have, which was surprising considering the setting. However, even though it ranks as a lowly 16/17 on my list, I would still recommend reading it. It’s not a bad book at all – just not a personal favourite.
17. Castle Dor – It’s maybe not surprising that this is my least favourite du Maurier novel, as part of it was written by another author, Arthur Quiller-Couch, known as Q. Set in the 19th century and based on the legend of Tristan and Iseult, it should have been a great story, but I never felt fully engaged with either the plot or the characters and I would only really recommend this one if, like me, you’re planning to read all of du Maurier’s work.
The Short Stories
1. The Birds and Other Stories – I’m not usually a fan of short stories, but I love du Maurier’s. Her short story collections are harder for me to rank because each one contains some stories I loved and others I didn’t, but I think this one is the best. Many people are familiar with the title story, in which a family find their home under attack from a huge flock of birds, through the Alfred Hitchcock film, but the others are good too and I particularly enjoyed The Old Man!
2. Don’t Look Now and Other Stories – Originally published as Not After Midnight and Other Stories. This collection only contains five stories, but that means they’re long enough for plenty of character and plot development. I loved Don’t Look Now (which was also adapted for film) and Not After Midnight, but my favourite story was A Border-Line Case.
3. The Breaking Point: Short Stories – This is a dark and unsettling collection of stories written during a time in her life when du Maurier said she had been close to a nervous breakdown. Some of the stories are very enjoyable, such as The Alibi, The Blue Lenses and The Lordly Ones, but I found this collection more uneven than the two above, which is why it’s only third on my list.
4. The Doll: Short Stories – These thirteen ‘lost’ stories were written very early in Daphne’s career but not published until more recently. Although some of the stories feel quite short and incomplete there are some very strong ones in this collection too and I noticed some themes, ideas and settings that would appear again later in du Maurier’s future work.
5. The Rendezvous and Other Stories – I read this in 2009 and it was the first Daphne du Maurier book I’d read since Rebecca and Jamaica Inn as a teenager. Like the stories in The Doll, these are early examples of du Maurier’s work and some are too short to be very satisfying, but again there are plenty of signs of the great writer she would become.
I know there are other editions available that contain different combinations of these stories, but I think these are the five main collections. I am now continuing to work through du Maurier’s non-fiction – so far I have read Golden Lads and The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë.
If you have read some or all of these books, let me know what you think of my list! Would you have put them in a different order? And if you’re new or nearly new to Daphne du Maurier, which of these are you looking forward to reading?