Don’t Look Now and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite authors and I now only have one of her novels left to read (Castle Dor, which was partly written by Arthur Quiller-Couch). However, I also still need to read several of her short story collections, having previously only read The Birds and The Rendezvous, so I decided to put this one, Don’t Look Now and Other Stories on my 20 Books of Summer list.

This particular collection is from 1971 and has been published as both Don’t Look Now and Not After Midnight. It contains five stories which are all about fifty or sixty pages long – the perfect length, in my opinion, as it means they are long enough to allow for some development of characters and plot, while still being short enough to read in one or two sittings.

The title story, the dark and atmospheric Don’t Look Now, is a strong opening to the book. John and his wife Laura are on holiday in Venice following the recent death of their young daughter, Christine. John has been doing his best to move on, but Laura is still grieving and, when they meet a pair of elderly twin sisters in a restaurant one evening, it comforts her to be told that one of the twins, who claims to be psychic, can ‘see’ Christine sitting beside her parents. When more strange occurrences follow – including the sighting of a little girl in a red hood jumping over the boats moored in a canal – it seems that something sinister is going on. Could he and Laura be in danger? This is a great story, and if you haven’t read it perhaps you have seen the 1973 film with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland?

Not After Midnight comes next and is another good one. Our narrator, schoolmaster and artist Timothy Grey, is visiting Crete where he hopes to find some inspiration for his paintings. Staying in a little chalet in a picturesque resort by the sea, Timothy is enjoying the peace and quiet – until he encounters an American couple, the Stolls, who are staying in one of the nearby chalets. The couple invite him to visit them in their chalet – as long as it’s ‘not after midnight’ – but Timothy feels uneasy. Why do the Stolls spend so much time out at sea, supposedly fishing? And what really happened to the last occupant of Timothy’s chalet? This is another dark and suspenseful story and I really enjoyed it – until I reached the ending, which I’ll confess to not really understanding at all.

I think the middle story, A Border-Line Case, was my favourite. A nineteen-year-old actress, Shelagh Money, has just lost her beloved father and heads to Ireland to track down his old friend, Nick. The two men had lost contact years earlier after Nick was injured in a car accident and became a recluse, living on an island in the middle of an Irish lough. On her arrival at Nick’s island home, Shelagh begins to feel uneasy and decides not to admit who she is or why she is there…but Nick is hiding a secret of his own – and not the sort of secret either I or Shelagh was expecting. Although I didn’t see that particular twist coming, there is another twist at the end which I found much more predictable, but I still found this the most enjoyable of the five stories.

I didn’t like The Way of the Cross quite as much as the first three stories. It’s about a group of people from the same little village who are on a tour of Jersualem, led by the Rev. Edward Babcock. Babcock has stepped in at the last minute to replace another vicar who has fallen ill, and he doesn’t know – or particularly like – any of the people in the group. They include a retired colonel and his self-obsessed wife, a young newly married couple, a wealthy middle-aged couple, an elderly spinster, and a precocious nine-year-old boy who is enjoying showing off his knowledge of the historical and religious sites they are visiting. Unlike the previous stories, there is nothing dark, supernatural or shocking about this one – the focus is on the tourists and the discoveries they make about themselves and their companions.

The last story, The Breakthrough, was my least favourite in the book. It’s a science fiction story which explores some of the ethical questions surrounding scientific progress and whether there should be a limit to how far it should go. The narrator, Stephen Saunders, is a scientist who has been transferred to a research facility in rural England where the eccentric Mac and his assistants are working on an experiment so controversial it must be kept completely secret. This is a disturbing story with the sort of unsettling atmosphere du Maurier is so good at creating. It wasn’t entirely to my taste, as I’m not much of a science fiction fan, but it is still an interesting story to bring the collection to an end.

Five very different stories with very different settings. I enjoyed reading all of them, some more than others, and I’m looking forward to reading the other du Maurier short story collections on my TBR: The Doll and The Breaking Point.

This is book 8/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

It is also book 7/50 from my second Classics Club list.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (re-read)

Sometimes re-reading a favourite book can be a disappointment; perhaps you’ve changed too much as a person since the last time you read it and the story and characters no longer have the appeal they used to have – or maybe it just loses some of its magic because you’ve read other books in the meantime that are similar and better. Luckily, I experienced none of that disappointment when I picked up Rebecca for a re-read recently. I fell in love with it all over again!

For those of you who have not yet read Rebecca, I’ll give a brief summary of the plot – and the first thing I should probably say is that we never actually meet Rebecca herself. She dies a year before the novel opens, although with her bright and vibrant personality she is a very strong presence throughout. Our narrator, in contrast, is a shy and awkward young woman who remains nameless from beginning to end; our only clue is that she has a ‘lovely and unusual’ name and one which is difficult to spell. It is while working as a companion to the overbearing Mrs Van Hopper in Monte Carlo that the narrator meets and falls in love with Rebecca’s widowed husband, Maxim de Winter, who is thought still to be grieving for his wife. The last thing she expects, then, is to receive a proposal of marriage from Maxim and to be whisked off back to England to his house in Cornwall.

Although the narrator is captivated by the magnificence of her new home, Manderley, and its beautiful surroundings, she also feels intimidated and out of place. She knows that Rebecca lived here with Maxim for years and that Rebecca was so much better at everything than she will ever be – something the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, won’t let her forget. It’s not long before the narrator begins to tell herself that her marriage is a mistake…she’s convinced that Maxim still loves Rebecca, but is there more to this situation than meets the eye?

I’m not sure whether this is the third or the fourth time I have read Rebecca, but I do know that it must be at least ten years since I read it last – long enough that I can remember the outline of the plot but not every little detail. Reading it again was a wonderful experience, right from the famous opening line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”. As I’ve said before, du Maurier is one of the most atmospheric writers I’ve ever come across; she makes it so easy to picture every scene in vivid detail. All of her novels are beautifully written, but this one particularly so.

I know a lot of readers find the second Mrs de Winter frustrating, but I have never had a problem with her, probably because when I first read this book as a teenager I was also a shy, sensitive person so I found it easy to understand and sympathise with her. It’s worth remembering that she is only twenty-one, completely alone in the world (to the point where, when she sits down at her new writing desk at Manderley, she can think of no one to write to but Mrs Van Hopper) and has never been taught to manage servants, host a party or do any of the other things that are suddenly required of her. Not everyone can be as confident as Rebecca, after all, and it is the narrator’s sense of inferiority whenever Rebecca is mentioned which drives the plot forward and adds to the feeling of tension and claustrophobia.

I didn’t care for Maxim this time round, though. I know his distant, brooding nature is as important to the plot as his wife’s uncertainty and paranoia – and if they had been different people the story would not have worked – but I thought he could have been much more supportive of her, particularly after (trying not to spoil too much here) the white dress scene. It’s sad that she seems so much more comfortable and at ease with Maxim’s friend, Frank Crawley, than she does with her own husband. On the other hand, I felt slightly more sympathetic towards Mrs Danvers this time; I can see that she’s much more complex than I’d thought on my earlier reads.

Finally, I want to say that this is one of the few cases where I think the film (the 1940 one with Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier) is as good as the book. What do you think?

This re-read means that I’m coming to the end of a little project I have been working on over the last few years. In 2009, having previously only read Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, I decided I wanted to read the rest of du Maurier’s novels and I have now read all of them, with the exception of Castle Dor which I’m hoping to read soon (after I’ve read that one I’ll do a round-up post and pick out some of my favourites). I do still have some of her short story collections and most of her non-fiction books to look forward to, though!

This is book 8/20 of my 20 Books of Summer – and also book 99/100 from my Classics Club list.

Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier

frenchmans-creek Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca has been one of my favourite books since I first read it as a teenager, but it’s only relatively recently that I started to explore the rest of her work. Since 2010, I have now read several of her short story collections and one of her non-fiction books, as well as working through almost all of her novels, saving Frenchman’s Creek until near the end (as it sounded like one that I would particularly enjoy and I wanted to have something to look forward to).

Set in the 17th century, Frenchman’s Creek is the story of Dona St Columb who, at the beginning of the novel, is growing disillusioned with her marriage and bored with life in London. To alleviate her boredom, she has been joining her husband Harry and his friends in some increasingly wild escapades, but as the mother of two young children she has started to feel ashamed of her behaviour. Unable to bear it any longer, she decides that what she needs is to spend some time away from her husband and London society – and so she takes the children and heads for Navron, Harry’s estate in Cornwall.

On arriving at the house, Dona is surprised to find that only one servant is present; his name is William, a quiet but perceptive man with whom Dona forms an immediate bond. Despite signs that suggest someone has been sleeping in her bedroom while the house stood empty, she soon begins to feel relaxed and refreshed in the peaceful surroundings of Navron. Her new neighbours, however, seem to be less at ease and it’s not long before Dona hears tales of a French pirate who is said to be terrorising the coast of Cornwall. On a walk through the woods one day, she discovers a ship resting in a creek and suddenly everything makes sense.

The Frenchman (who, you will have guessed, is the owner of the ship), dispels all of Dona’s – and probably the reader’s – preconceived ideas of what a pirate should be. Polite, cultured and intelligent, he couldn’t be more different from Harry and his friends, and it’s no surprise that Dona falls in love with him. I couldn’t quite believe that a man like the Frenchman would have chosen to be a pirate (the reasons he gives for his way of life didn’t seem very convincing) but I thought he was an intriguing character and I enjoyed watching Dona’s relationship with him develop. And yet I didn’t become fully engaged with the story until halfway through, when Dona and the Frenchman embark on an adventure together and the consequences of this threaten to bring their happiness to an end. From this point on, I found the book unputdownable, right through to its poignant ending.

Du Maurier’s writing is beautifully atmospheric and evocative, more so than almost any other author I can think of. The description of Dona’s first walk along the banks of the creek, where it widens into a pool and she comes upon the pirate ship for the first time, is so vivid I could nearly see the scene laid out in front of me. The whole book has a dreamy, almost hypnotic feel. Although we are told once or twice that our hero’s name is Jean-Benoit Aubéry, he is referred to throughout the novel as simply the Frenchman – it’s little things like these which really add to the air of mystery and haziness.

Although I did enjoy this book very much, particularly the second half, it couldn’t quite equal my top four du Mauriers, Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, The Scapegoat and The House on the Strand. I’m planning a re-read of Rebecca soon and then I would like to read Castle Dor, the only du Maurier novel I still haven’t read.

Mary Anne by Daphne du Maurier

Mary Anne I fell in love with Daphne du Maurier’s writing as a teenager when I read Rebecca for the first time, quickly followed by Jamaica Inn, and since then, I have been (very slowly) working through the rest of her novels, short stories and non-fiction. I have thoroughly enjoyed most of her books, with only a few exceptions – and sadly this one, Mary Anne, was one of the exceptions. I wouldn’t say that I didn’t enjoy it at all – there were still a lot of things that I liked – but I didn’t think it was as strong as most of the other du Maurier novels I’ve read.

Du Maurier often draws on her own family history as an inspiration for her work; The Glass-Blowers is the story of her ancestors who lived in France during the Revolution, while The Parasites also has autobiographical elements and the houses in both Rebecca and The King’s General are based on her own home, Menabilly. Mary Anne is a fictional account of the life of Mary Anne Clarke, du Maurier’s great-great-grandmother, best known for being a mistress of Prince Frederick, Duke of York.

I loved the first few chapters of the book which follow Mary Anne throughout her childhood and teenage years. Born into a poor London family in 1776, Mary Anne Thompson grows up on Chancery Lane with her mother, younger brother and stepfather, who works as a copy editor. When her stepfather becomes ill and is unable to go to work, the thirteen-year-old Mary Anne secretly collects his copy from the printer and corrects it herself – and from this moment I knew she was going to be a great character: strong, clever and resourceful from an early age.

Mary Anne is also an ambitious person but she makes a big mistake when, in 1791, she elopes with Joseph Clarke, a stonemason. The marriage is an unhappy one; Joseph is an alcoholic who drinks and gambles away most of his money, leaving Mary Anne desperate to escape and build a new life for herself and her children. The breakdown of her marriage proves to be a turning point and it’s not long before Mary Anne comes to the attention of Frederick, Duke of York.

Portrait of Mary Anne Clarke by Adam Buck, 1803

Portrait of Mary Anne Clarke by Adam Buck, 1803

As the Duke’s mistress, Mary Anne enjoys the comfort and luxury that comes with her new status, but she quickly discovers that the money he provides her with is not sufficient to pay for the lifestyle she wants. Taking advantage of Frederick’s position as Commander-in-Chief of the Army, she decides to add to her income by secretly accepting payments in exchange for using her influence with the Duke to obtain army commissions. Mary Anne is sure nothing will go wrong, but to the reader it’s obvious that she is playing a dangerous game and that if her relationship with the Duke should ever come to an end, her life could begin to fall apart.

As I’ve said, I thought the first part of the book was wonderful and I enjoyed watching Mary Anne use her wits and her charm to rise from her humble beginnings to a position of power. She’s a real social-climber and reminded me of characters like Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair and Amber St Clare from Forever Amber. Remembering that du Maurier was writing about her own ancestor, I think her interest in and affection for Mary Anne come across strongly, while at the same time she is open about Mary Anne’s faults and flaws.

The second half of the novel is devoted to several court cases and scandals in which Mary Anne becomes involved, and this is where I started to get bored. The court proceedings are described in great detail, with page after page of witness statements, letters, testimonies and dialogue, which I just didn’t find very interesting to read. I can appreciate that du Maurier was trying to stay true to history here and incorporate her research into the story, but I don’t think she got the balance quite right between fact and fiction.

I’m glad I’ve had the chance to meet and get to know Mary Anne Clarke but this book left me slightly disappointed. I’m hoping for better luck with the remaining du Maurier books I still need to read (Frenchman’s Creek, Castle Dor and some of the non-fiction and short story collections).

My commonplace book: May 2016

A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

~

He could put the young king aside as some nameless bastard; he could take England into his hand to shape to what greatness he would. In that moment, he never questioned his power. It was his to claim kingship or forgo it. On the strains of the dirge drifted to him a sound of King Edward’s voice: “Richard hath failed me never; him I do well to trust!”

The Confession of Richard Plantagenet by Dora Greenwell McChesney (1913)

~

Vaux le Vicomte

The scaffolding had disappeared, flowers and shrubs were gradually covering the bare earth, bringing the flowerbeds to life, and Vaux was slowly taking shape, little by little revealing its full majesty.

The Sun King Conspiracy by Yves Jégo and Denis Lépée (2016)

~

Thus at two on a Sunday morning, on the second day of September, in the year of our Lord, also the year of the Beast, 1666, London begins to burn.

Fire by C.C. Humphreys (2016)

~

Phileas Fogg

The mansion in Savile Row, though not sumptuous, was exceedingly comfortable. The habits of its occupant were such as to demand but little from the sole domestic, but Phileas Fogg required him to be almost superhumanly prompt and regular. On this very 2nd of October he had dismissed James Forster, because that luckless youth had brought him shaving-water at eighty-four degrees Fahrenheit instead of eighty-six.

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne (1873)

~

Even after all this time, grief threatens to overwhelm me when I think about my family…so powerful, so vigorous, yet all destroyed in a few short years. But still, we left our mark on history; never again will the world see our equal.

The Sons of Godwine by Mercedes Rochelle (2016)

~

Mary Anne Clarke

This was what they remembered in after years. The rest was forgotten. Forgotten the lies, the deceit, the sudden bursts of temper. Forgotten the wild extravagance, the absurd generosity, the vitriolic tongue. Only the warmth remained, and the love of living.

Mary Anne by Daphne du Maurier (1954)

~

“The worst of it is, I’ll have to tell him so myself. He’ll never dare to mention the subject again, after what I said to him that night he proposed last. I wish I hadn’t been so dreadful emphatic. Now I’ve got to say it myself if it is ever said. But I’ll not begin by quoting poetry, that’s one thing sure!”

Love and Other Happy Endings edited by M.R. Nelson (2016)

~

She could not even recall his features properly nor remember the colour of his eyes, but she could recall how her heart had leaped when he looked at her. She could remember the sound of his voice but not the words he had spoken, as one remembers the perfume of a flower long after it has been pressed out of shape between the pages of a book.

The Queenmaker by Maureen Peters (1975)

~

Pembroke_Table_by_Chippendale

Sometimes the apprentice fainted with exertion and had to be revived with a cup of water dashed in his face. Thomas often thought, when a veneered surface had been subsequently polished to a satin-like shine, that it was doubtful if the future owner of the piece would ever have the least idea what sweaty, strength-wrenching effort went into the making of it. Hell held no fears for him. It could be no worse than a veneering shop.

Gilded Splendour by Rosalind Laker (1982)

~

“Jack, Jack,” cried Stephen, running in. “I have been sadly remiss. You are promoted, I find. You are a great man – you are virtually an admiral! Give you joy, my dear, with all my heart. The young man in black clothes tells me you are the greatest man on the station, after the Commander-in-chief.”

The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian (1977)

~

Favourite book this month: Around the World in Eighty Days

The Glass-Blowers by Daphne du Maurier

A glass blower, remember, breathes life into a vessel, giving it shape and form and sometimes beauty; but he can, with that same breath, shatter and destroy it.

The Glass-Blowers The Glass-Blowers was the book selected for me in the last Classics Spin at the end of August. The deadline for reading our Spin book is this Friday, so I’ve finished just in time! Although it has taken me a while to actually pick this novel up and read it, that’s not because I wasn’t looking forward to it. Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite authors and I fully expected to love this book as I’ve loved most of her others. That didn’t really happen, unfortunately, but I did still find things to enjoy.

Published in 1963, The Glass-Blowers is historical fiction based on the lives of du Maurier’s own ancestors who lived in France during the Revolution. The story is narrated by Sophie Duval, an elderly woman writing her family history in the form of a letter to send to her nephew. Sophie begins by looking back on her childhood growing up in the Loir-et-Cher region of France as the daughter of master glass-blower Mathurin Busson. Most of her early memories revolve around her eldest brother, Robert, who is constantly getting into debt and finding himself in trouble. It is Robert who will eventually move to England and provide the link to Daphne du Maurier herself.

In France, meanwhile, Sophie and her other siblings – Pierre, Michel and Edmé – become swept up in the drama of the French Revolution. So much of what I’ve read about the Revolution is focused on Paris, so it was fascinating to read about the ways in which it affected the lives of those living in the countryside and in other cities such as Le Mans. The section set during the War in the Vendée is particularly gripping and vivid – probably because Sophie herself is caught up in the uprising and experiences it directly. Other major events happen in the background and Sophie only hears thirdhand accounts, which takes away some of the emotional impact of the story (I kept thinking of The Brethren by Robert Merle, another novel set in France which is written in a similarly passive style).

The distance between narrator and reader meant that I never became fully engaged in the lives of the Bussons and never felt that I had really got to know Sophie. Her brother and sisters were stronger characters, particularly Michel, who becomes a political activist and joins the National Guard, and Robert, who repeatedly reinvents himself as one business venture after another ends in failure. Robert infuriated me at first but he eventually became my favourite character and I found myself looking forward to his scenes as they added a spark of life to what I was beginning to find quite a tedious story.

One of the things I usually love about du Maurier is her descriptive writing and the way she creates a strong sense of time and place – and this is something that I thought was missing from The Glass-Blowers (apart from in the Vendée scenes, as I mentioned above). This hasn’t become a favourite du Maurier book, then, but in my opinion even her weaker novels are still worth reading. Now that I’ve read this one I’m planning to read Mary Anne, another fictional account of one of du Maurier’s ancestors, this time on the English side of the family. After that I’ll only have Frenchman’s Creek and Castle Dor left to read.

Classics Spin Result!

On Saturday I decided to take part in the tenth Classics Club Spin. The rules were simple – list twenty books from your Classics Club list, number them 1 to 20, and the number announced today (Monday) represents the book you have to read before 23rd October 2015.

The number that has been selected this time is 5, which means the book I’ll be reading is:

The Glass-Blowers

The Glass-Blowers by Daphne du Maurier

I couldn’t be happier with this result as Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite authors. I have been working my way through all of her novels over the last few years and this is one of only four that I still have left to read.

Here is the synopsis (taken from Goodreads):

The world of the glass-blowers has its own traditions, it’s own language – and its own rules. ‘If you marry into glass’ Pierre Labbe warns his daughter, ‘you will say goodbye to everything familiar, and enter a closed world’. But crashing into this world comes the violence and terror of the French Revolution, against which the family struggles to survive.

Years later, Sophie Duval reveals to her long-lost nephew the tragic story of a family of master craftsmen in eighteenth-century France. Drawing on her own family’s tale of tradition and sorrow, Daphne du Maurier weaves an unforgettable saga of beauty, war, and family.

Have you read this book? Did you enjoy it?

If you’re taking part in the spin too, I hope you’ve got a book you’re happy with!