Posts Tagged ‘Daphne du Maurier’

My Cousin Rachel

February 27, 2017

‘How was the night?’ the husband asks in the grey gloamy light of not-quite-morning.

‘I can’t really remember,’ I say.

We lie there together in silence. The husband clutches his phone, ready to press snooze when the shock of the alarm next jolts. I wonder how I have managed to slump into such an uncomfortable position, and try to recall how many times Ezra woke up to feed and whether or not Vita was up too. Ezra is guzzling hungrily, snuffling with yet another cold he has caught from his older sister. Soon she starts shouting from next door: ‘Wake me up now mummy!’ It’s twenty past six. I prod the husband. He rolls out of bed. And so the day begins.

the-orchard-book-of-greek-mythsIt is usually better once we are downstairs. Ezra grins away all open-mouthed and sparkly eyed. Vita is happy showing off how she can get dressed on her own – ‘let me want to do it’ – and then there is the relative peace of breakfast, as she distributes pomegranate seeds among us (her current favourite fruit because it is pink and also because it is Persephone’s fruit, and we are reading the Greek myths together, and Persephone is her favourite). The husband necks a coffee and races off to work in the hope that he might be back for bathtime. I stack last night’s wine glasses into the dishwasher and feel dimly grateful for having splashed out on a very expensive face cream.

How was the night? I can’t really remember. How were the first two months? I can’t really remember either. It is a blur of smiles and tears and general wonder.

I last wrote here after a terrible few days in hospital before Ezra’s late arrival. (The birth, by the way, was great: The midwives came round. Vita went to bed and we listened to her on the monitor as she arranged all her animals into ‘families’. We hung out with the midwives and ate pasta and chocolate biscuits, and talked about books. The husband inflated the birth pool. Ezra came out with his hand by his cheek. Then we got into bed, and when Vita woke up the next morning, she climbed into bed with us and met her little brother.)

the-weirdstone-of-brisingamenWhile I was in hospital I was sorely stuck for something to read. I needed something wholly absorbing and extremely easy to divert me from the gruesome sound effects of the ward. I tried a few children’s books and had moderate success with Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, but it only lasted an evening. I remember lying in bed the next morning puzzling over what to read, alighting on the solution of something by Daphne du Maurier and plotting an outing to a bookshop, but no sooner had this eureka moment occurred when the doctors came round and discharged me.

Over Christmas, the four of us decamped to my mum’s house. My old bedroom there is still lined with my childhood books, and as I was scanning the spines one evening I spotted the clump of Daphne du Mauriers. I picked up My Cousin Rachel and was soon suitably immersed. I now see that it is coming out as a film this year, so I feel pleasingly (and surprisingly) on trend.

Having recently re-read Rebecca for Emily’s Walking Book Club, I would say that Daphne du Maurier is pretty damn good at creating women opaque with a balance of mystery and menace.

my-cousin-rachelThe novel is narrated by Philip, an orphan who was raised by his cousin, confirmed bachelor Ambrose, who is very jolly and kind and rich. Ambrose goes off to Florence, where he meets and marries their distant cousin Rachel. He dies not long afterwards in mysterious circumstances, the implication being that Rachel might have murdered him. When Rachel then comes to Cornwall, we – like Philip – are prepared to hate her and distrust her. Philip, however, in spite of his prejudices, falls victim to her womanly charms…

Du Maurier couldn’t have made Philip more naïve, open and daftly innocent. He is also headstrong and impulsive, and one is frequently grateful that he (and his family money) is still under the control of his guardian for the remaining few months until he turns twenty-five. His cheeks are always aflame, he doesn’t take anything that he can’t ‘seize’, and he says idiotic things like:

‘I have a shrewd guess … that the blessings of married bliss are not all they are claimed to be. If it’s warmth and comfort that a man wants, and something beautiful to look upon, he can get all that from his own house, if he loves it well.’

When Rachel laughs at this, he notes: ‘I could not see that it was so very funny.’

Incidentally, du Maurier seems to have been somewhat preoccupied with men’s love affairs with their country houses. In Rebecca, Max de Winter is undone by his love for Manderley, and losing the house – Rebecca’s final act of revenge from beyond the grave – is what leaves him stuck drifting around soulless hotels feeling so miserable. He is far sadder about losing the house than losing his wife.

Philip’s innocence is a foil for Rachel’s dark mystery. She is all poise and womanly charm, dwelling in her candlelit boudoir, brewing her murky tisanes, dressed in black. Poor Philip doesn’t stand a chance!

But Du Maurier’s great skill is that she is constantly setting up our prejudices and then undermining them. We think of Rachel as a murderer, deviously trying to cheat Philip of his inheritance and ensnare his affection for her. Somehow, Du Maurier manages to spin it so that as well as thinking all this, we doubt it and simultaneously see Rachel as a widow in mourning for her husband, as a lady who is kind and affectionate towards childish Philip, and we note her responsibility in insisting on returning all the family jewels that Philip impetuously gives her. We are forever oscillating between two wildly different interpretations of her – with different bits of ‘proof’ each way constantly surfacing. Even at the very end of the novel, Rachel remains ambiguous. We never know if she killed Ambrose and tried to kill Philip or if in fact she nursed them through terrible illnesses, perhaps even saving Philip’s life.

It strikes me that Rebecca too could be either devil or angel: she does all sorts of terrible things, but only if we believe Max de Winter, who eventually admits to killing her. Likewise, in Rachel we have a woman whose story is told to us by a man, only it is all the more obvious that Rachel is an enigma to Philip, as he – like us – oscillates between seeing her as guilty and innocent. Perhaps the point isn’t in deciding either way, but in that Du Maurier gives these women such powerful, unresolvable mystery. In so doing, she prevents the men in her novels from understanding or controlling them.

There is more to say about this book, which is very gripping, very gothic, very menacing and strange and brilliant. But I’m afraid it has joined the sleep-deprived blur of the past two months and I had better admit that, if you were to ask me much more about it, I would have to say, just like whatever happened last night, ‘I can’t really remember.’

daphne-du-maurier

Daphne du Maurier – looking suitably fierce and mysterious

How to be a Heroine

January 13, 2014

Long-term followers of EmilyBooks may remember the ‘Next Big Thing’ post, which went up just over a year ago. It’s a slightly daft ‘meme’, but also a sweet idea, in which you are tagged by someone to write a few words about your book, and then you tag someone at the end of it, so in theory the meme lives forever. Dawkins, I’m sure, couldn’t be more thrilled.

How to be a Heroine by Samantha EllisI tagged Samantha Ellis, playwright, journalist … and now author of the newly published How to be a Heroine. No doubt you have seen some of the rave reviews that have filled the papers over the past couple of weeks. What can I say? I had it pegged as the next big thing back in 2012.

Of course I was enchanted by How to be a Heroine when I first heard of Ellis’s idea. Briefly, it is a memoir of reading – a look back over her life through the books she’s read, and, most importantly, her various literary heroines.

It’s a book which speaks to any true book worm, for however many times you’ve been told never to think of characters as free agents but only as the author’s creation, however much lit crit you apply to various novels, transforming scenes and plots into psychoanalytical arguments or autobiographical projections, labelling them post-colonial, post-structuralist, or post-anything else, if you really love reading novels, for every author you love, no doubt there is a character who inspires you.

I love Jane Gardam for Filth, for Betty and of course for little Jessica Vye. I love Vita Sackville-West for Lady Slane. I love Penelope Fitzgerald for Nenna and her daughters Tilda and Martha, and for Selwyn and Lisa. I love Forster for Mrs Moore, I love Woolf for Clarissa Dalloway, I love Penelope Lively for Claudia Hampton, Henry James for Isabel Archer, George Eliot for Dorothea Brooke and Mirah Lapidoth. And there are all my earlier heroes and heroines: Susan Cooper for Will Stanton, Ursula le Guin for Ged aka Sparrowhawk, AA Milne for Piglet, Francis Hodgson Burnett for Mary Lennox, Philip Pullman for Lyra … even Eric Carle for his caterpillar with such a voracious appetite.

Ellis has done the very clever thing of tying her reading life to her real life. She tells us the story of these two lives, showing how she turned from one fictional heroine to another, as she grew up. She learned some vital life-lessons on the way: Anne of Green Gables taught her the power of imagination, Scarlett O’Hara taught her how to flirt, Franny Glass taught her to order whatever she wants in a smart restaurant, and the women from Lace taught her how to have a career.

The Little MermaidNow Ellis re-reads all these books and sees them in a rather different thirty-something-year-old light. This double reading is very effective – firstly we see what drew such loyalty from Ellis at a particular stage of her life, and secondly we are given a more nuanced understanding of these novels and their heroines. With hindsight, Ellis can understand why she loved the Little Mermaid so much when she was little:

It’s because, like me, she’s caught between two worlds.

Ellis grew up in an Iraqi-Jewish community, always being told of the exotic wonders of Baghdad, yet knowing she’d never go to this place her parents called home. This magical Kingdom Under the Sea had been given up in favour of secular London, where the mermaid and Ellis are outsiders. Ellis, a feminist, can also see the problems with the plot of a woman giving up her voice to try to get her prince. Taking heart from the mermaid’s sisters rising up from the sea, she wonders if it could be read:

As a cautionary tale for women saying: Don’t give up your voice! Don’t make sacrifices for unworthy men!

As Ellis re-reads all these novels, many of her childhood heroines fail her more adult criteria. Marjorie Morningstar, who fostered her love of the theatre, is a particular let-down, as is Jo March, and even Flora Poste. (I have to admit to feeling a pang of sympathy for poor dropped Flora, who apparently comes across as rather ‘smug’. Poor Flora, perhaps a little smug, but surely we can forgive her, given her expert cool, calm and collected dealing with her nightmare relatives?)

What becomes clear is that reading is misreading, as English Dons would happily agree. As Ellis puts it:

I’m beginning to think that all readings are provisional, and that maybe we read heroines for what we need for them at the time.

RebeccaThe novel that has really brought this shift in misreadings home to me is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. When first reading it as a fourteen-year-old, I identified wholly with the young, inexperienced, nervous narrator, out of her depth in this terrifying house, with dreadful Mrs Danvers and the ghostly presence of Rebecca, who seemed completely terrible. She gets everything wrong, being clumsy, dressing badly, failing to manage the staff or make any friends, and yet she perseveres, and just when you think it’s game over, Max de Winter confides in her and while they lose the house, at least they have each other. Read again in my late twenties, it was a completely different book. The young narrator couldn’t have been more irritating, pathetic and useless. I wanted to slap her and tell her to stand up to Mrs Danvers, the old cow, and wear whatever the hell she wants. Rebecca herself is transformed to an enigmatic powerful woman, someone who has managed to pursue her own independence in spite of being married to a belligerent spoilt man.

A few years’ life experience transforms a novel – and, by extension, a heroine – as Ellis finds, again and again. And yet, thankfully How to be a Heroine isn’t really a telling-off sort of a book. While Ellis finds fault with many of her heroines and takes their authors to task for giving them such flaws, she respects the power of her original misreadings and their influence on her life. They may not be the right heroines for now, but they were for then, and so we forgive them as part of life’s steep learning curve. Indeed, a sure sign of forgiveness is that they are all invited to a wonderful party at the end:

The Little Mermaid is in the bath, with her tail still on, singing because she never did give up her soaring voice. Anne Shirley and Jo March are having a furious argument about plot versus character, gesticulating with ink-stained hands. Scarlett is in the living room, her skirts taking up half the space, trying to show Lizzy how to bat her eyelashes. Lizzy is laughing her head off but Scarlett has acquired a sense of humour, and doesn’t mind a bit. Melanie is talking books with Esther Greenwood, who has brought her baby and also the proofs of her first poetry collection. Franny and Zooey have rolled back the rug and are doing a soft shoe shuffle in rhinestone hats. Lucy Honeychurch is hammering out some Beethoven …

She crams them all in to her flat, all of them having a glorious time. It reminds me of my bookshelf parties: all the characters chatting to their neighbours while no-one’s looking. Lady Slane, Eddie Feathers, and Richard from Offshore are best friends by now, and The Go-Between’s little Leo is having great fun running around Brideshead.

How to be a Heroine is a wonderful chance to revisit many favourite novels and say a quick hello to their heroines. It also left me with an exciting reading list on which I hope to meet some new heroines: top of which is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes. Rather brilliantly, Sylvia Townsend Warner told Virginia Woolf that modern witches flew on vacuum cleaners not broomsticks!

This is a celebration of the companionship reading brings, and the comfort and guidance that provides. I was left feeling happily reassured that whatever one goes through in real life, a reader will always have a bank of fictional heroines to whom she can turn.

mrs dallowayAnd believe me, reader, it works. Stuck with a tricky work situation last week, I found myself, without really knowing why, spending a morning re-reading the whole of Mrs Dalloway. When lunch-time came around, in spite of the slight guilt that sprang from admitting that instead of tackling said work problem, I’d buried my nose in a book, I felt ready to take on anything. I’ll buy the flowers myself, the party will be a success, and nothing is more important than the power of empathy, I muttered to myself as I strode out into the world, feeling tremendous. We all need our heroines. The joy of fictional ones is that they will always be at your beck and call.

It seems that Daphne and I share a common heroine of the Very Hungry Caterpillar. I do hope she understands that her own metamorphosis into a butterfly is only metaphorical.

Daphne and the cress

Emilybooks of the year

December 19, 2012

Looking back on the year, I see that I’ve developed a strange habit of reading in threes. There have been three Elizabeths, three lives, three children’s books, three of all sorts of things. Strange indeed.

So here are my favourites of the books that I’ve read over the past year, clumped, conveniently, into threes.

The Walking Book Club at Port Eliot

3 Elizabeths

I began the year reading Elizabeth Bowen’s intensely atmospheric wartime novel The Heat of the Day which set me up for a year of Elizabeths. Start as you mean to go on, I suppose. Well I went on to read Bowen’s The House in Paris, an entrancing, bewitching novel, which made a whole afternoon disappear. Best of all, it was a year in which I was given a very special edition of Bowen’s Court – EM Forster’s copy no less.

I loved Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel, a novel which every aspiring writer must read not just because it describes so brilliantly different moments of writing – the strange feverish stuffiness of writing non-stop, and the anti-climax of finishing, for instance – but because it will make you laugh hopelessly at yourself, at the sheer vanity of being a writer. We also had a splendid Walking Book Club discussing Taylor’s poignant novel about getting old, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, for which we enjoyed the illustrious company of Clare Balding. You’ll be able to listen to it on Radio 4’s Ramblings in February… watch this space!

The third Elizabeth of the year was Elizabeth Jenkins. The Tortoise and the Hare had me in tears, and Harriet had me in a nightmare. Both are utterly compelling, hellish portrayals of marriage – the first is a heartbreaking portrayal of its death throes, and the second is about a situation so horrific, it’s hard to believe that it was based on a true murder case.

3 houses

My novel, as those of you who read last week’s post will know, is centred on a house and the stories that lie within it. As a result, I have grown quite addicted to books with houses at their centre. I’ve already mentioned Elizabeth Bowen – her Bowen’s Court really is a great portrait of a house.

Rebecca is one of my all time favourite house novels. From that memorable first line, ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,’ the house threatens to overwhelm the new Mrs de Winter. The most memorable moments of the novel are firmly rooted in the house – when she comes down the stairs for the ball, looking like the ghost of Rebecca, or when Mrs Danvers nearly makes her throw herself out of Rebecca’s old bedroom window. This was one of the books we discussed when I took the Walking Book Club to the splendid Port Eliot festival, not so far from Menabilly – the inspiration for du Maurier’s Manderley. I’ve read this novel so many times now, and each time find it utterly gripping, thoroughly brilliant. Perhaps I should allow myself one du Maurier a year.

But my house of the year has to go to the ‘convenient little house’ in Hampstead, which is the focus of Vita Sackville West’s All Passion Spent. Lady Slane’s husband, a great statesman, has just died when we meet her. She defies her foul children, who want to parcel her off between them, and retires to a pretty Hampstead house that she last saw thirty years ago. This perfect, slim novel, a fictional counterpart to Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, is beautifully written, and I especially enjoyed the way Sackville-West’s love of gardening – as attested to by the magnificent gardens at Sissinghurst – periodically surfaces, when she can’t resist arranging a few flowers here, or a ripened peach there.

3 lives

The best non-fiction I’ve read this year has been about the lives of people. The strongest presence has been the poet, Edward Thomas. I read Matthew Hollis’s biography of him, Now All Roads Lead To France – a fantastic book, which managed to turn his rather quiet life into a series of cliffhangers. There was also Robert Macfarlane’s majestic The Old Ways, in which this literary lover of landscapes wrote about journeying on remarkable old paths, haunted by Edward Thomas who was a great walker as well as a great writer. And there was Nick Dear’s powerful play at the Almeida. My favourite Edward Thomas moment of the year was walking with some friends around (the aptly named) Steep, where Thomas lived, and up Shoulder of Mutton hill. It was very special to feel we were walking in his footsteps. Towards the end, we sprawled across a leafy glade and read out some of his poems, accompanied only by birdsong, the wind in the trees, and our steady chomping of Percy Pigs.

I loved reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s letters – a wonderful thick collection, which was a steady and inspiring companion for many months. And now I am reading West with the Night by Beryl Markham, who became my new heroine by about page five. She tells of her childhood in what was then British East Africa, a childhood which included such instances as hunting warthogs with local tribesmen and being mauled by a lion. She grew up to breed and train racehorses, and then became a freelance pilot. This is an extraordinary memoir, bristling with the spirit of adventure, full of the romance of a lost way of life, and somehow Markham has combined a great lyricism with edge-of-your-seat thrilling tension.

3 new novels

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home seemed to lodge in me like a shard of glass, painful, unforgettable and darkly beautiful. Susie Boyt’s The Small Hours was a peculiar and powerful novel. It is about a strange, larger-than-life woman who decides to open a nursery school. It soon transpires that her own childhood has been difficult, to say the least. I suppose it’s what you might expect from Freud’s great-granddaughter. Emily Perkins’ The Forrests follows a family over several decades. What really stood out about it was the quality of the writing, richly detailed, making every mundane moment sing like a poem.

3 children’s books

Like everyone else I read The Hunger Games, and I loved it. It was alarmingly addictive – I have friends who began reading it one evening and had to take the next day off work, as they had to stay up all night to finish it. Cynics dismiss it as a horrid teen novel about children killing each other, but I found it thick with ideas – about CCTV, celebrity culture, society and more.

I reread The Wind in the Willows, which was truly joyful, and even inspired a walk along the Thames, for which we strove to bring all the ingredients in Ratty’s notorious picnic:

coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwidges

pottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater

And I reread A Wizard of Earthsea, an exciting quest about the battle of good versus evil, and – interestingly – the importance of language.

3 of everything else

There were of course other brilliant Emilybooks of the year, which don’t fit into these clumps of threes so neatly – Dorothy Whipple, Patti Smith, and it was certainly a year of Ali Smith, whose new book Artful – not quite a novel, not quite a collection of essays, is something entirely new and mind-poppingly impressive. It was a year of many great ladies, and, lest I forget, a few great men, (like the aforementioned Edward Thomas, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and L.P. Hartley). It has been a year of feeling terrifically happy that there are so many wonderful books to read.

Thank you for accompanying me through a wonderful year of reading. Now I have only to wish you a happy and book-filled Christmas and New Year. Emilybooks will be back in January.

The Next Big Thing Meme

December 12, 2012

The splendid novelist Anna Stothard has tagged me in ‘the Next Big Thing meme’, which means this week you get a bonus blog post from me. It’s a chance to tell you a little bit about my novel, which, let’s hope, will be the Next Big Thing.

What is the title of your next book?

A London House … I think.

What genre does your book fall under?

Fiction. Most of it is set in the present day, but there are also some historical chapters.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I’m afraid I just don’t know for most of my characters, but I would love Bill Nighy to play Roger, an eccentric old man who lives on a houseboat. Anna, the main character, is trickier. Perhaps Romola Garai, who seems to have a habit of playing the main part in film adaptations of many of my favourite books.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

One night, two girls break into a derelict house, where the air is thick with stories of the people who have lived there in the past.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Perhaps it’s morbid, but I absolutely love buildings in various states of decay. I love to imagine them in their former glory, and wonder who might once have looked out of the broken windows, or trod on the rotting floorboards.

A couple of years ago, bulldozers were hard at work on a big school near where I live. There was a stage in its demolition when the whole back wall of the building had been taken off, so that you could see into each of the different classrooms and each one was painted a different colour. It was like looking into a box of paints, an image which really tugged at me. I began to imagine pulling off the walls of other houses, looking into all their rooms, painted and wallpapered in different colours and designs. It made me think about the marks and impressions people make on their houses by living in them, and how many stories lie hidden there in the smallest things.

Several books have helped to inspire me with my one – here are a few of them:

Inspiring books

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

My agent is Andrew Kidd at Aitken Alexander.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Just over a year and a half.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Hitchcock and Picasso both have cameo roles.

Now it’s my turn to tag – too thrilling! Wayne Gooderham – journalist, blogger, collector of second-hand books and curator of an exhibition of book dedications now on at Foyles, and Samantha Ellis – playwright, blogger and writer of a fascinating-sounding book about literary heroines, consider yourself the next bearers of the meme.

Walking and Talking at Port Eliot

July 23, 2012

I have just returned from a glorious few days at Port Eliot festival in Cornwall. What a fun time we had! Beautiful landscape, inspiring talks, dancing-a-plenty – made all the better by being, for the most part, blessed with sunshine.

I was at Port Eliot to do my walking book club – which involves going for a walk and talking about a book.

In this instance, I did one walk for The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley and another for Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, both books that fitted in nicely with Port Eliot’s big house and beautiful grounds. Quite thrillingly Radio 4 were interested in the idea and broadcast a report on it on The World Tonight. Here it is – the piece about the walking book club is 37 minutes in.

It was probably because I was there to walk, but I found that walking greatly influenced my experience of the festival. As well as gleaning walkerish thoughts from Robert Macfarlane (barefoot on red sandstone is a winner) and Juliet Nicolson (her grandfather Harold Nicolson went on a rather more highbrow walking book club in France), I went on a literary walk with Duncan Minshull, who has edited a treasure trove of a book about walking. A group of us walked down a pretty path to a field golden with wheat, stopping every now and then for Duncan to read us a thought on walking from someone literary.

My favourite was a letter from Soren Kirkegaard to his sister-in-law:

Do not on any account cease to take pleasure in walking: I walk every day to preserve my well-being and walk away from every sickness; I have walked my best thoughts into existence, and I know of no thought so heavy that one cannot walk away from it.

Apparently she was something of a couch potato and he was trying to coax her into taking a little more exercise.

Duncan also pointed out how walks are often written into literature, as a writerly device. Think Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy, for instance. Of course my mind was abuzz with thoughts about The Go-Between and Rebecca and yet, somewhat idiotically, I hadn’t yet stopped to think about how much walking goes on in them. Of course Leo is a prince of walkers, traipsing less and less merrily between Brandham Hall and Ted Burgess’ farm, carrying messages between Marian and Ted. There is also rather a good walk from the Hall to the Church. Leo trots alongside Marian, when he sees Trimingham approaching:

I felt compelled to say: “Triminham’s coming after us,” as if he were a disease, or a misfortune, or the police.

“Oh is he?” she said, and turned her head, but she didn’t call to him, or make a sign, and his pace slackened off, and when he did come abreast of us he passed us, to my great relief, with a smile, and joined the people who were walking in front.

Could Marian be any more tepid in her feelings towards Trimingham? Especially when compared to the passionate ‘Darling, darling, darling’ written to lowly farmer Ted. Trimingham comes across as every bit the noble gentleman, his pride may be wounded and yet he masks it with a smile. The marriage planned between Marian and Trimingham – her money for his title – is certainly one of convenience, not motivated by love or affection. All this conveyed in a walk.

Of course in Rebecca it is while walking with Maxim in the grounds of Manderley that the new Mrs de Winter first comes across Rebecca’s fateful boathouse. Maxim is furious with her for following the dog over there, and strides crossly up the hill, back to the house for tea, revealing that the boathouse is every bit as sinister as she fears.

Rather luckily there is a boathouse at Port Eliot, so for the Walking Book Club we wandered down there, paused in our discussion and regrouped. I thought it a good spot to read out Daphne du Maurier’s description of Rebecca’s boathouse, when the new Mrs de Winter first sees it on her walk.

We all collectively shivered in spite of the warm sunshine at the description of the ‘damp and chill’, ‘dark and oppressive’ boathouse, with its rat-nibbled sofas, cobwebs and ‘queer musty smell’.

We moved on, wandering along the estuary, wondering aloud whether or not Rebecca really is the villain that Maxim de Winter says she is.

Many of us found a new respect for Rebecca. Plenty of us found ourselves irritated beyond belief with the new Mrs de Winter. Someone said she was desperate to shake some sense into her. Maxim de Winter was accused of being vile and dreadful, although not without his attractions.

But my greatest surprise was hearing someone say that she quite liked Mrs Danvers. Oh, Mrs Danvers, ghoul of my nightmares! Feeling that I needed du Maurier’s own words to back up my case, I waited until we were gathered by the house before reading out a scene thick with horror, to my mind one of the most ghastly scenes in all of literature.

The ball is about to begin, and the new Mrs de Winter has overcome her habitual, irritating shyness to get dressed up, rather excitedly, after one of the family portraits … thanks to Mrs Danvers’ suggestion. Standing in the shadow of the house, it was easy to look up to the upper windows, and imagine the young new Mrs de Winter up there, giggling with her maid as she got dressed. Then she walked along the corridor and told the drummer to announce her. And then:

I came forward to the head of the stairs and stood there, smiling, my hat in my hand, like the girl in the picture. I waited for the clapping and laughter that would follow as I walked slowly down the stairs. Nobody clapped, nobody moved.

They all stared at me like dumb things. Beatrice uttered a little cry and put her hand to her mouth. I went on smiling, I put one hand on the banister.

“How do you do, Mr de Winter,” I said.

Maxim had not moved. He stared up at me, his glass in his hand. There was no colour in his face. It was ashen white. I saw Frank go to him as though he would speak, but Maxim shook him off. I hesitated, one foot already on the stairs. Something was wrong, they had not understood. Why was Maxim looking like that? Why did they all stand like dummies, like people in a trance?

It continues along these lines until …

Then I saw that the door leading to the west wing was open wide, and that someone was standing there.

It was Mrs Danvers. I shall never forget the expression on her face, loathsome, triumphant. The face of an exulting devil. She stood there smiling at me.

And then I ran from her, down the long narrow passage to my own room, tripping, stumbling over the flounces of my dress.

What a haunting piece of writing, and how wonderful to be haunted by it standing there, by the wall of a house that might as well have been Manderley itself.

Re-reading: The Go-Between and Rebecca

July 18, 2012

 I am terribly excited to be going to Port Eliot Festival tomorrow. I will be hosting my Walking Book Club, first to discuss The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley and then Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. They are two of my very favourite books and, in preparation for Port Eliot, I’ve had rather a wonderful week re-reading them.

Re-reading a book is so very different to reading something for the first time. Second time round you know, more-or-less, what’s going to happen, roughly how everything will end up. This time I pay much more attention to what the writer’s doing. Oh that’s clever, I think, noticing a little trick of the narrative, yes that’s just what’s needed. You know where the story’s going so it’s all the more fascinating to see how the author’s going to get there. I suppose it feels closer to writing the novel yourself. Your knowledge is more aligned with the author than the characters – you tend to know what will happen before they do.

The funny coincidence with Rebecca and The Go-Between is that they are both told by a narrator who is looking back over past events. Rebecca opens with that infamous dream of Manderley, and then we join the narrator as she recollects herself, back then, when she ‘drove to Manderley for the first time, hopeful and eager’:

I can see myself now, memory spanning the years like a bridge

The whole book is one long memory, and every now and then we get reminded that it’s all in the past, it’s all happened once already, the events have unfolded before.

In The Go-Between it is Leo who revisits the past – that ‘different country’, in another infamous first line – when he opens his diary kept for decades in his old red collar box.

If you’re reading these books for the first time you are at a narrative disadvantage – the narrators know what’s going to happen and you don’t. But if you’ve read it already, really you’re not so different from the narrators, you could almost be telling the story yourself.

What I like most about re-reading is seeing what different things lodge themselves in my mind, compared to the last time.

When I last read Rebecca a year ago, I was obsessed with Manderley, the house in it. Perhaps rightly so, for the house is described in so much detail, conveys such hope and such menace by turn, that it is in many ways a character in its own right. As some of you might remember, I’m also writing a novel about a derelict house, which was in part why I was re-reading Rebecca and so my eyes stared all the wider whenever a ‘house bit’ came up.

When I read The Go-Between, I was working very low down at a very big publishing house, and I was very much in awe of my boss. He told me to read it and so read it I did. I raced through it thinking it must certainly be a work of genius if he thought so. I remember thinking hard about all the classical allusions, the ‘Golden Age’, the ‘delenda est belladonna’, being very impressed with all the French passages – telling myself that my boss wouldn’t have to look up any translations in the notes – and part of me wondered if my boss had been at all like Leo as a boy, slightly awkward, keen to get things right, intelligent in a bit of an odd-ball way. Of course I didn’t say that to him, but I mined the text for what I hoped might be little parallels and clues.

I suppose what you notice in a book says rather a lot more about you than the book. (That’s why the Walking Book Club – where all sorts of different people discuss the book in a very relaxed, meandering fashion – is such fun!) So this time round, older, wiser, having written more myself, what did I notice?

For one thing I felt rather envious of Daphne du Maurier’s masterful building of suspense. Having recently spent a while thinking about Hitchcock for my novel,I wonder if the reason he made films out of so many of her books was because he spotted a fellow master of it. I also noticed how devastatingly effective the ending of The Go-Between is by the shocking thing (I’m not going to give it away, don’t worry) being mentioned so quickly, in just a single sentence which is set as a paragraph on its own. It reminded me a little of the end of A River Runs Through It. Less is more, I tell my writerly self, fiercely.

I noticed the weather. All this grey rain we’ve been having made me long for the scorching summer of The Go-Between, and Leo’s obsession with checking the thermometer chimes with my endlessly checking the BBC weather website for signs of improvement. In Rebecca, it’s raining when the narrator drives down with Maxim to Manderley for the first time. But Maxim assures her:

“This is London rain … you wait, the sun will be shining for you when we come to Manderley’’; and he was right, for the clouds left us at Exeter, they rolled away behind us, leaving a great blue sky abover our heads and a white road in front of us.

Please God let that be the case when we drive down to Port Eliot tomorrow! There’s also the smothering fog that causes the fateful crash of the ship and that wonderful thunderstorm near the end, with the weather building and refusing to break and then the rain falling just as everything threatens to fall apart …

But above all, I’m rather ashamed to admit that I’ve noticed tea. Not tea, as in a cup of, but tea as in high tea, with all the trimmings. Both novels are set in big country houses around a hundred years ago, when tea was nearly as important a meal as lunch.

In Rebecca, tea at Manderley is served at precisely half-past four. This is so fixed that, on returning from a walk, the narrator thinks:

I would ask Robert to bring me my tea under the chestnut tree. I glanced at my watch. It was earlier than I thought, not yet four. I would have to wait a bit. It was not the routine at Manderley to have tea before half past.

When tea is not under the chestnut tree, it is served in the library, ‘a stately little performance’:

The solemn ritual went forward as it always did, day after day, the leaves of the table pulled out, the legs adjusted, the laying of the snowy cloth, the putting down of the silver tea-pot and the kettle with the little flame beneath. Scones, sandwiches, three different sorts of cake.

At other times there are ‘dripping crumpets … tiny crisp wedges of toast … that very special gingerbread’ and ‘angel cake, that melted in the mouth, and his rather stodgier companion, bursting with peel and raisins.’

YUM!

The teas in The Go-Between aren’t described in the same sort of gluttonous detail but they still play an important role. On a seminal visit to Ted, Leo is anxious about missing tea at ‘the Hall’ but in the end stays and has tea with him in his cottage, with tea-cups:

deep and cream-coloured, with a plain gold line round the outside and inside at the bottom, worn by much stirring, a gold flower. I thought them rather common-looking … It was odd to see a man laying the table, though of course the footman did it at the Hall.

It would seem that how one has one’s tea reveals rather a lot.

Oh how I long to live a life where tea was served everyday at 4.30, which I find is just the time one feels a little peckish. How I would love to be brought a buttery crumpet and a cuppa to stave off the tummy rumbles until a late, civilised dinner, rather than resorting (as I too often do) to gobbling a Tracker bar on the way to meet a friend for an after-work drink. I’d settle for tea not even being served to me, on a special cloth-covered table, but having the time and inclination to make it for myself. Even a piece of toast would do it.

All week I’ve been feeling faintly resentful of this yummy, sensible old English tradition being more-or-less wiped out, at least from my life. But then, this morning, I realised there’s nothing to stop me from having tea if I so desire. And today, at half-past four, this is what I concocted:

Not remotely up to Manderley’s standards, but it was still perfectly delicious. Long may the noble and terribly literary tradition continue!

Favourite fictional gardens

June 7, 2012

Tuesday was a garden triple whammy.

I suppose the first garden is technically a roof terrace, but still… I noticed that the rain had made my beloved raspberry bush suddenly sprout masses of berries! I even gobbled one that looked particularly ripe and it was completely delicious.

And the first hint of a rose started appearing out of one of the new rosebush buds. So that was all terribly exciting.

Then the husband and I made a little trip down the road to the Geffrye Museum. It’s a lovely museum, which I have often visited for inspiration for my novel about a derelict house. Yesterday we spent a while idling in their beautiful English gardens.

This one was my favourite. We even happened to be there when aeroplanes zoomed past en route to the flyby for the Queen! That was pretty special.

Being in this cloistered walled garden made me think of The Secret Garden, one of my favourite childhood novels and I got home itching to re-read it. Typically, having hunted high and low for it, I realised it’s still languishing forgotten at my mum’s. But consolation was just around the corner.

When hunting on iPlayer for something to watch, what did I see but the film of Tom’s Midnight Garden – which happens to be my second-favourite childhood novel about a garden. What a treat! I watched it with utter glee, while the husband sat there rather uncommunicatively. He wanted to watch Patriot Games.

In honour of this gardening hat-trick, here’s another hat-trick of some great grown-up fictional gardens:

1. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani

This brilliant novel, which I first wrote about here, centres on a wealthy Jewish family’s tennis court at the time that the new Italian racial laws meant that Jews were kicked out of the country club and so had nowhere to play tennis. The Finzi-Continis’ garden is big enough to include a tennis court, and a very nice one too, with red shale and a butler who endlessly brings out delicious picnics. Although not much description is given over to the garden itself, it is on the tennis court and in the old coach house at the other end of the garden, that the narrator falls for Micòl, the daughter of the house. It’s the perfect setting for first love and a wonderful coming-of-age story.

2. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

 The gardens at Manderley seem quite as threatening to the young Mrs de Winter as the house. The description of the drive is wonderfully ominous, with the tree branches entwined overhead, making a roof so thick that ‘even the midday sun would not penetrate’. Then there are more trees, ‘trees I could not name, coming close, so close that I could touch them with my hands’. EEEK! But the trees are nothing compared to the:

wall of colour, blood-red, reaching far above our heads. We were amongst the rhododendrons. There was something bewildering, even shocking, about the suddenness of their discovery. The woods had not prepared me for them. They startled me with their crimson faces, massed one upon the other in incredible profusion, showing no leaf, no twig, nothing but the slaughterous red, luscious and fantastic, unlike any rhododendron plant I had seen before.

Scary! There can be something alien and utterly terrifying about a profusion of flowers. I remember a couple of years ago getting completely freaked out by my pansies.

Incidentally, Virago (my publishing heroines) have just brought out this gorgeous hardback edition. How I long for it – and the rest of their lovely hardback modern classics, of which you might remember The Tortoise and The Hare from a few months ago.

3. The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley

I’m not sure a plant has ever been given so much fictional attention as deadly nightshade in The Go-Between. “Delenda est belladonna” chants Leo ominously as he uproots the deadly nightshade by the outhouses. This is a fantastic book and the deadly nightshade is utterly central to it. There is also a very tense showdown between Leo and Mrs Maudsley by the magnolia, when she catches him delivering a note that perhaps he oughtn’t …

The most exciting thing about these last two books is that I will be doing my Walking Book Club for each of them at the completely wonderful Port Eliot festival this summer. The festival takes place in the lovely grounds of a beautiful stately home, and the walks will be a perfect opportunity to natter about a couple of brilliant books and see some pretty scenery. I hope to see some of you there. You better get reading…

As for more lovely literary gardens, I would definitely plump for Lady Chatterley’s, and, of course Eden in Paradise Lost. More suggestions are, as ever, most welcome.

EmilyBooks of the Year

December 19, 2011

Here, for your delectation, are my favourite books of the year. That is, books that I read over the past year, rather than books that were published over the past year. It must be strange and exhausting to read only the newest of books. I have to admit that I find those ‘books of the year’ lists that one reads in the newspapers at this time of year a bit dull. Lists are only really interesting when one understands the rationale behind the selections. So this is less of a listy-list (listless, ha!) and more of a chatty, discursive one.

Looking back, I suppose this year’s reading has been dominated by old women. This was my year of Jane Gardam – first The Man in the Wooden Hat, then Old Filth, then (again) – to calm pre-wedding jangles – A Long Way from Verona. And to keep Jane Gardam company, there was also Diana Athill’s Instead of a Letter and Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. All brilliant books. All written with elegance and subtlety and quite brilliant matter-of-fact wit. Some of these had a certain ‘coming-of-age’ element, which I inevitably find irresistible. For that very reason, other books of the year were Monica Dickens’ sublime Mariana and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle – both of which can happily be described as ‘hot-water-bottle fiction’, i.e. blissfully comforting and snug. They would probably make it on to my desert island books.

It’s also been a year of reading rather a lot about houses, thanks to the novel I’m writing about a derelict house. Particularly good books, in which houses feature rather prominently, have been (as well as the already mentioned Mariana) Bowen’s Court, Howards End, The Small Hanand Rebecca. Bowen’s Court is written in such a unique voice, and is rather long, and I read it rather concentratedly (often in the bath) that by the end I felt like I’d made a new friend. It helped that Elizabeth Bowen had told me so much about her family and her own personal history during the course of her book. I long to read more by her and often think back to that very great voice booming through my head in the echoey bathroom and wish I could listen to it some more. I suspect I might revisit her in my Christmas reading.

Howards End was every bit as brilliant as I expected it to be. I really do think that Forster is one of the very best writers. Although that’s a terribly unfashionable opinion to hold. And Rebecca. Well I suppose Rebecca, like Mariana, combined a house book with a coming-of-age story. Winning combination as far as I’m concerned. Someone famously said of it that it’s the only book where the murderer gets away with it. That throws a rather alarming light on it.

The other classics that I’ve really adored this year have been Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig and a newly-published collection of Edward Thomas’s poetry. I’d been longing to read Beware of Pity ever since I read and loved Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday a year or so ago. Beware of Pity is intensely psychological, a bit like Crime and Punishment, and is written so breathlessly that there aren’t even any proper chapter-breaks. It really is almost impossible to put down. Oddly enough, I read it soon after reading Crash by J.G. Ballard and tried to draw some comparisons between these two books about crippled people, but ended up just feeling bemused that the books could both revolve around the same thing but be so irreconcilably different. It was a joy to return to Adlestrop with Edward Thomas’s Selected Poems. Nature poet extraordinaire. I should also like to add in here by first encounter with Gavin Maxwell in The Ring of Bright Water, which was the perfect thing to read in the Outer Hebrides – a funny, eccentric book about living with an otter in Scotland. Although the best bit isn’t actually in Scotland, it’s when he’s trying to take his otter home on an aeroplane and the otter causes utter farcical delightful chaos.

But enough of all this old stuff, I have read some new things too. And actually some of them were quite cutting edge and very very good. They made me feel tinglingly excited about writing today. Ali Smith’s There but for the is a delightful riff of a book, jumping from pun to pun to pun, all within bigger meta-puns. It’s very clever but also very enjoyable. A playful love of language radiates from the book, which makes it hard to resist. Landfall by Helen Gordon was very good too, seeming to be quite a normal sort of book and then suddenly swerving into something quite extraordinary.

But – best of all – is A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, which I’ve just finished reading. This book has been so ridiculously over-hyped that I almost felt I knew so much about it just from everyone going on and on about it that I couldn’t quite be bothered to read it myself. But oh my god what an absolutely genius, brilliant book. It is written with such verve, so sharp, so funny – yet also quietly sad. It’s a book which screams NEW YORK at you. It is New York. Essentially, Egan looks at a group of characters who work in the music industry. Each chapter takes one of the characters at a certain time (jumping back several decades hopping forward into the future and stopping off at moments in between) and captures various moments in their lives. I loved it and could go on about it for hours, but shall limit myself here to one particular aspect that I found to be fascinating and brilliantly-realised: the future. There are two chapters set in the future. The first one is written in power-point slides, as though, by then, this is how people communicate. Lawns are a dream of the past, as you have to have loads of carbon credits to get them now, and there is a strange alien solar plant which also harvests moonlight. The other chapter sees the very clever invention of ‘pointers’ – toddlers who ‘point’ at what they want on people’s ubiquitous ‘handsets’ and thereby determine powerful trends. So, for instance, several bands have brought out songs to appeal to ‘pointers’, because the children literally ‘point’ at the handset to download it and the sales shoot through the roof. Having endured several nauseating conversations by yummy mummys in the bookshop about how ‘Little Rupert and Milly’ are so intuitive with their iPhones, this felt like an alarmingly plausible vision for the near-future. It is WEIRD how tiny children take to iPhones and iPads so easily and intuitively. How weird to think that this could be such a strong connection that it could essentially make them the ultimate consumer.

I shall end, appropriately, with Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending. I expect, as it won the Booker, you’ve probably read lots about it already. It is very clever, very addictive and it’s likely that, as soon as you finish it (which will be soon after you start, as it is slim and so unputdownable), you will want to start again to try and figure it out. The cold, sparse way in which it’s written didn’t bother me as much as it might have done. Perhaps it was because it’s a cold, detached sort of story so that style is perfect. It’s a very good book. And a beautiful object too.

All in all, a brilliant year of reading. I wonder what next year holds in store.

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again

June 13, 2011

Well, to be honest, I didn’t actually dream about Manderley. I dreamt that my novel had just been published and it left me with the best feeling ever.

But dreams are funny things. Especially when it comes to writing.

It is probably to ease the monotony of reading a million stories ending with ‘and then I woke up’, but, from a young age, we are instructed by teachers never to write a story that ends with the realisation that it was all a dream.

I suppose it is a huge let-down for the reader. It’s not ideal for them to be dragged into a plot, to empathise with the characters, to believe in what’s happening, only to finish with the anticlimax that none of it was real at all. Of course they know it’s not really real, as it’s a story, but fictional worlds need to have their own version of reality, and being told that it’s not even up to that, is definitely a bit crap.

And yet I can see why using dreams as a device is so tempting. Dreams are incredibly real. As well as being told, as children, not to end our stories with ‘and it was all a dream’, we’re comforted from nightmares by being told, ‘it’s only a dream’. Nightmares can feel so real, can evoke such horrid feelings of terror, that they can be utterly distressing. And, as well as the reality, there’s always something eerily unreal about dreams. Perhaps it’s the combination of the extraordinary – being able to fly, for instance – with the ordinary – looking down from your broomstick and seeing your back garden, or Regent’s Park – that make them so disconcerting and so enchanting.

I’ve written about dreams and poetry here, but I haven’t yet written about dreams and novels. And, when I think about dreams and novels, the first thing that comes to mind is:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

In Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier uses the dream truly brilliantly. And her English teacher wouldn’t have been all that upset, as du Maurier makes it clear from the very fourth word that ‘it’s all a dream’, and the dream only lasts for the first chapter, rather than encompassing the whole story.

In her dream, she is walking along the drive to the house, Manderley, but finds that ‘nature …with long, tenacious fingers’ has taken over the pretty drive to create a nightmarish vision of ‘tortured elms’ and ‘monster shrubs’. As she nears the house:

Nettles were everywhere, the vanguard of the army. They choked the terrace, they sprawled about the paths, they leant, vulgar and lanky, against the very windows of the house.

The house is just about to fall prey to the ravages of nature. Where is James Lees-Milne when you need him?

Then she imagines the house itself, its rooms:

bear witness to our presence … cushions, with the imprint of our heads upon them, lolling in the chairs; the charred embers of our log fire still smouldering against the morning.

Daphne du Maurier opens her novel with a detailed description of a place. And yet this description is within a dream, the dream of Mrs de Winter. While dreams might prey on our subconscious fears – and there is definitely something nightmarish about this particular dream – they can also reveal our desires. It is clear that Mrs de Winter desires Manderley more than anything.

For, as the story unfolds, it is obvious that the rooms won’t bear witness to her presence, for they continue to be haunted by Rebecca. It is Rebecca’s handkerchief that she will find in a coat pocket, rather than, as she dreams, ‘my handkerchief on the table beside the bowl of autumn roses’. Rebecca is everywhere in the house, her elegant initial on everything, her ghost still served by Mrs Danvers the housekeeper.

But why should Mrs de Winter desire Manderley so much, when it is exposed, eventually, as no more than a façade for Rebecca’s terrible sexual exploits? Max de Winter says how wrong his love for Manderley is. He says,

it does not prosper, that sort of love. They don’t preach about it in the churches. Christ said nothing about stones, bricks, and walls.

So why does Manderley still haunt Mrs de Winter’s dreams? Why is it that at the start of the novel, which happens at the very end of the story, Mrs de Winter still wants the house?

Mrs de Winter’s creator was obsessed with Menabilly, the house on which Manderley was based. She was fascinated by it as a child and, later on in life, with her earnings from the Hitchcock film, du Maurier rented it for twenty years.

Blake Morrison in the Guardian (here) manages to turn pretty much every English country house literary myth on its head, but I for one think there is something incredibly special about a grand country house. Bowen’s Court is an astonishing document of Elizabeth Bowen’s love for her ancestral home (more on this here), and for those, like Daphne du Maurier, or Mrs de Winter, or indeed me, who weren’t born into such grand surroundings, in which each wood panel feels redolent of an ancestor’s touch and has a family tale to tell, then it’s easy to see why they might envy it.

And, before one feel quite smugly above all this very passé envy of the aristos, perhaps one should remember how addicted one might have been to Downton Abbey … 

… and dream on.