Daphne du Maurier writes psychological, romantic, adventure stories with endings that surprise you every time.
Her language is poetic. Her story telling is unique. Her characters are spellbinding.
Here are some great choices, though there isn’t one novel or short story she’s written that isn’t worth a careful read. As you learn about her characters you learn about yourself.
Table of Contents
Du Maurier creates an ultra-romantic story about Lady Dona who flees from high society to her country home only to discover hidden in Cornwall’s forest a French pirate whom she clandestinely meets on his ship and falls into ravishing love.
The opening sentence sets off the story pulling the reader in from the very first moment:
“When the east wind blows up Helford River the shining waters become troubled and disturbed and the little waves beat angrily upon the sandy shores” (p.1).
The emotions depicted in her naturalistic scene – troubled, disturbed waves that beat angrily – is a metaphor for the protagonist’s moods throughout the story.
We quickly meet her soon to be entrancing lover.
“The solitary yachtsman who leaves his yacht in the open roadstead of Helford, and goes exploring up river in his dinghy on a night in midsummer, when the night-jars call, hesitates when he comes upon the mouth of the creek, for there is something of mystery about it even now, something of enchantment” (p.4).
If you aren’t already propelled to cast your eyes on this book, read on.
“He is alone, and yet – can that be a whisper, in the shallows, close to the bank, and does a figure stand there, the moonlight glinting upon his buckled shoes and the cutlass in his hand, and is that a woman by his side, a cloak around her shoulders, her dark ringlets drawn back behind her ears?” (p.4).
How do these spellbinding strangers meet? Dona’s manservant, another mysterious character visualizes for us:
“He sees Dona come to the head of the stairs, dressed in her old gown, with a shawl about her head, while down in the silent hidden creek a man walks the deck of his ship, his hands behind his back, and on his lips a curious secret smile” (p.6).
This manservant plays a key role in fostering the adulterous relationship in ways I dare not give away. But keep your eye on him. He has many faces and many charms despite his subservient role.
The intensely picturesque creek where these two strangers wander secretly is depicted gloriously as a refuge and a symbol of escape.
Dona and her Husband
Dona is a wealthy high society young woman bored by her husband and monotonous way of life.
She has two selves. The second self that we get to know so very well seeks a passionate, albeit dangerous liaison in order to express the more aggressive, sexualized, woman whom she reveals to us.
Just as she is getting to know this side of herself, we as the readers, travel along with her as we are, too, discovering this powerful renegade.
Mystifying her clueless husband, she leaves their house and servants with her children to venture forth to Navron.
Let me introduce you to the husband who understands so little about his wife – her tumultuous insides that he cannot ever comprehend.
“But damn it, Dona, what have I done, what have I said, don’t you know that I adore you?…Go to Navron by all means if you wish it…But I don’t understand. Why suddenly, and why have you never expressed the desire before, and why do you not want me to come with you?’…his mouth set, his eyes sullen, and she, in despair tried to paint a picture of her mood” (pp.17, 18).
Dona and her Lover
The fascinating French pirate captures Dona’s heart. Despite rumors of his rampaging character she bravely climbs onto the deck of his hidden ship. He speaks to Dona.
“And you have been wishing, up there on the deck, that you were safe home again, and had never set eyes on La Mouette.’
There was no reply to this, the first part of his sentence might be true, but the last could never be” (p.127).
Adventures loom perilously as the story gets wickedly complicated with a host of other characters getting into the fold, but the love affair will make your heart spin without a doubt persisting no matter what others think and do.
“For eternity it seemed he stood there staring down at her, and then slowly he descended, never taking his eyes from her face, and she backed away from him, feeling for the table, and sat down in her chair, and watched him. He was clad only in his shirt and breeches, and she saw now that there was blood upon the shirt, and on the knife that he held in his hand. She knew then what had happened” (p.222).
But if you, my reading friend, want to know what happened, you will have to escape yourself from your everyday world and join Dona in her psychological adventure as she finds her second self.
The ending? Ahh, that you will have to wait for.
Once again, Du Maurier will take you with her as she weaves a classic romantic tale full of suspense and never-ending surprises.
Be not deceived, however, this isn’t just a thriller, but a psychological treatise about a brave and daunting twenty-three-year-old woman who is kind, loyal, clever, cunning, and resolute with unceasing moral fiber.
But I must warn you. Indeed, you will be deceived just as Mary Yellan is despite her outstanding capacity to withstand great suffering on her adventurous psychological quest to go against all odds to reach her goals.
Take a moment to read the beginning words where the description of the interior of a coach metaphorically depicts the interior world of our protagonist on her journey.
“It was a cold grey day in late November. The weather had changed overnight, when a backing wind brought a granite sky and a muzzling rain with it, and although it was now only a little after two o’clock in the afternoon the pallour of a winter evening seemed to have closed upon the hills, cloaking them in mist. It would be dark by four. The air was clammy cold, and for all the tightly closed windows it penetrated the interior of the coach. The leather seats felt damp to the hands, and there must have been a small crack in the roof, because now and again little drips of rain fell softly through, smudging the leather and leaving a dark blue stain like a splodge of ink. The wind came in gusts, at times shaking the coach as it travelled round the bend of the road, and in the exposed places on the high ground it blew with such force that the whole body of the coach trembled and swayed, rocking between the high wheels…” (p. 1).
Our heroine is feisty, courageous, and solitary as she meets strange folks who are threatening to her physically and psychologically, but she forges on with an unrelenting spirit.
As the drama unfolds, we see Mary’s depth of character.
“’I can’t help that,’ said Mary. ‘I’m not going away unless I take my aunt with me. I’d never leave her alone, not after what I’ve seen’” (p. 83)
And just what is it that she’s seen? And all the while felt?
Mary’s Unexpected Lover
I can offer you no words of my own to depict this relationship better than Du Maurier’s outstanding talent at creating dialogue to introduce you to the characters. Here is Mary with her unexpected lover.
“God, you’re as hard as flint, Mary Yellan. You’ll be sorry for it when you’re alone again.”
“Better be sorry then than later.”
“If I kissed you again would you change your mind?”
“I would not.”
“I don’t wonder my brother took to his bed and his bottle for a week, with you in the house. Did you sing psalms to him?”
“I daresay I did.”
“I’ve never known a woman so perverse. I’ll buy a ring for you if it would make you feel respectable. It’s not often I have money enough in my pocket to make the offer.”
“How many wives do you have?”
“Six or seven scattered over Cornwall…You’re sharp, aren’t you?…” (p.177).
And, indeed, Mary is sharp but even she can be deceived. But by whom? I shall not even whisper another character’s name but leave you here to wonder what this is all about so you will pick up this daunting book!
1. The Birds
Surely you’ve seen this Hitchcock thriller written by du Maurier, so I won’t spell it out. If you haven’t, do not see the film before you read this short story.
And if you have, which is more likely if you are a thriller fan, don’t hesitate to read the story because it will take you on a different path than even Hitchcock could create.
Why? Because it is fascinating that Hitchcock just grabbed onto the central theme and created his own version of the story in his movie which was not true to Du Maurier’s actual story which has many characters that Hitchcock minimizes.
The question is – What do the dangerous threatening birds symbolize in du Maurier’s tale? What is at risk and for whom and why? Can the characters resolve their terror by facing it?
Please expect to be frightened and intrigued and trust that du Maurier can tell an even better story than Hitchcock for all his fame. I suspect, like me, you didn’t even know she created this tale and Hitchcock became famous for it.
One more word.
This is surely filled with high suspense but read deeply to find the ‘character’ of each character. Their inner world is surely as fascinating as the outer world suggests over and over again.
2. Monte Verita
As always, Du Maurier’s opening words set the tone for her mystifying tale.
“They told me afterwards they had found nothing. No trace of anyone living or dead. Maddened by anger, and I believe by fear, they had succeeded at last in breaking into those forbidden walls, dreaded and shunned through countless years – to be met by silence. Frustrated, bewildered, frightened, driven to fury at the sight of those empty cells, that bare court, the valley people resorted to the primitive methods that have served so many peasants through so many centuries: fire and destruction” (p. 40).
This is a story about a woman’s search for herself in a world about which only mysterious ideas are known. As you read you will wonder what happens to her in this dire quest for acceptance of her true self in a strange world that suggests but doesn’t promise that immortality may reign.
As to be expected, the unseen world will be puzzling just as the woman is who enters it and the seeker who wants to discover what happens to her.
The seeker, an avid mountain climber, loves her deeply and will spend his life trying to recover and uncover his woman, Anna.
A triangle of love deepens the plot which also reveals a close relationship between two men who share a long-involved loving history together. Each is to be revered in their unique ways. Suspenseful happenings occur for each complicating this tale about Anna.
A central theme for all the three main characters is how their endurance, physical and psychological, is tested with “something indefinable …to be won” (p. 45).
Du Maurier’s philosophical bent is revealed in this story which like all the stories mentioned above is suspenseful and psychological never fully preparing you for the unexpected.
What seems so masterful is that du Maurier involves the reader not only in the characters’ inner and outer worlds, but she seems to want the reader to gain insight about him or herself as well.
You might discover you question your own beliefs about love, acceptance, endurance, and if there can be some kind of ultimate happiness.
3. The Little Photographer
This story may be surprising if you read it after those discussed above. You will meet the Marquise a wealthy woman of questionable character who seeks an affair with a crippled photographer while her husband is away on business and she is on holiday with her children.
In my avid reading of du Maurier I find she often creates female characters bored with their lives in society and so seek adulterous affairs as adventures that often turn to passionate love.
However, in this story that scenario is not borne out.
We find the Marquise to be a rather pathological character. Precisely in what way I won’t reveal and ruin your reading, but I am mindful, as you may become, too, that du Maurier creates in this woman unlike the women protagonists above an immoral and sadistic character.
The Marquise’s inner world and bizarre psychology you will unlikely identify with yet be drawn to because of its morose even evil tone that is compelling though distressing.
While she commits adultery like many female characters described above, her escapades are malignant.
She is not on a quest to find herself, but to express a high level of aggression in her deeds that cannot be one of passion or romance but of a kind of aggressive psychological sexual abuse of another.
I caution you about the ending, as unexpected as du Maurier’s usual endings, but it hardly results in a character to admire.
Please do not be put off by my description but be alert to the workings of this woman’s mind. No scholarly clinical study could reveal this pathology better than Du Maurier does so remarkably just with storytelling. A truly remarkable feat.
As a psychoanalyst, I find Daphne du Maurier’s writing highly compelling and instructive to me because she is able to create various female characters with dissatisfactions in their lives they hope to remedy with adultery. Not every story has this theme but enough do to make you wonder as a reader about the mind of Daphne du Maurier herself.
She creates as you have seen kind, caring, loyal women who are deceived yet triumph in their own ways, secretive adventurous women trying to climb out of their restricted shells in life, and even sadistic women also struggling with dissatisfactions in their daily lives.
Certainly, and most importantly, all of these women have complex inner lives expressed by superb story telling by one of the great masters who published so many decades ago. Her work and considerable talent in understanding the human mind is going to remain on our book shelves in the present day and beyond.
Daphne du Maurier is to my way of thinking a brilliant woman, a remarkable author, a talented suspenseful storyteller, and a wizard at depicting how the human mind works.
Many of her novels have become famous films but in my view these movies do not at all do her stories justice. They deplete her plots, minimize the psychological struggles of her characters, and plainly disappoint.
Should you choose to watch them, which I don’t suggest, though of course you’ll form your own cinematic judgements, please do this wonderful author the courtesy of reading the words in her novels and short stories first.
Delve deep into her characters minds and learn more about how your mind works as well.