[Tychy is nothing if not a writer and reviewer of short stories: this website to date features about eighty short stories, of varying ambitions and success; and numerous reviews of either individual stories or complete volumes by authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, E.F. Benson, and Laird Barron. “Short Story Review” is a new series which aims to consolidate this website’s longstanding and ongoing critical appreciation of short fiction. SSR will exclusively study volumes of short fiction rather than individual tales. Forthcoming installments will be dedicated to Baron Corvo, Thomas Ligotti, and James Lasdun. Ed.]
“At death you break up,” Philip Larkin once groaned, “the bits that were you/ Start speeding away from each other for ever/ With no one to see.” If Daphne Du Maurier had ever wanted the contents of The Doll: Short Stories (2011) to be collected together and published, then she more than anybody else possessed the means to do so. She may have forgotten, or fancied that she had forgotten, ever writing these dainty but wicked little tales. Perhaps her failure to hunt down all of the existing copies and destroy them can be taken as a sign that she would not have objected to their eventual republication. In truth, all that can ever remain private for a writer of Du Maurier’s standing is her life. The fiction now belongs to all of us, and even Du Maurier’s tale about a humanoid dildo who is “dressed in a dinner jacket” cannot remain tucked away in a private drawer.
Whilst this logic may open The Doll, Short Stories to the reader, the critic may yet feel like an intruder in private chambers, rifling through drawers and handling personal documents. Whatever verdict they decide will be quashed by the rejoinder that these stories were never meant for their eyes. They are inadmissible as fair evidence of Du Maurier’s writing.
Yet as with all true short story collections, the sum of The Doll is greater than its parts, and Du Maurier is responsible only for the parts. In isolation, these stories are mostly technical exercises, which are sometimes whimsical and sometimes in earnest. “A Difference in Temperament” and “Frustration” flourish as sketches, but only “East Wind” and “The Limpet” seem to fulfill themselves as short stories, and the remainder are like draught outlines which have been discarded without the colour and detail necessary to complete them. Built together into a portfolio, however, all of these stories find themselves in agreement with one another in offering the sense of a powerful creative intelligence.
The Doll contains thirteen stories, twelve of which were written between 1926 and 1936, whilst the final tale “The Limpet” was published in 1959. All of the stories aside from “East Wind” and “The Doll” were first printed in magazines. Fans and scholars of Du Maurier were surprised to learn of the existence of five of these stories, as they were tracked down by the Cornish bookseller Ann Willmore, whom one likes to picture as a lone vigilante, abseiling through the windows of obscure libraries.
The apple of Du Maurier’s eye is the encounter between two fatuous young lovers – who would be in love if they lived in a world in which human love was possible – or else whom we find trying to nourish their destiny on some tiny stray crumb of love. In tales such as “A Difference in Temperament” and “Nothing Hurts for Long,” Du Maurier deals unsparingly with her poor characters, setting out their folly in all of its plainness and dismissing them with a snigger rather than any serious consideration. This is not realism, because reality is broader and deeper than this. We may wonder whether Du Maurier’s initially surprising cynicism is explicable as simply ignorance.
These tales are best when one is conscious more of the style than of the substance. “Frustration” is not only Saki-esque in its jaunty viciousness, but in its exquisite economy. The young couple of the story remain nameless, because in Du Maurier’s world these buffoons represent any or every loving couple; but their honeymoon proceeds with the slick slapstick of a turn by Laurel and Hardy. Perhaps unexpectedly, the finest prose in this book is also the funniest. One ends up admiring Du Maurier’s audacity, in confounding what one expects of a female writer in the 1920/30s and forsaking dreary modernism for the sparkling comedy of Saki and Wodehouse.
Du Maurier looks beyond quarrelsome couples in “East Wind,” “The Doll” and “The Happy Valley,” which are more ambitious and atmospheric than the other stories. The earliest tale, “East Wind,” is by far the most powerful of the three. A speck of an island lost in the mid-Atlantic falls from grace after the wind changes. The island folk are peaceably intermarried and they live “blindly, happily, like children.” Yet the East Wind brings a boat full of wayward sailors, who despoil this salty Eden and drive one of the islanders, Guthrie, to murder. One cannot wholly convince oneself that the evil resided in Guthrie’s own breast, and that he should have accepted the free love brought by the sailors. A vengeful Old Testament God looms over this island, setting a deranged test which conflates the story of Adam and Eve with that of Cain and Abel. Indeed, Guthrie himself falls short of sexual knowledge and he remains in a paradise which we leave as a hell.
Both “The Doll” and “The Happy Valley” provide little mirages of Du Maurier’s later masterpiece Rebecca (1938). “The Doll” conceivably recounts an episode of Rebecca’s life before she first set foot at Manderley. Du Maurier should have written a series of these stories – the adventures of a femme fatale extraordinaire. Admittedly, this Rebecca is reportedly Hungarian, but the poor narrator loses his heart to her just as he would have done to the later queen Rebecca. “The Doll” is weakened somewhat by its stilted melodramatic narration, and the story cannot quite bear the weight of its own prose. Its mystery is airy but not exasperating. Is Rebecca a heartless lesbian who can only make love to a mechanical contraption? Does she cast a spell of love over the narrator so that he will not reveal her sordid secret? Or is the narrator’s soul imprisoned within the doll Julio, a useless grinning toy for Rebecca to aimlessly play with? Alone with her compliant toy, Rebecca may have established the perfect human relationship – the solution, in fact, to all of the problems in this book.
If “The Doll” pitches the main character from Rebecca, “The Happy Valley” lays out the setting. Both this story and the eventual novel begin with a description of a vivid dream, but “The Happy Valley” turns out to submit a similar premonitory ghost story to E. F. Benson’s “The Room in the Tower” and “Between the Lights” (both 1912). “The Happy Valley” merely concludes with the dreamy narrator being guided towards her dream home, rather than with anything momentous enough to merit a supernatural vision, but the mysterious nature of this otherworldly intervention remains in keeping with the perversity of Benson’s fiction.
When Du Maurier is not affixed like a leech to a lovelorn couple, the sparkle seems to go out of her stories. She attempts character studies of a fashionable society vicar (“And Now to God the Father”) and a hard-bitten street walker (“Piccadilly,” “Mazie”), but these tales have a stiff and rather boorish quality. Although Du Maurier pokes fun out of James Joyce in “Frustration,” “And Now to…” only invites a comparison with Joyce’s short story “Grace” (1914), from which it emerges looking painfully amateurish. Part of her priest’s littleness is that his conceit is entirely predictable, and he is left spinning around inside himself, impaled on his falseness.
The prostitute Mazie is the subject of an aimless and at times unpleasant satire. We are meant to grimace at the smallness of her life, her meanness and pettiness. She is living hand to mouth off her own body, but this is a dwindling resource. She has a vision of procuring a cottage in Southend, which we are naturally supposed to laugh at, but the true prophesy of her future is personified by a bedraggled crone. Perhaps we would like to feel sorry for Mazie but Du Maurier seems to warn that she is not our equal, socially or intellectually.
Two further tales remain of interest. “Tame Cat” is a nightmare in which a daughter finds herself sleepwalking as her mother’s rival. The daughter’s innocence, the mother’s viciousness, and the stepfather’s irresponsibility all ultimately ring false, and in any recognisable reality there would be a greater sympathy between these characters. Yet “The Limpet,” which Du Maurier wrote much later in her career, is far more successful, largely because the protagonist, Dilys, remains unaccountably likeable despite her ghastliness. We follow Dilys’ vicious but hapless social climbing through a rollicking picaresque. She has no end of tricks up her sleeve, and in a world of pathetic men, she should be invincible, except that her prey usually manage to get away with their lives.
These stories are evidently from the same pen as Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, but they are hardly comparable, rather as the scribbling of a storyboard cannot be weighed against the cinematic splendours of the big picture. In truth, Du Maurier was a whimsical and experimental writer of short stories, and even her later, published stories wander in their quality and success. But, like the stiff, clunky Julio, smirking in his secret chamber, these tales were never meant for our eyes.