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Du Maurier December: ‘Rebecca’s Tale’ by Sally Beauman ***

Sally Beauman’s Rebecca’s Tale, a sequel to du Maurier’s haunting Rebecca, is a book which I have been looking forward to reading for years.  It has proved quite an elusive title to locate however, so I had not been able to find it in any bookshops, and thought that my du Maurier December project gave me the perfect excuse to order a copy.  I was incredibly intrigued to see where Beauman would take the story.

Rebecca’s Tale was published in 2001 and is largely set in 1951, twenty years after the inquest which ruled that Rebecca’s death was a suicide.  The novel is split into four parts, all of which follow a different character; friend of Rebecca’s Arthur Julyan, historian Terence Grey, the diary of Rebecca herself, and Ellie, Arthur Julyan’s daughter. Each of the characters writing in 1951 is aiming to discover the truth of Rebecca’s death in his or her own way. One imagines that this sequel of sorts, with its opening line the same as the original’s, could not really have begun in any other way.

In his introductory chapter, Julyan, a former army colonel and retired magistrate, states: ‘I’ve concealed the truth about Rebecca de Winter for too long…  I decided to record, for the first time, and leaving nothing out, everything I know about Manderley, the de Winters, Rebecca, her mysterious life and her mysterious death’.  He goes on to rehash many of the details from du Maurier’s original, none of which I will relate here for fear of giving away spoilers to those of you who have not yet read Rebecca.

Julyan lives in Kerrith, the ‘nearest small town to Manderley’, and rather adored Rebecca when the two knew one another: ‘I was Rebecca’s friend; I knew, better than anyone, how well Rebecca had covered her tracks, how secretive she’d been’.  He goes on to say: ‘I’ve always believed that you cannot understand Rebecca and what she became unless you understand the family she married into.  I’ve always felt that if I were searching for clues to Rebecca, Manderley was the first place to look’.  He cites himself as the ‘prime source’ of finding out what happened to her, particularly now that her husband Maxim de Winter has passed away.  Through Julyan, we meet both Maxim and Beatrice de Winter as children – although it must be said that the two are not overly believable when Beauman writes about them.  Danvers, Rebecca’s formidable confidante of sorts, and an ardent worshipper of the young woman, has disappeared without a trace.

Julyan is sent a package containing a notebook with the words, ‘in a child’s spiky hand, the tail of the last letter curling down the page in a long punning flourish.  Rebecca’s Tale‘.  His portion of the novel is largely told in retrospect.  Julyan’s narrative voice feels rather overdone at times; feminine phrasing creeps in from time to time, and there is nothing presented to us which is overly masculine within his character.  He tends to be a little pompous at times; unnecessarily so, one cannot help but think.  This aspect of his personality becomes more and more grating as the novel goes on.  Historian Terence Grey narrates the second part of the novel and is, says Julyan, ‘crucial to my Rebecca “quest”‘.  Whilst I can see why the perspectives of both Grey and Julyan’s daughter Ellie have been used, both of them feel rather overdone on the whole, and consequently I did not grow to like any of the characters.

Some of the cast of ‘Rebecca’ (1940)

The plentiful positive reviews lavished across the cover of Rebecca’s Tale led me to believe that I would very much enjoy the book.  I had rather varied feelings about it though, and whilst I very much enjoyed some sections, I really disliked others.  On the back of the novel, a quote from author Linda Grant proclaims the following: ‘While both du Maurier and Beauman are great storytellers, Beauman really is the better prose writer’.  I did not personally agree with this at all.  Comparably, I do not think Beauman’s writing is anywhere near as strong nor as vivid as du Maurier’s, and she also does not make her male narrative voices sound realistic, something which du Maurier herself is wonderful at.

Rebecca’s Tale is, to an extent, well written, and it does become more absorbing as it goes on, but when a new narrative perspective is introduced – particularly with regard to that of Terence Grey’s – a lot of the details which Julyan has already related are repeated for no particular reason.  This would be relatively bearable, were it not for the fact that the same phrases are used, often in their entirety.  Speaking of the title which Rebecca wrote in her notebook, for example, Grey describes it as a ‘childish punning flourish’, rather than Julyan’s aforementioned ‘long punning flourish’.  Grey’s voice also feels even more effeminate than Julyan’s.

I feel that I do not have to write that Rebecca’s Tale is nowhere near as compelling as Rebecca.  Whilst I admire what Beauman has done in creating a sequel to a much-loved and rather phenomenal novel, I do not see why her effort had to be quite so repetitive.  Whilst her novel is well paced, several of the elements are bogged down by superfluous – and again, often repetitive – descriptions, and less interesting aspects of the plot.  Disappointingly, I did guess a lot of the twists and turns within the story.  One of the strengths of Rebecca’s Tale was Beauman’s original blending of the original characters with her new creations.  Another is the way in which some depth was added to the shadowy past of Rebecca herself.

Rebecca’s Tale is an interesting read for anyone who has enjoyed Rebecca, but the conclusions which Beauman draws are often far too obvious, quite unsatisfactory, and sometimes are not anywhere near subtle enough to work.  All in all, the very idea of a sequel to Rebecca, that much adored of Gothic novels, is rather inviting, but it is not entirely necessary.  As a reader and ardent fan of her work, I respect du Maurier’s decision to end Rebecca in the way in which she did.  Whilst it is pleasing that another author has taken to the helm, I cannot convince myself that du Maurier would have utilised many of the same elements as Beauman has in Rebecca’s Tale.

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Classics Club #26: ‘Poetry’ by Sappho ****

Before I discuss my thoughts about Sappho’s poetry, I thought that I would share a short yet fascinating biography of the poet and her work, which I found on the description of the pictured book: ‘Today, thousands of years after her birth, in lands remote from her native island of Lesbos and in languages that did not exist when she wrote her poetry in Aeolic Greek, Sappho remains an important name among lovers of poetry and poets alike. Celebrated throughout antiquity as the supreme Greek poet of love and of the personal lyric, noted especially for her limpid fusion of formal poise, lucid insight, and incandescent passion, today her poetry is also prized for its uniquely vivid participation in a living paganism. Collected in an edition of nine scrolls by scholars in the second century BC, Sappho’s poetry largely disappeared when the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople in 1204. All that remained was one poem and a handful of quoted passages. A century ago papyrus fragments recovered in Egypt added a half dozen important texts to Sappho’s surviving works.’ 

I had never read anything of Sappho’s before and really thought that I ought to, so I decided to add it to my Classics Club list.  It is one of the choices which I was most looking forward to, and as soon as I found a copy of her work, I read it immediately.  Throughout, I found the imagery beautiful.  Mythology and emotions are linked in the most stunning manner.

I would like to share a portion of ‘Come to Me Here From Crete’, one of my favourite fragments of her work:

‘And below the apple branches, cold
Clear water sounds, everything shadowed
By roses, and sleep that falls from
Bright shaking leaves’.

I found Sappho’s poetry stunning, rich and beautiful, and only wish there had been more of it!

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Saturday Poem: ‘Lines for the Fortune Cookies’ by Frank O’Hara

I think you’re wonderful and so does everyone else.

Just as Jackie Kennedy has a baby boy, so will you—even bigger.

You will meet a tall beautiful blonde stranger, and you will not say hello.

You will take a long trip and you will be very happy, though alone.

You will marry the first person who tells you your eyes are like scrambled eggs.

In the beginning there was YOU—there will always be YOU, I guess.

You will write a great play and it will run for three performances.

Please phone The Village Voice immediately: they want to interview you.

Roger L. Stevens and Kermit Bloomgarden have their eyes on you.

Relax a little; one of your most celebrated nervous tics will be your undoing.

Your first volume of poetry will be published as soon as you finish it.

You may be a hit uptown, but downtown you’re legendary!

Your walk has a musical quality which will bring you fame and fortune.

You will eat cake.

Who do you think you are, anyway? Jo Van Fleet?

You think your life is like Pirandello, but it’s really like O’Neill.

A few dance lessons with James Waring and who knows? Maybe something will happen.

That’s not a run in your stocking, it’s a hand on your leg.

I realize you’ve lived in France, but that doesn’t mean you know EVERYTHING!

You should wear white more often—it becomes you.

The next person to speak to you will have a very intriquing proposal to make.

A lot of people in this room wish they were you.

Have you been to Mike Goldberg’s show? Al Leslie’s? Lee Krasner’s?

At times, your disinterestedness may seem insincere, to strangers.

Now that the election’s over, what are you going to do with yourself?

You are a prisoner in a croissant factory and you love it.

You eat meat. Why do you eat meat?

Beyond the horizon there is a vale of gloom.

You too could be Premier of France, if only… if only…

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Classics Club #99: ‘Daisy Miller’ by Henry James

The penultimate book on my Classics Club list was one which I had read before but wanted to revisit – Daisy Miller by Henry James.  I first read the novella a couple of years ago on my Kindle, but thought that I would borrow a pretty edition from my local library this time around.

Daisy Miller – ‘a moral tale of youthful spirit’ – was first published in Cornhill Magazine between June and July 1878, and was made into a very slim book later the same year.  Until I began my re-read I remembered little of the story, but as soon as I had made my way through the first few pages, entire vivid scenes came to the forefront of my mind.  Its opening backdrop sets the tone: ‘At the little town of Vevey, in Switzerland, there is a particularly comfortable hotel.  There are, indeed, many hotels; for the entertainment of tourists is the business of the place’.

One of our protagonists, the eponymous Daisy Miller, is a young woman from New York, who is introduced into European society: ‘She was dressed in white muslin, with a hundred frills and flounces, and knots of pale-coloured ribbon.  She was bare-headed; but she balanced in her hand a large parasol, with a deep border of embroidery; and she was strikingly, admirably pretty’.

Rather than following Daisy for its entirety, Daisy Miller is told with the perspective of a man in his late twenties named Winterbourne in mind.  James initially asserts that he is ‘an extremely amiable fellow, and universally liked…  When certain persons spoke of him they affirmed that the reason of his spending so much time at Geneva was that he was extremely devoted to a lady who lived there – a foreign lady – a person older than himself’.  James’ characterisation, which continues in this manner, is sublime.

James is incredibly perceptive about the relationships which are built between his characters, particularly in the instance of Daisy and Winterbourne: ‘She gradually gave him more of the benefit of her glance; and then he saw that this glance was perfectly direct and unshrinking.  It was not, however, what would have been called an immodest glance, for the young girl’s eyes were singularly honest and fresh.  They were wonderfully pretty eyes; and indeed, Winterbourne had not seen for a long time anything prettier than his fair countrywoman’s various features – her complexion, her nose, her ears, her teeth.  He had a great relish for feminine beauty; he was addicted to observing and analysing it; and as regards this young lady’s face he made several observations’.

Whilst Daisy Miller is an incredibly short book, and rather a quick read, it is rich and perfectly crafted.  I enjoyed it just as much the second time around as the first; the sign, for me, of a true classic.

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Du Maurier December: ‘The Doll: Short Stories’ by Daphne du Maurier ****

I have wanted to read The Doll: Short Stories ever since its publication in 2011.  Most of the stories within this book were, says Polly Samson’s introduction, ‘written early in Daphne du Maurier’s career, yet they display her mastery of atmosphere, tension and intrigue and reveal a cynicism far beyond her years’.

The Doll is made up of thirteen stories in all.  The title story was written when du Maurier was twenty: ‘It was the first thing she wrote in Fowey,’ Samson tells us, ‘having fled the distractions of a family life steeped in tittle-tattle and the Theatre.  It’s a story of obsession, and the submerged anxieties of the young writer’s mind run through the pages like wine through water’.  She believes that ‘all the themes in her later great novels can be seen here in embryonic form’.  Samson’s introduction is nicely rounded, and it does not give too much away in terms of plots and characters.

The Doll is an incredibly dark collection of stories; possibly the darkest in du Maurier’s entire oeuvre.  From the very first tale, du Maurier sets each scene marvellously; they are vivid, sometimes horribly so.  Describing the ‘barren, rugged’ island of St Hilda’s, for example, she writes: ‘The island rises out of the sea a queer, misshapen crag, splendid in its desolation, with a grey face lifted to the four winds.  It might have been thrown up from the depths of the Atlantic in a moment of great unrest, and set there, a small defiant piece of land, to withstand forever the anger of the sea’.  She builds each story beautifully, to the extent that the reader is soon quite absorbed in each subsequent tale.

Many themes worm their way into du Maurier’s stories here, most of them manifested around love and all it brings with it – adultery, sexuality, crimes of passion, jealousy, sadism and obsession, for example.  The stories tend to become quite gruesome in places.  Du Maurier demonstrates the way in which outsiders can hld such power and influence, particularly in secluded communities.  With regard to characters, those found within the pages of The Doll are often unusual and unpredictable, and they leap into life almost immediately.  Of the main protagonist in ‘The Doll’, for example, the male narrator says the following: ‘Rebecca, when I think of you with your pale earnest face, your great wide fanatical eyes like a saint, the narrow mouth that hid your teeth, sharp and white as ivory, and your halo of savage hair, electric, dark, uncontrolled – there has never been anyone more beautiful’.  Du Maurier’s narrative voices are so well controlled, whether she is writing from the first or third person, and as a male or female.

Each of the stories in The Doll are quite different, and all are unsettling in their own ways.  The title story, for example, occurs when a notebook – its pages ‘so damaged by exposure [to the sea] as to render them completely illegible’ – is washed ashore and found by a doctor.  Of the dark prose contained within the notebook, he says the following: ‘Whether the wild improbabilities of the story are true, or whether the whole is but the hysterical product of a diseased mind, we shall never know’.  Throughout, atmosphere is built to the point at which it stifles.  Of the doll, Julio, in ‘The Doll’, for instance, Du Maurier says: ‘His face was the most evil thing I have ever seen.  It was ashen pale in colour, and the mouth was a crimson gash, sensual and depraved.  The nose was thin, with curved nostrils, and the eyes were cruel, gleaming and narrow, and curiously still’.

The Doll: Short Stories is well paced and incredibly creepy at times.  Interestingly, the stories feel very modern on the whole; one would not think that the majority had been penned during the 1920s and early 1930s.  Masks and veils are used throughout, and we are lulled into a false sense of security.  Elements are then revealed which are not at all expected, rendering this collection an incredibly memorable one.

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