Du Maurier December: ‘The Flight of the Falcon’ by Daphne du Maurier **

The Flight of the Falcon was the penultimate book which I chose to read for my du Maurier December project.  First published in 1965, the novel is set in the fictional city of Ruffano in Italy, which was inspired by a real city, but contains a plot and characters of du Maurier’s own creation.

The Flight of the Falcon begins in the twentieth century, in an Italian city with an incredibly violent history.  The face of Ruffano is being modernised, around the focal point of its university.  In present-day Ruffano, ‘Austerity was banished.  The young, with all their fine contempt for dusty ways, had taken over’. The town has rather a sinister edge to it; there are those who follow students around at night, and a secretive society within the wider university organisation.  A student named Caterina tells our narrator the following: ‘But I’m sure of one thing.  I would never walk about Ruffano by night without at least half-a-dozen others.  It’s all right round here, and in the piazza della Vita.  Not up the hill, not by the palace’.  Parallels are drawn ‘through murder, humiliation and outrage’ from the very beginning between the present day and the story of Duke Claudio, the Falcon, who lived five hundred years before.

The narrator of the piece, Armino Fabbio – known as Beo – currently works for Sunshine Tours, and describes himself as a courier; a ‘guide, manager, mediator and shepherd of souls…  A courier can make or break a tour.  Like the conductor of a choir he must, by force of personality, induce his team to sing in harmony; subdue the raucous, encourage the timid, conspire with the young, flatter the old’.  The novel’s first main plot point comes when the body of a woman is discovered with a stab wound.  Those on the tour with Beo had seen her the previous evening, passed out drunk on a bench.  It turns out that she and Beo share a past connection, and Beo then has to deal with the fragmented memories of his childhood which become interspersed with his present: ‘I stood watching my grip, a wanderer between two worlds.  The one the via dei Sogni of my past, with all its memories, but no longer mine; and this other, active, noisy, equally indifferent.  The dead should not return.  Lazarus was right to feel foreboding.  Caught, as he must have been, betwixt past and present, he evaded both in horror, seeking the anonymity of the tomb – but in vain’.

The most interesting element of the plot comes when Beo, who returns to Ruffano and is employed as a temporary librarian, stumbles across a book which details the past of the city’s infamous Falcon, Claudio Malebranche: ‘A youth of outstanding promise, he became intoxicated by good fortune, and casting off his early discipline he surrounded himself by a small band of dissolute disciples, and dismayed the good citizens of Ruffano by licentious outrages and revolting cruelties.  No one could walk by night for fear of the Falcon’s sudden descent into the city, when, aided by his followers, he would seize and ravage…’.  The present and past stories converge through the guise of the town’s annual festival, entitled ‘The Flight of the Falcon’.

The elements of crime novel within The Flight of the Falcon tend to become glossed over after a while, and are not quite built up enough to keep the reader guessing.  Beo’s first person male narrative voice is believable, but it does not feel as compelling or as well built as those in books such as My Cousin Rachel and The House on the Strand.  I could have quite happily put The Flight of the Falcon down at any point and not picked it up again; I did not feel as though I particularly had – or even wanted – to know what was going to happen within its pages.  I did not feel an ounce of compassion on behalf of the narrator, even when he was descriving some of the sadder things which had happened to him, and there was a relatively detached air to the whole.

At first, The Flight of the Falcon is a relatively easy novel to get into, but the pace is rather slow and it does tend to become bogged down in details from time to time.  The dialogue is sodden with mundane and superfluous details.  It did not feel as though du Maurier was perhaps as comfortable with her setting as she is with those books which take place in the United Kingdom and in France.  I had the feeling throughout that something pivotal was missing from the novel.

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Du Maurier December: ‘Daphne du Maurier: A Daughter’s Memoir’ by Flavia Leng ****

I have wanted to read Flavia Leng’s memoir of her mother for such a long time, and thought that my du Maurier December project afforded a very good reason indeed to do so.  Leng’s ‘moving and revealing’ memoir was first published in 1994, and presents many of her childhood memories alongside the facts of du Maurier’s life.

The introduction of Daphne du Maurier: A Daughter’s Memoir is vivid from its very first sentence: ‘I dream often that my mother is still alive… In my dreams I see her as she was, a long time ago, before the start of the illness and depression that were to mar the last years of her life’.  She goes on to set out the ancestry of her family, focusing particularly – as one might expect – upon her parents.

Leng demonstrates how du Maurier’s beloved Menabilly in Cornwall was the perfect place for the du Maurier-Browning family to make their home: ‘She gave Tessa, Kits and me a magical environment in which to grow up.  It was a lovely haven for my father on his return from the stresses of the Second World War’.  She also talks of the great divide which the idyllic setting sometimes held against her mother’s character, and the way in which the latter’s writing built a barrier between herself and her children: ‘There were times when my mother was busy with her writing that I felt we were intruding on her life…  She would be in a world of her own where we were not welcome.  Her need for space, for freedom, was greater than her need for us’.  Leng goes on to say, ‘We would wait, biding our time until that magic moment when suddenly she was with us once more.  Her faraway look gone, her lovely face alive with joy and laughter, and we would all frget in a trice that feeling of abandonment and rejection’.

Leng writes beautifully, and often with such fondness: ‘We would shiver with delight as she [du Maurier] recalled

L-R: Christian, Daphne, Frederick ‘Tommy/Boy’ Browning, Tessa and Flavia

for us the sound of the owls hooting in the depth of the woods as dusk fell upon the darkening house’.  Whilst her childhood appears idyllic on the surface, Leng portrays an often lonely childhood: ‘We knew no other families, Bing [du Maurier] thinking it quite unnecessary to encourage tiresome folk from beyond the park gates’.  She is also rather candid when her memories warrant her to be: ‘Rebecca and I were conceived about the same time in 1936, but whereas the novel was very much planned and thought-out, I was unquestionably a mistake’.

She lets the disappointment which her parents felt of having another daughter, when both so clearly longed for a son – one they had already named – be known.  When her younger brother, Christian, arrives, she tells of the lavish affection bestowed upon him, which was starkly missing from her and her older sister Tessa’s upbringings: ‘We would watch him lying gurling in her arms, her face buried in his tiny neck, and we would slip from the room, uncomfortable, knowing we were not welcome there’.  The lack of relationship forged with her largely absent military father is described – ‘I did not miss him because I did not know him, but I missed the presence of “a daddy” – as is the way in which du Maurier hated fame and would ‘shun it as much as she could’.

Throughout Daphne du Maurier: A Daughter’s Memoir, we meet both famous characters – the ‘great Cornish writer’ Arthur Quiller-Couch and Noel Coward, for example – and those who made an impact upon young Flavia’s life.  Leng herself comes across marvellously, and one can only feel such sympathy for the ways in which she was teased, both by her elder sister and some of the adults who encountered her.  She is one of those marvellous people who sees the joy in just about everything.  She rejoices, for example, at the moments she recalls in which du Maurier – or ‘Bing’, as her children affectionately called her – would spend time with them, even if it led to troubles: ‘Bing often made fun of people behind their backs.  She would mock them, making us giggle, say things about them, give them strange make-believe lives – which at times made it very difficult for us children to have respect for our elders’.

Daphne du Maurier: A Daughter’s Memoir is often sad, but overall, Leng has crafted a charming biography, which provides rather a fascinating glimpse into du Maurier’s behaviour and relationships with her husband, staff and children.  Leng’s memoir is a marvellous read for anyone interested in the woman behind the books.

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Du Maurier December: ‘Hungry Hill’ by Daphne du Maurier **

Whilst preparing for my Du Maurier December posts, I decided that I would read her 1943 novel, Hungry Hill, rather early on.  It was the book which I can safely say I was least looking forward to.  I generally find du Maurier’s historical fiction rather mesmerising, but on the face of it, nothing about Hungry Hill really appealed to me at all.

I love visiting Ireland, the country in which the story of Hungry Hill takes place, but I do not tend to enjoy books which are set there.  Largely, those which I have encountered thus far follow the same kind of pattern; they are generally familial sagas in which none of the generations are particularly likeable, they often share similar themes, and they tend to become a little predictable and quite unexciting in consequence. The storyline of this novel, too – ‘It is a passionate story of five generations of an Irish family and the copper mine on Hungry Hill [previously a beloved picnic spot of the children] with which their fortunes and fate were so closely bound’ – held very little appeal for me.  Despite this, I thought that as du Maurier is one of my favourite authors, I would purchase the novel anyway, mainly to see how she rendered her material, and to discover whether she could make the story an interesting one for me.

The novel is split into five separate parts, every one of which follows a member of each consequent generation of the Brodrick family, who live at Clonmere Castle.  The first part begins in 1820 with patriarch ‘Copper John’, the second in 1828 with his son ‘Greyhound John’, the third in 1837 with his brother’s son, known as ‘Wild Johnnie’, the fourth in 1858 with Henry, and the fifth in 1874 with his son, Hal.  The novel’s epilogue is set in 1920, and deals with John-Henry, the sixth generation of the family.

Almost the entirety of the first generation whom we are introduced to are not very likeable; they largely exude a sense of pompousness and self-importance from the very beginning, thinking themselves above everyone else merely because of their father’s projected wealth.  The local community feels animosity toward the mine – and, in turn, the Brodricks – as, when it was established, rather than calling upon the local workforce to man it, John Brodrick shipped over miners from Cornwall. Hostility between the two reigns from the very beginning, and, somewhat predictably, the ore soon begins to be stolen.

Du Maurier demonstrates the odd and, in some ways, very fitting of-the-time family relationship which exists within the Brodrick clan.  Despite this, some elements of the family dynamic are a little peculiar; John Brodrick’s ‘natural brother’ Ned acts as his agent, but is ‘careful never to presume upon his relationship in any way, so that John Brodrick was always “Mr Brodrick” and his nieces “the young ladies”‘.  As one might expect in a novel which begins in 1820, sexism within the family is rife.  In the first generation – as is traditional, of course – the boys are sent to Eton and Oxford University, but the girls receive no education whatsoever.  No Brodrick child is more treasured than the eldest son, Henry.  Whilst slightly different things do happen to each generation’s protagonist within Hungry Hill, details and many aspects of personality are repeated.  It felt rather predictable, particularly as it went on.

Whilst Hungry Hill is well written, there are very few characters with whom one is able to sympathise.  The descriptions are well rendered, but are certainly quite dreary on the whole, and set the tone well in consequence.  In a few instances throughout, the dialogue which du Maurier has crafted feels a touch too modern for the period in question; an odd and quite jarring mistake, since she normally excels at such things.  Whilst some of the scenes are quite vivid, this has not been sustained throughout, and parts of the novel which should be dramatic are rendered rather flat and insipid.  Many of the facts and technicalities which du Maurier weaves in tend to feel quite dull and repetitive; it feels as though one is reading a piece of non-fiction at times.

It perhaps goes without saying that Hungry Hill is my least favourite du Maurier to date, and if she had not penned it, I would never have picked it up.  In some ways, it presents an interesting portrayal of days gone by, but I personally believe it to be the weakest of her historical novels.  Whilst part of this is certainly due to the fact that the book does not appeal to me, it does not feel as though its atmosphere and storyline have been captured as well as books such as The House on the Strand and Rebecca.  The characters within Hungry Hill are also not overly memorable.  Hungry Hill feels something of an anamoly in du Maurier’s otherwise sparkling literary career.

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Saturday Poem: ‘I Often Shiver With Cold’ by Osip Mandelstam

I often shiver with cold --
I want to be mute as a thing!
There is, in the skies, dancing gold
Sending me commands to sing!

Singer, be sad and upset,
Love, and remember, and call,
Catch, from a dark planet sent,
Light and magnificent ball.

That’s a true link, I believe,
With the mysterious worlds!
What an oppressive grief,
What a misfortune holds!

What if that star, as a pin,
Suddenly’ll pierce my heart?
That one, which shimmering spins
Over the shop apart?