For those of us who love to read, there are always those books which have the title of having turned you into a book worm. For those of us who love to write, there is also the author that you first realised had a mastery of words you could only aspire to.
As a youngster I had three favourite authors. Although I have expanded my horizons over the years, those three have remained my biggest influences. (Unless you count Enid Blyton, to whom I was addicted from about ages 5 to 12).
I go back and read these three writer’s works regularly. I invariably see bits of their style creeping into my own blather. It’s an eclectic mix.
The first is Gerald Durrell. British naturalist and zookeeper who changed the face of zoos around the world. The book that got me started was “My Family and Other Animals”, which was on our reading list in first year high school. Obviously the animals were an attraction, but what mesmerised me was his use of English and his mix of humour and pathos in exquisite measure. You knew his characters. Durrell’s use of imagery took you to the heart of the places and people within his recollections of a childhood spent in Corfu. That book led me to all his other books. Animal collecting expeditions, zoos, failed marriages and various adored yet unsavoury relatives and friends. I devoured them all, and I still do. Sadly he passed away in 1995 from a love affair with whisky. On reading his biography, I learned he was a loveable yet frustrating character who was simply a natural writer. His wife (or wives) and secretaries fixed all his spelling and edited a lot of his work. The man simply had a fascinating life and a gift for story telling. His was an unconventional background with little formal education. Durrell’s type of ‘conversational’ writing has been imprinted on me permanently. Vale sir.
A side note for book fanatics is that his older brother was Lawrence Durrell, also a respected writer. Both had the same eclectic background and obvious talent for the written word, but very different styles. Lawrence pursued further education and ‘high literature’ whereas Gerald didn’t give two hoots. He tortured a few home tutors and then extricated himself from schooling with remarkable ease. That choice makes his success as a popular author quite incredible. Raw talent and a dollop of good luck.
Second favourite is Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle. Not a lot of explanation needed really. ‘Sherlock Holmes’ stands alone. Beautiful writing, well constructed narratives.
Then it’s time for my biggest influence and a book I can read on a loop, never getting bored or tiring of its masterful techniques. That book is ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier. A British female writer who penned quite a prolific amount of work. This however is the book that put her on the map, and establishes her (in my humble opinion) as rather a genius.
Du Maurier was a complex woman who – pardon the cliche – was somewhat ahead of her time. She had sexual relationships with both men and women, although history confirms she was in a long term marriage from 1932 until her husband’s death in 1965. She had three children. ‘Rebecca’ was written in 1938 at a time of marital boredom and frustration. It was her 5th novel, the first being published in 1931. The story was made into a film by Hitchcock as well as several television adaptations, cementing its notoriety. Many people know the story of ‘Rebecca’ because of the Hitchcock film. If you have seen the film and not read the book, may I be so bold as to suggest you get a copy. The novel’s iconic opening phrase “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” begins the film, but film cannot do justice to the writing. When published, ‘Rebecca’ was a smash hit and marketed as a gothic romance novel. This apparently annoyed Daphne no end as that wasn’t its intention. (Although she couldn’t argue with the money the book generated for her. Her success as a writer put great strain on her marriage however). The book is moody, gothic in feel, suspenseful and all it was touted to be. But it is a lot more. Using some very remarkable techniques.
The first thing that strikes you about the novel as you delve into it, is the use of imagery. Masterful use of concrete and abstract language. You are with the narrator as she revisits Manderley Estate in that opening dream sequence. The house immediately becomes a character within itself. Something that is lost in ‘Rebecca’s retelling on the silver screen is the fact this is a tale being shared by a woman who is in command of her life. She has been shaped by the events linked to Manderley which we are to subsequently traverse through her eyes. The tale is harrowing, yet she has emerged in control of her own mind. She distracts her husband when she perceives he is remembering the past, she organises their travels, their daily routine in the foreign land where they have retreated from their former existence and history. They are a team, but she is his carer. His guardian. She is the stronger of the two. She has chosen her path dutifully, despite it proving something of a claustrophobic prison. The woman of Chapter One does not resemble the woman we meet in the bulk of the retrospectively focussed writing.
Indeed ‘Rebecca’ is not a gothic romance. It is a story of innocence lost, deception and eventual self realisation and resolve.
An emotionally distant, selfish and in some respects abusive man attempts to self distract by taking advantage of an isolated teenager with a crush on him. He’s sophisticated, older, wealthy and behaves with full knowledge that she is inexperienced, alone and completely out of her depth. He acts on impulse, not ever thinking of her eventual destiny as his much younger and naive wife. Maxim de Winter only cares that he’s lonely, she’s besotted and it might fix some of his own mess. The attraction isn’t even particularly sexual for him. (In modern prose, this guy is VERY f**ed up). Once they return from honeymoon to his Manderley mansion, he goes into full on self centred mode. She’s abandoned to the tender mercies of his scary, obsessive housekeeper and the ever present shadow of his deceased first wife. Rebecca. Rebecca, whom he hates and the narrator brokenly presumes he still pines for. It doesn’t occur to our dashing hero to have a quick word with his second wife and tactfully explain that’s not the deal. Without indulging in a complete synopsis (again in modern text) the conclusion runs thus. Our youthful narrator learns the truth and stops torturing herself she’s inferior to her predecessor. She forgives and then rescues her handsome, self obsessed, guilt ridden, arse of a husband. She becomes a mouse that roars; with steel to survive.
That’s more feminist masterpiece than gothic fluff.
The book is remarkable in two respects, in terms of writing technique. The first is that the most powerful character we take away with us is -Rebecca. Yet she is dead from the outset. There are only hints at her physicality (we learn she is tall, dark, a social genius and inevitably… has great beauty). Any dialogue from her character is extremely sparse. She dominates the narrative as only something that threatens can.. when it is not entirely revealed. The second device the author wields is that we never learn the narrator’s name. When asked, Du Maurier remarked she set herself the challenge as a test of writing technique, which she made easier for herself by composing the piece in the first person. She could not think of a name when she began to create the novel, and the process went on from there. Intentional or not, it adds to the power of Rebecca’s character and the helplessness of the storyteller. Nameless, she embodies being ‘unimportant’ and we can stand in her shoes unhindered. Her name can unconsciously become our own. The entire piece is a tour de force of creative skill.
I think I can safely say I will never write at the level achieved by Daphne du Maurier. However when putting pen to paper, or digit to keyboard, it is always worth learning and relearning what writers of this ilk have left us. I guess what got you into books, perhaps into writing and what floats your creative boat is a matter of personal taste. As a female writer, I can only admire what Daphne put together at a time when being a woman with a voice and ambitions was not the social norm. She was seemingly both tortured and liberated by her talent and personality for most of her eighty-one years. As you can possibly tell, I highly recommend a night on the couch with the print version of ‘Rebecca’. It is a book universally loved by women for reasons they probably never bother to analyse. The appeal may be complex when taken apart, but it’s also self explanatory. The story and characters simply strike a very powerful chord. It’s a damned fine piece of writing.
“What a pity I’m not a vagrant on the face of the earth. Wandering in strange cities, foreign lands, open spaces, fighting, drinking, loving physically. And here I am, only a silly sheltered girl in a dress, knowing nothing at all – but Nothing”. Daphne du Maurier (taken from her personal diary, aged 21).
“Women want love to be a novel, Men a short story”. Daphne du Maurier
“It’s people like me who have careers who really have bitched up the old relationship between men and women. Women ought to be soft and gentle and dependent. Disembodied spirits like myself are all wrong”. Daphne du Maurier (taken from a personal letter to friend Ellen Doubleday).
Biographical detail in this article has been sourced from the Introduction to ‘The Rebecca Notebook’ Daphne du Maurier (1981).
Daphne du Maurier’s Personal Life (Daily Telegraph) 2017
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