All famous writers have to start somewhere. I enjoy reading their early forays into the art of writing. They contain the raw material that shapes their future works as they skillfully hone their craft. It is no secret that I am an unabashed fan of Daphne du Maurier and reading an early collection of her ‘lost’ short stories was like stumbling upon buried treasure unearthed after decades of oblivion. Most of these stories were written very early in her career and were either published in obscure magazines and tabloids and subsequently out of print or had never been published. A bookseller in Cornwall discovered five of the stories including the titular The Doll in a 1937 collection marked as ‘The Editor Regrets.” They explore many of the emotions and themes that found their way into her later works.
The stories may seem dated to the modern reader but they depict universal truths transcending time. Many of these tales were written when du Maurier was still in her teens or early twenties and reveal an insight into human behavior and a maturity or even a precociousness far beyond her years. She is a great observer of humanity-of people with their quirks, whims, frailties, and foibles. She knows how to tap into the dark recesses of the mind and to lay bare all the base emotions like obsession, jealousy, sexual frustration and hypocrisy resorting to suspense, social satire or even comedy. She also has a predilection for the macabre. Often the stories send a shiver down the spine. They are horror stories but they portray a horror of a different kind- one that is more terrifying and longer- lasting- psychological horror.
The collection opens with my favorite story of the lot which was written when du Maurier was just nineteen years old. In East Wind, the serene life on a remote island cut away from the rest of humanity is disturbed when shipwrecked foreign sailors arrive introducing alcohol and their promiscuous habits with devastating consequences for some of the inhabitants. There is a sense of impending doom when ” … all the while the East Wind blew, tossing the grass, scattering the hot white sand, forcing its triumphant path through the white mist and the green waves like a demon let loose upon the island.” And the simple village folk end up throwing all caution to the wind.
The Doll is a daring story ahead of its time with an almost pornographic twist. Letters washed ashore reveal the journal entries of a man who tries to figure out what went wrong between him and a young violinist named Rebecca. He was smitten by her but she repelled his advances as she had another object of affection. Could this strange, beautiful and independent young woman with her unusual sexual proclivity be not only the namesake but the precursor to the first Mrs. de Winter? It’s quite a risqué story for its time as it depicts a young woman in control of her own life and sexuality.
There are a series of bittersweet vignettes about young couples with irreconcilable differences and the disillusionment they face in love. In Nothing Hurts for Long, a woman who believes her relationship with her husband is perfect and is preparing for his return home after a long absence, lends a ear to her friend’s troubles but her friend’s troubles start mirroring her own. The reunion with her husband is not what she anticipated. And His Letters Grew Colder is a story written in epistolary form about how love dies a natural death as seen by the contents of letters which become gradually less romantic in tone when the thrill of the chase is over. A Difference in Temperament too explores the fragility of relationships. If a man wants time to himself and a woman wants to share everything together, the relationship can only be doomed from the start. Frustration is an amusing account of the thwarted attempts at romance of a newly married couple. Week- End shows how you can fall out of love as suddenly as you fall in love. The lines “She put away his colds hands from her, and gave herself to her own dreams, where he could have no entrance.” succinctly capture the overarching theme of many of the stories.
In Piccadilly, written in the form of a monologue, a prostitute describes how she ended up in her profession. She resurfaces in Mazie where she dreams of the sea and a farmhouse but can her dreams come true given her lifestyle? The Tame Cat is an unsettling story about a naïve young girl with a jealous mother whose lover starts preying on her. In Happy Valley, a woman dreams of a certain house that seems to be hers but that she has not seen. Dream and reality and past and future coalesce in this atmospheric story which not only reminds me of du Maurier’s famous short story Don’t Look Now but also with the mention of Happy Valley presages Rebecca.
The last two stories in the collection are excellent character studies. Now to God the Father is about the good-looking and charismatic but hypocritical Reverend James Hollaway who also features in another tale entitled Angels and Archangels in The Rendezvous and Other Short Stories. He professes to be a man of God but his virtuous sermons mask his vices. He is someone who abuses his position to further his own interests.The Limpet is a fascinating insight into a troubled personality- a girl who puts the blame on others believing that she is a nice person. The truth is that she is a manipulative, self-absorbed and passive-aggressive individual who destroys the lives of people around her including her parents, her aunt, her husband and her co-workers but desperately tries to convince the reader that she is a self-sacrificing martyr.
Du Maurier starts off each story beautifully with vivid descriptions and builds up the atmosphere. Most of the stories do not have fixed endings but are ambiguous. Life is not tidy either. All pieces don’t fit and much remains unresolved. The onus is on the readers to fill in the blanks and make the puzzle fit. I found these lost stories captivating as they contain the embryonic elements seen in her future works and also provide early indications of her literary prowess. The common thread of cynicism that weaves the stories together is startling considering that she was so young when she wrote them. And as with anything written by her, you find yourself reflecting on your own life and relationships.
Apparently Du Maurier’s adolescent diaries described as ‘dangerous, incisive, stupid’ are yet to be published. She placed a fifty year moratorium on their publication and insisted they only see the light of day in 2039. I hope this piece of information is true and I hope I am still around then to read them.