Tag Archives: Daphne Du Maurier

Novel Insights’ Top 12 Books – 2011

I am savouring my last day off work today and feeling a little bit smug to be sat indoors out of the rain with nothing more taxing to do than mull over my favourite books of the past year. Actually, I say it’s not taxing but I started by trying to pick five books, then changed it to ten, and then bumped it up to twelve – whoops! Well that is one for every month – a perfectly good excuse in my opinion. Here they are:

How To Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran

5 stars 5/5

“…challenges all the stupid things that women are told (and tell themselves) with a big bucketful of humour…” Read full review.

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

5 stars 5/5

“…an important book and one that I think is up there with some of the best dystopian novels.” Read full review.

Never Let Me Go

In Love & Trouble, by Alice Walker

5 stars 5/5

“…each time I picked up Alice Walker’s collection of short stories, I felt as if time was suspended and I was transported completely to heat of the Southern America… The richness and vitality of Walker’s writing makes this book an utter pleasure to read.” Read full review.

Through the Wall, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

5 stars 5/5

“The stories sound barmy, and there is a heavy dose of the surreal, but at their heart Petrushevskaya’s tales  are real human experiences of grief, love and loss.” Read full review.

Through the Wall, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Purls of Wisdom, by Jenny Lord

5 stars 5/5

“…a book that I know I will refer to time and time again. I love the informal writing style because it feels just as if a friend is teaching you…” (AKA the book to blame for my knitting obsession in 2011!) Read full review.

Purls of Wisdom: The Book of Knitting

Mr Chartwell, by Rebecca Hunt

4.5 stars4.5/5

“I struggle to think of many other books that convey what is a very serious message with so much originality and seemingly so effortlessly.” Read full review.

Mary Anne, by Daphne du Maurier

4.5 stars4.5/5

“…a book, packed with with witty lines, and a richly described period setting which creates the backdrop for the story of a fascinating protagonist based on du Maurier’s own great-great-grandmother.” Read full review.

The Mermaids Singing, by Val McDermid

4.5 stars4.5/5

“I think that I might have found a new favourite crime writer to add to my list!” Read full review.

The Mermaids Singing

A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis

4 stars4/5

“Of course, this is a sad book to read, but also so beautifully and eloquently written… In an odd way, I believe that this little book could be comforting at a time of loss, if only because of how openly the author shares his experience.” Read full review.

Fateless, by Imre Kertész

4 stars4/5

“… a novel that will stay with me, because it is unique in the way that it addresses the experience of concentration camps. The writing is deceptively simple, and peppered with imaginative ideas…” Read full review.

Fateless, by Imre Kertesz

Journey by Moonlight, by Antal Szerb

4 stars4/5

“…has the qualities that I associate with a real classic… A rich and many-layered story.” Read full review.

Before I go to Sleep, by S.J. Watson

4.5 stars4.5/5

“…smartly plotted, written compellingly and the premise is well-executed.” Read full review.

Before I go to Sleep

A retrospective look at Novel Insights tells me that in 2011 I read a total of 43 books which is a whole 30% lower than last year’s count of 62. I don’t get too hung up about the number of books that I read because I don’t like to over-organise or analyse the things I do for pleasure and for this reason I don’t really make reading resolutions.

That said, I do think that my reading and blogging can be seen as a bit of a barometer of how I’m feeling. While sometimes I read less because I’ve been occupied with nice, fun stuff (including quite a lot of knitting this year!) I have felt quite busy over the past few months and it is one of my resolutions to find a better balance between work and my leisure time.

Well that’s my little bit of naval-gazing over and done with! How was your 2011? Do you have any reading resolutions? What books really stood out for you this year?

Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier – Discovering Daphne readalong #5

5 stars5/5

I’ve been pretty busy lately and left my reading of the fifth Discovering Daphne choice rather late, but I’m rather glad now that I did as my tardiness resulted in me sitting down to read it in a couple of long reading sessions. When my mind is bothered by the to and fro of everyday life there is something really wonderful about holing myself up with a book, and what better novel to consume within thirty-six hours, than the utterly mesmerising Rebecca? I get a little anxious about re-reading much-loved books in case I find them lacking the second time around, but I needn’t have worried.

Avon press, 1971 paperback edition (first published in 1938), 380 pages - personal library

For those that don’t know the plot of this famous book, I’ll try to summarise without giving too much away. Rebecca is written from the point of view of a young un-named woman who while acting as a companion to a rather tactless and sycophantic American woman – Mrs Van Hopper – is introduced to Maximilian de Winter. Our protagonist who is hampered by a crushing sort of shyness and self-consciousness about her youth which she believes makes her terribly unsophisticated and unattractive, however Maxim de Winter is drawn to her in part because of her sweet and innocent nature. It seems that he is running away from some former life, seeking escape in this fresh young personality. When Mrs Van Hopper decides to leave Monte Carlo, where they are staying and go to her daughter in New York, Maxim makes a rather straightforward proposal to our narrator – that she should come and live with him as his second wife at Manderley, his grand estate in Cornwall back in England. The second Mrs de Winter is rapt by the beauty of Manderley and it’s wonderful gardens, yet from the moment that she sets foot in the house she feels ill at ease, not helped by the fact that the housekeeper Mrs Danvers who adored the first Mrs de Winter (Rebecca) looks down on her as an unwelcome intruder and unworthy second mistress to the great house.

Rebecca is a beautiful and disturbing novel about jealousy, hatred and obsession. The narrator, in her innocence should almost be irritating, yet because as a reader I was let into every little moment of her experience, I understood her fears and her little fluttering moments of joy – I sympathised with her as a friend might do. One moment she is full of anticipation and the next minute her spirit is crushed. She adores Maxim and in seeking to understand his feelings for his dead wife her mind runs away with her into dark tunnels, not helped by the disconcerting and ever-present personality of Mrs Danvers who adds to the seeds of doubt in her mind. I had forgotten some of the specifics about how the story plays out so on re-reading the novel I actually felt for the first half of the novel almost sympathetic to Mrs Danvers. Perhaps I thought, she is just looking for the new Mrs de Winter to step up and take charge, but after the fancy-dress ball I had to concede that she was simply cruel and twisted. If I really give her the benefit of the doubt I can see how being in the thrall of Rebecca might have made her that way but it is from the young Mrs de Winter’s perspective that the story is told so it is her that I really feel for.

Antique print of Menabilly, Cornwall - the inspiration for Manderley (from antique-prints-maps.com)

Perspective… I do wonder, how Rebecca would be as a novel if it was told from the point of view of the other characters. How would Mrs Danvers tell the story? How would Rebecca herself describe her life and relationship with Maxim before her death. Normally, I can’t help but have a sneaky respect for the anti-hero in a novel but somehow this just wasn’t so for me when reading Rebecca, but it does make me wonder if had we had Rebecca’s own account (as you might in a Wilkie Collins novel), or the story of her cousin Favel, I might have felt differently. Even though I was mentally in support of the second Mrs de Winter, I have to admit that she is just as blinded by obsessive love for Maxim de Winter as Mrs Danvers is for Rebecca’s memory.

Apart from a fabulous and twisted plotline one of the things that I find so special in Rebecca it is the atmosphere that du Maurier creates. The way that she personifies Manderley, making it into a living and breathing thing. It is part of the narrator’s nightmares and her dreams. I revelled in the descriptions of the gardens and the beautiful images that du Maurier creates, yet, almost every sentence holds a counter-point, an edge of darkness:

“The daffodils were in bloom, stirring in the evening breeze, golden heads cupped upon lean stalks… Too early yet for blue bells, their heads were still hidden beneath last year’s leaves, but when they came dwarfing the more humble violent, they choked the very bracken in their woods, and with their colour made a challenge to the sky.”

The unusual blood red colour of the rhododendrons, associated so closely with Rebecca suggest passion, but also something uncomfortable and unnatural. When the narrator returns to Manderley in her dreams she sees the gardens engulfed by ‘malevolent ivy’ and a ‘half-breed plant’. Reading these sinister and voluptuous  descriptions I was completely drawn into the world of Manderley with our narrator and shared her simultaneous sense of attraction and fear of the place.

I could go on forever about this novel. It is just so beautiful and absorbing, and also utterly unsettling because du Maurier fixes on the dark human fears and emotions that concern us all. As our narrator treads the thin line between perception and reality, so do we as readers question what is reasonable, who is right, and are reminded how slight the divide between happiness and ruin can be. It was also fascinating to read this novel after sampling a wide variety of du Maurier’s works this month. I smiled to myself as I noticed common themes – stormy seas, classical references (the ominous satyr in the garden) and mad urges to drive off a cliff reminded me of The House on the Strand, however even though I notice these trademarks more and more now, I always feel as if I’m experiencing something different with du Maurier. Of all her novels, I think this is the one that really gets under my skin and even though Jamaica Inn will always be my first love, I have to admit that I think Rebecca is du Maurier’s masterpiece.

Do pop over to read Simon’s thoughts at Savidge Reads and tell us what you thought of Rebecca as once we’ve come out of our Manderley haze I’m sure that we’ll do a bit of a wash-up post with links to the Discovering Daphne posts from this month.

I’ll also be putting up my thoughts on the spooky Don’t Look Now and Other Stories tomorrow (belatedly, but rather aptly on Halloween don’t you think?).

The House on the Strand, by Daphne du Maurier – Discovering Daphne Readalong #3

3.5 stars3.5/5

“Curiouser and curiouser”, said Alice famously, after descending the rabbit hole to Wonderland and drinking a mysterious draught from a flask. Unlike Alice, whose body becomes etiolated, in The House on the Strand it is our protagonist’s mind that is altered when he drinks a drug concocted by his professor-friend Magnus Lane, and ‘curious’ would be my take on this unusual novel.

Virago Press, 2003 paperback edition, 353 pages - personal library

Dick Young is temporarily staying in the house of his friend, a biophysicist in Kilmarth, Cornwall. He agrees to play guinea-pig in an experiment, testing a drug which appears to have the effect of transporting him back in time to the 14th century. Although Dick’s mind is transported his body remains in the present and as a result he traipses around the countryside oblivious to the existing surroundings until he inadvertently bumps into an obstruction. On each trip, he finds himself witnessing the lives of the people he finds there, in particular a woman named Lady Isolda Carminowe and a steward named Roger who he finds he is compelled to follow. Unfortunately for Dick, his wife Vita and her two sons come to join him in Cornwall from America, which he finds frustrating because it interrupts his visits to the past which he finds he is more and more addicted to. Vita becomes increasingly worried by Dick’s strange behaviour as he is drawn further into his medieval world.

I found The House on the Strand frustratingly slow-going for the first half of the book and I didn’t find myself wanting to pick it up much in the first few chapters. Firstly I was a bit unsure about the pseudo-scientific explanations that Marcus gives for why the drug takes Dick back in time (although in hindsight, this may have been deliberate on the part of du Maurier). Secondly, I couldn’t get to grips with the medieval characters for some reason – compared to the people in the modern day they just didn’t seem as real or as interesting. Again, perhaps this was for a good reason!

I did say on the phone to Savidge Reads today that I found it sad that Dick seemed to be missing out on enjoying the present because of his obsession with the characters from the past and that maybe du Maurier was making a point about this. Since reading Picardie’s Daphne, and a range of du Maurier’s writing I’ve started to see more recurring themes in her novels. At times I felt that Dick’s escapism was akin to du Maurier’s own sense of affinity with other worlds, but I also thought that at times she projected a part of herself onto Vita, the wife left bemused by her distracted husband. This goes to something else which I found interesting about The House on the Strand, which is that it is written from the perspective of a man, but this was initially quite ambiguous and I didn’t attribute the gender of the narrator as male until I had read a few pages in. Daphne du Maurier is said to have been a tomboy when she was younger and after her death it was revealed that she most likely had lesbian relationships (although she never openly admitted this) so perhaps it is not surprising then that she plays with gender and questions of sexuality. There are also strong hints at a homosexual undertone in  The House on the StrandI’ll need to re-configure my Gaydar if Professor Lane is not supposed to be secretly in interested in Dick (no pun intended), and although it is not suggested that Dick is interested in the Professor sexually, he does feel very connected to him. To add to the mystery, although Dick seems to have next to no interest in sleeping with his wife, he does seem quite spellbound by Isolda! What a mixed-up character.

So, hopefully you can tell by now that I became more and more intrigued by The House on the Strand as it developed. I can’t say that I ever really got into the parts of the book that were set in the 1300s, but I really did enjoy the contemporary parts of the novel. It probably helped that I really curled up with the book properly today and became absorbed in it. It also helped that around page two-hundred, du Maurier starts to work her dark magic and embellishes the story with some nasty little twists and turns. Looking back, I’m not quite sure if I think The House on the Strand is a too flawed to be an example of Daphne du Maurier’s genius or whether some of the flaws that I perceived were actually intended (such as the spurious scientific ideas!). I’m happy to give her the benefit of the doubt, as even though I struggled at times with this book, yet again I’m impressed with her ability to experiment with such varied concepts in her writing and I know that I’ll be thinking about the story of The House on the Strand for years to come.

Mary Anne, by Daphne du Maurier – Discovering Daphne Readalong #2

4.5 stars4.5/5

I read Mary Anne a couple of months ago, and now sitting down to pull together my thoughts, my enthusiasm for this book hasn’t dampened. I was delighted by Mary Anne. I was surprised, because although I always expect wonderful writing from Daphne du Maurier, I anticipated a tough read because it looked from the cover like a dense historical novel. What I discovered instead was a book, packed with with witty lines, and a richly described period setting which creates the backdrop for the story of a fascinating protagonist based on du Maurier’s own great-great-grandmother.

Virago Press, 2004 paperback edition, 320 pages - library loan

Mary Anne, set during the Regency era, follows the rise of Mary Anne Clarke right from being a little girl, living in Bowling Inn Alley, a very poor area of London through her early disastrous relationship with her first husband, who she leaves and then sets herself up in ‘business’ as a high-class prostitute to support her family and lifestyle she aspires to. She catches the eye of the Duke of York, who is beguiled by her beauty and wit. At first it seems that he is the ultimate companion for Mary Anne in her desire to climb the social ladder, however his extravagant lifestyle is not backed by sufficient wealth, leading his mistress to find ingenious ways to keep herself in the style she is accustomed to. It is her entrepreneurship that leads to a huge scandal that shakes up the government and sees Mary Anne boldly fighting her case in the British Pariliament.

I was completely absorbed by Mary Anne. Du Maurier writes her protagonist into life with such passion and skill, making it clear why she makes every decision and how these choices shape her journey through society. Despite being a single-minded social-climber, as a reader I forgave her her every mis-step and couldn’t but help admire her tenacity. From the early days when as a young girl she uses her quick wit, to keep money rolling in by copy-editing in secret, to setting her self up in the house at Tavistock Place, so much of what she does is driven by a desire to provide stability for her family and find it for herself. Of course she also loves her luxuries, and it is this that actually keeps her always only a thin line away from destitution, but also drives her forward and furnishes her with the front she needs to keep moving up. She creates this image for herself, even in the worst of times abiding by idea that it is important to “keep face, to show a bright facade” and that “when faced with a doubtful decision… audacity first.”

Mrs Clarke The York Magnet - Image from The National Portrait Gallery website

“Audacity first” at times leads to disaster for those who have helped her along the way – for example the suicide of her first husband’s brother, who after some bad advice from Mary Anne, loses all of his money on the stockmarket. However, it is Mary Anne’s boldness that makes this such an interesting story and leads her right into the halls of Parliament to hold court there – “…standing before the bar of the House of Commons, the only woman in a world of men.” Mary Anne, is a strongly feminist novel and du Maurier uses the difficulties of the female position at this time juxtaposed with her character’s extreme forthright and wilful behaviour to show just how remarkable she must have been to make the connections and live the lifestyle that she did. Mary Anne is not an angel by stretch of the imagination, but she is a warm and entertaining human being. While she is responsible for bringing the Duke of York to scandal, she never loses sight of the fact that she loved him and it is very hard to call – is she to blame for everything, or is he getting his just deserts for using and disposing of her? Du Maurier lets the reader decide for themselves by simply showing Mary Anne in all her complexity as the story plays out.

"Archers" - Mary Anne Clarke hunting her prey? Courtesy of Madame Pickwick Art Blog

My favourite thing about this book is the humour that runs through it and the fact that Mary Anne never takes herself too seriously. I loved the little touches such as her seal on letters being  Cupid riding on an ass, which must have come from real life. I loved being a party to her inner thoughts and observations of people, “The creature stared at her. The expression was stolid, dumb worship. Could she be slightly mental? Were the eyes a trifle vacant?”  In fact there are so many passages that I would like to quote from this book that I would probably breach copyright if I put them all in.

Satirical Cartoon of Mary Anne Clarke auctioning military commissions from The National Portrait Gallery website

Daphne du Maurier evidently found the story of her great-great-grandmother fascinating, and although according to the introduction in my copy, she didn’t feel as if she had done her justice I can’t disagree more. It makes me wonder actually why on earth this hasn’t been picked up for a film or television series as it is really quite brilliant. If you look at ratings of this book you’ll see it gets around a 3.5/5, but when you read the reviews in detail you can see that opinions are completely polarised between those who don’t like the character, or are disappointed that it’s so different from Rebecca and those how are completely blown away by it.  As you can probably tell by now, I fall into the latter category and I love the fact that it is so different from her other novels and shows again, how versatile an author she could be.

Did you readalong with Mary Anne and if so what did you think? Or have I tempted you with my glowing review :) ?

Daphne, by Justine Picardie

4 stars4/5

My copy of Daphne, by Justine Picardie had been sitting on a stack of unread books for some time looking forlornly at me. ‘Why haven’t you read me yet?’ it reprimanded. ‘Why – when you love Daphne du Maurier so, haven’t you picked me up?’

Daphne

Bloomsbury, 2008 paperback edition, 416 pages - personal library

If I’m honest, even though I was interested to read it, I’m not a huge fan of things biographical. I don’t know why (perhaps I’m allergic to real life!), but even if a person is particularly interesting I rarely want to read a biography. With Discovering Daphne on the horizon, I decided it was about time to give it a go. What I found out is that Daphne is the perfect blend of biography and fiction that suits someone like me.

There are three voices in Daphne. Daphne du Maurier herself, who we meet when she is aged 50 and struggling with her husband’s illness and the collapse of her marriage. Then there is John Alexander Symington, a scholar who Daphne has contacted to help her with her research on a new biography that she is writing about Branwell Brontë, the famous black sheep of the Bronte family. Finally, fast forward to the present day, and our third narrator is a young woman who is writing a PhD thesis on du Maurier and becomes intrigued by Daphne du Maurier’s hunt for the truth about Branwell Brontë and the letters between her and Symington which seem to suggest a literary scandal at the heart of them.

What a thoughtfully planned novel this is. Picardie evidently researched Daphne in great depth in order to create what feels like a faithful representation of her at this stage of life, while keeping a light touch in her writing and avoiding it becoming overworked. She also creates clever little parallels in her novel to the du Maurier’s own work which as a literary device really worked for me as I love spotting references. If I was being very critical, I could say that the parallels are unsubtle – for example, the young PhD student if I remember rightly has no name, just as the second Mrs de Winter in Rebecca, and suffers the same kind of feelings of inadequacy in her marriage. However this style really worked for me and I believe that Picardie is making her own observation that du Maurier’s depiction of the fears and emotions of the second Mrs de Winter are in fact part of a pretty universal experience that most women have encountered at some point in their lives.

I liked that all the characters in the book were doing their own bit of literary detective work, hoping to uncover a mystery or scandal that they could call their own. Perhaps the one conclusion that they all come to is that real-life stories don’t have a neat key to them.

In many ways, Daphne is a book to curl up with, it’s comforting, especially if you are a fan of du Maurier’s books, because there are elements that feel familiar. However, Daphne is certainly not a frivolous read. Picardie draws out quite a few dark themes around professional jealousy, fear of failure, as well as obsession hinting that Daphne du Maurier suffered from mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and even hallucinations. Symington fights his own emotional issues, and has a temperament which makes him at times detestable and at others, pitiable. It is his feeling of failure that eats him up.

I think it would be remiss of me not to admit that I don’t think Daphne would hold quite as much appeal to people who haven’t read du Maurier’s novels, however I’d like to think that it might inspire those who hadn’t to do so. Picardie’s portrait of du Maurier was to me, utterly convincing, and while in many ways her novel is homage to the author, it is also quite brutal as it explores the darkest corners of her family history. I wonder, if Daphne du Maurier, who used her wonderful skills of observation to expose the deepest corners of her own characters’ souls would have approved?

Welcome to Discovering Daphne Month!

Is it just me, or has time just rushed by this year? When Savidge Reads and myself planned Discovering Daphne way back in the spring, we were imagining curling up with our Daphne du Maurier novels with a cup of cocoa and a cosy blanket on the sofa to keep the chill away and the dark nights out. We thought that we would be passing on the joy to our fellow readers who might be feeling embattled by the Autumnal weather.  We didn’t plan on their being a heat wave/Indian Summer in the first week of October, and I suppose if you aren’t from the UK you wouldn’t necessarily be experiencing the same climate anyway, but really you can read Daphne any time and she is a delight ahead to read (if occasionally a little unsettling!).

Discovering Daphne 2

So what’s the plan? Well when we say the whole of October we actually mean the first week from today, the 1st, until 9th of October 2011 where we will have a week of Daphne based delights, some special guests, some give aways and much more.

This week will also include the first of five optional (though we hope you join in with them all) Daphne read-a-longs, as we start tomorrow at the very beginning of Daphne’s career with her first novel ‘The Loving Spirit’. The week then ends on the 9th with her novel which is actually a fictionalized biography of her great-great grandmother ‘Mary Anne’ a tale so wonderful it’s hard to believe it’s actually true. Then we move onto the final three read-a-longs…

  • Sunday 16th October: ‘The House on the Strand’ – speculative time-travelling Daphne showing how versatile she is.
  • Sunday 23rd October: ‘Don’t Look Now & Other Stories’ – a collection of Daphne’s short stories which are always wonderful and rather dark.
  • Sunday 30th October: ‘Rebecca’ – if you have read it before or if you haven’t, we will be discussing possibly the most famous of Daphne’s novels which should prove a perfect way to end the season and become one of the highlights of everyone’s reading year, if not their reading life.

We really hope you will join in through the comments and send us your reviews or thoughts on Daphne and spread the word of a truly wonderful author. Who knows you might randomly win some of her books along the way… So which books will you be reading, which ones have you read already, why do you love Daphne – or dare we ask why you don’t, or haven’t tried her before?

A Friday Find

I accidentally fell into the library at lunchtime and was delighted to discover that the staff in their infinite wisdom have stocked the shelves full of Daphne Du Maurier novels!

Even better, I was able to get myself a copy of Mary Anne for the Discovering Daphne season that Savidge Reads and myself are running in October. It’s a bit previous but I couldn’t resist!

Have you discovered any library gems lately?

Discovering Daphne readalong, and details of a special giveaway!

Two posts for the price of one today at Novel Insights. Today, Savidge Reads and myself announce our Discovering Daphne project and readalong – we’d love you to join us!

Discovering Daphne Button

I discovered Jamaica Inn as my first Du Maurier and for Savidge Reads it was Rebecca. For both of us it was the beginning of a love affair with the works of Miss Du Maurier.

So in her honour we are going to be spending October reading some of her key works and we’d like to invite you to read along too! As today would have been her 104th birthday and also because Daphne was the mistress of all things dark and dramatic, we thought it would be most fitting to announce our readalong on Friday the 13th.

Much to our delight, Virago who publish her in the UK have given us a set of all five novels that we feature in our readalong to give away! To enter, leave a comment telling us about a Daphne Du Maurier novel you haven’t read but would like to and why. You can double your chances of winning if you pop over to Simon’s blog and leave your comment there too. Closing date for entries is 20th May.

Simon has also posted the readalong schedule so pop over to see it and of course the books which are in the giveaway set. We’ve thought carefully about which books to choose to get a good mix between her early work, better known novels and more experimental ones.

We’ve both done a little early bonus read of a collection of her recently discovered short stories – The Doll - posted today. Here is my review and you can read Simon’s thoughts over at Savidge Reads.

In October there will also be various discursive bits as we explore her life and work and we’ll be asking you lot for your thoughts too – think friendly book waffle between Savidge Reads myself and yourselves, only online!

One final thing – a very big THANKYOU to Thomas at My Porch for putting together such lovely buttons for us to use. Here they are in all their glory!

Discovering Daphne 1

Discovering Daphne 2

Discovering Daphne 3

We hope that you’ll join us in October, and please do leave your comments if you’d like to be in with a chance of winning the Virago set of five Du Maurier novels.