The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier

The House on the StrandIt’s Historical Fiction week over at Vulpes Libris, and I’m throwing some fat on the fire with a post about why I don’t like historical fiction… and (because I MULTI-TASK, y’all) it’s also a review of The House on the Strand (1969) by Daphne du Maurier.

Which sounds like I hated the novel – whereas in fact I had quite a confusing relationship with it, given that half of it is in present day (yay!) and half in the 14th century (boo!). Read all about it over at Vulpes Libris

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier #1938Club Guest Review

When I told family and friends that I was co-leading the 1938 Club, I encouraged anybody who was interested to contribute their own review. A few of my IRL friends have indeed been doing 1938 reading along with us, and my friend Sarah has written this fantastic review of one of my faves, Rebecca. Do make her welcome!

RebeccaI have strong memories of watching Hitchcock’s film adaptation of Rebecca as a kid – the atmosphere, all in black and white, Maxim driving the heroine around in Monte Carlo, and the fancy dress party at Manderley. A few years ago I read du Maurier’s collection of short stories including The Birds – she has clearly made several strong contributions to the public consciousness.

So I came to Rebecca with some expectation, and also a sense that I knew the story. Neither mattered (and my feeling that I knew what happened was wrong, in any case!) as I was instantly drawn in. I love it when a book is so easy to get into, and you feel like you’ve been reading it for much longer than the first few pages. At various points along the way the book would bring back elements of the story that I remembered, but this didn’t bother me and I happily followed it, expecting some things and being surprised by others.

While the nameless protagonist and narrator is in many ways annoying, I found her very easy to empathise with in the first half – perhaps because I can remember being an awkward, shy girl, but also I think du Maurier does a fantastic job of bringing her character to life and making her inner monologue realistic and relatable. She goes off on involved fantasy daydreams at the drop of a hat, thinks (tamely) bitchy thoughts about her obnoxious employer Mrs Van Hopper, and for me is just the right mix of awkward, hopeful, embarrassed, daydreamy, and sullen, with bouts of confidence that then get shot down. I’ve made her sound awful! She’s not, she’s really quite endearing. And her first love/obsession for Maxim de Winter, the handsome stranger who shows her kindness and attention and entertains her in the absence of any friends at all, is really understandable and well drawn. Of course as readers, you feel that something’s not quite adding up, but it’s how du Maurier wants you to feel. You buy it; you’re along for the ride and eagerly waiting to see what will happen when they get back to Manderley.

The not-quite-right feeling that you get from the start of the relationship between Maxim and the narrator is continued and built upon once we get to Manderley, with the creepy staff, the disused wing of the house, the ‘blood red’ rhododendrons, and the obsessive references to Rebecca – for a good portion of the book it feels like she is mentioned on every page, which is obviously a device to make you feel like our narrator – to feel the oppressive, overwhelming force of Rebecca everywhere and in all the characters you meet. Here, I started to feel slightly frustrated by the spinelessness of our narrator, and the crappy attitude of Maxim (I don’t care if you’re Troubled and Brooding, you can pull yourself out of it enough to know you’re being horrible), but it didn’t really matter as I was invested in the story. I found myself trying to second guess the plot developments and the truth about Rebecca – but in an enjoyable way; trying to pick up on clues and events to work out what they meant. That sustained suspense is what du Maurier has done really effectively in this novel.

There are some lovely observations that stand out as being very much of their time – like when a dead body is discovered and an investigation must take place – and part of the ensuing chaos is that the lady of the house misses lunch, and decides they won’t change for dinner that evening. Similarly, when her husband comes under suspicion of murder, and our narrator frets that his scone is going cold. The party they host, too, sounds fabulous – if you had servants to run it for you in your stately mansion – hundreds of people in fancy dress dancing to the live band in the ballroom, with food and drink laid out, games rooms, fairy lights throughout the extensive grounds, and a fireworks display; all cleared away by the staff first thing in the morning.

In the end, the characters are not completely believable (although maybe they were more so in 1938; but I’m still genuinely puzzled by facts such as that Maxim and the second Mrs de Winter actually seem to love each other), and much of the plot is a little thin (why did Maxim marry Rebecca in the first place? Are we to believe that the sole reason why Rebecca was so despicable, so wicked, was simply that she was sleeping around and threatening to bring shame upon Manderley?! Why doesn’t Frank, Maxim’s confidante who shows the most kindness to our narrator, tell her the truth about Rebecca?).

The writing isn’t brilliant or outstanding, but it’s really good – solid, clean writing with enough description and atmosphere but that doesn’t get bogged down, and feels more modern and fresh than a book that’s nearly 80 years old.

It’s not the scariest or thrilleriest thriller that you’ll read, but despite all of the misgivings above I found it really enjoyable – a well written, compelling, interesting story that has left a fresh impression on me. I think it will continue to stand out as leaving a lasting memory, even if it’s just a sense of the suspense created, the atmosphere of Manderley, or some of the characters, like I had from watching the film around 20 years ago. I’ll definitely look forward to reading my next du Maurier.

In Defence of Jean-Benoit (by Anne aka Our Vicar’s Wife)

As promised yesterday, my Mum (aka Anne aka Our Vicar’s Wife) has written a response to my review of Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier… over to you, Mum!  (Plenty of spoilers ahead…)

Of course, Simon has it all wrong!  This book is not about infidelity and selfishness, or greed and violence – it is about the human condition, the cages which surround us, a bid to escape into an unchained world and the difficult moral choices which drag the protagonists back into the world they hoped to escape (with acceptance of their lot).

Dona was born into the nobility in the Restoration world with its dissolute Royal Court, its nation newly released from the constraints of the Puritan Commonwealth and the privileged few with time and money on their hands.  As a gently born woman her prospects were good – but her choices were few.  She married Harry St Columb because he ‘was amusing’ and she ‘liked his eyes’.  She was 23 – an age when it was high time she settled down.  Married life had begun as a series of journeys, travelling from house to house, merry-making with Harry’s friends – a ‘fast set’.  Soon pregnant, Dona had been forced into acting a part – in ‘an atmosphere strained and artificial’ in which Harry treated her with ‘a hearty boisterousness, a forced jollity, a making of noise in an endeavour to cheer her up, and on top of it all great lavish caresses that helped her not at all.’

Simon defends Harry – and it is true that he loved Dona – but his attentions to her are mirrored in his fawning dogs.  He is clumsy and crass and clearly not her intellectual equal – possibly a common enough figure in the English shires of the time, but his desire to be part of the ‘in crowd’ draws him to London, where his heavy drinking make him even more doltish and unacceptable as a husband.  It is there that Dona begins to look around her for distraction.

London at that time was filthy, loud, stinking and claustrophobic.  The Court encouraged licentiousness and their ‘set’ – or at least the men in it – entered into every new escapade without conscience or moderation.  As long as Harry had his pleasures he joined in with the rest, but he was not the equal of Rockingham – a dangerous man, who formed part of the group.  Dona, desperately locked into an unfulfilling marriage became increasingly reckless, encouraged by the predatory Rockingham and failing to see him as the dangerous man he was.  The court revelled in extreme behaviour, but Dona excelled and shocked even the most cynical amongst them – in being wild and outrageous, she knew herself to be alive.  But, eventually she took part in one escapade too many and the sight of the Countess, whom she and Rockingham had held up in her coach (in the guise of highwaymen) begging for her life with the words “For God’s sake spare me, I am very old, and very tired” brought Dona to her senses : ‘Dona, swept in an instant by a wave of shame and degradation, had handed back the purse, and turned her horse’s head, and ridden back to town, hot with self-loathing, blinded by tears of abasement, while Rockingham pursued her with shouts and cries of “What the devil now, and what has happened?” and Harry, who had been told the adventure would be nothing but a ride to Hampton Court by moonlight, walked home to bed, not too certain of his direction, to be confronted by his wife on the doorstep dressed up in his best friend’s breeches.’

This is the turning point for Dona, who can think of nothing but escape.  She seizes her children, hastily packs her trunks and leaves for the country estate (and Simon, Harry had more than one estate – Navron, far away in Cornwall, was a neglected and forgotten part of his childhood – he didn’t rate it highly, so Dona’s arrival there was a gift to it!)  Yes, the children hate the upheaval, the frantic journey on atrocious roads, and Prue is put-upon; but in fact the life to which Dona takes them is idyllic for the children, who quickly lose their town ways and delight in the soft country air and the simple pleasures of childhood – putting on weight and gaining in strength, health and happiness.

Dona revels in the new life.  She shuns local society and lives simply – but she is aware her escape is only for a time.  Then Fate takes charge with her ‘inevitable’ meeting with the French pirate.  Led into world beyond her experience and imagining, Dona is fascinated by the enigmatic Frenchman, who challenges all her preconceptions about men.  His mysterious origins fascinate her – in his own way, he too has sought to escape from a world he can no longer tolerate.  He says:
“Once there was a man called Jean-Benoit Aubery, who had estates in Brittany, money, friends, responsibilities…. (he) became weary of Jean-Benoit Aubery, so he turned into a pirate, and built La Mouette.”

“And is it really possible to become someone else?”

“I have found it so.”  But of course this is far too simple.  This is perhaps the Frenchman’s Achilles heel – he convinces Dona that escape is possible and that he has found it – but perhaps, by sharing it with her, he will lose it himself, forever.  Perhaps he too will remember it only as a dream.

The discussion goes on to describe the difference between contentment and happiness:
“Contentment is a state of mind and body when the two work in harmony, and there is no friction….Happiness is elusive – coming perhaps once in a lifetime – approaching ecstasy.”For a few brief weeks, in the height of summer, romance blossoms between the like-minded runaways.  Their mutual attraction is animal – physical, mental, emotional and pure (or impure) romance – but it is a ‘midsummer night’s dream’ and from the dream they are forced to waken.

The pirating interlude is full of drama and danger, revealing both Dona’s and Jean-Benoit’s reckless zest for life and risk-taking.  With it comes the full expression of their love – but even as they seem to vanquish the perceived foe, their real and deadly enemies are closing in upon them.  Dona walks back into a trap.  Harry, egged on by the suspicious Rockingham, has arrived unannounced.  The last chapters of the book, with their highly charged atmosphere and dramatic denouement keep the reader turning the pages late into a sultry summer’s night.

Dona’s bid for freedom and escape cannot be like Jean-Benoit’s – she is a woman, and a mother – she can only escape for a season.  The inevitable ‘prison door’ clangs shut behind her – but the choice is one she makes for herself, eyes wide open, having tasted her one moment of true happiness.  I do not defend her actions – or those of any of the characters – but I recognise what it cost her to return to Harry and the humdrum life he offered, and I can admire the mind which invented her.

I could write of the descriptions of the countryside, the odious, pompous Godolphin and his pedestrian neighbours, the vile Rockingham, the delightful William – all is there – Daphne du Maurier excelled at painting portraits of places, people and moods.  But the main thread of the story is what appealed to me, reading it for the first time as an adolescent.   It was the perfect attempt at escape – and who, sitting their exams at the age of 16, has not thought of dropping everything and going in search of adventure?  And I would maintain that 16 is probably about the right age to read this – for the struggles which Dona and Jean-Benoit encounter are on a par with those of Romeo and Juliet – for all that they are mature adults, Dona and Jean-Benoit display a curious immaturity.  It is a ‘coming of age’ book, a rite of passage, nothing serious!

I refuse to enter into a dialogue with my son about my so called ‘pirate fixation’ (wherever did he get that from???) but I will write in support of the Frenchman – he was beautifully drawn by du Maurier as a hero with a heart, a mind and immense talent – and if he had killed, it was only in the heat of battle and in self-defence.  He, and perhaps William too, took the trouble to get to know Dona – and I sense that no-one else in her life had ever done that before.  Small wonder she loved them!

I claim this book as perfect escapist reading for anyone who needs to go on a journey away from their own particular humdrum existence – just for a little while – and paddle in the shallows of the Helford river, hopeful of catching the cry of the oyster catcher and the laughter of a long-lost summer’s afternoon.

After all, we willingly return to our true lives – glad to be part of the real and less than perfect world – in our place, loved and needed – and content.  For where there is a Dona and a French pirate, there is also a home and a hearth and toasted muffins for tea!

And I almost hesitate to say it – but here goes – it’s a girl’s book, Simon, a girl’s book!

Frenchman’s Creek – Daphne du Maurier

You may remember from my first series of My Life in Books (links to both series are here) that my mother picked Daphne du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek as one of her choices.  Indeed, she was rather dizzied by her love of one Jean-Benoit Aubrey, the Frenchman (and pirate) of the title.  Tomorrow she will be guest-posting In Defence of Jean-Benoit because, dear reader, I have reservations about him, which I will disclose in time.  What I have fewer reservations about is Frenchman’s Creek (1941) as a whole – I thought it wonderful, silly, fun.

Dona St. Columb is bored with her marriage to foolish, affable Harry, and as the novel opens she is haring off in the middle of the night to their Cornish estate, along with her two children and their nurse Prue.  Dona is impetuous, a little wild, and wholly unsuited to the Restoration Court society in which she has found herself – although she also has gained something of a reputation, by drinking with the lower orders and generally acting in a manner which doesn’t befit the wife of Harry St. Columb.

At which point, all those boxes in our heads are being ticked – independent woman, check; impulsive and sassy, check.  And yet… it’s also the first signs of the selfishness which Dona exhibits throughout the novel.  Onto that later.

Well, Dona sets up home in her Cornish mansion (wouldn’t it be nice to have a spare mansion or two, dotted around the country?)  Only the butler William is there, having fired all the staff (did I mention that the house is supposed to be fully staffed, even when they aren’t living there?  All my spare mansions will be the same, of course.)  Dona enjoys being away from London, but finds high society in Cornwall no less enervating than that in London.

But we know what’s coming.  Let’s cut to the chase.  A French pirate has been terrorising the local dignitaries – carrying out sophisticated robberies on the rich, and apparently distressing the local woman (although, as is pointed out by more than one person, they don’t seem that distressed…)  Dona decides to investigate… and is captured, taken aboard the pirate ship, and brought before the pirate chief himself, Jean-Benoit Aubrey.  But he isn’t in the Captain Hook line of pirates – indeed, he utterly ignores her, and continues drawing…

How remote he was, how detached, like some student in college studying for an examination; he had not even bothered to raise his head when she came into his presence, and what was he scribbling there anyway that was so important?  She ventured to step forward closer to the table, so that she culd see, and now she realised he was not writing at all, he was drawing, he was sketching, finely, with great care, a heron standing on the mud-flats, as she had seen a heron stand, ten minutes before.

Then she was baffled, then she was at a loss for words, for thought even, for pirates were not like this, at least not the pirates of her imagination, and why could he not play the part she had assigned to him, become an evil, leering fellow, full of strange oaths, dirty, greasy-handed, not this grave figure seated at the polished table, holding her in contempt?
Well, I shan’t continue to give away the plot, but guess what?  They fall in love.  Surprise!

My favourite character, though, is William the butler.  He, it turns out (er, spoilers) is actually also from the crew – and only stays on land because he gets seasick (and thus is the character most similar to the man my mother eventually married, leaving her pirate fantasies behind her.)  William is a little like Jeeves, especially in the first half of the novel, in that he manages to convey a great deal of impertinence while still seeming obedient and non-committal.

“I have a wager with your master that I shall not succumb.  Do you think I shall win?”

“It depends upon what your ladyship is alluding to.”

“That I shall not succumb to the motion of the ship, of course.  What did you think I meant?”

“Forgive me, my lady.  My mind, for the moment, had strayed to other things.  Yes, I think you will win that wager,”

“It is the only wager we have, William.”

“Indeed, my lady.”

“You sound doubtful.”

“When two people make a voyage, my lady, and one of them a man like my master, and the other a woman like my mistress, the situation strikes me as being pregnant with possibilities.”

“William, you are very presumptuous.”

“I am sorry, my lady.”

“And – French in your ideas.”

“You must blame my mother, my lady.”

“You are forgetting that I have been married to Sir Harry for six years, and am the mother of two children, and that next month I shall be thirty.”

“On the contrary, my lady, it was these things that I was most remembering.”

“Then I am inexpressibly shocked at you.  Open the door at once, and let me into the garden.”

“Yes, my lady.”
Before I go onto my main problem with Frenchman’s Creek, I will assure you that I love the novel.  It isn’t in the same league as Rebecca in terms of neat, clever plotting.  It’s an unashamedly silly historical romance – everything is improbable and over the top, but Daphne du Maurier never stumbles into improbable or over the top writing, and that’s the most important thing.  Her style remains measured and unhysterical.  It’s even an historical novel that I enjoyed, which is rarer than hen’s teeth.  But…

I have a problem with Jean-Benoit as a romantic hero.  That doesn’t stop me enjoying the novel a great deal, but it does prevent me putting J-B on a pedestal.  He is, after all, a pirate.  There is some suggestion that he has murdered people – he has certainly stolen from and humiliated them.  A brief mention that he gives to the poor isn’t enough to make him a-ok, to my mind.  Yes, it’s an historical romp, and he shouldn’t be held to the same moral standards as real life people today, but… it makes me question my mother’s taste a little…

But more than that, I came away from Frenchman’s Creek feeling desperately sorry for Harry.  Yes, he is a buffoon.  No, he will never be able to provide Dona with the intellectual, adventurous companionship she craves – but she never tries to make their marriage work, and he tries so, so hard.  Read these lines, and see if you don’t feel sorry for him…

“I want to see you well,” he [husband] repeated.  “That’s all I care about, damn it, to see you well and happy.”  And he stared down at her, his blue eyes humble with adoration, and he reached clumsily for her hand.
Frenchman’s Creek probably shouldn’t be given this sort of scrutiny, but I just wanted to shake Dona for being an appalling mother and a cruel wife, and I can’t help wish that Harry had married some other woman, and that Dona and Jean-Benoit had sunk on their ship together…

Tomorrow my mother, Our Vicar’s Wife, will leap to Jean-Benoit’s defence!

(Results) – Letters from Menabilly

What a nail-biter the Dickens vs. Hardy match was – and the final result was… a tie! 9 votes each, and 3 going for neither. And, what was even more interesting, most voters seemed not to have to hesitate for a moment. I wasn’t sure which way it would swing, but didn’t expect it to be so close as to be identical. Which, I suppose, means that my vote will be the decider… and I choose Dickens. Something unique in his writing, so witty but grotesque, a world which is unmistakably his. I admire Hardy a lot, but… Charles wins it.

Onto a wholly different topic, I finished Letters From Menabilly today. These are letters from Daphne du Maurier to Oriel Malet (Persephone author; I read the introduction ages ago, so can’t remember the reasoning behind excluding Oriel’s letters. Perhaps they weren’t saved?) Bought it in the midst of my *intended* du Maurier spree, which ended up being just The Flight of the Falcon and My Cousin Rachel, and now this. Somehow it hasn’t worked out exactly as I’d hoped… instead of building on my deep love of Rebecca, and hopeful adoration of Daphne du Maurier, she has rather faded in my estimation, both as a writer and a person. I shouldn’t have expected her to be able to match Rebecca, but I found The Flight of the Falcon fairly tedious at times, though My Cousin Rachel was rather good. It was more on the personal front…

Others have read Letters from Menabilly and loved Daphne as a result. Lynne aka dovegreyreader rather liked it, I think Becca Oxford Reader was also a fan. I enjoyed reading it, but found Daphne to be rather cold-hearted, a little selfish, and not altogether charming. I think opinion shifted irredeemably when she wrote this to Oriel Malet: “If I had never married, and hadn’t had financial success with my books, I think I’d have lived the same life you do”. I paraphrase a little, because I can’t find the quotation, but that’s more or less it. How insensitive! Yes, perhaps I can’t judge the friendship from outside, but so many of these letters seem to gloss over Oriel’s concerns and talk about Daphne’s own.

And then the in-jokes and funny neologisms. We know, from reading the Mitford letters, that these can be adorable or witty – I just found them “tarsome”, as Georgie would say, in Daphne’s letters. Tell-him and crumb and a shilling and beeding and waine and pegging and Doom… incomprehensible without a glossary and so often used, and without any noticeable charm. Am I being contrary? Perhaps. But ‘Tell-Him’ (used to describe more or less anything Daphne found dull or lecturey, to the slightest degree) was a label for almost everything she encountered, and seemed a bit cruel.

There was one exciting bit, which I’d already read about in Lynne’s review – when she writes about Frank Baker, the author of my beloved book Miss Hargreaves. He sent Daphne du Maurier a copy of his novel The Birds, which predates her short story which Alfred Hitchcock adapted so memorably – Daphne writes, ‘So I began his, rather smiling derisively, thinking it would be nonsense, and it’s frightfully good! Much more psychological politics than mine, and going into great Deep Thoughts, I was quite absorbed!’ I have The Birds but have yet to read it…

One final thing I must say – Oriel Malet comes across as a lovely, lovely person. Not only the recipient of the letters, so intersperses letters every now and then with prose for context. Usually explaining where they both were at the stage of their lives when writing, but also with such interest and charm and I looked forward to these sections the most. Her experiences living on a houseboat are especially delightful. So, though Daphne comes across as no fairy godmother, the book is worth seeking out – and I shall be turning my Daphne-fest into an Oriel hunt.

I’m back! / Mockingbirds and Cousins

Hurray! The internet has arrived at Marlborough Road!

For those of you thinking “That’s not news, you blogged on Saturday”, I have to say – that wasn’t me. Well, in a way it was, but it was a phantom post – I tried to link to the video on Youtube a couple of weeks ago, and failed. Obviously it was hanging around in the ether, waiting for someone to authorise it or something, and suddenly it appeared at the weekend. Strange.

I’m afraid my return to the blogosphere will be short-lived, since I’m away on holiday on Friday, and back on 29th August – so more then. I do hope some people are still here, even with all the disruptions of late… blame the world of technology which eludes me. Thankfully one of my housemates has a very savvy boyfriend, who kindly tip-tip-tapped away at the keyboard and got everything sorted out. I am living proof that young + male doesn’t necessarily = good at internetty things. In fact, if you use the word ‘internetty’, then you probably don’t qualify. Though I once plugged an ethernet cable in upside down (no easy task), so I’m in a league of my own.

In the time I’ve been away from blogging, I’ve had quite a build-up of books to talk about, so that will probably take us up til I head off to Northern Ireland. Today I’m going to write about the last two book group books I’ve read in recent weeks, both classics of the twentieth century.

My Cousin Rachel is the third novel I’ve read by Daphne du Maurier – I wrote about The Flight of the Falcon here, having not been overwhelmed, but Rebecca is one of my favourite novels. My Cousin Rachel probably fell between the two. (There are some spoilers here, but not too many…) It tells the story of Ambrose and Philip Ashley, cousins who are more or less father and son, living in Cornish rural simplicity, away from women and contentedly reliant upon one another. Ambrose is taken off to Italy, and it is here that he meets and marries Rachel – and dies. Rachel comes to see Philip in England, and he is prepared to hate her – but their relationship becomes increasingly complicated, as does the readers’ thoughts about Rachel’s potential culpability.

The novel has a lot in common with Rebecca – and not just the setting. The same intrigue, power, and issues about what is left unspoken in relationships. Though not as successful as Rebecca – I found the first 80 pages dragged a little, in fact until Rachel arrived – My Cousin Rachel is brilliantly successful in the sense that I have never left a novel so uncertain as to a character’s guilt or lack of it – and either interpretation seems quite valid. Brilliantly done. There are such sophisticated themes of obsession and attracting obsession without being aware of it, the cyclical nature of the men’s experiences… The group discussing the novel were divided from absolute loathing to absolute loving, and thus an ‘interesting’ meeting was held!

My other book group were rather more agreed on To Kill A Mockingbird. This is one The Carbon Copy has been telling me to read for years, and I’ve continually meant to, so was glad when someone recommended it for book group and spurred me on. What a great book. I don’t think there’s any point in me giving a synopsis, since almost everyone has read this novel before me, but having seen the film I was surprised that so little of the book was concerned with the trial of Tom Robinson. To Kill A Mockingbird is much more a depiction of Southern life for the Finch family, and a portrait of a daughter’s relationship with her father – and a beautiful portrait at that. When I did the Booking Through Thursday about heroes, Colin put forward Atticus Finch, and I have to agree. The man is incredible – a very worthy father, a moralistic lawyer and a humble citizen, a combination which is tricky to write without seeming unrealistic or irritating. Atticus, though, remains wholly admirable and likeable throughout, and is one of the great male characters in literature, I’d say. I could eulogise about him, and this novel, for ages – but I won’t. I want to hear what you think.

There, written about two books without quoting from either of them. Tsk. Here’s one I like: “If I didn’t take this case (Scout) then I wouldn’t be able to hold my head up, I wouldn’t be about to tell anyone what to do, not even you and Jem.” Or this:

“I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system – that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty.”

EnhpaD

My ‘Backwards With Daphne’ project hasn’t been roaring along, has it? I told you all about my great intentions back in this post, in early April, and only now have I finished the first one – The Flight of the Falcon. It’s not Daphne du Maurier’s last novel, but it’s the last one which came in my boxset – and the plan was to start at the end and work backwards, as it were.

The Flight of the Falcon is set in Italy, a long way from Cornwall and the only du Mauriers I’d previously encountered – our hero is Armino Fabbio, a tour guide who accidentally becomes involved in the murder of an old peasant woman in Rome. He leaves his tour group, and travels back to his home town Ruffiano, which he hasn’t visited in two decades. In the same city, five hundred years previously, cruel Duke Claudio – known as The Falcon – had terrorised the people of Ruffiano with his meglomania and brutality. Has anything really changed in Ruffiano, or are events mysteriously repeating themselves?

That – like the synopsis of Rebecca, I suppose – sounds rather more melodramatic than Daphne du Maurier’s writing allows it to be. Having said that, Backwards With Daphne almost drew to a halt, as The Flight of the Falcon didn’t work for me at all. I could appreciate why she was writing it – an interesting idea, with a host of familial issues to untangle at the centre – but I didn’t much care what went on. Do students of different departments really hate each other that much? I’d be bored stiff studying a Science subject, not to mention completely incapable, but I didn’t want to burn any of the students at stake…

My other main problem, I’m afraid, was names. I can’t remember names at the best of times, and when they all end in ‘-io’, I had no chance. Daphne du Maurier couldn’t do much else, in Italy, but I spent much of my time hopelessly baffled.

I think I’m painting a worse picture than it was – The Flight of the Falcon isn’t a bad book, at all, but when you know the same pen had already produced Rebecca (oops, supposed to be reading backwards, this should be a blank canvas for me… sorry) – just goes to show the flaws in this intriguing reading project. If this were my first Daphne du Maurier novel, I probably wouldn’t bother with any others… BUT, I had the fun experience of reading the same book as a library colleague sat opposite me at teabreak, and we could chat about it.

Anyone else read it? Any thoughts? Our Vicar’s Wife? Karen, my co-Daphne reader, have you got this far yet?