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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Myth Of Serious Literature–Why Is Du Maurier Not In The Canon?

There is no way to put down My Cousin Rachel, Daphne Du Maurier’s classic romance.  The table is set in the first chapter – a beautiful woman with a suspicious past, intimations of foul play, hints of vanity, money, and ambition; a naïve young bachelor, brought up by his male cousin and a complete ingénue in the ways of women and love; suggestions of foul play, and suspicious lovers – and the story continues with the same compelling  intrigue and suspense until the end.

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Rachel seduces Phillip’s older cousin, Ambrose, a man as naïve and untutored in the ways of women as he.  She consorts with a disreputable unctuous Italian rake, plots to be rid of her husband Ambrose, to insinuate herself into the family manor in Cornwall, inherit all the family wealth, and continue to lead a European life of luxury and lovers without the burden of husband or responsibility.

Phillip who is besotted by his Cousin Rachel is far from suspicious of her questionable past and is determined to make her the mistress and proprietor of the family estate.  It is only the right thing to do, says Phillip, since his cousin’s will – prepared but unsigned – was to leave her and not him – everything.  The will in fact was left unsigned because of his doubts about her fidelity and honesty – fragments of Ambrose’s letters suggest as much – but Phillip is stubbornly naïve.  His wonderful Cousin Rachel could never be such a deceptive, manipulative woman.

Slowly Du Maurier gives new confirmation of Rachel’s duplicity and venal if not murderous motives; and Phillip’s growing infatuation and naïve belief in her purity and innocence.   The reader, who knows of Rachel’s deception and is impatient for Phillip to finally realize his wife’s evil and to save himself and his inheritance, becomes increasingly frustrated at his obtuseness and stubborn vanity. Eventually Rachel is indeed exposed as the manipulative vixen that she is, Phillip is left with nothing, and evil has been vindicated.  Except for a turn of fate which saves Phillip, Rachel gets the fate she deserves.

Rebecca is perhaps Du Maurier’s most famous novel because it has been twice adapted to the screen.  Maxim de Winter a wealthy Englishman marries a beautiful woman met in Monte Carlo and brings her back to the family estate in England, Manderley.  The marriage is soon darkened by the memory of Maxim's first wife, Rebecca, who was killed in a mysterious sailing accident. As Maxim's second wife learns more about Rebecca, she becomes more intimidated and jealous, taunted and baited by the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers who is deeply jealous of and still in love with Rebecca.  As the novel progresses, Rebecca's hateful ambition, her deception of her husband, and her flaunting infidelities become clear.  The sailing accident is no accident.  De Winter, no longer able to contain his rage and torment over his callous and destructive wife, murders her and sets the body adrift, sure to sink along with the damaged sailboat it is on.

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De Winter’s new bride, a young ingénue, assumes that her new husband’s moroseness and depression is because of his continuing love for the beautiful, socially brilliant, and talented Rebecca; when in fact he is haunted by his crime and by memories of his torment at the hands of Rebecca.  His new bride becomes more and more disconsolate, awkward, and timid, is convinced that de Winter is still in love with his former wife, and considers ending her life, encouraged by the emotionally devastated Mrs. Danvers.

Du Maurier is a great storyteller, a master of the ingenious plot and twists of irony and fate who understands pacing, reader anticipation, curiosity, and the expectation of the genre.  Romance novels must be devious, love cannot be what it seems; women must be disappointed, hurt, and vulnerable and willful, evil, and destructive; men must either be naïve and spineless or insidious and amoral all in the same novel.  De Winter seems a man of rectitude, position, and integrity but stands by while his new wife is viciously manipulated by Mrs. Danvers.  Danvers’ lover, Favell, is unctuous, disreputable, and charming.  The new Mrs. de Winter is hopelessly sweet and trusting.  The absent Rebecca, so present in house because Danvers has left everything as it was before her death, is a woman of charm and beauty; but the dead Rebecca was a harridan.

The key to My Cousin Rachel is the involvement of the reader who knows far more than the ignorant Phillip and impatiently waits for him to realize Rachel’s manipulation and ambition.  It is this frustration and desire for a final accounting and retribution which holds the reader until the end.  The key to Rebecca is the ironic twist.  Things are not what they seem.  The reader increasingly frustrated by de Winter’s diffidence and Danvers’ hatefulness, knows – because of the genre and the ingenious plotting – that something unspoken is behind their actions, and knows that it will be revealed.

Du Maurier is not simply a master of plot but of situation and character.  Rebecca could only happen in a great English estate, symbol of Maxim de Winter’s wealth, power, and authority.  Because he is a man of privilege and standing, the reader is perplexed by his darkness and insecurity.  Rebecca is only the big novel it is because of Mrs. Danvers – a hungry, desperate, frustrated spinster hopelessly in love with her mistress, insanely jealous of her, and hateful of all pretenders.  She is austere, domineering, and vengeful.  She is a caricature of all spiteful, hateful, necessarily servile women.  De Winter, his new wife, and Favell are secondary to Danvers and to the story.  They are the victims of Danvers’ perverse jealousy.

Is Rebecca a great novel? Does it belong alongside of other National Book Award winners? And more importantly does she fall into the same literary category as Faulkner, Conrad, and Joyce?  How could a writer of romantic fiction, a master only of tricks of irony, twists of plot, suspense, and reader manipulation be possibly compared with these men?

John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote an article on Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom in the New York Times magazine (2012).

A poll of well over a hundred writers and critics, taken a few years back by Oxford American magazine, named William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!” the “greatest Southern novel ever written,” by a decisive margin — and the poll was conducted while looking back on a century in which a disproportionate number of the best American books were Southern — so to say that this novel requires no introduction is just to speak plainly.

Perhaps not only the greatest American novel ever written; but one of the world's best comparable to the best of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, authors that have produced novels with the same complexity, depth of characterization,and historical context.  Comparisons with Joyce’s Ulysses are frequently and legitimately made perhaps more for their stream of consciousness style than content.  Perhaps more than anything, Absalom is not only a Southern novel, it is Southern history.  Most importantly it is a story about America:

One of the most perceptive recent statements on “Absalom, Absalom!” was made by the scholar Fred C. Hobson in 2003, a simple-seeming statement and somehow one of the strangest things a person could say about the book, that it is “a novel about the American dream.”

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness alone would place him in the highest ranks of literary achievement; but when his entire opus is considered – works of compelling narrative; elegant, powerful prose;  depth of psychological and social insight – he stands alone. Joyce not only broke through Victorian traditionalism but created a work of such linguistic tour de force, psychological insight, and flowing, lucid prose, that he too has no comparison.

Then what to make of Du Maurier and other novelists of her era who wrote start-to-finish stories with simple plot lines, understandable characters, and workmanlike prose?  Sinclair Lewis, for example, told the stories of ambitious but frustrated women (Main Street, Dodsworth), followed them, and wrote of their struggles – moral and amoral – to find their place.  Dreiser’s American Tragedy tells the story of Clyde Griffiths, a child of itinerant, street corner preachers whose willful ambition to escape poverty and the shame of his parent’s religious mountebank experience lies and charms his way into high society, only to have his plans fouled by an unwanted pregnancy followed by murder, escape, and capture.  If Faulkner wrote of the American Dream, so did Dreiser.

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And what of Thomas Hardy before him?  His stories are tales and fables with the same twists of fate and ironic circumstances as those of Du Maurier.  In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy is an early 19th century romantic writer just as agile and adept at writing a romantic thriller as she.  Charles Dickens also wrote beginning-to-end stories of fortune.  Great Expectations is another story of ironic twists of fate.  Pip’s benefactor, the man whose largesse enabled him to become a gentleman and an arrogant snob, was the convict he helped as a child. 

In other words, is it unfair to place these narrative writers in an inferior category, lower than Conrad, Faulkner, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy?  Is there nothing redeeming in their humanity and in their attention to maturity and awareness? There are happy resolutions to all these narrative novels, and the reader – tens of millions of readers – have been moved, touched, even inspired by them.

The Sound and the Fury is a brilliant book but one which is interior and self-contained.  We care less about Benjy, Quentin, Jason, and Dilsey than the configuration of their relationships, the interplay between history and and the present, between perception and reality; between inner world of the characters and the demands of the outer.  The novel is stunning in its novelty and complexity; but do we remember the characters as well as we do Clyde Griffiths, Pip, or Mrs. Danvers?

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On the basis of complexity and length alone, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy would be placed in the highest literary rank; but their novels – especially Dostoevsky’s - are perhaps the most brilliant characterizations in fiction and the most complex stories of passion, guilt, courage, infidelity, manhood, and history that have been written.  Certainly these men were incomparable writers.

The question is not whether Du Maurier can compete with them on the basis of intellect, complexity, insight, or innovation.  She clearly cannot; but why exclude her from the canon? She and her other narrative colleagues have indeed written about human deception, fraud, ambition, will, and determination; have placed their characters within an important social context, and have entertained their readers with evocative prose, characterization, and plot.  There is a good reason why they are still read, perhaps even more than Faulkner, Joyce, and Dostoevsky.  Readership – enduring popularity, media adaptations, consecutive editions – must count for something.  Turkish soap operas reach tens of millions of viewers in nearly 100 countries every year.  They are indeed predictable – family dramas, divorce, separation, ambition, abortion, and deception – but the quality of writing, direction, and acting is high quality; and in the hands of Istanbul artists give individuality and personality to every episode.  They are the equivalent to popular narrative fiction.

English professors at Yale a number of years ago when asked why Hemingway was not on the reading list replied, “You’ll read him anyway’ – a dismissive, off-handed reference to the simplicity of his work.  There was little there to study, analyze and criticize, so why take up valuable course time?

The bias continues, although literature majors are unlikely to visit the canon, so the question of what is important literature has had to be modified.  Deconstructionists contend that all literature is equal and that its only merit is the social, political, economic, and gender context within it.  Both Conrad and Du Maurier are shelved within this new paradigm.

Readers will always prefer narrative novels – stories that tell a tale, that proceed from beginning to end, from childhood to adulthood to death.  Common, familiar, recognizable stories that have less to do with principle, structure, or purpose than they do human nature. 

By all means continue, restore in fact, the supremacy of Joyce, Faulkner, Tolstoy, Conrad, and Dostoevsky; and rescue them from post-modern nihilist critics; but at the same time do not ignore Du Maurier, Dreiser, Lewis, Dickens, and Hardy.  Good reads, entertaining reads, important reads.

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