Girly-Girly Horror: Daphne Du Maurier & Gothic Romance (Because It’s Women-In-Horror Month)


For most of us who read and write Horror, there is an almost automatic tendency to cringe when we hear the word “romance” associated with our genre. Even with blockbusters which have encompassed the one-time popularity of amorous vampires to taunt us, we of the Horror genre prefer the more suspenseful, monstrous-scary kinds of relationships in our fiction.

Romance, we insist, is a whole ‘nother creature – one we banish happily to the Harlequin aisle. Romance is girly-girly stuff.

But not so fast. Because if one really embraces the genre we have come to associate with psychos and monsters and a host of demons and witches, then we must embrace our beginnings in the classics – including our beginnings in the medieval romance and folktale fairy princesses which begat the Gothic Romance and Gothick (so christened with the ‘k’ by writers like Victoria Nelson to differentiate “new” Gothic from Medievally inspired Gothic ) subgenres which lead to where we are.

It is Gothic Romance – the provenance of writers like the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, and one Daphne DuMaurier – which put Horror on the map (and in particular, the Literary map).

Forget what you think you know about romance. Because it is these ladies who put the paranormal into romance and laid the groundwork in setting and characterization for a lot of modern Horror.

If you want to understand and appreciate our genre – especially including the role of women who contributed to its modern shape – you need to read Gothic Romance. And I suggest strongly you start with a book called Rebecca.

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Girling Up Horror All Over the Place

For most of us, our exposure to romance left us covered in a kind of gauzy, glittery, pink-fairy-wing kind of stupor, or drenches us in the stereotypes of bodice-ripping erotica. It is far too saccharine for our Horror tastes. But that also means that we have had our heads turned by pulp romance, which – not unlike pulp Horror – is a subgenre that caters to a specific audience. Before and alongside that type of romance is Gothic Romance – tales that leak in sinister designs from drafty castles and isolated manses, tales that reek of the supernatural and dark, dark secret histories.

It is at once a genre of deft flexibility, and perhaps that is how and why women writers so expertly and effectlively took charge of it.

Explains Greg Buzwell in his article “Daphne Du Maurier and the Gothic Tradition”:

“Gothic fiction possesses a remarkable ability to reinvent itself. The sublime landscapes and imperilled maidens of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), for example, seemingly bear no relation to the city streets and macabre body transformations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) or to Henry James’s psychological ghost story The Turn of the Screw (1898), and yet all three tales are, undeniably, Gothic. Regardless of their entirely different storylines and settings all three share the traditional Gothic qualities of a disturbing atmosphere, a carefully described landscape and setting, a sense of the uncanny and the impression that events are out of kilter with the rational world.” (Buzwell)

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Change, as we have seen even in our lifetimes, is survival for fiction. It has to move with its readers in order to move its readers.

This is something we see regularly in Horror: monsters evolve, ghosts change tactics and motivations, monsters drift between human origins and supernatural ones. This has to happen or our audience becomes too sophisticated, too conditioned to be easily disturbed, our stories flat or trite.

It is an easy conclusion in hindsight then, that “Romance” was doomed to change, and that the Gothic period of writing would bleed from real world wounds, from actual histories being lived by the readers the stories were being written for. We forget that stories about the 1800’s were once “modern” and that readers understood first-hand the travails of their protagonists.

But this is why Gothic Romance evolved from its more straight-forward origins. Readers of the 1700’s and 1800’s could only identify so far with medieval times and cultural constraints. Readers always tend to look for stories written with them in mind, preferring their habitual devouring of story pressed through a prism they can at least imagine; readers need to see themselves in fictionalized tales.

Gothic Romance descends from stories wrought from the romance languages, making use of medieval tales of knights and ladies in distress. Where “Romance and Gothick” are not (according to the critic Northrop Frye) “two separate literary movements, one high and one low drawing from the same sources, the Gothick should be regarded as the foundation of the Romantic” (Nelson 97).

But change happens slowly, unevenly. There were writers – female writers of the Gothic – writing well before Gothic Romance became fashionable. They wrote in lesser known publications for women, and their names are harder to remember, their works harder to find. Unfortunately, it far too often takes writers with the panache, style, and timing of J.K. Rowlings and Jane Austens to awaken fame, fortune, and opportunity for others.

With the deft pens of writers like Charlotte Brontë, whose work Jane Eyre was the main transformative work to lift The Castle of Otranto (also considered the first true modern Horror story) into what we see as “modern” Literature, the genre of Gothic Romance exploded onto and all over the publishing scene, borne by the imaginations of women who it appears, saw things a little differently.

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In her book Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural, Victoria Nelson asserts that men and women write Romance differently, and with the rise of Gothic Romance, women transformed the genre by refashioning the protagonist and the conclusion of early romance into what has become coined “the Female Gothic.”

Formerly, male writers were wont to write tales in which “[a helpless young woman is pitted against] a devilish villain whom she is going to be forced to marry (The Castle of Otranto [by Horace Walpole]) or who forcibly ravishes her (The Monk [by Matthew Gregory Lewis])

“In the female-authored Gothicks that followed Walpole, in contrast, the single heroine (whose point of view we usually inhabit) escapes the villain’s clutches and marries the young man. Where the early male Gothick writers, drawing directly from the medieval romance tradition, used a faux-medieval aristocratic cast of characters, the women Gothick writers frequently introduced a bourgeois female protagonist into the mix. Where male authors favored supernatural elements, female authors – most famously [Ann] Radcliffe herself – like to titillate their readers with ghostly, chill-inducing phenomena before revealing the human agency behind them.” (97-98)

And with the advent of this new perspective and the emergence of publishing venues for women and their readers, the Gothic Romance was unleashed. Gone was the tendency toward the male-favored tragic ending, and in came the more female-friendly happy ending. But along with the surge in female storytelling, came the disfavor of Literary Critics of the time.

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Long seen as sensational, overly sentimental writing, it took writers like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters to capture Critical respect. Says Nelson:

“Literary critics have not been kind to Gothick romance. Fred Botting has dubbed contemporary women’s romance ‘Girly-girly Gothic’ after Mark Twain’s label ‘girly-girly romance’ for the identical literature of the nineteenth century. Traditional Gothick scholars and literary critics alike have delivered scathing and condescending critiques and commentators have noted the continued low status of the women’s romance in mainstream culture despite being statistically the most popular literary genre.” (106)

Enter Daphne Du Maurier, a woman whose most preeminent work, Rebecca, has sold well over 3 million copies, some 4000 copies per month since 1938 and has never gone out of print (House), yet who could not in her lifetime garner the least Critical respect (facts to which today’s Stephen King fans can relate).

For far too long her work was considered “standard” women’s fare, and not in the same class as writers like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters; and one must recognize that the Curse of Bestsellerdom is an enduring one – one that has been around as long as there have been Literary Critics who cannot fathom the fickle passions of the masses.

Far too often it takes decades, if not centuries, after an author’s death for Critics to reconcile knee-jerk reactions to sales figures with what is really going on in an author’s writing. Recounts Greg Buzwell in his article “Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca Taught Me How to Love Literature”:

“In some respects Daphne du Maurier was a victim of her own success. Her prose was so smooth, and her stories so packed with incident, that her gifts as a storyteller often overshadowed the more serious aspects of her work. It is only when you look beyond the surface polish of her stories that you begin to notice her brilliant and eclectic use of Gothic imagery.” (Buzwell)

Still think you haven’t heard of her?

Ah, ye of little faith, O Horror Fans…she is also the author of one of Horror’s most iconic stories, tagged (and therefore probably misremembered) as “Alfred Hitchcock’s” The Birds…

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Author, Author

All too often we have our attention directed to authors acknowledged and endorsed as Canon Greats, and we tend to not question the absence of a name here or there, as though there is a kind of security or gilding of the Critic’s lily in propping up “established” theories of Literary evolution and the roles certain authors allegedly play in it.

We shy away from those labelled “popular” or “mainstream” authors as thought their contributions are somehow less valid, less impactful. And we often do this whenever there is the slightest whiff of controversy – too often assuming that the lack of a Critical voice to say otherwise somehow legitimizes the exclusion of an author in the discussion of genre.

This tends to happen historically most often to female authors. And while we are getting better at deflecting such tendencies, we do little to clear the air of suspicion for deceased and historically significant writers as though to do so will cause our own reputations to be sucked into the vortex of unsavory scandal – or worse, will make an enemy of the Literary Critic/academic community.

Daphne Du Maurier is just such an author. Despite numerous accusations of plagiarism during her career – all of which reached legal resolution in her and her publishers’ favor, the cloud of disgrace associated with those defeated claims continues to disparage her reputation and deprive her of her rightful place in genre history.

Legal confirmation of her innocence is a matter of record. And yet Du Maurier is seldom mentioned with or within genre references and Critical essays with any regularity. It is as though she is being disparaged as a “girly-girly romance” writer – a pulp writer – a sentimental sensationalist instead of what she was – a Gothic writer who strongly influenced not only Romance, but the Horror and Suspense/Thriller genres.

It is time that changed. And Horror should be the genre coming to her defense. Both Rebecca and The Birds were genre-changers for us, building directly upon the psychological terror platform of Edgar Allan Poe.

But it is also time for modern women in Horror to demand Critical engagement in such circumstances as the accusation of plagiarism – not only against Du Maurier, but also against Mary Shelley (who some claim published Frankenstein under her name after her husband wrote it). Ugly rumors and greedy grabs at sensationalism should be met with immediate Critical address, and not allowed to hang over the work and reputations of such writers.

Especially because this happens historically and disproportionately to women – accusation and Critical ostracism – women need to call it out for what it is: a form of professional bullying which needs to be stopped by the nearest thing we as writers have as a governing body: the Literary Critical/Academic community. Mention of accusation is one thing; but reputations should cease to be impugned once the law has ruled on the issue. Such writers should not be omitted from works referenced in genre discussion, or from Critical analysis.

For years I have sought and expected to find essays on Du Maurier’s work, perhaps even Critical expositions. Yet references have been rare and piteously fleeting when found. I find this to be shameful, especially if not only an American issue.

And while Du Maurier is not as “well-known” in the United States as she is in the UK, not as widely read perhaps, and even possibly avoided due to her reputation for alleged anti-American sentiment in her day, her work is more than worthy of attention in this country, her name the kind which belongs on reading lists.

If a writer inspires the readership of a genre, changes the genre, and is referenced as an influence by other writers (as Daphne Du Maurier frequently is), he or she is Literarily relevant – deserving of Critical attention and (if necessary) defense.

Rebecca is one such story… It is often remembered with the same misty reverence by its intensely loyal fans as Jane Eyre…

The story of Rebecca grabs the reader from the very first line: “Last night I dreamed I went back to Manderly…” and it holds the reader entranced with the kind of language that mesmerizes Stephen King fans – accessible language that makes each scene familiar, identifiable, relatable. It is a woman’s story, one that penetrates into a common innocence, a common need for loving and being loved, the sense that we will never quite belong and whole histories await to bedevil us even as they precede us.

This is the what makes Du Maurier a favorite among favorites. With so many of her stories, we can not only imagine her heroines, we could be them.

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Says Christian House in his article for The Telegraph titled “Daphne Du Maurier Always Said Her Novel Rebecca Was a Study in Jealousy”:

“In August 1938, Rebecca caught the zeitgeist, drawing on the glamour of country society and the feeling of impending catastrophe that permeated the pre-war years. Put coarsely, it is a novel about a dead woman and a house. Both of which were drawn from the author’s life.

“‘Mum used to get fed up talking about it,” says [her son Kits] Browning. “She did get so irritated with people calling it a romantic novel. Because she always said it was a study in jealousy.'”

[and further that]

“The seed of the Rebecca story lay in Daphne du Maurier’s jealousy of her husband’s first fiancee … (House)

So firmly nestled among Du Maurier’s success were those facts of her life — and that in the end, it makes her even more human, even more intuitive as a storyteller. And yet like all women writers, there was always lurking in the shadows the problem of being a woman in a man’s world. Continues Buzwell:

“As a child du Maurier often wished she was a boy. In part this was because boys at that time had greater freedoms and opportunities than girls, but with du Maurier the desire went further. She even invented a male alter ego for herself, named Eric Avon, along with a colourful past for him in which he had been to Rugby. Eric Avon was adventurous and fearless, qualities that Daphne du Maurier had in abundance but which she was never fully allowed to express because of her gender.

“As a writer, du Maurier was able to explore this masculine side of her nature vicariously through her fiction. Many of her most famous books, including My Cousin Rachel, The Scapegoat and The House on the Strand have male narrators. Even the very early tale The Doll is told from a male perspective, the narrator finding himself rejected by the woman he loves in favour of a mechanical doll – something which, inevitably, has devastating implications for his own identity. The more you look into du Maurier’s work, the more wheels within wheels you begin to see, and the darker the imagery becomes. It is only when you look beyond her narrative brilliance that you begin to see the haunting darkness and complexity of her work.”

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Such wishes and imaginings are – if nothing else – the ghost that walks among all female-authored fiction. We always second-guess ourselves, our worth, our potential and our right to success. We wonder if we would have fared better as men, if our work would have found better Critical reception had the byline been male.

This is natural in a patriarchal society, even when we hope things are better for us than it was for women who preceded us, even when “things have changed.” We all too often find that they have not changed so very much, and there are just enough mines in the minefield that we can never truly be sure of our footing.

And when we read prominent women writers, we tend to discover troubled waters beneath the prose. This is how we write ghosts without actually writing ghosts. For example, Buzwell explains how Du Maurier builds on the tradition of ghosts as built by Ann Radcliffe:

“Daphne du Maurier’s work also contains echoes of Ann Radcliffe, whose novel The Mysteries of Udolpho came to epitomize the first golden age of Gothic literature. In Radcliffe’s work the seemingly supernatural is nearly always revealed to have a rational explanation. Du Maurier’s work exhibits similar characteristics. In Rebecca, for example, the sinister character of Mrs. Danvers is just that – a character, not a malevolent ghost; while Rebecca herself, who dominates the book without ever making a single living appearance, is a ghost only in the sense that she haunts the imaginations of the living protagonists. This psychological element contains echoes of Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw…”

Indeed this is the magical recipe for originality in Horror: the taking of a device from a traditionally-established writer and altering it subtly with the result that the difference jars the plot and the reader alike. But it must always ring true.

This is how we know Du Maurier is not only Literary, but a writer of the feminine Gothic where the female protagonist’s own insecurities has captured us and simultaneously modernized the ghost story, providing the scaffolding for another generation of writers to build upon.

Yet female authors, when they do well, tend to come under scrutiny. Since the early days of Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, a woman’s ability to come up with her own ideas is always suspect, and an illogical and random variable constraint of possible talent is arbitrarily assigned to her capacity as a writer. The success and similarities of Rebecca to the absolute conventions and themes of Gothic Romance made Du Maurier a target. Plots repeat in fiction. And they often repeat more noticeably in subgenres. Yet even as she was dogged by accusations of plagiarism for Rebecca, Du Maurier won all court decisions, and still the spectre of accusations haunted the author all of her life. She lived in mortal fear of disclosing publicly the secrets and details of her own life, of her writing process, of her faults as a woman. (De Rosnay 186-191)

This remained so until her death at 81.

And despite numerous attempts at interviews and accommodating the curious, Du Maurier was at all times a typical writer – insecure, private, perhaps even a bit paranoid of the intentions of others. But she was something else: she was a pivotal player in the Gothic Romance genre, a not-too-distant relative of the Horror genre.

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She should be mandatory reading for writers of Horror, particularly female writers, and writers of the ghost story. She should be on a required reading list for Classic Literature.

Even so, perhaps you are wondering…

Why Daphne Du Maurier? What leads me to choose her as my Women-In-Horror Month writer? Why not Charlotte Bronte or Ann Radcliffe?

Because Daphne Du Maurier is least known in this country and for all of the wrong reasons.

So much of her work has been repeatedly made into films by directors who overshadow her name as an author – (The Birds) Alfred Hitchcock, (Don’t Look Now) Nicholas Roeg, (Jamaica Inn) Alfred Hitchcock, (My Cousin Rachel) Roger Michell, and (Frenchman’s Creek) Ferdinand Fairfax…and because even when we read her work, we get caught up in her stories – haunted by them – without remembering who wrote them.

Yet she is a vital part of Horror genre history. She is a major contributing player in the psychological American roots of Horror writing and filmmaking. Who among us does not count The Birds among the most relevant, inspirational, and yet disturbing Horror of our lives?

The absence of Daphne Du Maurier from our reading lists and our analysis of the history of Literature, especially Gothic Romance and subsequently Horror, has cheated us. We are blinded to a significant Literary connection to our classical roots and – most importantly in Horror – to our British roots.

Du Maurier is a transitionary writer for Horror fans and authors. She is where the Gothic romance becomes the Gothic romance. Jane Eyre and Northanger Abbey are the noises we hear in the dark. Du Maurier is the frisson.

If we are going to improve our knowledge of our own genre – especially as women writers – we need to re-evaluate how we study Classic Literature. We need to abandon the idea that our educational system has the money or wherewithal to broadly educate us in such a way that we can see the Horror from here…Instead we have to look for the Horror ourselves. We have to educate ourselves.

Having abbreviated reading lists in our schools and reduced exposure to Literary Classics in general makes this worse. Writers who are not Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters are almost ritually abandoned in our Lit classes. And the seemingly deliberate avoidance of the Gothic in general as a subgenre except as a setting device is another.

Yet especially in the assessment of contemporary American Literature, we bemoan the lack of continuity with our past, with the lack of originality, the absence of fire that animated so much early English-language Literature. This complaint has spilled over into genres and subgenres like Horror, where so many of our rejections reflect this professional frustration.

It is time Horror recognized Daphne Du Maurier for her contribution to our genre. It is time we stepped up. It is one thing to excuse such childish, professionally irresponsible avoidance and ostracizing behavior when we read about it as history. It is another when we realize our own silence reinforces the inaccuracy and injustice of prejudiced exclusion.

It is time we opened our eyes. The British continue to outpace us in accomplished Horror writing. We continue to flop about like dying fish out of water.

I say wade in. The water is fine. The water is still mostly British. And when it comes to studying women’s writing and the Gothic Romances, nobody does it better than Daphne Du Maurier.

Go on. Scare yourself. You’re gonna love it.

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References

Buzwell, Greg. “Daphne du Maurier and the Gothic tradition.” Retrieved 1/31 from http://www.dumaurier.org/menu_page.php?id=122

Crace, John. “Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca Taught Me How to Love Literature. Retrieved 1/25/2018 from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/20/rebecca-daphne-du-maurier-classic-literature

Davenport-Hines, Richard. Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil, and Ruin. North Point Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c1998.

De Rosnay, Tatiana. Manderley Forever: a Biography of Daphne Du Maurier. New York: St. Martin’s Press, c2017.

House, Christian. “Daphne du Maurier Always Said Her Novel Rebecca Was a Study in Jealousy.” Retrieved 1/15/2018 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10248724/Daphne-du-Maurier-always-said-her-novel-Rebecca-was-a-study-in-jealousy.html

Nelson, Victoria. Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, c2012.

 

 

 

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