The trouble with constantly writing is that I’m never left with enough energy and time to pause, stop and seriously read the completed creative efforts of other fiction writers. Pinning down a poem that resists every alteration of a line or replacing stilted dialogue in a story doesn’t make me want to reach out to examine, and enjoy, how others have succeeded in what, D.H. Lawrence termed, are “the big books of life.” I grab at newspapers, magazines, music or films. Some are deep cultural containers some are shallow distractions: yet they don’t judge me for what I’m at – struggling with slippery words on the page.
Three weeks ago a power failure at home coincided with me feeling creatively tired. My inner creative box and electricity fuse box gave up on me. I still had my mental powers but seven of my flat’s power-points had failed. As Camden Council and the local electricity authority wouldn’t define my problem as an emergency I was given a routine repairs appointment. This blow-out happened on a Friday. No one could call till Monday. I had a hospital scan booked for then so the repair changed to Tuesday. Apart from a portable radio this meant no computer, TV or hi-fi distraction.
I scanned my bookshelves and came across Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel and The Birds and Other Stories. As I knew and loved Rebecca (both book and film) I threw myself into reading My Cousin Rachel which was published in 1951. My Virago paperback has a quote from The Guardian, “A masterpiece of suspense.” and compares it to Rebecca. “Unputdownable” states Sally Beaumont in her introduction and she was right. For two days (only broken by eating, sleeping and exercise) Du Maurier’s novel clung to me like a greedy lover. I couldn’t stop reading (Not so fast now Alan, you need to savour the elegant prose) about the virginal and orphaned Philip Ashley, brought up by his cousin Ambrose, and experiencing emotional turmoil, after Ambrose’s early death: even more so after meeting his widow, the enigmatic Rachel. “Despite himself Philip is drawn to the beautiful, mysterious woman. But could she be Ambrose’s killer?” This cover blurb made it all sound too pat – only a gripping crime novel.
However things get more complicated in a cat and mouse game of attraction and repulsion between Philip and Rachel. My Cousin Rachel is no murder mystery but a suspenseful account of the psychological collision of male and female control. Right up to the novel’s tragic ending we just don’t really know who was right or whose authority won through. And it’s not so much a clash of innocence and experience but whether the protagonists are consciously in control of their actions. Rachel is a strong, clever woman who needs money but is she a murderess? Whilst Philip’s sexual identity is complicated. A virgin young man of twenty six highly influenced by the misogynist Ambrose: vexed at Rachel inheriting Ambrose’s property and money, yet drawn, like a magnet, to the oedipal lock of desire which Rachel opens. Rachel as mother figure, imagined lover and femme fatale disturb his emotional life. And although Rachel sexually rejects Philip her feminity is of a passionate nature, heightened by her Italian identity, money, profligacy, property and self esteem.
The power of Du Maurier’s writing lies in its moral ambiguity. Du Maurier is often misunderstood as simply an author of popular gothic romances. Yet she is a marvellous psychological novelist of great skill and insight who averts and subverts melodrama as she questions the motivations of men and woman pushed to extremes other than those of romantic love. Hearts and minds are disturbingly tested: beyond the reasoning of Du Maurier’s plotting lies the wider mystery of human intent.
“Those things can never be explained, they happen. Why this man should love that woman, what queer chemical mix up in our blood draws us to another, who can tell me? To me, lonely, anxious, and a survivor of too many emotional shipwrecks, he (Ambrose) came almost as a saviour, as an answer to prayer.”
But did Rachel slowly poison Ambrose? Credible evidence is provided yet, in this fascinating anti-thriller, we are left unsure. And My Cousin Rachel certainly cried out for Hitchcock to have filmed it. He produced screen versions of Rebecca, Jamaica Inn and The Birds but Rachel (with its sense of vertiginous obsession) was strangely ignored.
By day three of my power failure it was very satisfying to be absorbed by the printed page and not the over-bright screens of electronic devices. I lingered with the craft of Du Maurier. The Birds and Other Stories is an excellent collection of six stories. Again I sensed Du Maurier’s natural affinity with Hitchcock. Not just the The Birds but the story The Little Photographer. A beautiful and bored Madame le Marquese is on holiday, with her children, by the French Mediterranean coast. She meets a humble photographer, has a secret sexual liaison with him and when he wants to keep seeing her, after her vacation, she recoils, says no and pushes him right over a cliff. It’s a beautifully observed story packed with astute reflections on money, sex, power, class, guilt and privilege. The sting in the tale is that the already suspicious sister, of the photographer, turns up to blackmail Madame. I’ve read that the story was turned into a play. Yet I think it would have made a perfect TV film for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents Series.
Of course, we have the famous The Birds. Both Hitchcock’s film and Du Maurier’s story are brilliant in their different ways. The story, set in Cornwall, is very disturbing – its written accounts of the bird attacks are as powerful as the filmed ones.
Hitchcock’s isolated Bodega Bay has no sense of the authorities (in the form of the police or army) intervening to fight off the feathered apocalypse. Whereas the story depicts the English government failing its citizens (No six pm radio broadcast to communicate what they are doing). As Nat’s wife, on the farm, hopes that we will call upon the Americans to help us, her husband pauses.
“Nat listened to the tearing sound of splintering wood, and wondered how many million years of memory were stored in those little brains, behind the stabbing beaks, the piercing eyes, now giving them this instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.”
I left re-reading The Birds to the last and soon it was the morning of day five of the power failure. A cheerful South American electrician arrived to discover that my electric kettle had caused the trouble. “You don’t need it. Just boil water in a pan on the gas stove. It’s cheaper that way. “Thanks.” I replied putting down Du Maurier’s fictions and reconnecting to my electrics, wanting “the deft precision” of my real machines to aid, comfort and never attack.
No disturbance then till bedtime when I opened Dark Water, my all time favourite anthology of fantasy stories, edited by Alberto Manguel. Once more I read Du Maurier’s superb story Split Second where a anxious woman experiences a fatal time-slip very close to Hampstead Heath. But I’ll leave off describing that fiction, with its Twilight Zone comparisons, for another day, now that home-power has been restored, my devices still threaten to fragment my book-reading and the urge to write a new poem is returning.