Daphne du Maurier has long been one of my favorite authors–ever since I discovered her short story collection Echoes from the Macabre when I was eleven or twelve; the first story in that collection, “Don’t Look Now,” remains one of my all time favorites; later in my teens I finally read Rebecca, and it has remained one of my favorite novels of all time, getting the periodic reread. One of the things I loved about du Maurier, as I tore through several of her other novels in the wake of Rebecca (The King’s General, The Flight of the Falcon, Jamaica Inn, and Frenchmen’s Creek) was that her novels subverted expectation; her books were marketed, or at least so it seemed to me, as romantic suspense novels and/or historical romances; yet the books were anything but that (whenever someone refers to Rebecca as romantic suspense it’s all I can do not to laugh in their face). The King’s General, for example, based on actual history, does not have a happy ending at all; and even the others aren’t exactly warm and fuzzy. About seven or eight years ago I finally read My Cousin Rachel, at the recommendation of a friend who couldn’t believe I’d never read it; once I had, it immediately shot to the top of my list of all-time favorites.
I’ve not finished the du Maurier canon–not because I don’t want to, but primarily because she’s dead and I know at some point, I will run out of du Maurier fiction. I know this is silly; I should, now that sixty is just on the horizon, start finishing the canons of my favorites because it would really suck to die and not be finished with them. (But then we always think we have more time than we actually do, don’t we? It’s sometimes very difficult for me to wrap my mind around the fact that I am, indeed, as old as I am.)
But watching the film of The Other made me think of this particular du Maurier, and I decided to give it a shot.
I left the car by the side of the cathedral, and then walked down the steps into the Place des Jacobins. It was still raining hard. It had not once let up since Tours, and all I had seen of the countryside I loved was the gleaming surface of the route nationale, rhythmically cut by the monotonous swing of the windscreen wiper.
Outside Le Mans, the depression that had grown upon me during the past twenty-four hours had intensified. It was inevitable, always, during the last days of holiday; but this time, more than ever before, I was aware of time having passed too swiftly, not because the days had been overfull but because I had achieved nothing. The notes I had written for the lectures I was to give during the coming autumn were scholarly, precise, with dates and facts that I should afterwards dress up in language designed to strike a spark in the dull minds of inattentive students. But even if I held their flagging interest for a brief half hour, I should know, when I had finished, that nothing I had said to them was of any value, that I had only given them images of history brightly coloured–waxwork models, puppet figures strutting through a charade. The real meaning of history would have escaped me, because i had never been close enough to people.
It was all too easy to lose oneself in a past half real, half imaginary, and so be blind to the presesnt. In the cities I knew best, Tours, Blois, Orleans, I lost myself in fantasy, seeing other walls, older streets, the crumbling corners of once glittering facades, and they were ore live to me than any real structure before my eyes, for in their shadows lay security; but in the hard light of reality there was only doubt and apprehension.
There are very few writers who can write so poignantly about depression and dissatisfaction with life; the dark night of the soul, as it were. This is where the hero of The Scapegoat finds himself at the opening of the novel. John, our thirty-eight year old hero, is an Englishman who teaches French history, is fluent in French, and is becoming incredibly dissatisfied with his life. Although his French is flawless and spoken like a native, his fascination and love for France has slowly become disaffecting for him–he feels like he doesn’t belong there and doesn’t quite fit in as he is not actually French; his life is humdrum and routine and lonely; he has no family, few friends, no loves. He has stopped in Le Mans on his way to visit a monastery, and as he walks around the rain-drenched city, he feels his difference very deeply; and then something strange happens: someone mistakes him for someone else, and then very shortly thereafter he runs into his mirror image–and his life is never going to be the same again.
The double, Jean, the Comte de Gue, is also dissatisfied and bored with his own life, and the two men have a few drinks. Eventually they repair to a disreputable looking hostel for another drink–and then our hero, John, passes out, only to wake up more than fourteen hours later to find that “his” driver is there, waiting for him to take him home. He soon realizes all of his things–passport, wallet, ID, car keys–are gone; he has two choices open to him. He can either tell this fantastic story of his to the police and to the driver, who will most likely judge him insane….or go along with the pretense, and slip into the life of his double.
Naturally, since this is a du Maurier tale, he chooses the latter.
In the hands of a lesser writer this contrivance–obviously, without making this decision the rest of the novel cannot happen–would be too glaring, too crazy, too much, really; but du Maurier does such a magnificent job of capturing his own boredom, ennui, dissatisfaction with the dull, plodding life he has made for himself that it actually almost makes sense for him to made this insane decision, for how can he possibly hope to pull off such an imposture? The look-alike story has been done to death over the years, and its overuse on soap operas–generally used when a popular actor has left the show, was killed off, and wants to return; or the double is evil and is taking over the good character’s life (they did this on Dynasty, poorly, with a Krystle look alike)–has made it seem trite and boring and over-used, as well as ridiculous. But Dickens used it for A Tale of Two Cities (even making his dopplegangers English and French, as du Maurier did), and of course, Mary Stewart’s brilliant The Ivy Tree also used the look-alike trope quite ingeniously. (Apparently Josephine Tey did the same with Brat Farrar.) Du Maurier does make this work–ironically, the only creatures who doubt that the Comte is actually the Comte are dogs; but then again, even when he behaves out of character for his look-alike or doesn’t know something he should, no one has any reason to doubt him or believe that a double has replaced their Jean. Would you suspect someone you love and know quite well has been replaced by a twin? There are also some wonderful subplots, regarding the real Comte’s relationships with his family, and while there really wouldn’t be much consequence if he is caught out, a lot of the thrill of the book comes from him not just uncovering the truths behind the fraught relationships with his relatives and the darkness of the past, but also figuring out ways out of situations where he would be found out.
And du Maurier’s writing style itself is the real star. There’s a hypnotic, dream-like quality to her voice; she weaves her words and sentences and paragraphs together softly but beautifully; there’s a melancholy to her style that always hypnotizes her readers into buying into the conceits of her stories and plots.
I greatly enjoyed this read, and am now looking forward to finishing the du Maurier canon.
Like I said, limited time.