What I’m Reading: The Flight of the Falcon, by Daphne du Maurier

The Flight of the Falcon (1965) is generally considered one of Daphne du Maurier’s less-successful works–it wasn’t mentioned in her obituary and The New Yorker called it “extraordinarily dull”–but it’s always been my favorite.

Armino Fabbio has been marking time as a tour guide for the “beef and barbarians” that come to visit Italy. (Beef is his term for the English tourist, barbarian for the American.) After a beggar woman, slumped in a corner of the palazzo, reminds him of home, Armino dreams all night: of Ruffano, the ducal palace, and the inhabitants—his parents, Marta, and Aldo. Aldo most of all.

In his dream, Armino remembers acting out the story of Lazarus with his brother. He has been swaddled in his father’s faintly-stinking night-shirt and thrust into the laundry closet to await Aldo’s voice of Christ.

The handle of the closet turned. The door softly opened. Aldo cried, “Lazarus, come forth!”

So great was my dread, so disciplined to his commands my spirit, that I dared not disobey. I came forth, and the horror was that I did not know whether I should meet with the Christ or with the Devil, for according to Aldo’s ingenious theory the two were one, and also, I some manner which he never explained, interchangeable.

Thus at times my brother, robed in a towel as Christ, bearing a walking-stick for crook, beckoned me with  smile, fed me with sweets, put his arms about me, was kind and loving.But at others, wearing the dark shirt of the Fascist youth organization to which he belonged and armed with a kitchen fork, he would represent Satan, and proceed to jab me with his weapon. I did not understand why Lazarus, the poor man raised from the dead, should so have earned the Devil’s hate, and why his friend, the Christ, should so basely have deserted him; but Aldo, never at a loss, informed me that the play between God and Satan was unending, they tossed for souls as men in the world, and in the cafes of Ruffano, threw at dice. It was not a comforting philosophy. 

Aldo is more than a little nuts. But he was killed in the war, as was their father;  Armino, the youngest of the family, has been actively forgetting it all ever since.

Still, Armino is disturbed by the dreams. Even more so when he learns that the beggar woman whose slumped figure brought it all back to his mind has been murdered in the night.

Suspecting he might know the identity of the murdered woman, Armino returns to Ruffano to find that the small university of his childhood has expanded: the university is now the focus of the city. The students in the departments of the university are deeply and violently divided—the Commerce and Economics department pitted against the Arts department in a battle that seems oddly heightened and even inspired by the faculty.

Leading the  turmoil is the charismatic and mysterious Director of the Arts Council, enmeshed in plans for the annual students’ pageant. This year their inspiration is historical: the original Duke of Ruffano’s madness. He judged and punished the secret sins of the Ruffanese, he counted himself a deity, he perished in a mad running of the horses (Pamplona-style) through the walled city. Armino is enormously surprised to find (highlight for spoiler) that Aldo, his assumed-dead brother, is the Director of the Arts.

Armino is given a temporary position in the university library, and thus gains access to some original documents detailing the events of Duke Claudio’s life and death. He is shocked to note the similarity between the events of the early fifteenth century and what has been occurring in Ruffano.

(And you’ll have to read the book for more details. And you should.)

I love this book. It is one that I’ve consistently cited (along with Possession, and Gaudy Night) as a favorite. I love the mingling of the present (well, 1960’s) problems (student demonstrations, questioning of the place of the arts in a world of commerce) with the utter timelessness of the walled Italian city. Du Maurier does such a good job of establishing the time in this novel—the events of the second world war, now twenty years in the past, are as present and as intrinsic to the plot as what happened yesterday.  And what happened yesterday arose directly out of what happened five hundred years ago.

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Movie Night: Jamaica Inn (1939)

Daphne du Maurier’s fourth novel, Jamaica Inn, was published in 1936. It was hugely successful; just three years later, Alfred Hitchcock directed an adaptation of the novel, starring Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara and Robert Newton.

The movie bears little resemblance to the book. (Du Maurier reportedly hated it so much that she almost didn’t let Hitch direct Rebecca. Glad she relented!)

The setting is the same: a lonely inn set in Cornwall; Mary Yellan still travels to live there with Patience and Joss Merlyn; Joss’s band of men are still engaged in the criminal activities of the novel; Joss is still working for an unidentified local man.

And that’s where the similarity ends. In the book, either Jem Merlyn or Friar Francis Davey could be directing Joss’s activities. Mary’s inability to tell who is good and who is bad (and indeed, the fact that no one is wholly good or wholly bad) provides the novel’s suspense. The movie eliminates both of those characters (Jem and Friar Davey) and instead turns Jem Merlyn into Jem Trehearne, and Friar Davey into Sir Humphrey Pengallon.

Jem Trehearne, played by Robert Newton, is an officer of the crown who has been sent to infiltrate Joss’s group and find out who Joss is working for. Mary meets him while posing as a criminal, but he’s obviously thoroughly honorable—as his familial connection to Joss Merlyn has been dissolved so has any mention of previous criminal activity.

Friar Davey is gone too, replaced by Sir Humphrey Pengallon, played by Charles Laughton. Pengallon is a local squire, the most respected man in the area. He is also quite mad.

So, since it eliminated nearly all of the good stuff in the book, why am I talking about this movie?

Oh. my. god. Instead of indiscriminate menace of the book, the danger is localized. If you are female, you are in danger—and a specifically sexual danger.

Aunt Patience’s screwed up relationship with Joss is actually in the book, it’s just heightened a bit.

Mary, though, is way more vulnerable than she is in the book. She’s overtly objectified from her entrance: Squire Pengallon is discussing the owning of beautiful objects. She enters, he tells her to take off her cloak, to turn so he can see her figure, and starts quoting Byron (“walks in beauty like the night”), and then starts directing her life from behind the scenes. 

There’s a specifically sexual threat from Joss—she arrives at the inn, and he demands a kiss before she is allowed inside; the other men comment admiringly on her and he tells them to stay away from her because he “is looking that way himself.”

The primary threat, though, is from Squire Pengallon. When Mary rejects his advances, she is gagged and tied and taken anyway.

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It’s not just the control issue—but she’s controlled in such an eroticized way. She’s screaming, then she has the handkerchief in her mouth, the light shining off her tears, hands tied behind her back, cape hiding it all.

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Mary in the book has to decide who to trust—while her choices are not abundant, she decides, she chooses the next step in her life. Mary in the movie isn’t an actor, she is repeatedly acted upon. She’s tied up and shuffled from one place to another. She’s essentially a prop, an object that is stolen and then lucky enough to be recovered.

This is perhaps not the most well-known Hitchcock/du Maurier connection (stay tuned for Rebecca and The Birds) but, in my humble opinion, it is so very interesting because of the drastic differences between the source and the adaptation.

Checking into Jamaica Inn

There’s things that happen at Jamaica, Mary, that I’ve never dared to breathe. Bad things. Evil things. I can’t ever tell you; I dare not even admit them to myself. Some of it in time you’ll come to know. You can’t avoid it, living here. Your Uncle Joss mixes with strange men, who follow a strange trade. Sometimes they come by night, and from your window above the porch you will hear footsteps, and voices, and knocking at the door… You must lie in bed, and put your fingers to your ears. You must never question me, for if you came to guess but half of what I know, your hair would go grey, Mary, as mine has done, and you would tremble in your speech and weep by night, and all  that lovely careless youth of yours would die, Mary, as mine has done. –Jamaica Inn

Jamaica Inn (1936) is Daphne du Maurier’s fourth novel, following The Loving Spirit (1931), I’ll Never Be Young Again (1932), and Julius (1933). Like many of du Maurier’s novels, (Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, Frenchman’s Creek, Rule Britannia, The House on the Strand) the story is set in Cornwall, the peninsula in the southwest of Britain.

Mary Yellan moves to Jamaica Inn to live with her Aunt Patience after the death of her parents. Her aunt’s last visit had been nearly twelve years ago–Mary remembers her as a beautiful and young butterfly, laughing and full of plans for her wedding to Joss Meryln. Patience is now a frail, frightened, half-mad creature, cringing away from her husband and rushing to do his bidding. Joss, the landlord of Jamaica Inn,  is a giant of a man, cruel and harsh.

Besides the obviously horrible relationship of her aunt and uncle, much about the inn just doesn’t make sense. There is little custom: respectable travelers, Mary is told on her journey, avoid the place. Still, men are heard coming and going at all hours of the night. Mary sneaks out of her room one night and overhears Joss taking shocking orders from an unidentified man, then passing those orders along to the band of ruffians that he leads.

The book makes no mystery of the fact that Joss is a bad ‘un–from his introduction, at the end of chapter 1, he’s obviously and unmistakably a villain. Even the details of the “strange trade” are revealed fairly soon in the narrative. But the identity of Joss’s superior–someone in the neighborhood, well-spoken, authoritative– is unknown. This provides the primary source of tension in the novel: in the face of unmistakable danger, who is she to trust? Mary meets and suspects various men in the village; the most likely candidates for chief villain are the engaging and attractive Jem Meryln, younger brother of Joss and criminal in his own right, and the helpful albino vicar Francis Davey.  As Mary tries to figure out who she can confide in, even the most innocuous exchanges become fraught with meaning and danger. 

(I find I can’t talk about this novel without a few spoilers, but I hate to ruin a surprise. Highlight the next paragraph to read what I find so problematic about the novel, or skip this part and just go order the book.)

The true horror  in the novel is not about the trade but about the relationships. Joss is abusive and cruel to his wife, Patience; Patience is cringingly devoted, protective and loyal past all belief. The novel introduces Patience as an early image of Mary–the beautiful, laughing aunt’s visit is clearly remembered years later; various statements by Joss draw similarities between their appearance and mannerisms. Just as Mary is a younger iteration of Patience, Joss’s younger brother, Jem, resembles Joss in stature; though less violent, he is shown to be on the same general criminal track as Joss. Jem is a complicated hero–he isn’t complicit with Joss’s activities at Jamaica Inn, but he’s hardly trustworthy. Given the structure of the book, it is fairly obvious Mary is going to end up with him.. but he’s so similar to Joss that I keep expecting him to back-hand her when she doesn’t get into the wagon quickly enough. Mary needs a counselor, a kick-boxing class and a safe house, in my humble opinion. The ending makes me feel like an old village woman, shaking her head over the foolish choices of the young. 

I almost think that the conflicted ending adds to the novel–it seems much more in line with the spirit of the work to be left with a sense of lingering menace rather than have all threats strictly contained and removed. After all, the book is about unseen evil, unsuspected malevolence masquerading behind a smiling facade. Although Mary has discovered what lies at the heart of Jamaica Inn, how naive to assume that was the only unknown peril. 

 Jamaica Inn: if you haven’t read it, check it out!

Happy Birthday Daphne!

Daphne du Maurier

Today is the birthday of one of my very favorite authors. Dame Daphne du Maurier was born on May 13, 1907.

Gerald du Maurier as Captain Hook in 1904

Her father, Sir Gerald du Maurier, was an actor and stage manager, and a friend of Henry James and J. M. Barrie. His cousins, the Llewellyn-Davies children, were Barrie’s inspiration in Peter Pan, and one of Gerald du Maurier’s most acclaimed theater roles was that of Captain Hook.

Gerald’s father, Daphne’s grandfather, was the writer George du Maurier. His novel Trilby is his most well-known work, primarily because it introduced the character of Svengali, a hypnotist who guides the actions of the naive Trilby. The name has entered the lexicon as a term for one who manipulates one under his control.

Muriel Beaumont, Lady du Maurier, in 1916

Daphne’s mother, Muriel Beaumont du Maurier, was from less artistic stock: her father, a proper British solicitor, disapproved of her stage-ambition. She ran away to the theater, appearing in The Admirable Crichton with George du Maurier when she was 19. They were married five months later.

Muriel remained on the stage until 1910–by that time she had two daughters, Angela (1904) and Daphne (1907).  Her third daughter and final child, Jeanne, was born in 1911.

Daphne du Maurier’s most well-known work is Rebecca. If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s quite fantastic. Du Maurier’s descriptions of the family estate, the servants, the portraits, even the bunches of scarlet rhododendrons are incredibly menacing. Those rhododendrons stuck with me:

Suddenly I saw a clearing in the dark drive ahead, and a patch of sky, and in a moment the dark trees had thinned, the nameless shrubs had disappeared, and on either side of us was a wall of colour, blood-red, reaching far above our heads. We were amongst the rhododendrons. There was something bewildering, even shocking, about the suddenness of their discovery. The woods had not prepared me for them. The startled me with their crimson faces, massed one upon the other in incredible profusion, showing no leaf, no twig, nothing but the slaughterous red, luscious and fantastic, unlike any rhododendron plant I had seen before. (65)

I find I have much more to say about Daphne du Maurier than I thought, and so am implementing The Week of Daphne (cue fanfare). We’ll count this post as the introduction and background, upcoming posts will look at the various film adaptations of her works, undoubtedly talk a bit more about Rebecca (since I barely touched on it here), as well as more fun stuff about my other favorite du Maurier novels: My Cousin Rachel, The Flight of the Falcon, The Scapegoat, Rule Britannia, The House on the Strand, Jamaica Inn… so much to look forward to!