Share Button

Ever since first reading her as an unhappy child at camp, Nina Auerbach has returned to the novels and stories of Daphne du Maurier. Now, in a new book from the University Pennsylvania Press, the Victorian scholar and Penn professor ponders her lifelong obsession with the writer best remembered—unjustly—for Rebecca.

By Beth Kephart | Photography by Bill Cramer

Sidebar | Taking Texts (And Other Things) Personally


Nina Auerbach was born into a New York family of writers and readers that loved only the “right” books, the classics. Twain, Tolstoy, Stendhal, Mann were the mainstay writers of Auerbach’s youth; Louisa May Alcott was the “legitimate” female fare. With no true television to distract her and no compelling radio to dissuade, Auerbach understood that she was expected to read, to play by the rules in a world of circumspection.
    “Nobody knows how claustrophobic New York is or was then,” says this Philadelphia transplant and mother’s daughter who grew up to be an acclaimed scholar, writer, teacher and famously controversial thinker. “New York is its very own country. As a child I lived an upper-middle-class New York life, and it was the fifties, and we had no sense of career in the future; there was not even a sense of college, of going away, or of discovery, self discovery. We were raised to assume we’d get married and live on Central Park West and live the life we were born to. It wasn’t evil. We didn’t know Gentiles. We hardly knew the Jews. We never placed ourselves in the larger country.”
    But for Auerbach, now the John Welsh Centennial Professor of History and Literature, there was always something else, something furtive, ambrosial, bewitching. There was what she calls, with a suggestive arch of one eyebrow, a flick over the shoulder of her not-quite-shoulder-length-hair, the forbidden books, the books she was not supposed to read. There was J.D. Salinger, Shirley Jackson and, much later, Stephen King. There was, most emphatically, Daphne du Maurier, the British dame of strange literature, whose 17 bestselling novels—not to mention biographies, articles, memoirs, plays and short stories—were lush seductions, to be read in the dark, alone. Auerbach was 12, and in a drugstore in Maine, an unhappy camper escaped momentarily from camp, when she first discovered the author who would soon keep her awake late at night, reading by the glow of a flashlight. And in the many years since—like a vibrant silk thread running between and through her scholarly works on Jane Austen, George Eliot, theater history, Victorian myths, vampires and the lives of “glorified outcasts”—Auerbach has never forgotten du Maurier. She has never stopped savoring her private getaways into such quintessential du Maurier concoctions as The House on the Strand, The Scapegoat, Hungry Hill, My Cousin Rachel, The Parasites and The King’s General.
    Nor has Auerbach stopped worrying about du Maurier’s reputation as an escapist romance novelist. That label, Auerbach argues in her new book, Daphne du Maurier: Haunted Heiress (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), is both unjust and undeserving, attributable to the somewhat inexplicable popularity of du Maurier’s most famous novel, Rebecca—a book Auerbach claims is “masochistic, derivative and only quasi-coherent,” and, more to the point, an absolute aberration from du Maurier’s complete body of work. Du Maurier, Auerbach believes, would not want to be remembered for Rebecca. She earned the right to be recovered and rescued as an inhabiter of fascinating male personae. Haunted Heiress is a work of adoration, an extension by one writer-scholar on behalf of a favored author’s memory. It is the product of decades of reading and re-reading, of curling up with an anomalous obsession when no one else was looking.


“The Daphne du Maurier I kept returning to as a teenager, and keep returning to now, is far from a compliant fulfiller of feminine (or feminist) wishes,” Auerbach writes in the book. “Her vision of relationships, especially family relationships, is unapologetically brutal. The magic that runs through her stories does not soften the characters or resolve their tensions … Though critics lazily call du Maurier a descendant of the Brontës, her supernaturalism does not, like theirs, bring the story to rest; it intensifies the frustration, underlying her supposed romances. From the 1950s to the present, I was, and remain, enthralled by Daphne du Maurier because of her antiromantic refusal to satisfy predictable desires.”
    But would Auerbach have wanted a friendship with du Maurier? Did she ever—in all these years of surreptitiously disappearing inside those novels and short stories—wish, as J.D. Salinger has his character Holden Caulfield wish, that the author “was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it?” 
    “She would have hung up on me!” Auerbach laughs outright at the question, her cigarette-thickened voice filling the room. “She hated Americans and she was not crazy about women and she didn’t like feminism and she didn’t like Jews. But I do think that she would have liked my book, because it’s about the side of her that was killed.”
    Everyone knows which women writers scholars “ought” to be researching, which biographies the New York presses are seeking, the reviewers reviewing, the readers obediently buying: Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Angela Carter, Willa Cather, Lillian Hellman, Charlotte Brontë, Edith Wharton, Sylvia Plath—writers whom Auerbach calls “the tormented and suppressed ideologues.” No American has “recovered” du Maurier, Auerbach says, in part because she systematically diminished women, in part because she is slippery, not easy to peg, as commercially hot in her time as Danielle Steele is today, with a literary legacy most closely tied to Thackeray.
    Sitting with Auerbach in her uncluttered Rittenhouse Square apartment, one understands that her journey with du Maurier has been a courageous one. No mainstream American publisher has been clamoring for a du Maurier biography. Fellow literature professors do not share Auerbach’s passion. And even Auerbach’s feminist friends do not, by and large, know more about du Maurier than the old purportedly romance standards such as Rebecca and Jamaica Inn (though, as Auerbach writes, “if Daphne du Maurier wrote romances at all, their achievement is to infuse with menace the lives women are supposed to want”) and the short-story-turned-Hitchcock-thriller, The Birds.
    “I suppose,” Auerbach says thoughtfully, her voice dramatic, stage-worthy, “that I like women who have been left.” She mentions Ellen Terry, the actress whose life she chronicled in a major biography a few years back. She returns the conversation to du Maurier and says, “I’m also motivated by a desire to see people stop condescending to women.”
    The more one talks with Auerbach, the more one comprehends that she is keen on du Maurier not just for her calamitous, unpredictable, all-but-forgotten “male-centered” novels, but for her fascinating background. Daughter of the famous British actor and theater manager, Gerald (who also, intriguingly, created the role of Captain Hook in Peter Pan), and granddaughter of George, the bestselling novelist of Trilby, du Maurier was an instant aristocrat, born with a heritage, an early sense of possibility and purpose. 
    “As an heir,” Auerbach writes, “Daphne du Maurier was bequeathed a bizarre private religion, a literary voice so lovable (at least on the surface) that it was impossible to emulate, and a vast audience encompassing theater- and, shortly, film-goers. She also inherited a towering image of herself as necromantic female descendant.”
    “It was like the Barrymore family,” Auerbach says in conversation, “an incredible story. So that she was in fact the heir of these famous men, but now she’s the legatee of Alfred Hitchcock.” Auerbach shrugs, says she thinks this is funny, though of course she isn’t laughing at all; her smile is bruised, ironic, offended. 
    “I guess you could say that hers was a cursed blessing, something to get away from, and I guess you could say Gerald and George made it very hard for a woman to follow them. But they were glamorous, talented, interesting men, and no one tried to put her down. Oh,” Auerbach says, looking away, dreamily, “it’s wonderful to be a du Maurier.”
    She reaches for one of her cigarettes, lights it, plugs it into a black cigarette holder, and watches the smoke shimmy to the ceiling. Her hand dances with a quiver that may be tiredness, or nerves, and it seems as if almost any adjective could describe her, depending on the view. She is vulnerable somehow, and also stalwart. She’s wickedly well-read, but claims—is it false modesty?—to hardly read at all. She’s a theater buff working in the world of books. She’s bold with her opinions, but also impossibly shy, soliciting the interviewer’s opinion, asking if her answers are making sense, proffering a bowl of Christmas-colored fruits (the greenest grapes, the reddest strawberries) while reflecting on her very Jewish, cloistered past. She’s anxious for her book to sell, but won’t be going on a tour. She’s thrilled to be working with the University of Pennsylvania Press, even though she knows she’s “supposed” to publish elsewhere. Every once in a while, she asks a simple question. Then she answers it herself, a rush of intelligence and honesty, explanations that mean more than they seem, at first, to mean.


    “I am a very primitive reader,” Auerbach confesses at one point. “I like a character I can live with and identify with. I am not like any of du Maurier’s men, but they become so real and dimensional and tormented that she seduces a reader like me into identification. Plus, her beginnings are fabulous. With a Daphne du Maurier beginning, I’m just there. She’s a master of beginnings.”
    A master and yet, Auerbach freely admits, du Maurier has a reputation as being a writer of trash, as being heir to Victorian storytelling traditions when Victorian novels were anything but in. “The Victorian novel had not yet returned as a popular form in the thirties, forties and fifties, when du Maurier was at her peak,” Auerbach says. “Du Maurier’s vividness and narrative drive, the way she reaches out to the reader, were not appreciated at that point. That was the era in which writers wrote books that were deliberately repellant. When they pushed the reader away. It was very post-Bloomsbury in England. It was all about the War, about men-authored novels, in the States.” Du Maurier wrote outside those genres. She sold well, in a beach-book kind of way. But she was never taken seriously, as a writer of true literature.
    Whereas Auerbach’s book shelves are crowded with complex characters and recognized masters—Freud, Joan of Arc, Zola, Evelyn Waugh, George Eliot, Euripides—her apartment itself is alarmingly calm, everything quite perfectly in its place, nothing suggestive of radical secrets. The sitting room is cast in quiet lights—an oriental fabric thrown over the couch, two thin leather chairs across a simple coffee table. Farther away is the stuffed chair Auerbach sits in to smoke, her one dangling foot not quite touching the parquet floor, her other leg tucked up, Indian-style, beneath her. There is nothing ostentatious in the Oriental dolls or small swabs of stained glass window or rounded violet glass dishes that decorate the room, nor is there anything overtly egocentric about her conversation—her c.v. shyly presented at the interview’s end, a small mention here and there of an assignment from the The Times of London, a sprinkling of references to her next book, on ghosts, conversation that longs to be so much more than a mere interview. Maybe it’s a loneliness that permeates the room, a desire to have someone to talk to—really talk to—about the Daphne du Maurier Auerbach loves. 
    “How many du Maurier books have you read?” she gamely asks the interviewer at one point. But the interviewer has to admit that she only read Rebecca, and that, like most everybody else, she remembers du Maurier for all the very wrong reasons.
    It was George Stade, editor of the literary encyclopedias known as British Writers, who first approached Auerbach about chronicling du Maurier. The conversation, Auerbach recalls, sparked up at a literary conference, and she was immediately taken by the invitation to spend a legitimate half-year rereading the author’s oeuvre, as well as du Maurier family chronicles. By the project’s end, Auerbach had produced a 15,000-word encyclopedia entry, a bit of work, she says, that is “quite good.” She also had, in her possession, a stash of unused notes, impeccably organized and hung in suspension in the vault of her computer’s memory.
    In late 1997, those notes found their raison d’être. With the University of Pennsylvania Press poised to launch its Personal Takes series (see box), Auerbach was approached by her friend and colleague, humanities editor Dr. Jerome Singerman, who invited her to write the inaugural edition. 
    “I don’t think Jerry even knew about my encyclopedia work on du Maurier,” Auerbach remembers. “He simply asked me if I would do something for the series, and I told him I’d like to do du Maurier. I wouldn’t do anybody else. I don’t even like writing single-author books; in fact, I’d never written one before. But I said I wanted to write on du Maurier, and Jerry said I could.”
    It was, Auerbach says, a happy collaboration, with Singerman reading du Maurier as Auerbach wrote, prodding her all along the way to make the book the best it could be. “Jerry was wonderful,” Auerbach says. “He told me if he thought certain chapters were boring, and I’d do more work. He told me to put more of me into the book, and I do think that this makes the book better.”
    It was also Singerman who, when Auerbach didn’t know how to end the book, suggested she write about her “strangely camp-like” semester as a visiting professor at the University of Washington in 1989, during which she “read more du Maurier fiction than I knew existed,” rediscovering the writer she’d first encountered away at camp in Maine. “That was good advice. That’s what I did. Most editors don’t get that involved. They don’t even read what you write.”
    Finally, and perhaps equally thrilling to Auerbach, is the Press’s decision to reissue two of Auerbach’s favorite books—The Scapegoat and The House on the Strand. Maybe, Auerbach hopes, just maybe, there’ll finally be a community of du Maurier readers that Auerbach can settle into, readers who no longer feel that they must sneak under the bed covers to read a certain delectable Dame. 


Beth Kephart C’82 is the author of A Slant of Sun, a finalist for the National Book Award. Her new book, Into the Tangle of Friendship: A Memoir of the Things that Matter, won the 2000 National Endowment of the Arts grant, and is due out this September.


SIDEBAR

It was in listening to Nina Auerbach speak with classic insight and animation about a New York revival of the musical, Carousel, that Dr. Jerry Singerman, humanities editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press, got the idea to ask his long-time friend to pen the first in the “occasional” series of Personal Takes editions. “I asked Nina if she’d like to write something about Rodgers and Hammerstein,” Singerman remembers, chuckling. “She said she had absolutely no interest in writing such a book, though she’d love the chance to write about her private obsession, Daphne du Maurier.” Knowing little about du Maurier save what he’d gleaned secondhand from Hitchcock movies, Singerman gave the instant green light, trusting Auerbach to launch his series with aplomb.
    And that she has. With Haunted Heiress now going into its second printing following a near sell-out of its first 3,500 copies, and with the Press’s reprints of du Maurier’s Scapegoat and The House on the Strand garnering both attention and sales, the Personal Takes series seems poised to help elevate the national standing of the Press. It is also, not so incidentally, giving Singerman the most professional fun he can recall having, as he sits in his office pairing great minds with great and unexpected subjects.
    Interested in working with authors of national standing whose books could be published anywhere, Singerman’s focus, with Personal Takes, is to create a library of works on topics “either central to tradition or eccentric, either born of high culture, or drawn from the middlebrow … whatever is ultimately animating to the author.” Already, Singerman has lined up the well-respected Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin—a thinker he describes as having brought a new critical mode to Jewish studies—to write about the Talmud. Carolyn Heilbrun, the “doyenne of feminist criticism” and Auerbach’s first true mentor during her student days at Columbia University, has signed on to write about Clifton Fadiman, Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling—the three male scholars who somehow gave Heilbrun room to become the leading public figure she now is. And Andre Aciman, professor at Bard, contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and elsewhere, and author of the memoir Out of Egypt, is at work on a deeply personal book about why he has long been attracted to the interiority and secrecy of the 17th-century French novels that he teaches.
    But it’s not just writers writing about books or criticism that Singerman sits in his office considering, calling up, pursuing. As one who himself spends much time thinking about architecture and public spaces, Singerman is busily laying the groundwork for a series that will also include meditations on paintings and the visual world. “I’d like to open this up completely,” he says. “There are all kinds of fascinating ways that we could go.”
    Hugely optimistic about the series’ possible future and impact, Singerman says he has much to thank Auerbach for. “Without Nina saying yes, and launching this series with us, we may well not have gotten the depth of enthusiastic response from other authors and readers that we’re now getting,” he says. “Working with Nina on du Maurier was a lot of fun; I caught her enthusiasm for a writer I had not paid much attention to before. I began to read du Maurier books, such as The Scapegoat, began to understand why this writer some critics dismissed as a lightweight so haunted Nina’s imagination, and why she was ultimately so important.”
    Besides, Singerman says, he’s now truly thinking out of the box, breaking through the traditional confines of strictly academic publishing, as all truly inspired editors finally must.

Share Button

    Related Posts

    Shattering Violence, Shimmering Prizes
    Reproducing Racism
    Sundered Union

    Leave a Reply