Daphne du Maurier: a gothic genius

In conjunction with my article about Daphne du Maurier for Amazing Women in History, here is my completely subjective and personal list of her works (the ones that I’ve read), ranked from best to worst.

  1. Rebecca. An obvious one, but it’s a classic for a reason. I first read this book when I was 14 and I was captivated from first line to last. If you haven’t read Rebecca yet, then why haven’t you read Rebecca yet?
  2. The House on the Strand. The decision for second-place was a difficult one, but this pips My Cousin Rachel, if only for the audacity of its ideas. An unusual time-travel book with a not-altogether-likeable hero, it is utterly absorbing.
  3. My Cousin Rachel. Is she or isn’t she a murderer? Should we feel sorry for Phillip or slap him into sense? The story keeps you guessing until the end and the quality of the writing is never more than top-notch.
  4. Frenchman’s Creek. The only du Maurier book that can accurately be termed a romance, but a romance where the heroine is a married woman with children, the hero is a pirate, and the standard happy ending is far from guaranteed. Highly atmospheric.
  5. The King’s General. A gem of historical fiction set during the English Civil War. Du Maurier likes her heroes flawed. There’s witty repartee, battles, card games, hidden passages, and changes-of-fortune aplenty.
  6. The Scapegoat. A man meets his doppelganger, and after a drunken night he finds that they have swapped places. The premise asks for a big suspension of disbelief, but the tale provides a vivid sense of place (rural post-war France), dysfunctional family dynamics, and enough twists to keep the reader guessing.
  7. Jamaica Inn. Gothic with a capital G. This book always reminds me of the poem, “The Highwayman”. Plucky heroines are a cliche, but Mary Yellan is the genuine article. There’s a nasty villain and a bad-boy hero. A bit overwrought, but a lot of fun.
  8. The Birds and Other Stories. Du Maurier proves that she can master the macabre. The title story is quite different from the film. The Apple Tree is a particularly creepy tale.
  9. Don’t Look Now and Other Stories. A mixed bag. The title tale (from which the Nicolas Roeg film was made) and “Not After Midnight” are excellent tales full of suspense and atmosphere. “A Border-line Case” has a number of interesting twists. “The Way of the Cross” and “The Breakthrough” are rambling and a little disappointing.
  10. The Loving Spirit. Du Maurier’s first book, a family saga that introduces her sense of place and slightly unhinged imagination. The first half is better than the second.
  11. I’ll Never Be Young Again. Her second book is an interesting look at her emerging talent. Somewhat episodic and the whiny narrator is rather grating in the end.
  12. Mary Anne. This should have been so good. A gutsy heroine based on the author’s great-great-grandmother, a Regency backdrop, court intrigue. But for some reason the story fell flat.
  13. Rule Britannia. An odd one. Du Maurier tries to do dystopia with Britain occupied by the U.S.A. and a stubborn old lady leading the Cornish resistance. I think this was supposed to be funny, but it never quite manages it.

I’d count the first three books in this list as “must-reads” and the last three as “don’t bothers.