Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Daphne duMaurier’s The Birds

Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds (1952)
Arrow Books, 1992
Virago Modern Classic No. 498

My favourite story from this collection is “The Apple Tree”. Partly because I’ve long believed that there is more to a tree than one might think, thanks to years of reading L.M. Montgomery’s novels, in which heroines from Anne of Green Gables to Emily of New Moon to Pat of Silver Bush, named and loved trees. Partly because it’s deliciously creepy.

But deliciously creepy, with a slightly bitter note, as is true of all the stories to some degree. Yes, there are enjoyable elements to every one. (“The Old Ma”n was my next favourite, but then I get nervous about choosing favourites after that because there are only six stories in total and I don’t like to think that one of them would end up at the bottom of my list. I don’t like choosing favourites.)

But the female characters in this collection’s stories are described in such negative terms and presented in such limited and predictable roles that much of the fun was siphoned away.

The wife in “The Birds” was particularly annoying. And, well, maybe that’s the point.

Perhaps we readers are meant to all-the-more strongly sympathize with the poor man with the incredibly useless wife. The poor man who must protect not only his two children, but his…oh, might as well make that three children…for his wife contributes nothing positive to the terrifying situation this family finds itself in and, in fact, she hinders the man’s efforts to shore up their defenses and her weakness forces him to make poor decisions which compromise their safety fundamentally.

But she’s not annoying in an interesting way. As is, say, Lee Goodstone in Doug Harris’ You comma Idiot, or Mrs. Arb in Riceyman Steps, or Enid in The Corrections. No, she’s annoying in a predictably two-dimensional Little Woman manner. In an over-the-top-eyes-rolling way.

Image links to the RIP Challenge Page

If I can manage to squeeze my frustration over characterization aside, “The Birds” is even more disturbing than the Hitchcock film based on it. There is a darkness and despair to the story in its original form that I did not intuit from the film. Were it not for the caricature of the wife’s sketch, I would have lost sleep over this one.

And I might not even have minded the detraction of the wife’s character in that story as much, if the female characters in the other stories had challenged the stereotype-in-a-skirt in the first story. But, no.

The female blindly follows her mate, habitually chooses the activities he most enjoys and obeys his every direction.

She may be attractive but, if she is, she is likely predatory and manipulative, dangerous and calculating.

She is the vixen with the pageboy and the seductive wardrobe.

Or she is sexless and ethereal, holy and untouchable.

Or she is relentlessly abusive and irrationally lashes out.

Am I being unfair? I mean, it’s the 50s. Some of these may have even been written earlier. Women’s roles were horrendously restricted by social, economic, and political forces and trends.

Image Links to the Daphne du Maurier Challenge

But good grief, even Anne of Green Gables broke her slate over Gilbert’s head (even if she did end up marrying him in the end), Emily stares down her Aunt Elizabeth, and Pat insists on her independence for, well, longer than many girls of her day.

Fifty years earlier, L.M. Montgomery’s gentle girlhood tales held a quiet but revolutionary spirit. If there had been but a glimpse of this in Daphne duMaurier’s short stories, I would have loved not just the creep factor (oooo, so many grey rainy murky scenes), not just the ideas which are truly unsettling and strange, not just individual elements of the stories, but I would have loved the stories themselves.

This is only the third duMaurier I’ve read. While Rebecca and Frenchman’s Creek may have seemed slightly old-fashioned (it’s been years now, so my recollection is blurry), I don’t recall their female characters feeling flat and predictable.

Am I just a cranky reader? Have I been reading too many bright-and-shiny modern novels lately to appreciate duMaurier’s charms as I have in the past?

Companion reads:
“The Birds” – Karen Russell’s “The Dredgeman’s Revelation”
“The Little Photographer” – Jane Gardam’s “Telegony” in Going into a Dark House

8 comments to Daphne duMaurier’s The Birds

  • I’ve read a number of Daphne du Maurier’s stories and a few of her novels and I think in some cases her female characters can be somewhat complacent. I don’t know if I always tend to pick up on these things (at least in more than a peripheral sort of way), and what that says about me as a reader/female reader. I had to look back at my post on The Birds but I think when I read it I was more caught up on the freakiness of being the last people alive. However, I do vaguely remember the wife not wanting her husband to go out and not being altogether helpful. I agree that the story is far more chilling then the movie and in a different way. Have you read the story Don’t Look Now? I thought it excellent and it’s one you might get on better with. Now I need to go ponder DdM and her representations of women.

  • Just curious–which other stories are in this collection? It’s one I don’t own.

  • Thanks, Danielle: I’ll have a look at “Don’t Look Now”. I think most of the stories do appear in the collection(s) you have: The Birds, Monte Verita, The Apple Tree, The Little Photographer, Kiss Me Stranger, The Old Man. This is a slim volume. I’ll definitely try more, but these did surely get under my skin…in more than one way!

  • I’m one story away from finishing the NYRB edition of Don’t Look Now — it’s that eighty-pager “Monte Verita.” This is my first du Maurier read, and I’m shaken by how good her stories are, especially “The Birds” — my heart was thudding.

    But I do get what you mean about how du Maurier paints her female characters. If they’re not off-kilter femme fatales, they’re simply wringing their hands. You know, like Danielle up there, I hadn’t noticed this until you pointed it out.

  • Oh, a Du Maurier challenge! I found so many Du Maurier titles at the book fair I went to recently, but only grabbed three titles which I was familiar with. But there were so many!

  • Du Maurier didn’t have much use for women. She felt herself as mannish and thought she had a duel personality, the male side was the writer.

    I’ve never really thought of the female characters the way you have, but you’re right. I still love her writing though.

  • Thanks for the comments!
    Sasha, it seemed to take forever to read “Monte Verita” but I found it quite atmospheric and was glad I persisted.
    Claire, I’ve picked up quite a few of mine at book fairs too: it’s fun to spot her amongst the spines!
    Chris, if that’s true I’m guessing I’ll continue to be niggled by her female characters as I read along. ::sigh::
    I did enjoy her Flight of the Falcon as well; again, the ideas in the story were more satisfying than the characterization of her female characters, but it made for a decent reading experience overall.

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