Recent Reads – 20th Century Women: Daphne du Maurier and Madeleine Bourdouxhe

Another of my round-up posts – this one focusing on two short-story collections, both from the mid-20th century.

The Breaking Point by Daphne du Maurier (1959)

Aside from Rebecca (which I love), I probably prefer du Maurier’s stories to her novels. There’s something about the short form that seems to suit this author’s style, a heightening of the creeping sense of dread that runs through much of her work.

The Breaking Point is a characteristically unsettling collection of eight stories, many of which blur the lines between the real and the imaginary. They’re wonderfully creepy, often tapping into our deepest fears and suspicions, our latent sources of restlessness and anxiety. As the title suggests, each story pivots on a moment of crisis in an individual’s life, a time when the protagonist’s emotions are stretched to the extreme. Whether that person snaps or survives remains the critical question, something du Maurier leaves for the reader to ponder and decide.

In The Alibi – one of my favourites in the collection – we meet James Fenton, a middle-aged man who feels trapped in the routine of his marriage, desperate to break free from his conventional lifestyle. Suddenly, out of the blue, Fenton is seized by the forces of evil, prompting thoughts of violence and murder. With this in mind, he picks a house a random, posing as a respectable man looking to rent a room. Luckily for Fenton, the occupant is Anna, a poor refugee desperately in need of money to support her young son, Johnnie – little does Anna know what might be in store for her when Fenton makes his request.

‘What would you want the room for?’ she asked doubtfully.

There was the crux. To murder you and the child, my dear, and dig up the floor, and bury you under the boards. But not yet.

‘It’s difficult to explain,’ he said briskly. ‘I’m a professional man. I have long hours. But there have been changes lately, and I must have a room where I can put in a few hours every day and be entirely alone. You’ve no idea how difficult it is to find the right spot. This seems to me ideal for the purpose.’ He glanced from the empty house down to the child, and smiled. ‘Your little boy, for instance. Just the right age. He’d give no trouble.’ (p.6)

This is a brilliant story, one that takes the narrative in unexpected directions. (I couldn’t help but think of the excellent film, 10 Rillington Place, as I was reading it.) As with many of the pieces here, the reader experiences a looming sense of dread, fearful of what might happen to the occupants as the tale unfolds. Over time, Anna becomes increasingly dependent on Fenton, a development that sparks another kind of crisis in our protagonist’s life.

The Blue Lenses is another highlight, a particularly unnerving story that plays with the mind. Marda West is recovering in a nursing-home following an eye operation – a procedure considered very successful by the surgical team. The time has come for Marda’s bandages to be removed and temporary lenses fitted – the blue lenses that represent the first step in her recovery. Marda has been told to expect things to look a little different with the lenses. She will be able to see everything, but not in full colour – the effect is akin to wearing sunglasses on a bright day. However, when Marda finally opens her eyes, she is horrified by the sights that greet her. The blue lenses have the effect of exposing people for who they really are, revealing to Marda their true personalities. 

Now she was certain that what was happening was real, was true. Some evil force encompassed the nursing-home and its inhabitants, the Matron, the nurses, the visiting doctors, her surgeon – they were all caught up in it, they were all partners in some gigantic crime, the purpose of which could not be understood. (pp. 64-65)

This is a rather alarming story, one that plays on some of our deepest fears and paranoias, not to mention our fascination with conspiracies.  

Du Maurier is brilliant at building atmosphere and tension – qualities that are evident in The Pool, the tale of two siblings who are spending the summer with their grandparents. This is a dreamlike story, one in which the girl, Deborah, is enticed into a secret magical world with frightening results.

Chaos had come. There were no stars, and the night was sulphurous. A great crack split the heavens and tore them in two. The garden groaned. If the rain would only fall there might be mercy, and the trees, imploring, bowed themselves this way and that, while the vivid lawn, bright in expectation, lay like a sheet of metal exposed to flame. Let the waters break. Bring down the rain. (p.152)

In The Lordly Ones, a young, near-mute boy, brutally abused by his cruel parents, finally finds his voice, only by being placed in the most precarious of positions. This tale of brutality and heartbreak takes places in the wilds of the moors, a setting du Maurier chillingly evokes.

I read this excellent collection for Ali’s Daphne du Maurier event – running this week. There are shades of Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales here, another disquieting collection of stories to unsettle the soul. Highly recommended indeed.

A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. Faith Evans, 1989)

The Belgian writer Madeleine Bourdouxhe has been enjoying something of a mini-revival in the last few years. In 2014, Daunt Books reissued her excellent novella, La Femme de Gilles (1937), a timeless story of the pain that desire and self-sacrificing love can inflict on a marriage. Another novella soon followed: Marie (1943), also available from Daunt, an intimate book in which we gain a deep insight into a young woman’s inner life. 

A Nail, A Rose – published here in a beautiful new edition from Pushkin Press – is a collection of eight short stories written throughout Bourdouxhe’s literary career. (The earliest pieces first appeared in the 1940s, while the most recent ones came much later in the ‘80s.) As is often the case with a collection of this nature, certain stories resonate more strongly than others. Nevertheless, Bourdouxhe’s best pieces are very good indeed, particularly those based on some of her own personal experiences.

The standout story here is the novella-length Sous Le Pont Mirabeau in which a young woman attempts to journey from Belgium to France at the time of the German invasion in 1940. Like Bourdouxhe herself, the central character has just given birth to a baby girl, leaving her little option but to set out with the infant in her arms. It’s a very affecting account, threaded through with striking images of a nation at war.

The streets were full of people who were strangely silent, and the big balloons looked fixed in the sky; she felt heaviness and oppression in the air. Turning away she went on walking up and down. The soldiers weren’t talking, they were lined up in the café benches as if they were storing sleep, gathering their strength. She felt very alone, caught up in the great apparatus of war. She tried to find a single face on which to rest her gaze. The baby raised one arm and uttered a little cry; she quietened her by leaning against her face. They stayed like this, their faces buried in each other’s. (pp. 195–196)

Virtually all of Bourdouxhe’s stories are focused on women, several of whom seem trapped in the confines of domesticity. One of the best of these is Blanche, in which the titular character ignores her husband’s cries for a clean shirt, hiding it in a cupboard while longing for some peace. This is an imaginative story, one that ultimately grants Blanche a brief taste of freedom – an escape to the forest where she can dream of an imaginary lover.

Some of the stories are quite abstract in style or contain elements of fantasy. Pieces like Clara which explores themes of communication and mortality, and René in which a hairdresser’s thoughts and actions drift into somewhat surreal territory.

In summary, then, these are stories of discontent and disaffection, of ordinary women yearning for more fulfilment in life. An interesting collection, if somewhat uneven.

My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. You can find Guy’s review here.

32 thoughts on “Recent Reads – 20th Century Women: Daphne du Maurier and Madeleine Bourdouxhe

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Both of these sound marvellous, Jacqui. I’ve only read one of du Maurier’s short stories, part of my Penguin Moderns set, and it’s excellent. She certainly did manage the creepy very well.

    And I have the Bourdouxhe as Ali very kindly passed me on her copy so I’m looking forward to exploring this collection. Pushkin do bring out some fascinating books!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah yes, I think the DdM story in the Penguin Moderns is The Breakthrough. Quite sci-fi-y if I recall correctly? Perhaps more so than some of the pieces included here. Nevertheless, if you liked The Breakthrough, you’ll probably enjoy her other stories. I think she had an interest in the supernatural/fantastic, something that comes through in a couple of these stories – The Pool and The Lordly Ones.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, I think you should too. ;)

          Interesting that you should cite Wells in relation to The Breakthrough as it’s exactly what I imagine his stories to be like even though I’ve never actually read him!

          Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    Both collections sound worthwhile.

    Your description of the Daphne du Maurier stories reminds me of some science fiction stories written in the mid Twentieth Century. In particular, Blue Lenses reminded me of a Philip K. Dick story that I once read. I think that du Maurier was an influence on these writers.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I suspect you’re right. Her work may well have been an influence on a number of other writers, spanning genres from sci-fi to Gothic to psychological thrillers. I’m not very familiar with Philip K. Dick, only Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by way of the Bladerunner connection, but it would be great to hear more about that story if you can remembered the name of it…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome. The stories are interesting, for sure, but not in the same league as her novellas for me. La Femme de Gilles was so compelling, and it would have been great to see a similar level of intensity here. Sous Le Pont Mirabeau was excellent though, full of vivid imagery.

      Reply
  3. heavenali

    So glad you enjoyed these stories Jacqui, those first two are just unforgettably brilliant. She really does tap into our hidden fears and anxieties. Also glad you enjoyed A Nail, A Rose I agree with you about the stand out piece in that collection.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I suppose that comes through particularly strongly right now because we’re in a time of crisis. It adds an extra layer of resonance to some of these deep-rooted fears…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, and you’re never quite sure where she might take you next. That’s one of the most intriguing aspects of her stories, their unpredictability.

      Reply
  4. Liz Dexter

    I’m unnerved enough by Jamaica Inn (I’m hoping the heroine’s doing a Northanger Abbey and imagining some of it) so I don’t think I’d cope with the short stories. Such a brilliant writer though.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I haven’t read Jamaica Inn, but it sounds very disturbing. (I think I caught 20 mins or so of the BBC adaptation a few years ago and that was enough to spook me!)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, they definitely have a very visual quality. It’s easy to imagine them playing out in front of you just from the words on the page.

      Reply
  5. Jane

    I haven’t read any DdM short stories and Madeleine Bourdouxhe is new to me but both collections sound very good. I seem to be in the mood for women yearning for fulfilment at the moment!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Bourdouxhe might be a good writer for you to try, then. I would recommend her novella, La Femme de Gilles. It’s an excellent little book, so powerful and beautifully-written – a story with the potential to haunt your dreams…

      Reply
  6. 1streading

    The Daphne du Maurier stories do sound entertaining. I’ve never read her but perhaps the stories are the place to start. I definitely want the Madeleine Bourdouxhe collection. I assume it’s the same translation as that from the Women’s Press in the 80s?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I can’t recall if you’re a fan of Shirley Jackson’s work, but these du Maurier stories remind me quite strongly of Dark Tales (the SJ collection I read earlier this year). There’s something very twisted about du Maurier’s view of the world. Unhinged might be a good way of expressing it – that sense of reality tipping over into unnerving fantasy.

      As for the Bourdouxhe, I’m curious to hear what you think of it. (Yes, it’s the same translation as the edition you’ve mentioned above, first published in 1989). To tell you the truth, I found some of the stories a bit disappointing, especially compared to her novellas. But then again, La Femme de Gilles was always going to be very hard to beat!

      Reply
  7. madamebibilophile

    I completely agree that DDM is masterful at short stories. They’re so deeply unsettling!

    I’ve heard so many good things about Bourdouxhe, I’ll definitely look out for her. This lovely edition sounds wonderful.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d love Bourdouxhe, but I would definitely recommend her novellas – La Femme de Gilles and Marie — ahead of these stories. The autobiographical pieces in A Nail, A Rose are great, definitely the highlights in the collection; but some of these other stories were a bit thin. The novellas, on the other hand, are tip top. I still think of Elise, the central character from La Femme, some four or five years on…

      Reply
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  9. lesserknowngems

    I’ve been thinking about Daphne du Maurier as a novel writer vs. short story writer. I haven’t really thought much about that when reading her. I liked a lot of her longer works (Cousine Rachel and Jamaica Inn) because of the build up of the story, and how she usually manages to have a few good twists (or they would have been good twists when they were published). I agree that her short stories are scarier, but that could also be that it’s easier to keep the suspens in a short story. It can be hard to be scared all through 300+ pages. Maybe.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a good point. It is easier to build and then maintain a palpable sense of tension within the span of a short story, more so than in a novel. While I haven’t read Jamaica Inn, I enjoyed My Cousin Rachel, especially the sense of ambiguity du Maurier creates in the central character’s psyche. We’re never absolutely sure of her intentions, even at the very end.

      Reply
  10. buriedinprint

    Oh, I didn’t know that Bourdouxhe also wrote short stories, although i supposed I shouldn’t be surprised, given how succinct and deliberate Marie was. I’ll have a look for that collection. Pushkin does seem to have so many wonderful publications. I could easily become a collector of their releases I suspect. As for the du Maurier, I agree that she can build suspense in the most delightful way. So entertaining! But I haven’t always got on with her short fiction from a characterization perspective, perhaps because she has to rely more on tropes to prioritize the plotting which is so terrifically engaging? I wonder, if I were to revisit them, though, knowing that and not expecting more fleshed out female characters (in particular) if I mightn’t enjoy them more.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s an interesting point about the characterisation in du Maurier’s short stories. I probably haven’t scrutinised that very closely, particularly given the strangeness/otherwordliness of these tales. I think you’re right to say that character development is secondary to other aspects — atmosphere and narrative twists seem to reign supreme here. But I think there’s enough flesh on the bones of the main protagonists to make them feel credible, certainly in The Alibi and The Blue Lenses. :)

      Reply
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