Haunted by an Heiress, continued

    “[T]he 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 BrontĪs, 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 BrontĪ, 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.

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