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.






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