A Most Unlifelike Doll
Comprised of short stories originally published mostly in the early ‘30s, The Doll: The Lost Short Stories showcases the short fiction of a young Daphne du Maurier. Written before she garnered fame for such works as Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, and The Birds, these stories reveal a young woman struggling to grasp concepts such as well-developed characters, dynamic plotlines, and moving language. Partly owing to her youth and partly to her contemporary literary convention, the stories tend towards either the undercooked or the simply forgettable, and few characters are complex enough to pique readers’ interest.
The back of the book cites du Maurier’s “deep understanding of human nature.” One must wonder what humans act like those in du Maurier’s stories. While it’s a given that humans are often foolish, especially in matters of love, du Maurier, usually inadvertently, caricaturizes those tendencies. In “East Wind”, a man under the influence of brandy and passing rowdy sailors suddenly brutally beheads his unfaithful wife in a passage that wants for better writing:
She spread her hands in supplication, but he pushed them aside and brought the axe down upon her head, crumpling her, smashing her skull. She fell to the ground, twisted, unrecognizable, ghastly. He leant over her, peering at her body, breathing heavily. The blood ran before his eyes. He sat down by her side, his senses swimming, his mind vacant. He fell into a drunken sleep, his head pillowed on her breast. (12)
“And His Letters Grew Colder” is a story in epistolary form (and one largely explained by the title) exploring, in the most trite fashion, the highs and lows of romance:
I can’t exist like this. I tell you it’s impossible. You’re driving me insane. You let me see you, and then you expect me to stand like a dummy without senses. I’ve been at the telephone all day and have had no answer from you. Where were you and whom were you with?
Oh! Yes, laugh at me, I don’t care. Of course, I agree I have no right to ask you questions. You are perfectly free. When you laugh like that I want to strangle you—and then I want to love you. I must see you. (166)
Such moments are frustrating in du Maurier’s work, because other stories clearly prove that she did, even at a tender age, possess the ability to write in a more intimate and genuine way. “Nothing Hurts For Long” is a tenderly detailed portrait of a young woman preparing the house for her husband’s return after a long absence:
She felt new all over. From her head to her shoes, and the body beneath her clothes was warm and happy. her hair had been washed and set the day before, brushed behind her ears without a parting, like the actress she admired.
She could imagine his face as he stared at her, his funny smile that ran from one ear to the corner of his mouth, and his eyebrow cocked, then his eyes half-closing and holding out his arms—‘Darling, you look marvelous—-marvelous.’ When she thought about it she felt a queer pain in her heart because it was too much… She stood before the window a moment, smiling, breathing deeply, and then she ran down the stairs singing at the top of her voice, the sound of her song taken up by the canary in his cage in the drawing-room. (121-122)
In this story, the happy bride finds herself uncannily mirrored in the marital sorrows of her friend, May. The detail in the story and the hybrid of love and fear make this one of the collection’s most memorable tales.
So too is du Maurier unforgettable when she brandishes her cynicism like a sword against her characters. “Week End” is a hilarious send-up of a couple falling in and out of love on a weekend trip:
The waves broke gently on the beach below the house. ‘I’ve often dreamed about places like this,’ she said vaguely, spreading out her arms. She never dreamt, but no matter. (139)
From their, the characters pass “from a fatuous self-content to a strange senility” (139), nicknaming each other Mousie and Hoosie.
Unfortunately, not all stories carry this much charm. Two stories in particular (“Mazie” and “The Happy Valley”) are forgotten nearly as soon as they are read, so flimsy are the characters, plot, and language. The closing story, “The Limpet”, is a sprawling mess led by a dull, know-it-all narrator. The main flaw is du Maurier’s attempt to include several major life happenings in one short story, making the reader feel as if the narrator was unaffected by all of these events.
Daphne du Maurier is a household name for her deeply felt novels and their intrigue. While it’s disappointing to see that she wasn’t always so capable with the art of fiction as she later became, it is refreshing to be reminded that even great writers have to start somewhere.