New review: Daphne Du Maurier’s feminist fairy tales

// 5 December 2009

Sian Norris reconsiders Daphne du Maurier’s novels

When I was a young teenager, I loved Daphne du Maurier’s novels – the suspense in Rebecca, the romance of Frenchman’s Creek, the cold horror of Jamaica Inn. I devoured them, imagining myself on the Cornish coast, face to the wind, splashed with sea spray. But as I got older I forgot about her, did my literature degree and read only ‘high’ literature.

Then, last Christmas, at my parents’ house with no books to read, I picked up my old copy of Frenchman’s Creek and was instantly hooked again. I scoured second hand bookshops for old copies of her novels, ordered those I couldn’t find in the shops from Amazon and rediscovered the love I had held for her books when I was younger, as well as reading other, less well-known novels, such as the horrific novel of obsessive sadism, Julius, and the dark myths of Flight of the Falcon. As an older reader, there was one element of the books that really jumped out at me that I had missed as a teenager, and that was the thoroughly feminist, strong-willed and self-determined women in her novels.

Mary Yellan in Jamaica Inn is, in my view, one of the strongest female characters in du Maurier’s early novels. (Spoiler alert!) This is a woman who, after her father’s death, helped her mother run a successful farm, and nurses her through her long and final illness. She goes to Jamaica Inn, where she stands up to her brutish and criminal uncle, she protects her frightened and abused aunt, she fights off a potential rapist, and keeps her pride and her head throughout the horrible things that happen in the inn. She has the upper hand in her love affair with a horse thief and follows her heart and independent spirit, in control of her destiny.

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