The Doll: Short Stories
  by Daphne Du Maurier

Virago Modern Classic

"'Is it possible to love someone so much, that it gives one a pleasure, an unaccountable pleasure to hurt them?'"

Reviewed by Kate Kerrow

Daphne Du Maurier was twenty when she wrote The Doll. If you know this before you embark on the story, you might be expecting a youthful narrative, lighter themes, the marks of a talent not yet fully realised. In fact, The Doll is remarkably crafted, already displaying her infamous command of narrative, and a wisdom far exceeding her years. We should consider the context in which Du Maurier was writing; such a bold acknowledgement of independent female sexual desire, and the way in which this independence might destroy or invalidate the male, is astonishing in its bravery. This was the '20s after all, and women were to be as children; seen and not heard.

It is almost unsurprising then, when we consider its controversial content, to be told that The Doll was completely untraceable until its re-discovery last year. Expert Ann Willmore, who has studied Du Maurier all her life, finally managed to unearth the story after years of research. The Doll had been hiding in a collection of short stories that had been rejected by publishers and magazine editors alike. The extremely rare 1937 collection was entitled The Editor Regrets, but I'm sure Virago must have been delighted. I am too.

Throughout her life, Du Maurier consistently dismissed her frequent categorisation as a "Romantic Novelist", and it's easy to see why she so resisted this term. The sheer intellectual complexity of characterisation and societal observation doesn't conform to the boundaries set by such a genre. This work is a far cry from your crumpled copy of Mills and Boon. The Doll is a futuristic prediction of the sex doll, decades before the hint of such cultural phenomena existed. As such, it could be argued that the story is as much science fiction as it is romance, but the truth is that its depth makes it difficult to define. For me, the beauty of Du Maurier's work lies in the exemplary juxtaposition of light and dark – ("I want to know if men realise when they are insane," her male protagonist writes in his diary. Well, quite.) – but for all its humour, Du Maurier's work has, at its core, a desire to publicly excavate the bad self in its most naked form.

The opening of The Doll introduces us to a Dr. E. Strongman and his discovery of a notebook; the notebook of the "wretched man" who is to become our narrator. Strongman's interpretation of the "tragedy" that unfolds is interesting in that it reveals his empathy with the protagonist, immediately evoking the sense of masculine alliance. In fact, the tragedy Du Maurier weaves is one of a man in love with a woman who is simply indifferent to him, a woman who prefers her "machine", her dark-haired, crimson-lipped Julio, who she enjoys behind thick velvet curtains which deaden sound. Our narrator's obsession with the woman is drawn as a frantic madness, a furious diatribe against being a "number" in her sexually vibrant life, a despair so intense that he fantasises about strangling her; and the pain-pleasure dichotomy is ever present as he thinks of watching her face while he kills her, with "her lips parted".

However, this is a story about a woman's fascination and exploration of her own sexuality, a woman described as "a visionary", a woman who herself is fascinated by the pain-pleasure dynamic, a woman who doesn't want a man, in fact, a woman who admits to loathing men. The uniqueness of the situation is emphasised by the outrage and desperation that courses through the story's male perspective; this is a woman who not only rejects male love, but she rejects it for a machine.

Du Maurier inverts this gender dynamic in the brilliant His Letters Grew Colder, the penultimate story in the collection. The narrative traces a series of letters from a man, to a woman he obsessively pursues. On winning her love, an unbearable coldness consumes his letters and he leaves her heartbroken. The chase is all. Du Maurier renders the woman mute; as readers we are entirely controlled by the narrator's perspective, powerless to his desire to win and disregard. When discussing the story with female friends, the resounding emotions were recognition and acceptance, punctuated by elongated sighs. There is no question that Du Maurier is considered in her presentation of differing social expectations according to gender, and the way the sexes relate to one another.

Structurally dynamic as ever, The Limpet is a beautifully detailed character study. Making use of all the delights of the dramatic monologue, Du Maurier gives us a jarring tale of solitude, denial and social ineptitude. In this wonderful mix of humour and sorrow, we are shown a character crippled by desiring the very thing she destroys, and we can but passively oversee her unknowingly plummeting towards her own social doom. It's a bizarre and entertaining ride.

The other fascinating element of this collection is that it allows us to observe the seeds of Du Maurier's later masterpiece, Rebecca. The eleventh story in the collection, The Happy Valley, is also the name of the place where Maxim and the heroine take a walk in Rebecca, and in each work the valley is revealed to be a place of enchantment, taking a psychological hold over both heroines. In The Doll, our heroine is also named Rebecca; "Rebecca, Rebecca!" exclaim the tortured protagonists of both narratives. And there is an arguable likeness of character. Both Rebeccas exude a sexual independence, take fierce hold of the characters, consume the narrative and drive the plots forcefully to their dramatic conclusions.

This is a truly exciting collection. A lost work, wonderfully re-found.

Kate Kerrow trained in theatre, and has an MA in English. Her work has been produced for The Edinburgh Festival, and she won a place on the 2010 Jerwood Scheme. She was shortlisted for the London Arts and Performance Award 2010 and was accepted into the National Academy of Writing 2011.
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Daphne Du Maurier was a British author and playwright. She was born in Cornwall and spent much of her life there. Her works are heavily influenced by her love of the Cornish landscape. She completed approximately 40 works in her lifetime, several of which have been made into major films.