On the fifteenth of June, society members headed to the Inwood Theater in Dallas and watched a special screening of the 2017 film adaptation of My Cousin Rachel starring Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin. The brilliant acting, haunting score, and stunning cinematography highlighted the ominous and uncertain tone that is pervasive in the novel.
After the lights came back on and all the popcorn was finished, author and society member Samantha Mabry offered an analysis of the film and led a group discussion. She posed the following question: why do we feel compelled to focus on discovering Rachel’s guilt or innocence when the main character, Philip Ashley, certainly provides ample opportunity for criticism? This question called to mind the talk given to our members in March by author and Professor Margaret Mitchell, who noted that even if one believes that Rachel is a fortune hunter, that does not necessarily make her a murderer too, and that the only proven murderer in the story is Philip (who, in the film, recommends that Rachel ride her horse on the edge of a cliff he knows is crumbling to the beach far below).
Although we acknowledged the unfairness of focusing too much on Rachel’s status as a cunning murderer of men or an innocent victim, we could not help but enjoy exploring that topic somewhat. One member noticed that Rachel Weisz made several acting choices that suggested the actress believed her character had indeed committed the crimes of which she was accused, such as the way that she clawed her hands into Phillip in several different scenes when they embraced. The member interpreted this as a visual metaphor for Rachel clawing her way into the Ashley fortune. Rachel Weisz has stated in interviews that she decided whether she believed her character was guilty or innocent of murder before filming the movie and allowed that to inform her acting choices, but she has also said that she will never reveal what her decision was. Daphne du Maurier never publicly revealed whether Rachel was guilty of murder, either, and so the discussion will continue into perpetuity.
Some amusing observations from our members:
- One member quipped that this movie is a nightmare to watch for lawyers. Everyone cringed at the absurd lengths young Phillip Ashely went through to sign away his money, estate, and jewels in order to win the love of Rachel. Always listen to the advice of your lawyer before signing away your inheritance!
- The ending of the film was a point of detailed discussion because it differs from the novel: Philip is seen in the film with his wife (Louise) and their children, seemingly a happy family. One member noted, however, that Philip is rubbing his temple in the final scene. Is this, perhaps, a nod to the possible hereditary brain disease of the novel? Has everything Philip has done been a result of a brain tumor?
- A delightful interpretation from one of our members concluded that (in the film, at least) Louise Kendall and her father Nick may have been the ones scheming for the Ashley fortune. Louise tells Philip of some of Rachel’s suspicious behavior, and Nick claims that Rachel has been overdrawing her bank accounts. But is any of this proven? Perhaps it is not a coincidence at all that Louise has married Philip by the end of the film.
The discussion was so engaging that it continued beyond our allotted time in the theater. But, eventually, the evening and debate ended with good humor. We were all very grateful for Samantha Mabry’s insightful analysis of the film and the discussion it prompted. We hope to see members at our next meeting in September, when graduate student Margherita Orsi will offer a talk on Daphne du Maurier’s short story ‘A Borderline Case.’
On Saturday, March 5th, members of the society gathered for a day dedicated to our most recent read, Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel. Margaret Mitchell, a professor from the University of West Georgia, traveled to Dallas for the meeting. She gave a well received talk on the novel, discussing the darker human themes explored by Du Maurier. Her talk also explored how we, as readers, are potentially complicit in the moral quandaries presented in the story through the very act of engaging with it. During the Q&A portion of the talk, Professor Mitchell fielded questions ranging from her opinions on Rachel’s guilt (she argued that it was not truly meant to be known) as well as discussing her own experiences as a writer! Following the talk, debate over the story continued as sandwiches and refreshments were served. There were quite a few jokes regarding the general safety of the tea to consume. It seems My Cousin Rachel made us all a rather paranoid lot. Later in the day, a smaller group of members joined Professor Mitchell for a dinner at Rise, a Dallas restaurant specializing in soufflés. The evening was spent in lively discussion regarding literature, writing, and Professor Mitchell’s thoughts on the film adaptation’s ending. If you would like to form your own opinions, be sure to join us on June 18th as we watch My Cousin Rachel starring Rachel Weiss and have a discussion led by author Samantha Mabry.
Our second annual Christmas Luncheon was dedicated to Daphne du Maurier’s play, The Years Between. The play depicts Diana, the wife of an English gentleman, who finds newfound responsibilities and freedoms after her husband is presumed dead during the Second World War. The Years Between explores the tension that exists when those new freedoms are threatened by her husband’s sudden reappearance and belief that all will return to normal now that he has found his way home. The Christmas Luncheon was kicked off by Oral Historian Leonard Cox who gave a fabulous presentation on the play. Equal parts witty, educational, and engaging, Mr. Cox even hired two local actors to portray one of the more quintessential scenes between Diana and her estranged husband Michael. Watching the actors give life to these characters was a wonderful addition to the afternoon! After the presentation, the group sat down to lunch, where they were met with a hearty Christmas tea and equally hearty discussion regarding the play’s heroine. While her fortitude in times of adversity is certainly meant to be celebrated, there were quite a few at the luncheon who found some of her acts nigh unforgivable (there was general agreement that the most heinous of her crimes was allowing her husband’s first-edition books to mold while in storage.) Though a consensus was never reached among the group regarding Diana as hero or villain, the discussion was a lively way to end another fabulous year celebrating Daphne du Maurier’s body of work. Here’s to even more enthusiastic debate in 2022!
On November 20th 2021, members of the society gathered for dinner (a thematically appropriate Italian feast) before settling down to watch the 1973 film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story, Don’t Look Now. Directed by Nicolas Roeg and starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, the film depicts a married couple who have escaped to Venice in the aftermath of losing a child. Daphne du Maurier herself was alive to see the film and reportedly wrote to Roeg, commending him on the depiction of the two main characters and the nuances of their relationship. The film was projected on an outdoor screen so that we could all enjoy the temperate November evening. Members snacked on freshly popped popcorn while watching John and Laura Baxter navigate their grief among the sinister canals of Venice. After the credits, there was spirited discussion about several of the director’s choices. Some members were entranced by the movie, others were less than impressed. A point agreed upon by all present was that the film did an excellent job portraying Venice in a new light. The conventional magic of the city is largely ignored in Don’t Look Now. The camera focuses instead on Venice’s dark corners and more mysterious edges. Several of our members left the move night with a spine-chilling unease that followed them all the way home. We can only guess that such reactions would have delighted the author.
On Saturday, May 8th, local members of the Daphne du Maurier Society of North America met to watch the 2012 ITV adaptation of The Scapegoat. Just as she elegantly handled our discussion of the Netflix adaptation of Rebecca last year, Cindy Jones once again offered her film experience and ran a post-watch discussion that was both fruitful and engaging.
The attendees were somewhat divided in opinion about the film - some thinking that the pacing was too slow a drip while others felt that events progressed too quickly to be believable. We all seemed to find the many changes to Daphne du Maurier’s original story interesting, if not always necessary.
One of the major changes to the novel was the setting of the film, which takes place in England rather than in France. The film uses this location with purpose, for the events of the story occur during the week of the coronation of Elizabeth II, an event that some of our members thought tied in nicely to the main character’s journey of finding himself in an unexpected position of authority and trying to make the best of it.
The film subtly offers several hints at this theme. One of our attendees, author Samantha Mabry, noticed that, in the film, John’s brother Paul was reading a copy of I, Claudius, a popular fictional autobiography of the emperor by Robert Graves. Curious about the potential significance of the book, Samantha researched the story and kindled interesting discussion between some of our members after the meeting. Some of their thoughts are below.
S. Mabry: “People were trepedious about his prospects as emperor (he had a stutter, and was considered weak --a stutter like George VI, Elizabeth's father!). I, Claudius is also written in first-person, in the form of an auto-biography, in which Claudius attempts to "re-write" the narrative, perhaps similar to the way in which John attempts to reconstruct the narrative of the family.”
C. Peirson: "I Claudius was an enormous low budget hit for the BBC. It was filmed on one set with actors daylighting while they were on stage at night. Robert Graves intended the book to be about Lydia and how she literally poisoned the lives of those around her. Claudius was her counterpoint, but in the end he succumbed to poisoned mushrooms and a bribed physician. I think the screenwriter or director was making a parallel between a "good" emperor and a "bad" empress. Anyway, Tiberius hated his mother and refused to make her a goddess after her death. Claudius however, was made a God and was part of the divine cult of emperors. "
C. Jones: "The book Paul is reading alone in bed, I Claudius, is a generous clue as to what’s going on in that scene. As Samantha pointed out, Claudius was shunned and mocked. Yet he foiled expectations and became a great emperor. Claudius’ life took a big u-turn. Paul, like Claudius, is underestimated and belittled, and Paul is also experiencing a change of direction. He just managed successful leadership of the Hunt, and his brother just admitted to failure in leading the family business. By giving Paul that particular book to read, the screenwriter seems to be making the playful suggestion that Paul is comparing notes with that other late bloomer—Claudius. Am I, too, destined to lead? And what better confirmation of his rising status, than his formerly indifferent wife showing up in their bed wearing a new (to him) negligee, signaling desire for him—not his brother. The allusion to I,Claudius broadens the screenplay’s exploration of fate’s role in deciding who wears the crown. I agree, clever screenwriters! ”
I, Claudius is not mentioned in Daphne du Maurier’s novel The Scapegoat, but its presence in the film adaptation felt appropriate and clever for the reasons discussed above.
The most notable difference between the novel and the film is the film’s ending. Although the film offers an ending entirely different from the ending of the novel, many of the attendees quite enjoyed the film’s conclusion, finding it a more satisfying finish to the story. The film cannot be described as faithful to the novel, but many of us found it enjoyable in its own right, despite its many deviations from the source material.
After concluding our literary travels to France (and England) with The Scapegoat, our group will next journey to Venice, Italy in the short story Don’t Look Now. The title alone sparks a feeling of dreadful anticipation, and we look forward to discussing our thoughts on the story at our August meeting.
Finally, Cindy Jones has provided a review of the film below, but be warned - this contains spoilers!
“The Scapegoat’s” adaptation from book to film transforms the most literary of du Maurier’s novels to a more conventional screenplay. While both stories use the same doppelganger premise, they differ greatly from there. The novel explores competing dual natures within each man, and the film illustrates fate’s role in determining one’s destiny. The screenplay abandons du Maurier’s familiar twisty gothic overtones and sets the story in England during Elizabeth II’s coronation. The reason for the change of setting becomes clear near the film’s end, when the housekeeper convinces John to stay by assuring him that fate brought him to lead the Spence family, just as fate put Elizabeth II on the throne. The screenplay’s fate theme recognizes du Maurier’s debt to The Prisoner of Zenda, a favorite, earlier doppelganger story, where fate decides which doppelganger wears the crown.
While the novel leaves unresolved questions, the film offers a clear-cut conclusion where the good guy wins. The film’s plot then, is to ignore the book’s exploration of good and evil and instead focus on creating enough sympathy for the good guy and antipathy for the bad guy to justify murder. And indeed, the good guy’s tender romance with the heroine, and the bad guy’s attempted murder of same heroine, among other sins, compel enough emotion to excuse murdering the bad guy. While the book and the film are related, they are by no means doppelgangers, so perhaps it is easier to give up comparing the many differences and appreciate each on their particular merits.
On Sunday, March 14th, a group of our members gathered to hear a talk by Professor Sarah Berry on The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier. While we sipped tea and munched on treats, Professor Berry delighted us with her insight into the relentless impact of the setting in the story and her comparisons of The Scapegoat to Daphne du Maurier’s other novels. Just as Manderley itself almost feels like a character in Rebecca, the family home of our protagonist’s French shadow in The Scapegoat also seems to have an undeniable presence, one to which the fate of the novel’s characters are inescapably tied. A discussion of the importance of one’s home environment seems especially pertinent at a time when many of us are still confined to our homes, although we noted with happiness that many of our members are now vaccinated. We are hopeful that, as everything continues to open up this year, our group might be able to meet in such exotic locations as restaurants and movie theaters. We would like to thank Professor Berry, once again, for giving a fascinating talk about a book that is not often discussed by scholars. Although a return to Rebecca or My Cousin Rachel is always enjoyable, it is a rare and interesting opportunity when one is able to hear critical analysis of Daphne du Maurier’s lesser-known works. We are grateful for the thoroughness with which Professor Berry approached the topic, and her analysis of story has certainly led to a new appreciation for the novel in some of our members.
Professor Sarah Berry
The final meeting of the Society’s year was a socially-distanced gathering of only a few members. Professor Theresa Kenney delighted us with a talk on her comparative analysis of Rebecca, Jane Eyre, and Crime and Punishment, with a particular focus on the heroines’ varying reactions to the confession of crime from the man they love. During our first meeting of the year, one of our members shared her personal correspondence with Daphne du Maurier from many years ago, in which the author wrote that one of her favorite stories was The Brothers Karamazov. How fitting, then, to end the year exploring the Russian literature that may have inspired her. Dr. Kenney’s talk was (as always) insightful and deeply engaging, and we are grateful to have spent an afternoon learning from her. To cap off our rather unconventional year, we toasted Daphne du Maurier with glasses of Dubonnet and hoped that next year would offer the opportunity to safely gather more of our members together. Next year we will focus on The Scapegoat and Don’t Look Now, two stories sure to spark interesting conversation.
On the twenty-first of October, a small group of the Society’s members gathered together at a member's home to have dinner and watch the newest film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. We had all been looking forward to the film for some time - it was a bright spot in these dreary pandemic days. Most of our members adore the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock adaptation of the novel but are always delighted to indulge in another take on the story. There have been many adaptations of Rebecca into film, television, plays (even an opera), and we pursue them as eagerly as Mrs. Van Hopper pursues aristocratic company. A particular point of interest for us was the anticipation of seeing a film of Rebecca not constrained by the Hays Code, as Hitchcock’s was. Our enjoyment of previous adaptations was no barrier for us dreamers. We walked enchanted, and nothing held us back. We had a lively discussion about the film after watching it together. As with any adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s work, our members had varying opinions as to the quality; however, we all greatly enjoyed seeing Manderley and the Cornwall coast brought to life on screen in such a lush, vibrant way. One of our members, Cindy Jones, created a survey about our thoughts of the film, and has written a lovely review of it for the dumaurier.org website, which can be found here: https://www.dumaurier.org/news_details.php?id=717&nc=2. We concluded the night with thanks that we were able to gather together and to spend an evening watching one of our favorite stories unfold.
Members of the Society gathered at the Angelika Theater in Dallas on the thirteenth of October to watch a special (socially-distanced) showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, based on the Daphne du Maurier short story of the same name. While the film’s plot is a departure from the written tale, it is nonetheless a classic. This was the first time that some members of our group had ever seen the film in a theater - the big screen certainly heightens the terror! We nervously ate our perfectly salted popcorn and shrieked at every rustling of a feather. Needless to say, we traveled back to our vehicles in groups once the film ended.
The Daphne du Maurier Society of North America held its first meeting on the first of March in Dallas. During the two-hour luncheon, President Shirley Kinney led a discussion concerning the by-laws of the society, and member Charlene Howell delighted the group by displaying a letter she received from Daphne du Maurier in 1958. Ms. Howell, a trained librarian who worked for the Federal Reserve Bank, has read one book every five days for the past fifty-three years. She has had a deep passion for reading since childhood. Ms. Howell shared a story from her childhood about circumventing her local library’s age requirements after she had read every book in the children’s section, a tale evoking imagery of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. When she was thirteen years old, she wrote to Daphne du Maurier, inquiring if the author had a favorite book. Quite incredibly, Charlene still has the response, protected lovingly in a slipcover. The letter is hardly even crinkled after sixty-two years. In slightly askew typewriter font, Daphne du Maurier claimed that there was not one novel she thought “[stood] above all others”, but she did note a particular fondness for The Brothers Karamazov. She also provided a few lines of thoughtful reflection about some of her most recognized works.
Each member took time to admire and read the letter as Ms. Howell told us about Daphne du Maurier’s life and extensive body of work, noting that the author was the most popular writer in England during the forties. A lengthy discussion followed about which of her short stories was most enjoyable, though no one publication was agreed upon by the end of the lunch. With the by-laws discussed and our minds ready to read (and re-read) the works of this author, the members of the Daphne du Maurier Society of North America said goodbye, already talking eagerly of the meetings to come - little did we know how much the world would change in the following days. Now those future meetings may be farther off than we had planned. Ah well, reading is a perfect activity for social distancing.
Photos of letter obtained with Charlene Howell’s consent