Dame Daphne du Maurier (1907~1989), granddaughter of the artist and writer George du Maurier, and daughter of Gerald du Maurier, the most famous actor-manager of his day, began writing short stories in her early twenties. Her first novel, The Loving Spirit, was published in 1931. She is best known, and best loved, for her three novels Jamaica Inn (which immortalised an actual inn on Cornwall's Bodmin Moor), Frenchman's Creek and Rebecca. Daphne du Maurier was a very private person, but you can watch a rare interview with her at the BBC web site.
The Apple Tree was first published by Victor Gollancz Ltd. in 1952. It contains six tales: 'Monte Verità', 'The Birds', 'The Apple Tree', 'The Little Photographer', 'Kiss Me Again, Stranger', and 'The Old Man'.
I won't go into detail about 'Monte Verità', as it's difficult to say much at all without giving too much away. It is a haunting tale about the quest for truth... a fantasy, the mystery at the centre of which is never explained to the reader. It concerns a love triangle between two men and one woman: the unnamed bachelor narrator, his friend Victor, and Victor's beautiful wife, Anna, who appears to possess unearthly qualities. The narrator begins his story by disclosing the outcome of events, then we travel back to the run up to the First World War, to Victor's marriage to Anna, their subsequent journey to Monte Verità, The Mountain of Truth, and Anna's disappearance when she climbs to the summit alone to fulfil her destiny. Apparently, Victor Gollancz was bewildered by this tale and insisted that the ending be changed.*
'The Birds' is the most well-known of the tales in this book, because it was made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963. But the movie and the original story, aside from being about birds attacking people, have little in common. Apparently, du Maurier didn't like Hitchcock's adaptation, in which he transported the tale from the cold, bleak English coastline to a Californian setting, and transformed du Maurier's farmers into polished city folk.
Du Maurier's tale takes place in winter in an isolated spot on the Cornish coast. In it, Nat Hocken, who was injured during the war, works part time on a farm. During his lunch break, he sits on the cliff's edge and watches the birds. He understands the rhythm and ritual of their lives, and he knows when there's something not quite right about that ritual. An east wind has turned the weather bitterly cold, and brought with it a change in the birds' behaviour. Finches and robins, sparrows, gulls and birds of prey... 'birds that by nature's law kept to their own flock and their own territory', seeming to respond to each turn of the tide, have joined together in their urge for battle, and Nat and his family find themselves prisoners in their small cottage, boarded in and under relentless attack, and cut off from the rest of the country. With the birds persistent and relentless, drawing back with every retreating tide, then recommencing battle with a vengeance on each returning one, there is an ominous rhythm to Du Maurier's tale that Hitchcock's film just doesn't have.
In 'The Apple Tree', a recent widower is enjoying his new found freedom, following the death of his wife Midge, whose purpose in life, according to him, was to put a blight on everything. But he begins to believe that one of his apple trees resembles her, with its 'martyred bent position' and 'stooping top', and the tree begins to disgust him as much as his late wife did. Then, after years of being barren and presumed almost dead, the tree begins to sprout buds, and then fruit. And as the tree flourishes, his hatred for it grows, until he becomes obsessed with its destruction.
In 'The Little Photographer', a wealthy and extremely conceited French Marquise, on holiday with her children but without her husband, fantasises about having a meaningless fling with a stranger. She begins an affair with a crippled photographer, toying with his genuine devotion to her whilst her own emotions remain entirely untouched. Quickly bored with the arrangement, she begins to torment the photographer in order to recapture the excitement she felt at the outset of her little adventure. But there are consequences when you treat a person cruelly, as the cold-hearted Marquise discovers.
The narrator of 'Kiss Me Again, Stranger', a shy car mechanic who's never had any real interest in girls, or much experience with them for that matter, takes a fancy to an attractive usherette when he goes to the pictures one evening. He follows her when she leaves work, daydreaming about making her his steady girlfriend, but there's more to the quiet young woman than meets the eye. There's no supernatural element to this tale, but it's a creepy little gem all the same.
The narrator of 'The Old Man' suspects his neighbour of having killed his own son. I usually have the ending of a story figured out long before I get to it, but this one took me completely by surprise.
I love this collection of stories. 'Monte Verità' is probably the best of them, but if I were to pick a personal favourite I think it would be 'The Apple Tree'. Ask me next week and I'll probably change my mind, but I do tend to go back to that tale over and over again. It's certainly a collection not to be missed.
A fine copy of The Apple Tree, complete with its lovely dust jacket, costs about £200 at the moment (approx. $300). There's a Virago paperback, The Birds and Other Stories, priced at £8.99, and that contains all the tales from The Apple Tree. There's also a Kindle version by Virago for just over four pounds.
* See Margaret Forster's Daphne Du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller (1993).