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Daphne du Maurier’s second novel is a masterpiece of narration, showcasing for the first time in her career the male voice she would use to stunning effect in four subsequent novels, including My Cousin Rachel.
“A magician, a virtuoso. She can conjure up tragedy, horror, tension, suspense, the ridiculous, the vain, the romantic.”-Good Housekeeping
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Devotees of Daphne du Maurier will find in I'll Never Be Young Again a rich source of self-revelatory material. This second novel with its world-weary title was completed in 1930, when the author was all of twenty-three years old. Young as she was, however, it is all there, yet at the same time none of it is. She is a beginner. Nevertheless, it contains the strengths that will make her one of the great monologists in twentieth-century fiction, most endearing are the twists, turns and shocks of her plots, which are done in such a way that the reader grows to accept them as reasonable. It also reminds us again what a strong influence James Joyce had on our writers in the 1920s and '30s, with his stream of consciousness, a technique du Maurier uses to her great advantage.
Two decades later, about her novel in progress, The Scapegoat, she will write to her publisher Victor Gollancz describing her task as "simply to take a fantastically impossible situation and make it read with utter conviction," a target which she hits bull's-eye in most of her novels, including this second one.
In form the novel is episodic; if a film, it would be called a "road movie," with the self-described male narrator, Dick, driven from crisis to crisis. Starting as a would-be suicide on a London bridge, he moves to a posh cruise of Scandinavia. From there, as a deckhand, we find him on a rundown tugboat about to sink. Having survived, he goes on to Paris. Settling into café life, he enters into a yearlong love affair with an American girl, simultaneously embarking on becoming a writer, buoying himself up on hot dreams of fame and fortune. His bubble bursts when a noted publisher tells him he has no talent. Then, when he returns to Paris, his girlfriend walks out on him. In a surprise ending, he becomes happier than he has ever been in his life as a bank clerk in London, listening to a bird who seems to be singing over and over, "I'll never be young again."
True, Dick is rather unsympathetic. Du Maurier will rarely make that mistake again. At the same time she will magically retain the weaknesses, dishonesties and peccadilloes in her characters that are unsympathetic, as she does with Dick. Fifty-seven years later, in her novel The House on the Strand, there is also a narrator called Dick who is similarly unsympathetic. Coincidence? Subconscious? Provocative?
This early novel is a forerunner of the later ones in that, as with all prolific writers, du Maurier employs favorite words in it which she will use throughout her work. It's fun to see which words here will become staples of her style. "Fool," "child" and "brandy" are three. Her characters feel like fools, as often as they call other people the same. The word "child" denotes everything from innocence to tantrums while brandy is, universally, the only drink characters swallow to pull themselves together. It is fascinating to see some phrases evolve: "I'll never be young again" progresses to the second Mrs. de Winter's "I'll never be a child again." Biting one's nails under stress, which appears as early as her second novel, turns up again full force in the second Mrs. de Winter, who says, "I didn't like it. I began biting my nails. No, I did not like it." Nail-biting will apply throughout her oeuvre. In The King's General, one person even gets around to biting his hands. Daphne herself bit her nails when growing up. A touch of reality.
Another reality in du Maurier's books is that people die in them, sometimes in profusion! She kills them off with the brio of Dickens and Shakespeare. Babies, mothers and grandfathers fall dead just when we are becoming fond of them. Only two people die in I'll Never Be Young Again, but they are the two most important to Dick. Reading her novels, we become alerted to the real and present dangers that threaten her characters every time they mount a horse, climb a hill, step into a car or carriage, scramble up a balcony—or even walk out of a front or back door.
Important also are du Maurier's unhappy endings (which her husband teased her about). They leave us to ponder how invariably fate pays us back for our transgressions. Though her books were advertised as "romances," boy rarely gets girl; in fact it is rare that two main characters go off together into the sunset. We realize she feels it would be morally wrong if they did. Du Maurier, schooled in the ways of the world, makes this sound sense, leaving a reverberation that haunts us; whereas a happy ending would merely signal closure.
After reading Margaret Forster's biography documenting du Maurier's hitherto unknown bisexuality, I confess that it sent me straight back to her novels sleuthing for clues of this interesting facet of her personality. And there are plenty. Nowhere is it more blatant and confusing than in I'll Never Be Young Again, when narrator Dick explodes about how he wished his father had treated him like a boy: "I wanted to use my fists against the faces of boys," he says, "to fight with them, laughing, sprawling on the ground, and then run with them, catching at my breath, flinging a stone to the top of a tree." The confusion here is that the author has mixed up her real-life plight with that of Dick's, and writes like a woman yearning to be a man. This kind of thing runs through her work. Often her heroines will declare they wished they were a man.
Looking for a context in which to place du Maurier in a literary and historic time frame, I suddenly came across a phenomenon I might otherwise have missed. Until recently, it seemed to me that all the full-drawn female characters such as Becky Sharp, Hedda Gabler and Scarlett O'Hara disappeared after the nineteenth century. I see now that the twentieth century, specifically the 1920s and 1930s, produced two other star woman writers, who created wonderful female characters as did du Maurier; I am talking about Virginia Woolf and the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, both of whom were also Sapphically inclined. In order of their appearance, Virginia Woolf (1882–1941), in whose Orlando the protagonist begins a three-hundred-year journey as a man, but metamorphoses into a woman and who, in another work, gives us the arresting psychological insight that "Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size." (A Room of One's Own)
As for Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950), whose wit, candor and genius made her the hottest ticket in the poets' lecture circuit, unseating Robert Frost; when a college girl, she asked herself the question: What will a scholarship student several years older than the other girls at a top women's college, Vassar, do to get noticed? The answer: use her attraction to and by women and fix on the same-sex spell they were all under. Her poem, "A Few Figs from Thistles," containing the stanza
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But, ah, my foes, and, oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light.
endeared her to females around the world and possibly gave rise to Dorothy Parker's comment: "If the prettiest girls at Vassar were laid end to end, I shouldn't be surprised."
Bisexuality surely added to their originality, idiosyncrasies, imagination and talent. Yet of equal significance was their strong sense of reality which is manifest to anyone who begins to study their careers. There was nothing fey about them. In fact, they were noticeably grounded. All needed a special place to lay their heads and all got it: du Maurier at Menabilly, a mansion in Cornwall, Millay at Steepletop, a farmhouse in upstate New York—two houses set in impressive surroundings. Both women renovated them to suit their own will. With Woolf, it was simply A Room of One's Own, yet I speculate it stirred up more emotion in women than the two other grander houses.
Another similarity: all three did a lot of suffering in their childhood, which seems to have stiffened their resolve to make up for it by working towards a kingdom, a power and a glory in their art.
As for husbands, each chose hers with a sense of practicality. We have all heard of Trophy Wives but not enough of Trophy Husbands. These three realists chose husbands that they loved and were proud of. Virginia married a publisher, Edna a Dutch businessman, Daphne a much-decorated war hero who masterminded an important wing of World War II Air Force and became a valued member of Queen Elizabeth's and Prince Philip's staff, for which he was knighted.
All three women on their own were powerful and entitled, yet desirous of what they saw fame could not purchase: respectability and acceptability. They married what seemed to them stable, non-participants in the arts, although appreciators of them. The men seemed the embodiment of what these women wanted—someone to lean upon, someone to guide them. Ironically, all three of the ladies became the breadwinners of the family.
And yet… suppose I ask us to forget, erase, wipe out all I've been writing before. Lest all self-revelations, the deconstructions and any other clues lead us astray from the only thing close to our heart: what's on the page? When we open books, we don't care about the mood of the authors, the events surrounding their creations or the people they loved and hated at the time. Who cares if they were unhappy, if they give us the finished masterpiece? For this special event, the trio not only achieved Trophy Husbands, they achieved Trophy Editors. They put themselves not in harm's but in help's way. Once writers have given themselves to the right person's eyes, something else happens. It also happened that these editors—Victor Gollancz, Daphne's publisher and editor; Edna's high-ranking editor at Harper's, and Leonard Woolf, Virginia's husband—became fathers, mothers, bankers, messengers and advisors. Cases in point: Virginia's homage to Leonard Woolf, ticking off in her acknowledgments all the ways in which he was vital to her novel Orlando; Edna's editor, always at hand to come to her financial aid when needed.
But best for me were Daphne and Victor Gollancz's flirty, sunkissed, delirious exchanges concerning a short-story collection. One story, "The Birds," he called a masterpiece, but he didn't like and wanted her to drop two further stories, one of which jarred on him while he thought the other poor. She was "one of the few authors… with whom I can be frank." Daphne accepted his judgment and dropped them, adding that he was "dynamic, exuberant, tender, intolerant and the only publisher for me." To which Victor returned that she was "beautiful, adorable, gracious, charming and good."
Most of all, these Trophy Editors gave Virginia, Edna and Daphne the respect, adoration and veneration due to them.
When the sun had gone, I saw that the water was streaked with great patches of crimson and gold. They formed a ripple under the bridge that was part of the wake belonging to the barge. She was perhaps two cables' length from me now, low in the water, deeply loaded with timber, the brown sail flapping uselessly against the mast. There was scarcely a suggestion of a breeze, and it was the ebb tide that carried her downstream. I could see one man aboard her, his arm flung carelessly over the tiller, his legs crossed, and a cap on the back of his head.
His pipe must have gone out, for I saw him bend swiftly and fumble in his pocket, steadying the tiller with his knee, then he cupped the pipe in his hands, and threw away the match. I imagined myself in his place, glancing half-curiously in the wake of the barge, where the little match drifted with the tide.
The air to this man would be strong with the harsh smell of tobacco, and the peculiar sweet flavor of well-seasoned timber that clings to a barge. His hands and his clothes would be of it too, the sticky mixture of tar and cutch, and a burned rope's end dangling near an empty barrel.
While beyond all these things, so intimate a part of his life, there would come floating up to him, from nowhere in particular, the old unchanging smell of the river, borne from the mud flats beneath the wharves and the dingy warehouses; a smell of refuse left on these beaches to be carried away by the tide, a hint on those mysterious houses where no faces are ever seen and whose dark windows look out upon the Lower Pool, a whiff of oil upon the surface of the water cast by some passing tugboat.
And strange and unbelievable, mingled with the smoke of London rising into the hazy orange sky of the spent day, a suggestion of some world farther than the tired City and the river, a world where there would be no stretch of buildings flattened in a half-light with the spire of St. Paul's companion to a warehouse chimney, but a gray sea not encompassed by the smallest ridge of land, cold and white-crested, under a gray sky.
Now the barge was no more than a black smudge among the traffic in the Pool, a tugboat was frothing in her wake, smoke screaming from her stout funnel, her propeller churning the water as she went astern.
The iron of the bridge felt hot under my hand. The sun had been upon it all the day.
Gripping hard with my hands I lifted myself onto the bar and gazed down steadily on the water passing under the bridge.
The flaming colors had gone with the sun, the little ripples still formed and bubbled, but they were brown now, dull, and shadowed by the archways of the bridge.
The sight of the barge had taken me away from myself, and because she had left me I fell back again into my first despondency, seeing nothing but my own black mood of bitterness, caring for nothing but that the night should come quickly and allow me to slip away unseen. I waited then, for time was something with which I had no more concern, except for the furthering of my purpose, and as I leaned against the stanchion of the bridge I closed my eyes so that I need not look upon the faces of the men and women who passed me by.
In this way I could cling to some sort of security, and my plans would not be hindered by a momentary weakness thrusting itself into my view, a weakness coming to me from the strength and solidity of people.
My ears would not be deafened, though, and in spite of myself I listened to the safe and steady rumble of traffic over the bridge, the hard, grating wheels of lorries, the painful grind of a tram homeward bound, the jolt of a bus, the smooth wheels of cars, and the silly rattle of a stray taxi. I pretended that these things were meaningless in themselves, and could not drag me away from the river to be part of them, but even as I argued thus I heard the voices of women as they trudged along the pavement, brushing against me as they went, the shoulder of one just touching the back of my coat. And these women, whom I had never seen, seemed by this simple action to enter my life, becoming definite personalities of reality.
Coward-like, I would have turned to them and stretched out my hands, saying as I did so: "Perhaps you would stand here a little longer so that I may listen to your voices; nothing more than this." Maybe they would have understood. Stupidly, with the dumb knowledge that such a moment was impossible, I longed for them to linger awhile, and consider the matter, and then accepting me as one of themselves suggest that I return with them. Gravely, kindly, they would watch my face, and with a quick, shy gesture, as though ashamed of their charity, they would say to me: "You can come back with us, you know, it isn't much of a place.…"
I would walk then with them, somewhat apart, conscious of their superiority, and we would arrive at some drab tenement building, where iron-railed balconies stretched from window to window. There would be a canary swinging in a high cage, and a faded odd-patterned screen. These women would busy themselves, familiar with their surroundings, and the drip of a tap or the moving of cups and saucers would seem blessed tokens of friendship to me, humble in a quiet corner, blinking my eyes because of the sudden flare of a gas jet. I would enter the moods of these people, share their troubles, love their friends, act in some way as a faithful servant if only they should not cast me away from them, leaving me to wander back to the bridge once more.
I opened my eyes, and the women had passed from me along the pavement; I could scarcely distinguish their backs among the crowd pushing each other where the tram stopped.
They were away and out of my remnant of existence, like the low hull of the barge and the man with his arm flung over the tiller.
I took a folded newspaper from my pocket, smoothing the creases carefully and read with interest some advertisement for furs.
The print mocked me, knowing that the words they spelled could have no meaning to me, for soon I would be a bent, contorted thing of ugliness, sucked and drawn by the swirling eddies of the Pool, and the paper and its advertisement floating placidly to some unknown destination upon the surface of the water.
It seemed strange that things could still be done to me after I was dead, that my body would perhaps be found and handled by people I should never know, that really a little life would go on about me which I should never feel.
The tiresome business of burial, and decay. These sordid actualities of death would be spared me at least.
For me, the present agony of departure, the silent terror of leaving a place known to me if hated, the well-nigh impossible task of conquering the fear that possessed me. Not the fear of that hasty look round, the sudden plunge headlong and the giddy shock of hard, cold water, the river itself entering my lungs, rising in my throat, tossing me upon my back with my arms outflung—I could hear the sob strangled in my chest and the blood leave me—but fear of the certain knowledge that there was no returning, no possible means of escape, and no other thing beyond.
It would not matter to the world that I was gone, odd doubtful thought, entering my mind at such a moment. I felt the flesh that was mine and the body that belonged to me; queer to think it was in my power to destroy them so swiftly.
During these last moments I stood apart then from the world I had not left. No longer of it, and yet not broken away.
That man on the top of a bus, brushing his hair away from his face, a cigarette hanging from his mouth, he belonged—he would know many days and many nights. That lorry driver, his face white with cement from a load of bricks, shouting to his companion; and a hurrying girl, parcels in her hands, glancing to right and left. One after another they flashed before me, imprinting themselves forever on my mind, living, breathing figures I had no right to touch. I envied them their food, their sleep, their snatches of conversation, the smell even of their clothes, dusty after a long day. I thought of places I should never see, and women I should never love. A white sea breaking upon a beach, the slow rustle of a shivering tree, the hot scent of grass. A crowded café, and the laughter of some man, a car passing over cobbled stones. A dark close room and a girl still against the shadowed pillow, her hands across my back.
I remembered as a child standing in a field where a stream crossed my path, and a yellow iris grew next a background of green rushes. The stream sang as it tumbled over the flat stones. And as a child I thought how strange it was that such things should continue after I had left them, as though when turning a corner with the stream hidden from view, a mist must fall about them, shrouding them carefully, until I should pass again.
It was like this now, with the traffic and the moving people. Impossible that they should live while I was no more a part of existence.
Once more I looked down upon the swirling water beneath the bridge. I threw away my paper and watched it twirl slowly, caught in a sudden eddy, and then, limp and tragic, float from me, borne by the current. A crinkled edge stared up at me, as yet unsodden, like a faint protest.
I resolved that I would not wait anymore. The dust and the noise of humanity, the nearness of men and women, were urging some claim upon me that was robbing me of my strength and will.
They were united in a conspiracy to keep me from the peace I had promised myself.
It was not thus I had imagined it would be.
I wanted it to be made easier for me. In my preparations for this moment I had been overcome by a great weariness, my eyes had seen nothing but the wide placid sheet of water ready to receive me, my ears had heard nothing but the soft, steady ripple of the wash against the archway of the bridge.
There was no throb of traffic then, no hum of city, no smell of dust, and body, and life, no shouts of men, nor the clear whistle of a boy with his hands in his pockets.
I wanted to be tired, I wanted to be old, I wanted to lose myself and not be reminded of things I had never done.
I looked up at the sky and saw a great dark-edged cloud hover over the distant spire of St. Paul's. Where the west had been golden was a shadowed blanket, a grim reflection of the murky buildings by the water's edge. Soon the million lights that belonged to London would cast a halo of light into the sky, and one faint star would flicker against the purple.
There seemed no reason for staying any longer. I would not even be dramatic and make a gesture of farewell. There should be no sentimentality where I was concerned. It was not worth the trouble of tears, not my life, anyway. I would make a ripple upon the water for a moment, not much more than a stone thrown by a child from a bank. Nothing mattered very much. I wondered why my heart felt so heavy and afraid, why the sweat clung to my hands and could not be wiped away.
I swung my legs over, holding onto the bridge with desperate fingers. An odd snatch of breeze blew across my hair. I supposed that this was the very last thing of the world to come to me.
I breathed deeply, and I felt as though the waiting water rose up in front of me and would not let me go.
This was my final impression of horror, when fear and fascination took hold upon me, and I knew that I should have no other moment but this before the river itself closed in upon me. My fingers slackened, and I lowered myself for the fall.
It was then that someone laid his hands upon my shoulder, and turning to clutch him instinctively as a means of safety, I saw Jake for the first time, his head thrown back, a smile on his lips.
"You don't want to do that," he said; "it doesn't do any good really, you know. Because nobody has ever proved that there isn't something beyond. The chances are you might find yourself up against something terrific, something too big for you, and you wouldn't know how to get out of it. Besides—wait until you're sixty-five if you must finish that way."
I was ready to break down like a boy and cry. I kept my hand on his arm as though it afforded me some measure of protection. Yet somewhere inside me there was a feeling of revolt, a stupid sense of frustration. This fellow had not any right to stop me from making a fool of myself. And, anyway, I did not care a damn for his opinion. Mechanically I heard myself speaking in a small tired voice I scarcely recognized as my own.
"You don't understand," I kept saying, "you don't understand—I'm not going to explain to you or to anybody. This is my affair, you don't understand."
He swung himself up on the bridge beside me. He pulled a packet of cigarettes from his pocket.
I took one, and this very action of turning it in my fingers and lighting it, in the familiar drawing-in of my breath, gave me such a sense of life newfound with the blessed relief that I had so far escaped the horror of death, that I smiled and was no longer fearful or ashamed to meet his eyes.
He smiled too, and then stayed silent for some minutes, allowing me time to recover my mental balance, while his shoulder just touched my shoulder, and his knee just touched my knee, so that I was aware of the immense security of his presence.
He must have been following some train of thought in his mind, for when he spoke again it was like the continuation of things unsaid.
"There's always been a whole lot talked about responsibilities," he went on, "and citizenship, and duty, which is a funny word. None of these matters to you or to me, I guess. Maybe we're built on a lower level. We're not belonging to the crowd of real people. They exist apart, in their true, even way of living. But there's something in me and in you that can't be cheated for all that, it's like a spark of light that burns in spite of ourselves, we can't throw it away, we can't destroy the only chance we've got to live for our own purpose. We wouldn't have been born otherwise."
He broke off abruptly and looked at me sideways, not to watch the effect of his words, but to see how I was taking my new lease of life.
"What were you thinking about?" he asked. I saw that he meant by this what was I thinking before I tried to throw myself down from the bridge.
"I don't know," I said; "pictures came into my mind that I couldn't stop. The smell of grass in early summer, a gull dipping its wing into the sea, a plowman on a hill resting, his hand on his horse's back, and the touch of earth. No, now I come to remember, these faded before things I had never known. Impossible dusty cities and men swearing and fighting; then I getting terribly drunk, getting terribly tired sleeping with women who laughed against my shoulder, not caring about me at all. Then eating and riding, and a long rest and a dream."
Somehow we found ourselves smiling at the pictures my imagination had so swiftly conjured.
"That's the sort of mood you've got to cling to," he said, "don't get away from it. I want you to feel like that."
Once more I was a boy again, shy, sullen, resentful of the attitude he had adopted. I didn't know him. It wasn't his business.
I leaned forward on the bridge, biting my nails.
"I don't see," I said, "what all this has got to do with you. You might as well have left me to clear out. I'm no use, I don't want to live."
He did not bother about me, he made no attempt to ask questions, and I felt like some silly girl snubbed by a man older than herself, failing to win her impression, and sitting back confused and immature.
"Oh! hell," I said, and to my shame and misery I heard my voice break off in the middle, and I felt the tears come in my eyes.
I was not even a boy, but a little sniffing child wiping his nose against the shoulder of his companion.
"I've been such a fool," I said, "such a bloody fool."
- On Sale
- Dec 17, 2013
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Little, Brown and Company