This summer I was in Cornwall, and went past the gates to this place, Menabilly, the model for the Manderley house in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. Du Maurier was obsessed with the house, and rented it for years. I felt a bit guilty, since at the time I actually had a Georgette Heyer book in my bag.
Du Maurier, Heyer and Agatha Christie were the queen's of 1930s fiction, and all relied on the same two things in their books: romance and crime. Christie, crime, with a bit of romance thrown in; Heyer, romance, with a bit of crime to drive the plot; and Du Maurier, a more unpredictable mix of the two.
Out of the three, Du Maurier is the one who is the most 'literary'. She is considered a 'serious' writer, while the other two, especially Heyer, have been marked for posterity as successful writers of fluff. I find this odd, since Du Maurier is my least favourite of the three. I was chewing over this, as I read my Heyer novel on the beach, and I wondered if this wasn't really down to that traditional old beast, sexism. I also wondered why I'd happily read an 80-year-old romance or crime novel, but would generally baulk at a new one.
If you haven't read Georgette Heyer, she practically invented the Regency Romance genre. Perhaps it is having so many awful imitators that has dragged her down, but in person, Heyer's novels are like Jane Austen, if Jane Austen wrote more concisely, was unashamedly lusty, knew the functionings of a pistol, and took cocaine at parties. They always, always have a happy ending. They often have a 'bad' heroine, who may be found in the opening chapter climbing out of the window, stealing something, or assuming someone else's identity. The romantic hero is usually not above a bit of gambling, sword-fighting, or other bad business. Is he tamed by love, as you might expect? Does she become a dutiful, submissive wife? Not really: some of Heyer's novels are more or less sequels. In these, the offspring of the original couple will be similiarly dastardly/wild, and the parents will sometimes pop up to behave just as hot-headedly as ever, stirring things in society and engaging in scandals.
One of the other startling things about Heyer is how little her heroes resemble the smouldering alpha-males we've come to expect of the genre. They may be alpha, and know how to handle their sword, but they are always decent, underneath the many-layered cape: wit, humour, loyalty and intelligence is how they win the wilful bride. They are written with a real and healtfelt affection, and a good deal of sympathy. Georgette Heyer was quite a private person, and did not talk about her personal life. I have always wondered whether this hero was a wish-fulfilment figure, or whether she was just lucky to be exceedingly happy in her marriage.
Agatha Christie novels have a less sanguine view of human nature, and since there is always a dead body, perhaps cannot be considered to have happy endings, only solved mysteries. They are complex riddles, designed to satisfy the head, not the heart. Christie relied a lot more on locations: her second husband, Max Mallowan, was an archaeologist who worked in the middle east, so she had plenty of these to draw on. She is not desperately interested in romance, although somebody usually makes off with somebody in the course of plot.
The interesting thing about Christie is how she used characters who were outsiders to pick apart society: Poirot is a refugee (the modern equivalent of a Belgian would be an Eastern European), Miss Marple an apparently harmless old lady. Throughout the course of investigating a murder, they turn out everyone's foibles: the affairs, the lies, the thefts, the dodgy wills and concealed pasts. Those who seemed most respactable may be undone: those who might be shunned are the restorers of justice.
Du Maurier, too, writes about people's bad behaviour. The thing that bothers me about her books, though, is that, unlike the other two, she seems to accept the restrictions and expectations of society. In Rebecca, a woman stands by her (possibly wife-murdering) husband, while her outrageous predecessor lies dead. In Frenchman's Creek, a married woman has an affair with an impossibly sensitive piratical aristocrat, and then lets him leave. I can't help thinking what would have happened if you'd given these plots to the two other writers. Miss Marple would have had Maxim de Winter and his creepy ways bang to rights. In Heyer's hands, I expect Rebecca would have changed her identity and absconded with an Italian, to finally turn up just in time to save her hapless successor. And any self-respecting Heyer heroine would have been up the Frenchman's rigging faster than a rat up a rope ladder.
So why is Du Maurier still seen as the better writer? There is a certain atmospheric creepiness in her prose, but pull the plots apart and they're as ludicrously melodramatic as those of Heyer or Christie, without half the charm. Is it, because she is allegedly a bit more 'psychological'? But really, is a bit of half-baked Freudianism worth more than the meticulous plotting and no-word-spared prose of Christie? Or the enormous amount of historic research that Heyer put in her novels, without ever once rendering it boring?
Having said that, one of the things I do like, in all three writers, is the sheer variety of shenanigans going on. You can't predict whodunnit in a Christie, because it could have been anyone. The reasons for a crime may be money, sex, politics, loyalty, or status. When I read modern crime fiction, I'm always dismayed by how often the answer to a crime is simply that 'there is a crazed man who kills women'. Agatha Christie would have been horrified to make this the motive for one of her novels, and would have demanded the specifics, I'm sure.
Too often in modern crime novels, the woman is simply a dead body, and/or the victim in some way. One of the reasons I particularly like Heyer novels is that women in them behave exceedingly badly, and often only pay lip-service to society's demands, and yet in the end, walk off with the money and the man everyone has their eye on. Wish-fulfilment? Of course, but novels are also indicators of what might happen, of our expectations in life.
And that, I expect, is why Du maurier retains a sheen of 'seriousness' that the other two lack: she offers society as it is, while the other two suggest, quietly, that we might question or subvert it. And that's not approved of, now, is it ladies?