Daphne du Maurier’s The Parasites (DDM reading week late entry)

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Are you drawn to tales of English country house and theater life between the wars?  Do you, like me, adore tales of dysfunctional families?  Are you willing to forego a tight plot in favor of atmosphere, character and witty (frequently scathingly funny) dialogue?  If your answer to these questions is “yes” dear reader, stop wasting your time on my post and immediately begin reading du Maurier’s The Parasites!  Beware, however, if you expect a gothic-tinged mystery, need to identify with sympathetic and/or morally upright protagonists or require a tightly plotted, linear narrative in your fiction; if so you may well be happier with another book.  Those who come to The Parasites with an open mind and a slightly cynical outlook will have the pleasure of enjoying a very fine novel.  Those who come expecting another Rebecca or Jamaica Inn are bound to be disappointed unless they adjust their expectations, as Parasites is an outlier among du Maurier’s novels of suspense and historical fiction.  Published in 1949, Parasites is a tale of “contemporary” life, albeit lived at a rather exalted level; although it has both a whiff of decadence and a touch of exotica, it contains no supernatural, mystery or suspense elements to speak of (well, maybe a teeny bit at the end) and its primary male romantic character resembles Noel Coward more than Maxim de Winter.  That its popularity trails that of du Maurier’s better known works is due, I think, to the fact that The Parasites demonstrates a very different aspect of her genius, one that is less preferred by those many readers who more readily respond to the gothic, suspense and supernatural elements present in much of her other work.

I’ve hesitated to review The Parasites primarily because I read it last September and did not choose it specifically for Ali’s wonderful Daphne du Maurier reading week.  But, really, is there a rule that reviews must be limited only to those books that have been completed within some arbitrary time period?  Particularly when that book is as good as The Parasites?  When I was recently mulling over which of DDM’s excellent novels to read for Ali’s event, I was unable to choose because nothing seemed quite right; every time I came close to making a selection The Parasites got in the way.  Although I did mention The Parasites very favorably in my 2020 reading summary, my short blurb was a very inadequate acknowledgment of the very great pleasure the novel gave me in what was generally a rather dismal reading year.  So — The Parasites it is!  Since I’ve missed Ali’s DDM reading week (bad Janakay! never on time) please regard my tardy review as a homage to an event that I’ve enjoyed very much — the reviews I read have caused quite an addition to my TBR  (I’ve deliberated refrained until now from reading Ali’s 2020 review of The Parasites but I’m clicking over to do so as soon as I finish this post).

The Parasites is the story of the Delaney family, particularly its younger members.  Pappy is a world famous singer who’s generally believed to be based on du Maurier’s own flamboyant father, and Mama is an equally famous dancer, who strongly reminded me, at least, of Isadora Duncan.  Their domestic ménage is completed by Niall, Maria and Celia, the three children they have produced in the course of their international careers.  Although the outside world is baffled by the tangled Delaney relationships (Virago ed. at 11-12):

The truth was simple, once learnt and understood.

When Pappy was singing in Vienna, before the first war, he fell in love with a little Viennese actress who had no voice at all but was . . .  very naughty and very lovely and everybody adored her . . . after they had been together a year Maria was born and the little Viennese actress died.

Meanwhile, Mama was dancing in London and Paris, already breaking away from the ballet in which she had been trained, and becoming that unique, unforgettable personality . . . who had no partner ever upon the dim-lit, eerie stage, but always danced alone.  Someone was Niall’s father.  A pianist . . . whom she permitted once to live with her in secret and make love to her for a few weeks only, and then sent away because someone told her that he had T.B. and it was catching.

And then they met in London, Pappy and Mama, when Pappy was singing at the Albert Hall, and Mama was dancing at Covent Garden.  Their encounter was a thing of rapture that could only happen to those two, never to others . . . [t]hey … married, and the marriage brought ecstatic happiness to the pair of them, and possibly despair too . . . and it also brought Celia, the first legitimate offspring of both.

Although “the whole business” initially puzzles even the children, they quickly conclude that precise parentage “did not really matter very much because from the very beginning of time” each of them belonged to Pappy, Mama and each other (Virago, 11).  The hermetically sealed domestic bubble of Pappy, Mama and the kids travels from one great European city to another.  Pappy sings to popular acclaim, in a manner akin to a Pavarotti tour of the 1990s, and Mama “whose every movement was poetry” and  ” every gesture a note in music” dances alone on her stage.  While both fill every theater in whatever city they happen to visit, old Truda, Mama’s dresser, more or less minds the kids.  These are the “dreadful Delaneys,” whom no one much likes and who routinely spread chaos and terror to hotel staff and theater management throughout the continent.

When the novel begins Pappy and Mama are long dead and Niall, Maria and Celia are adults pursuing their own careers and lives.  Maria, now a celebrated actress, has made a “good” marriage to Charles, a conventional English squire whose main attraction is his wealth, social status and landed estate.  Niall, too, is an artist, being a successful composer of popular tunes but without the application (and perhaps talent) to create “serious” music.  Unlike her siblings, Celia has chosen to neglect her considerable artistic talent in favor of caring, first, for Pappy in his declining years, and later for Maria’s children, since Maria is more taken with her profession as actress than with the obligations of motherhood.

The Parasites’ opening scene occurs at Charles’ and Maria’s country house, where Maria, who maintains her own flat near the London theater scene, visits on weekends, almost always with Niall and Celia in tow.  During the course of a “long, wet, Sunday afternoon” (Virago ed. at 1), with papers and gramophone cartons scattered on the floor and the little available light blocked by the “small, square panes” of the French windows, the usually stolid Charles directs an uncharacteristic outburst at Maria and her siblings (Virago ed.at 5):

[T]hat’s what you are, the three of you.  Parasites.  The whole bunch.  You always have been and you always will be. Nothing can change you.  You are doubly, triply parasitic; first because you’ve traded ever since childhood on that seed of talent you had the luck to inherit from your fantastic forebears; secondly, because you’ve none of you done a stroke of ordinary honest work in your lives, but batten upon us, the fool public who allow you to exist; and thirdly, because you prey upon each other, the three of you, living in a world of fantasy, which you have created for yourselves and which bears no relation to anything in heaven or earth.

Charles’ accusation kicks off the “action” of the novel, such as it is, as the Delaneys, separately and in conjunction, ponder the merits of Charles’ accusation during the following days.  As they do so in “real time,” the novel shifts chronologically between past and present to supply the reader with the backstory of the Delaney family, the siblings’ unusual childhood and chaotic adult lives and the dark, obsessive relationship between Niall and Maria (in her excellent introduction to the Virago edition Julie Myerson rather convincingly argues its similarities to that of Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights).

Aside from its one-off position in the du Maurier oeuvre, there were several things about The Parasites that I found surprising.  The most obvious was DDM’s sophisticated, almost experimental style.  Aside from her very skillful use of chronological shifts in time and space that allow the reader to experience the story on several different levels, I was strongly impressed by DDM’s psychological acuity, both in how she developed her characters and the manner in which she demonstrated their psychology for the reader.  I found it quite believable that three children of a similar age, thrown together by chance and living the isolated and peripatetic existence described in the novel, would have developed the intense psychological ties demonstrated  by the adult Maria, Niall and Celia.  Du Maurier’s deliberately ambiguous use of the plural pronouns “us” and “we” is another example of her rather daring style.  Although the point of view frequently shifts among the three Delaney siblings, the plural pronouns make it unclear which of the three is narrating the story at any given time.  This ambiguity produces a  subtlety disorienting effect, beginning with the novel’s opening sentence that it “was Charles who called us the parasites.”  Is the narrator of this statement Maria, Niall or Celia?  Or some “Delaney entity” composed of all three?  The ambiguity regarding the narrator’s identity at any given moment reinforces for the reader the siblings’ shared identity and lack of psychological boundaries.  As I think this over a bit more, it occurs to me that this stylistic device may be the equivalent of one of those ambiguous or “surprise” endings that sometimes occur in DDM’s suspense and mystery novels.

Glancing back over what I’ve typed, I’m afraid I’ve given the impression that The Parasites is a very serious, unsmiling novel.  Although it does have psychological depths (and some of which are quite dark) nothing could be further from the reality.  The novel is replete with humor, often verging on social satire, which I immensely enjoyed.  Du Maurier makes good use of her theatrical background to flesh out several of her characters, particularly the actress Maria; as I previously mentioned, Pappy is also generally viewed as being modeled on du Maurier’s own extremely colorful father.  One of the funniest sections of the novel IMO was Chapter 16, which describes the wedding reception of Maria and her very proper husband Charles, as well as the subsequent visit of the entire Delaney clan (including the very young Niall’s much older French mistress) to Coldhammer, the estate of Charles’ rigid parents, Lord and Lady Wyndham (Virago ed. at 200-201):

Dynamic and robust, Pappy mixed well with kings and queens — especially those in exile — and Italian noblemen and French countesses, and the more Bohemian of what was termed London intelligentsia; but with the English ‘county’ — and the Wyndhams were essentially ‘county’ — Pappy seemed out of place.  He was unaware of the fact.  It was his family that suffered.

‘But of course we will come to Coldhammer,’ said Pappy. . . . ‘But I insist on sleeping in a four-poster bed. Can you produce one for me?  I must sleep in a four-poster bed.’

*                   *               *              *               *

‘The Queen Anne suite has a four-poster, she [Lady Wyndham] said, ‘but the rooms face north, over the drive.  The view from the south is so much better, especially when our Prunus floribunda is in flower.’

Pappy laid a finger against his nose.  Then he bent down to Lady Wyndham’s ear.

‘Keep your Prunus floribunda for others,’ he said in a loud whisper.  ‘When I visit Coldhammer I expect only my hostess to be in flower.’

Lady Wyndham remained unmoved.  Not a flicker of understanding passed across her features.

‘I am afraid you are no gardener,’ she said.

It only gets better from there.  If you enjoy this type of humor at all, you simply must not miss Pappy’s arrival at Coldhammer (Virago ed. at 203) for a weekend house party, wearing a tie that is far too red (“I must have color . . .  color is all”) and with an excess of luggage, including a suitcase packed with medicines, syringes and home remedies (“‘When I pack’, said Pappy, ‘I pack for all eternity.'” )

Others far more knowledgeable than I about du Maurier’s ouevre have said that the Delaney siblings represent three aspects of DDM’s personality.  Be that as it may, the siblings do seem to embody different facets of the artistic process.  Maria’s studied stage performances are motivated by fame and applause; the more introspective Niall cares little for either and composes his music almost instinctively; and Celia, whose ego demands she be indispensable to others, is an artist manqué who chooses not to develop her considerable artistic skills.  I also think the novel contains interesting hints that du Maurier may be questioning the primacy society accords the artist.  Charles’ outburst (quoted earlier) accusing the Delaney’s of parasitism, goes beyond the personal to also attack “the fool public who allow you to exist.”  I don’t think this aspect of the novel is really developed but I do think it’s at least an interesting suggestion, particularly in view of the subsequent discussion in which Niall and Charles dispute the value of the performing arts (Virago ed. at 7).

Before my blogging days I was only marginally aware of du Maurier’s work.  I had, of course, read Rebecca (several times, actually.  It only gets better with each re-read, doesn’t it?) and My Cousin Rachel as well as various short stories here and there.  About a year ago, however, I re-watched the movie version of “Don’t Look Now” (with Sutherland/Christie), which sparked a re-reading of the novella; after that I went on to additional shorter works as well as The Parasites.  As frequently happens when a particular book or author gets on one’s radar, I also began noticing the many blog postings on du Maurier’s works before learning, late in the day, about Ali’s reading week.  In the course of all this, I’ve gone from a rather condescending view (forgive me, dear readers — we have all had our blind spots) of du Maurier as a popular period novelist with perhaps one great book under her belt to regarding her as a vastly talented stylist with the rare ability to connect with readers at all levels of sophistication.  Although I’m not sure which of her novels I’ll go to next (I am overdue for another re-read of Rebecca),  I’ll definitely be reading more of du Maurier’s work.

15 thoughts on “Daphne du Maurier’s The Parasites (DDM reading week late entry)

  1. Hi Ali! I don’t think I left a comment but I very much enjoyed your own review of this novel from last year. Many thanks for hosting DDM week, as otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered to push myself to post about The Parasites (I’m pretty lazy about writing), which really does deserve to get more reader attention. Besides, I got to read Chapter 16 again!

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  2. Great post, and what an interesting book! I do feel that DDM is too often pigenholed and this sounds very different to her more famous works. And from what I remember, she does handle time shifts very well. I don’t think I’d actually heard of this one so I *will* keep an eye out for it. May I recommend The House on the Strand, of which I have very fond memories, and which I really *should* revisit!

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  3. Hi Kaggsy! Glad you liked the review — I’ve read so many of yours that I’ve enjoyed (although you’re a terrible influence on my TBR list; I’ve added so many recommendations from your blog I should probably name a minor peak in your honor!); I’m glad I finally managed to post something in return, so to speak. From my limited experience with DDM, Parasites is quite different from the rest of her work; so much so that it might appeal to those who shy away from her suspense/gothic/historical fiction offerings.
    Thanks for the recommendation! I really was flummoxed about which DDM novel to read next (I hate to just keep re-reading Rebecca, excellent though it is) so I’ll definitely keep House in mind.

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  4. This is one du Maurier I have not read but will definitely do so after reading your excellent review. And I too love stories of dysfunctional families! 😁
    She definitely was a versatile writer and there’s a lot more to her than “ Rebecca”. And I’m so glad your view is changing. I think she was very underrated during her time and it is heartening to see her gain some recognition now, albeit posthumously.

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  5. Hello Ms. Gitane! So happy you dropped by and enjoyed the review. Aren’t dysfunctional families wonderful? Hell to live in but what would fiction be without them?
    I totally agree that DDM was an incredibly versatile writer (just how versatile I’m slowly discovering) and, yes, there IS so much more to her than Rebecca, where so many readers stop. I wonder if du Maurier’s great popularly during her lifetime, and commercial success, haven’t actually hurt her reputation with the literary establishment? I’ve observed that there can be a tendency to disparage some very good writers who are also commercially successful, particularly if those writers happen to be women! I actually think DDM’s ability to write very popular novels/short stories that are also finely crafted, literary works is one of the most interesting aspects of her genius.
    I may take a leaf from your postings and read some short stories next!

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  6. Hello again. I just finished reading The House on the Strand, the first book of Du Maurier I have read in many years. I read Rebecca and My Cousin and adored them. I’m looking forward to reading The Parasites.
    BTW, have you read, E M Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady?

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  7. Hi Michelle — nice to “chat” with you again! Rebecca and Rachel are wonderful, aren’t they? It’s been many years since I’ve read either, so I’m due for a re-read (haven’t decided which one first). I think I’ll save this until a rainy fall day, which provides a perfect background for these type books. How did you like House on the Strand? I haven’t read it and it will probably be my next DDM.
    I have NOT read anything by Delafield. I’ve seen so many posts and comments about her work, however (especially Diary) that I’m starting to feel almost compelled to do so! If you’ve read anything, let me know what you think.

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  8. The Diary of a Provincial Lady is the best book in the world. I read lots and this book always stays at my number one. I think you would like it.
    I really enjoyed House on the Strand. The book is flooded with the mores of the 1950s and of a certain type of middle class English man who is probably extinct now. Fascinating to read about a housekeeper looking after him and everyone smoking and people writing letters and telegrams arriving. Truly a world that has passed but appeals in its simplicity and so much slower pace. The mystery was gripping too!
    Get yourself the Diary!

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  9. Fantastic review, as usual Janakay. I’ve read now five du Maurier novels and while Rebecca is still very much my favorite, I now know better to expect them all to be gothic suspense in that style. Like you, I knew very little about her prior to entering the blogging world. I did at first want all her books to be like Rebecca, which I have read twice, but honestly, I would probably be disappointed if that were the case. I’ve not read The Parasites, but you’ve made it sound very inviting. I even have a copy! One of the many books inherited from my mother. I also want to read a good biography of her someday. I think that would be very satisfying. But I’d like to get a few more of her books under my belt first.

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  10. I’m glad you liked the review. I felt a bit weird about doing it, since I read the book last fall, but I’ve always felt guilty about not giving it a little space, as I enjoyed it so much.
    Rebecca really is the best, isn’t it? Not to disparage DDM’s other works but a masterpiece is a masterpiece! Like you, I’ve read Rebecca more than once and that opening line (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”) is among the greats. Come to think of it, I’m between books right now, so maybe I’ll wander over to the “D” section of my new shelves and browse again in an old fav . .
    You’ve read more of DDM’s work than I: for me, it’s Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, the Parasites and some short story collections. I hope Ali does another DDM week, as these events tend to push me into actually reading something!

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  11. You’ve cemented my idea to read The Parasites – with that and the doppleganger one I’m set for two more years of Ali’s Week! And thank you for following my blog; I’ve added yours to my blog reader.

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    1. Hi Liz — I hope you enjoy The Parasites as much as I did. It’s definitely not Rebecca, which is fine with me (there is ONLY one Rebecca and how boring to continue reading the same book). Aside from its considerable merits as a novel, Parasites really demonstrates just how versatile du Maurier was as a writer. Although I’d probably run with horror from any of the Delaneys should I happen to meet them in real life, they’re great in a novel. Pappy along is worth the price of admission (if modeled on real life, one must feel some sympathy for the young Daphne!) I’m so glad for Ali’s week; it’s really increased my DMD awareness; I certainly hope to participate next year as well.
      I hope you enjoy my blog; I’ve been slow to post but hope to remedy that, at least a little. As for your own blog — I’ve been reading it for some time and have tremendously enjoyed it; so glad that I now am an “official” follower!

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      1. Yes, Ali’s blog and Ali are entirely responsible for me reading any DDM and I’m glad now I have two more years’ worth (The Scapegoat is the other one I was grasping for). I suppose My Cousin Rachel is the closest to Rebecca in terms of the lovely house, awful atmosphere, unclear doom hovering, etc. And thank you for your kind words about my blog!

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