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.