B-Sides: Daphne Du Maurier, “Monte Verità”

Few writers have been as beloved by readers and underrated by reviewers as Daphne du Maurier. What irked them?

Few writers have been as beloved by readers and underrated by reviewers as Daphne du Maurier. What irked them? That she unapologetically reinvented seemingly passé romantic and gothic modes in Frenchman’s Creek, Jamaica Inn, and the iconic 1938 Rebecca? The fact that Hitchcock turned three of her works into feature films? Or was it simply her great productivity and commercial success? A combination of these factors seems to have fed the sexism and condescension of critics, leading them to dismiss Du Maurier’s works as melodramatic rather than appreciate her nimble prose and psychological acuity.

Really, Du Maurier’s great power came from her keen appreciation, and vividly harrowing exploration, of our deepest fears. Especially the fear of losing a love meant to last forever. This elemental fear—the engine that propels Rebecca—also fuels her finest story, “Monte Verità” (1952), a love triangle with a speculative twist.

Set mainly in a European mountain village, the story centers on two young wealthy Englishmen who share a love of hiking, climbing, and—perhaps—of the same woman: the calmly beautiful, mysterious, otherworldly Anna. She marries the jollier and less contemplative Englishman, Victor; the other is our unnamed narrator, reminiscing as an older man. When Anna joins Victor on a hike to Monte Verità, villagers warn him that she must not climb because mystical beings (or perhaps a cult-like mountain sect) lure young women up the mountain, never to return.

The story-within-a-story structure gives the piece a melancholic, nostalgic feel. To say much more of the plot—Du Maurier was a supreme plotter—would be to reveal surprises. (In fact, you may want to sit down with the story before continuing with this B-Side.)

Beneath the surface of “Monte Verità” run fascinating hints of Du Maurier’s own experience with gender crossing, sexual taboos, and romantic complexity. A “daddy’s girl” of wealthy upbringing, and the most beautiful of three sisters, Du Maurier was accustomed to male attention. At age 20 she had a romance with her 42-year-old cousin, describing it in her diary as “so like kissing Daddy. Perhaps this family is the same as the Borgias! Daddy is Pope Alexander, Geoffrey is Cesare, and I am Lucretia.”

Yet throughout her life, Du Maurier wished to escape not just the confines of her gender but its essence. She chafed at the accoutrements of femininity (the dresses, curfews, lack of independence) and as a child, she had a name for her male self, Eric Avon—a persona she adopted until well into adolescence and tapped into even as an adult. In her teens, she found herself passionately attracted to women and at age 18 began a lasting affair with a female teacher—but she abhorred the label lesbian. Though she married in her 20s, she continued to take female lovers in secret and spent most of her marriage apart from her husband.

In a letter to one such lover, she described the aspect of herself she called “half-breed”:

A boy with nervous hands and a beating heart, incurably romantic, and wanting to throw a cloak before his lady’s feet. … And then the boy realized he had to grow up, and not be a boy any longer so he turned into a girl, and not an unattractive one at that, and the boy was locked into a box forever. D du M. wrote her books, and had young men, and later a husband, and children, and a lover, and life was sometimes lovely and sometimes rather sad but … she opened up the box sometimes, and let the phantom, who was neither girl nor boy but disembodied spirit, dance in the evening when there was no one to see.

In “Monte Verità,” one of the most memorable early images is of Anna, spied by the narrator on a winter’s night, barefoot on the grounds of Victor’s home as she looks up at the moon. Later, the unseen “figures” he spies worshipping the moon are “ageless, they were sexless, they were neither male nor female … and with a sudden longing I wanted to be one of them, to be dressed as they were dressed, to love as they must love, to laugh and worship and be silent.”

Though the narrator at first describes the “figures”—repeatedly—with this genderless term, it later seems that once the village girls’ hair is shorn, they become “boys,” all of whom are laughing, strong, joyous.

If this ideal (of unsexing or of gender crossing) was a return to her childhood fantasy, Du Maurier understood that with dreams comes complexity. As Victor tells our narrator, “I tried to say ‘What happened?’ ‘Where have you been?’—but it wasn’t any use.” The bewilderment and grief of those left behind will feel familiar to any reader who has ever felt powerless to employ reason or pleaded to secure a beloved’s return. Those who lose a family member to a cult or to mental illness must also feel this way.

Du Maurier’s great power came from her keen appreciation, and vividly harrowing exploration, of our deepest fears.

Possibly the same sense of impossibility infused Du Maurier’s sense of her own private predicament, for which she found no real solution. “I had never felt so helpless,” the narrator says. That helplessness highlights the story’s focus on mysticism, the question of predestiny versus choice.

To continue loving Anna means accepting ideas beyond reason. On his annual return to the mountain, Victor never sees Anna, only the notes he says she leaves in exchange for his—his letters written on paper, hers etched onto a stone tablet. Her words are impermeable, like the inscrutable mountain itself. Nor does Victor catch sight of the women we are told she has gone to live with. Just these cold hard slabs of stone.

The characters cling to their beliefs as to a crumbling cliff. Though “no man living had set eyes on them,” the villagers believe that the women at Monte Verità remain young and beautiful forever. The men, though, long to attack what they cannot comprehend—this cult is stealing their young women!

Through the myth of the mountain priestesses, “Monte Verità” taps into male fear of imponderable female power. Something similar happens in other great Du Maurier stories, among them “Kiss Me Again, Stranger”—about a seemingly otherworldly femme fatale—and the brilliant “Don’t Look Now,” in which a husband worries his wife is being manipulated by enigmatic twin sisters.

Yet this power shows its benign side as well. A little girl recounts a happy encounter with the mysterious inhabitants, and when the narrator asks an older girl if she thinks she will be called to the mountain, she is “wistful,” saying, “I am not worthy.” Another girl manages the disappearing act: “A girl … she was to marry shortly, she went away one day, she has not come back, and they are saying she has been called to Monte Verità.” We read between the lines: there is an elusive haven for those who will not or cannot marry according to the community’s rules.

Perhaps this depiction of a fantastical mountain order is also Du Maurier’s nightmare: of paradise glimpsed, yet forever out of reach. The one time Victor sees Anna at the mountaintop monastery, she stands on a small ledge in the sky, mere feet away, yet inaccessible; a drop of “a thousand feet or more” separates them. “She was a bare twelve feet away from him, and he could not touch her.”

The passage reads like those torturous dreams where the dreamer is allowed a sighting of a deceased beloved but cannot be heard or reach them in time. When Victor runs toward Anna, calling her name, he “heard himself sobbing, and he thought his heart would burst.”

A woman stands apart: feared, distrusted, prized, missed, doubted, adored, misjudged. Yet Du Maurier understands there is something arbitrary about the separation—the matter of only a few feet.

Did Du Maurier, despite her gender crossings, feel, like Victor—ultimately bereft? She knew from experience that the “real” life, the paradise she yearned for, was unattainable. For this reason, the ultimate revelation of what has happened to Anna probably should not shock us as it does. It is its stark reality, amid the fantasies and the patina of magic, that makes the truth so disturbing.

Last spring, among the first-year college students in my Exploring the Uncanny seminar was a serious young man who concluded each of his weekly response papers by rating the stories we had read on a scale of one to ten. When, near semester’s end, we arrived at “Monte Verità,” his note explained that the story was simply too beautiful to be assigned a numerical score.

This awed response encapsulates the story’s eerie ability to cast a spell on the reader—just as the eponymous mountain seems to cast a spell on the young women who climb it. Du Maurier surely reached deep within herself to find dreamlike terms for the hard truth that paradise won’t be found on earth. “It was as though I walked alone on the earth’s rim, the universe below me and above. No one trod this empty discus but myself, and it spun its way through space to ultimate darkness.” icon

This article was commissioned by John Plotz. Featured image: Photograph of Daphne du Maurier by Ben van Meerendonk, from the Institute of Social History collection in Amsterdam. Dated May 31, 1947. / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)