“The entrance like a black hole cut out of the rock": Daphne du Maurier’s material dismantling of social restrictions in “East Wind,” an early Scillonian short story.

Stream: Travel and Place
Date: Wednesday, 18 May 2022
Time: 11.00 am – 12.30 pm

Abstract

It seems clear that when Daphne du Maurier began to turn her thoughts to writing her first “serious” novel, The Loving Spirit, she was inspired to write her epic story about the industrious Coombe family by gazing out onto the struggling shipyard that bordered Ferryside, her family’s holiday home in Cornwall. When the young du Maurier looked out of her window, she could clearly see the ship “Jane Slade” and its accompanying female figurehead, representing an unusually ambitious woman she passionately researched to create her first challenging protagonist, “Janet Coombe.” This particular story has been well examined by Helen Doe in her 2002 book "Jane Slade of Polruan: The Inspiration for Daphne du Maurier’s First Novel" and her 2009 discussion of “Daphne du Maurier’s Passion for the Sea.” However, a forgotten short story by du Maurier, “East Wind,” also features a heroine named Jane, and draws upon a similar sense of longing for adventure in an environment of forced stagnation, suggesting the nub of this shipbuilding narrative existed long before du Maurier's lengthier publication. Set on the Isles of Scilly, and written in pencil in a small notebook in Exeter University Special Collections archive, this short piece, compared to the more extended vision of The Loving Spirit, has, however, received little critical attention. Consequently, this paper will seek to revisit du Maurier's use of a struggling shipyard as reflection of a doomed environment, reconstructing her lexis of material dissolution to highlight the ways that "East Wind" provides an important moment in the evolution of her writing. Within the wider environment of an early-20th-century society that was increasingly questioning its own accepted values and traditions, du Maurier seems to use "East Wind" to reflect upon her developing relationship not only with her adopted environment of Cornwall, but a wider South-Western region that was struggling to retain its sense of identity and separateness. Historically, the Isles of Scilly had been viewed as space that contained inhabitants who were fiercely independent but also of a naturally disreputable disposition, who deliberately wrecked ships and gathered the spoils. Accordingly, when du Maurier set her own Jane in her imagined space of “St Hilda’s,” “nearly a hundred miles west of the Scillies,” she was following the figurehead’s gaze far westward to challenge traditional notions of morally acceptable behaviour, and to challenge the limitations of a small-scale society from within. As a holidaymaker in the Cornish town of Fowey, du Maurier would have been well experienced with inhabiting the role of the invader in the local landscape, and when her protagonist Jane becomes romantically involved with a stranger to St Hilda’s, du Maurier seems to play on this enhanced sense of the threat an outsider could present to a disenfranchised coastal community. Nonetheless, Fowey was clearly a site of potential freedom for du Maurier. As a middle-class young woman, this coastal town formed the first place in which she go out in her own boat alone; there is a simultaneous sense that Jane is given a heightened experience of living through her forbidden relationship with an unknown sailor, whatever the ultimate price. “East Wind,” then, appears to function as an early attempt to reconcile the freedoms and the constrictions the South-Western seas brought for du Maurier, and the sense of her own invasion in a place she was increasingly growing to love. Moreover, the Isles of Scilly, a further site of escapism, is used to create a more challenging examination of class-based and gendered constrictions which appeared to taker greater shape in du Maurier’s later writings, as she grew in confidence and artistic flair. In this short piece, Jane as a displaced figurehead, brought to ruin by the bewitching image of a stranger from distant lands, is forcibly broken by her husband, a man thwarted by his own apparent “natural” propensity towards an “inherited” criminal disposition. This paper will therefore forward a close reading of this short piece, looking at the way du Maurier creates a story about the wreckage of domesticity and convention through a lexis of breakage and tethering, using the even more distant space of the Isles of Scilly to explore her ideas about a freeing, but ultimately inward-looking and stunted, local environ. By recovering the connections between this figurehead and du Maurier’s first foray into writing about the “Jane” of her imagination, this paper unpacks a formative moment for the juvenile writer. Gazing out onto a history from which by virtue of her class, birthplace, and gender she had previously felt excluded, “East Wind” presents a woman who longed to defy societal expectations and sail out to sea. Only in later life, as an established novelist, would du Maurier finally seem to come to peace with the material haunting of a figurehead of a failing shipyard outside her window. Once the ship was dismantled, the “Jane Slade” effigy would later be installed on the side of Ferryside, whilst the shipyard itself was bought and re-established as a successful business with the financial backing of the writer. To take this image in isolation, to look at The Loving Spirit and neglect the current which created “East Wind,” however, is to miss out on the full force of du Maurier’s frustrations, and the way she turned her environment into creative material for her imagination.

Author

Beth Howell (Presenter), University of Exeter
Beth Howell is a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter, where she is in a receipt of an Eden Phillpotts Memorial Scholarship to research her thesis on literary representations of the Isles of Scilly from 1847-1967. Drawing on collections from the Isles of Scilly Museum, the Devon & Exeter Institution, and the British Library, she retains her interest in the presentation of history and identity, and works part time at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery. She completed her BA in Art History & English, and her MA in English Literary Studies:Victorian Studies, also at Exeter.