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The Breaking Point
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“The appeal of romance and the clash of highly-charged emotions.”-New York Herald-Tribune
Table of Contents
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THERE COMES A moment in the life of every individual when reality must be faced. When this happens, it is as though a link between emotion and reason is stretched to the limit of endurance, and sometimes snaps. In this collection of stories, men, women, children and a nation are brought to the breaking point. Whether the link survives or snaps, the reader must judge for himself.
The eight short stories here were first published in 1959. They were written immediately after one of Daphne du Maurier's finest novels, The Scapegoat, and immediately before The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, her biography of the most tormented of the Brontë siblings. The Scapegoat concerns itself with the question of doubles or Doppelgänger, with the extremes for good and evil we all contain within ourselves; The Infernal World is a study of a greatly gifted, fabulous boy, fatally ill equipped to deal with the real world, and ultimately broken by it.
The stories here reflect the concerns of those adjacent books: they are dark, difficult, perturbing—and sometimes shocking. Du Maurier grouped them together under the title The Breaking Point—and they were written during a period when she herself came close to a severe nervous breakdown. They reflect and echo that psychological stress; it runs through them like a fault line. Here, we are a stylistic world away from the smooth technical assurance of her bestselling novels of the 1930s and 1940s: these stories are jagged and unstable; they constantly threaten and alarm; they tip towards the unpredictability of fairy tale, then abruptly veer towards nightmare. They are elliptic, awkward—and they are fascinating. As du Maurier herself acknowledged, she had come perilously close to madness immediately before she wrote them, and these stories were part of her cure—the means by which an extraordinary novelist wrote herself back to sanity. This is fiction—but it is also therapy.
One of the most famous stories in this collection is "The Blue Lenses." It is set in a nursing home—and it was in a private nursing home in London in July 1957 that the cracks first began to open beneath Daphne du Maurier's feet. The victim-patient in her story is a woman, but in her fiction du Maurier often chooses to "re-sex the pronouns" (as Auden put it), and the real patient in the London nursing home, confined there after a severe breakdown aggravated by alcoholism, was her husband, Lt. General Sir Frederick ("Boy") Browning.
Her husband's collapse caused an immediate crisis, exacerbated, perhaps, by the fact that Daphne was determined to shroud it in secrecy, maintaining a front to all but a very few of her closest friends. Forced to leave Cornwall and her beloved home, Menabilly, she traveled to London to help look after her husband, staying in the small, dreary flat on the sixth floor of a large block in Chelsea, that her husband had leased years before. It had been his London base for some ten years—first when he was at the War Office, and then when he became Comptroller of Princess Elizabeth's household and subsequently Treasurer to the Duke of Edinburgh. While she was there, living in a shabby confined space that was the antithesis of Menabilly, in drab rooms that always smelled faintly of gas, in a flat she called "The Rat Trap," in a city she had always loathed, in which she had always found it impossible to write, Daphne received a telephone call from a woman. She was, she announced, Browning's mistress: they had been having an affair for some years; it was serious. She wanted Daphne to "release" her husband and set him free: his breakdown, she informed her, was the result of the intolerable strain that marital deception and leading a double life had imposed upon him.
The effect upon Daphne was profound. Looking back over the patterns of her marriage, with the hindsight of an outsider, this might seem strange. After all, Daphne had not been faithful to her husband: there had been a series of affairs, with men and with women, dating back to the 1930s. For years, they had seemed a semi-estranged couple, leading separate lives, she in Cornwall writing, her husband in London, the perfect courtier. For years they had been reunited only for holidays and at weekends, when Browning made the long and arduous train journey to Cornwall. Nor was this the first instance of Browning's capacity to entangle himself with other women: he had embarrassed and infuriated Daphne with what seems a fairly innocent, if foolish, infatuation with a young woman who worked in a shop in Fowey (the town closest to Menabilly). What her husband seems to have been seeking was kindness, ordinariness and companionship; the isolation so essential to du Maurier was fatally wounding to her husband. Indeed, although he recovered from the 1957 breakdown to a degree, his last years were sad ones. He was to die in March 1965—his wife did not attend his funeral, despite being devastated, just as, many years earlier, she had not attended her father's.
Given that Daphne had never wanted her husband to live full time with her in Cornwall, given her marked impatience with his moods and depression, given she both welcomed and deeply needed the isolation she enjoyed at Menabilly during the week, one might not have been surprised had she taken a laissez-faire attitude to this affair once she learned of it. Was it so unthinkable that Moper (as the family had nicknamed her husband) should alleviate his loneliness—indeed his very evident unhappiness during this period—in the arms of a woman she dubbed "The Snow Queen"? Daphne was unconventional in many ways: she was neither narrow-minded, nor puritanical. One might have expected that, with dignity, she would have accepted some form of "open" marriage from that date onwards.
Instead she was plunged into a state of despair, anger, guilt, anguish and paranoia. But she fought to save her marriage—and fought hard—from the instant she realized it was threatened. Browning agreed to end his liaison, a task he undertook gradually, with a certain amount of backsliding. Released from his nursing home, he returned to Menabilly to recuperate for the remainder of the summer—once there, Daphne attempted to rebuild her fragmented marriage. As her letters of the period make clear, she fully accepted her part in its breakdown, indeed was racked with guilt for her own failings. In an effort to eradicate all secrets between them, she confessed her previous infidelities to her husband. She acknowledged to him and to others that her craving to write and her "passion for solitude" had contributed to Browning's despair and decline. She resolved that, from then on, she would work at her marriage.
But marriage was not Daphne's work, and never had been, and although her wish to salvage her relationship with her husband was clearly sincere (and passionately so), there was ambivalence and resentment from the first. Her unrest was compounded by the onset of menopause, which brought with it recurring dreams of drowning—an influence apparent in "The Pool," the fourth of the stories here. Further stress was caused, the same year, by the death of her mother, with whom her relationship had always been troubled. Once her husband returned to work at Buckingham Palace that autumn, she committed herself to spending more time with him in London. But the constant journeying back and forth, her exile from Menabilly, fount of her imagination for decades, and her grinding misery in the city undermined both her health and her resolve. For her, the role of the conventional wife was torture: she could see her duty in this respect—but it came at a cost: it was death to her as an artist. "I'm sure deep down he [Browning] grudges my work," she wrote to her friend the novelist Oriel Malet the following February, "and wants to see me as a person waiting to cook his steak… I am never alone… I must just hang on and hope I don't crack before Easter."
"I had a bloody long ten days in London," she wrote a month later, by which time the strain on her is fully apparent: "My only pleasure was to paint the horrible view from the bedroom at the flat, and I made it all strident and screaming, because of my hate, with glaring chimney-pots and those awful Power Station Battersea things, belching evil smoke… [my] paintings are very out of proportion and crude, but in a queer way they have a sort of power, like paintings done by madmen. (Perhaps I am!)."
It is difficult to judge exactly how close Daphne came, that year, to breaking point. Judging by the incoherence of some of her letters written then, and the testimony of friends who witnessed episodes of paranoia in which she believed herself watched, followed and plotted against, she came perilously close to the edge of insanity, and perhaps, on occasion, slipped over. But she was able to claw her way back, and the route she took, powered by her imagination, resonates throughout these eight Breaking Point stories.
In the first, the troubling and terrifying "The Alibi," a man, James Fenton, adopts a new and secret identity. He embarks on a double life, toys with the idea of an acte gratuit (a motiveless murder), and then displaces that ugly violence into art. Instead of killing his chosen victims, a woman and her heartbreakingly neglected son, he paints them—and the unskilled fury he exhibits as he stabs oil onto canvas echoes the rage with which Daphne, trapped in her husband's Chelsea flat, painted her own "strident" and "screaming" canvases.
In the second, "The Blue Lenses," a near-blind woman in a nursing home has an operation on her eyes—and acquires abnormal, yet truthful vision. Now she can see the treachery of her husband and her nurse; now she can understand that her own nature condemns her to be a victim, plotted against and perhaps to be disposed of. In both stories, there is possible gender adjustment; in both, there is a subterranean river of autobiography, a dark underground torrent that flows under and through the work, occasionally breaking the surface—and this flow can be perceived throughout, right to the last, "The Lordly Ones," in which an afflicted terrorized boy, born dumb, desperate to communicate, speaks to the reader with heart-rending eloquence.
All of du Maurier's central concerns can be found in these eight strange works: the preoccupation with double lives, split personalities and divided loyalties; the unflinching investigation of perversity, of purpose (and purposelessness) in art. There is the same clear-eyed scrutiny of love and its potential rapacity that we find in her novels. There is the subtle questioning of the nature of crime, whereby the victim and perpetrator constantly switch roles, until it is almost impossible to judge which is the guilty party—a preoccupation, this, that can be seen in du Maurier's Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel.
These stories do not make easy reading. They are shot through with darkness, terror and anger. They occupy that danger zone where the distinctions between health and sickness, sanity and madness are blurred. Not by any means technically perfect, they are nonetheless extraordinary.
London, October 2008
The Fentons were taking their usual Sunday walk along the Embankment. They had come to Albert Bridge, and paused, as they always did, before deciding whether to cross it to the gardens, or continue along past the houseboats; and Fenton's wife, following some process of thought unknown to him, said, "Remind me to telephone the Alhusons when we get home to ask them for drinks. It's their turn to come to us."
Fenton stared heedlessly at the passing traffic. His mind took in a lorry swinging too fast over the bridge, a sports car with a loud exhaust, and a nurse in a gray uniform, pushing a pram containing identical twins with round faces like Dutch cheeses, who turned left over the bridge to Battersea.
"Which way?" asked his wife, and he looked at her without recognition, seized with the overwhelming, indeed appalling impression that she, and all the other people walking along the Embankment or crossing the bridge, were minute, dangling puppets manipulated by a string. The very steps they took were jerking, lopsided, a horrible imitation of the real thing, of what should be; and his wife's face—the china-blue eyes, the too heavily made-up mouth, the new spring hat set at a jaunty angle—was nothing but a mask painted rapidly by a master-hand, the hand that held the puppets, on the strip of lifeless wood, matchstick wood, from which these marionettes were fashioned.
He looked quickly away from her and down to the ground, hurriedly tracing the outline of a square on the pavement with his walking stick, and pinpointing a blob in the center of the square. Then he heard himself saying, "I can't go on."
"What's the matter?" asked his wife. "Have you got a stitch?"
He knew then that he must be on his guard. Any attempt at explanation would lead to bewildered stares from those large eyes, to equally bewildered, pressing questions; and they would turn on their tracks back along the hated Embankment, the wind this time mercifully behind them yet carrying them inexorably towards the death of the hours ahead, just as the tide of the river beside them carried the rolling logs and empty boxes to some inevitable, stinking mud-spit below the docks.
Cunningly he rephrased his words to reassure her. "What I meant was that we can't go on beyond the houseboats. It's a dead-end. And your heels…" he glanced down at her shoes… "your heels aren't right for the long trek round Battersea. I need exercise, and you can't keep up. Why don't you go home? It's not much of an afternoon."
His wife looked up at the sky, low-clouded, opaque, and blessedly, for him, a gust of wind shivered her too thin coat and she put up her hand to hold the spring hat.
"I think I will," she said, and then with doubt, "Are you sure you haven't a stitch? You look pale."
"No, I'm all right," he replied. "I'll walk faster alone."
Then, seeing at that moment a taxi approaching with its flag up, he hailed it, waving his stick, and said to her, "Jump in. No sense in catching cold." Before she could protest he had opened the door and given the address to the driver. There was no time to argue. He hustled her inside, and as it bore her away he saw her struggle with the closed window to call out something about not being late back and the Alhusons. He watched the taxi out of sight down the Embankment, and it was like watching a phase of life that had gone forever.
He turned away from the river and the Embankment, and, leaving all sound and sight of traffic behind him, plunged into the warren of narrow streets and squares which lay between him and the Fulham Road. He walked with no purpose but to lose identity, and to blot from present thought the ritual of the Sunday which imprisoned him.
The idea of escape had never come to him before. It was as though something had clicked in his brain when his wife made the remark about the Alhusons. "Remind me to telephone when we get home. It's their turn to come to us." The drowning man who sees the pattern of his life pass by as the sea engulfs him could at last be understood. The ring at the front door, the cheerful voices of the Alhusons, the drinks set out on the sideboard, the standing about for a moment and then the sitting down—these things became only pieces of the tapestry that was the whole of his life-imprisonment, beginning daily with the drawing-back of the curtains and early morning tea, the opening of the newspaper, breakfast eaten in the small dining room with the gas-fire burning blue (turned low because of waste), the journey by Underground to the City, the passing hours of methodical office work, the return by Underground, unfolding an evening paper in the crowd which hemmed him in, the laying down of hat and coat and umbrella, the sound of television from the drawing room blending, perhaps, with the voice of his wife talking on the phone. And it was winter, or it was summer, or it was spring, or it was autumn, because with the changing seasons the covers of the chairs and sofa in the drawing room were cleaned and replaced by others, or the trees in the square outside were in leaf or bare.
"It's their turn to come to us," and the Alhusons, grimacing and jumping on their string, came and bowed and disappeared, and the hosts who had received them became guests in their turn, jiggling and smirking, the dancing couples set to partners in an old-time measure.
Now suddenly, with the pause by Albert Bridge and Edna's remark, time had ceased; or rather, it had continued in the same way for her, for the Alhusons answering the telephone, for the other partners in the dance; but for him everything had changed. He was aware of a sense of power within. He was in control. His was the master-hand that set the puppets jiggling. And Edna, poor Edna, speeding home in the taxi to a predestined role of putting out the drinks, patting cushions, shaking salted almonds from a tin, Edna had no conception of how he had stepped out of bondage into a new dimension.
The apathy of Sunday lay upon the streets. Houses were closed, withdrawn.
"They don't know," he thought, "those people inside, how one gesture of mine, now, at this minute, might alter their world. A knock on the door, and someone answers—a woman yawning, an old man in carpet slippers, a child sent by its parents in irritation; and according to what I will, what I decide, their whole future will be decided. Faces smashed in. Sudden murder. Theft. Fire." It was as simple as that.
He looked at his watch. Half-past three. He decided to work on a system of numbers. He would walk down three more streets, and then, depending upon the name of the third street in which he found himself, and how many letters it contained, choose the number of his destination.
He walked briskly, aware of mounting interest. No cheating, he told himself. Block of flats or United Dairies, it was all one. It turned out that the third street was a long one, flanked on either side by drab Victorian villas which had been pretentious some fifty years ago, and now, let out as flats or lodgings, had lost caste. The name was Boulting Street. Eight letters meant Number 8. He crossed over confidently, searching the front doors, undaunted by the steep flight of stone steps leading to every villa, the unpainted gates, the lowering basements, the air of poverty and decay which presented such a contrast to the houses in his own small Regency square, with their bright front doors and window boxes.
Number 8 proved no different from its fellows. The gate was even shabbier, perhaps, the curtains at the long, ugly ground-floor window more bleakly lace. A child of about three, a boy, sat on the top step. white-faced, blank-eyed, tied in some strange fashion to the mud-scraper so that he could not move. The front door was ajar.
James Fenton mounted the steps and looked for the bell. There was a scrap of paper pasted across it with the words "Out of Order." Beneath it was an old-fashioned bellpull, fastened with string. It would be a matter of seconds, of course, to unravel the knotted strap binding the child, carry him off under his arm down the steps, and then dispose of him according to mood or fancy. But violence did not seem to be indicated just yet: it was not what he wanted, for the feeling of power within demanded a longer term of freedom.
He pulled at the bell. The faint tinkle sounded down the dark hall. The child stared up at him, unmoved. Fenton turned away from the door and looked out on the street, at the plane tree coming into leaf on the pavement edge, the brown bark patchy yellow, a black cat crouching at its foot biting a wounded paw; and he savored the waiting moment as delicious because of its uncertainty.
He heard the door open wider behind him and a woman's voice, foreign in intonation, ask, "What can I do for you?"
Fenton took off his hat. The impulse was strong within him to say, "I have come to strangle you. You and your child. I bear you no malice whatever. It just happens that I am the instrument of fate sent for this purpose." Instead, he smiled. The woman was pallid, like the child on the steps, with the same expressionless eyes, the same lank hair. Her age might have been anything from twenty to thirty-five. She was wearing a woolen cardigan too big for her, and her dark, bunched skirt, ankle-length, made her seem squat.
"Do you let rooms?" asked Fenton.
A light came into the dull eyes, an expression of hope. It was almost as if this was a question she had longed for and had believed would never come. But the gleam faded again immediately, and the blank stare returned.
"The house isn't mine," she said. "The landlord let rooms once, but they say it's to be pulled down, with those on either side, to make room for flats."
"You mean," he pursued, "the landlord doesn't let rooms anymore?"
"No," she said. "He told me it wouldn't be worth it, not with the demolition order coming any day. He pays me a small sum to caretake until they pull the house down. I live in the basement."
"I see," he said.
It would seem that the conversation was at an end. Nevertheless Fenton continued to stand there. The girl or woman—for she could be either—looked past him to the child, bidding him to be quiet, though he hardly whimpered.
"I suppose," said Fenton, "you couldn't sublet one of the rooms in the basement to me? It could be a private arrangement between ourselves while you remain here. The landlord couldn't object."
He watched her make the effort to think. His suggestion, so unlikely, so surprising coming from someone of his appearance, was something she could not take in. Since surprise is the best form of attack, he seized his advantage. "I only need one room," he said quickly, "for a few hours in the day. I shouldn't be sleeping here."
The effort to size him up was beyond her—the tweed suit, appropriate for London or the country, the trilby hat, the walking stick, the fresh-complexioned face, the forty-five to fifty years. He saw the dark eyes become wider and blanker still as they tried to reconcile his appearance with his unexpected request.
"What would you want the room for?" she asked doubtfully.
There was the crux. To murder you and the child, my dear, and dig up the floor, and bury you under the boards. But not yet.
"It's difficult to explain," he said briskly. "I'm a professional man. I have long hours. But there have been changes lately, and I must have a room where I can put in a few hours every day and be entirely alone. You've no idea how difficult it is to find the right spot. This seems to me ideal for the purpose." He glanced from the empty house down to the child, and smiled. "Your little boy, for instance. Just the right age. He'd give no trouble."
A semblance of a smile passed across her face. "Oh, Johnnie is quiet enough," she said. "He sits there for hours, he wouldn't interfere." Then the smile wavered, the doubt returned. "I don't know what to say… We live in the kitchen, with the bedroom next to it. There is a room behind, where I have a few bits of furniture stored, but I don't think you would like it. You see, it depends what you want to do…"
Her voice trailed away. Her apathy was just what he needed. He wondered if she slept very heavily, or was even drugged. Those dark shadows under the eyes suggested drugs. So much the better. And a foreigner too. There were too many of them in the country.
"If you would only show me the room, I should know at once," he said.
Surprisingly she turned, and led the way down the narrow, dingy hall. Switching on a light above a basement stair, murmuring a continual apology the while, she took Fenton below. This had been, of course, the original servants' quarters of the Victorian villa. The kitchen, scullery and pantry had now become the woman's living room, kitchenette and bedroom, and in their transformation had increased in squalor. The ugly pipes, the useless boiler, the old range, might once have had some pretension to efficiency, with fresh white paint on the pipes and the range polished. Even the dresser, still in position and stretching nearly the full width of one wall, would have been in keeping some fifty years ago, with polished brass saucepans and a patterned dinner-service, while an overalled cook, bustling about with arms befloured, called orders to a minion in the scullery. Now the dirty cream paint hung in flakes, the worn linoleum was torn, and the dresser was bare save for odds and ends bearing no relation to its original purpose—a battered wireless set with trailing aerial, piles of discarded magazines and newspapers, unfinished knitting, broken toys, pieces of cake, a toothbrush, and several pairs of shoes. The woman looked about her helplessly.
"It's not easy," she said, "with a child. One clears up all the time."
It was evident that she never cleared, that she had given in, that the shambles he observed was her answer to life's problems, but Fenton said nothing, only nodded politely, and smiled. He caught a glimpse of an unmade bed through a half-open door, bearing out his theory of the heavy sleeper—his ring at the bell must have disturbed her—but seeing his glance she shut the door hurriedly, and in a half-conscious effort to bring herself to order buttoned her cardigan and combed her hair with her fingers.
"And the room you do not use?" he asked.
"Oh, yes," she replied, "yes, of course…" vague and uncertain, as if she had forgotten her purpose in bringing him to the basement. She led the way back across the passage, past a coal cellar—useful, this, he thought—a lavatory with a child's pot set in the open door and a torn Daily Mirror beside it, and so to a further room, the door of which was closed.
"I don't think it will do," she said sighing, already defeated. Indeed, it would not have done for anyone but himself, so full of power and purpose; for as she flung open the creaking door, and crossed the room to pull aside the strip of curtain made out of old wartime blackout material, the smell of damp hit him as forcibly as a sudden patch of fog beside the river, and with it the unmistakable odor of escaping gas. They sniffed in unison.
"Yes, it's bad," she said. "The men are supposed to come, but they never do."
As she pulled the curtain to let in air the rod broke, the strip of material fell, and through a broken pane of the window jumped the black cat with the wounded paw which Fenton had noticed beneath the plane tree in front of the house. The woman shooed it ineffectually. The cat, used to its surroundings, slunk into a far corner, jumped on a packing-case and composed itself to sleep. Fenton and the woman looked about them.
- On Sale
- Dec 17, 2013
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Little, Brown and Company