An encounter with a beggar woman while on holiday in Urbino was the genesis of Daphne du Maurier’s only novel set in Italy. Her fictional counterpart received a gift of 10,000 lira, which was to prove a curse. She was found dead the following morning, the money stolen. The man who had given her the money, however, was reluctant to report what he knew to the police. After all, that would make him the last person to see her alive, and prime suspect. Besides he thought he recognised her. Hadn’t she been his nurse, all those years ago? What was she doing drunk and destitute in a church doorway in Rome?
His curiosity aroused, Armino Fabbio, who is working as a tour guide (and thereby confirms that I made the right decision not to make it a career) manoeuvres events so that he can return to his home town of Ruffano to investigate further Further shocks await – not least the discovery that his elder brother, whom he thought a casualty of war, is still alive. Aldo, Director of the Arts Council, is planning a spectacular festival, based on the exploits of a former ruler, Duke Claudio, aka The Falcon. The Falcon was a mad tyrant, who came to a bad end, torn to pieces by the hands of his own citizens. Why Aldo chooses to base a festival around his last days is the mystery at the centre of the novel …
… and one which is, apparently, resolved only if you’re acquainted with Jungian psychology. Du Maurier described the novel as an allegory, an allegory which no-one understood at the time of publication, and one which I’m making no claims to understand now. I will say, however, that with the arrival of Aldo, the plot not only thickens, it curdles. For Aldo is one of those two-faced characters that Du Maurier excels in. His power complex and desire to manipulate not only his younger brother, a secret society of other damaged individuals, the entire university staff (boy, does he know how to exploit the rivalry between the main faculties) is such that the ambiguity that is so central to Du Maurier’s most (in)famous characters, Rebecca and Rachel, never quite exists. However, he is handsome, and charismatic, and he knows how to charm the ladies with his hypnotic eyes. Unfortunately for Carla Raspa (what a terrific name for the rapacious femme who would love to be his fatale), she’s not the lady he wishes to charm.
Ruffano, Du Maurier’s fictional Urbino, with its squares, narrow gothic alleyways, and ancient buildings is full of atmosphere and tension, ratcheted up when events from the Falcon’s time begin to repeat. “The proud would be stripped, the haughty violated, the slanderer silenced, and viper die in his own venom.”
The finale in which Aldo recreates the Falcon’s final chase through the ancient streets is a tremendous set piece, yet the final denouement doesn’t quite convince. A course in Jungian psychology might help.