Dame Daphne du Maurier DBE (13 May 1907–19 April 1989) was a famous British novelist best known for her short story "The Birds" and her classic novel Rebecca, published in 1938. Both were adapted into films by Alfred Hitchcock and Rebecca was an Oscar-winning film.
Du Maurier was born in London (though spent most of her life in her beloved Cornwall), the daughter of the actor-manager Sir Gerald du Maurier, and granddaughter of the Author and cartoonist, George du Maurier. These connections gave her a head start in her literary career, and her first novel, The Loving Spirit was published in 1931. Du Maurier was also the cousin of the Llewelyn-Davies boys (George, Jack, Peter, Michael, and Nicholas), who are known for serving as J.M. Barrie's inspiration for the play Peter Pan. As a young child she was introduced to many of the brightest stars of the theatre thanks to the celebrity of her father; notably, on meeting Tallulah Bankhead she was quoted as saying that she was the most beautiful creature she had ever seen.
She married Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick "Boy" Browning and had two daughters and a son (Tessa, Flavia and Christian). Biographers have drawn attention to the fact that the marriage was at times somewhat chilly and that du Maurier could be aloof and distant to her children, especially the girls, when immersed in her writing. However, as a product of well-to-do Edwardian society in which the nanny dealt with the children, this is hardly surprising.
Indeed, she has often been painted as a frostily private recluse who rarely mixed in society or gave interviews. A notable exception to this came after the release of the film A Bridge Too Far in which her late husband was portrayed in a less-than-flattering light. Du Maurier was incensed and wrote to the national newspapers decrying what she considered unforgivable treatment. Once out of the glare of the public spotlight,however, many remembered her as a warm and immensely funny person who was the perfect hostess to those privileged to be invited to Menabilly, her Cornish Home.
After her death, numerous references were made to her alleged lesbianism; an affair with Gertrude Lawrence as well as her infatuation for the wife of her American publisher, Ellen Doubleday, were cited. Du Maurier stated in her memoirs that her father had wanted a son and being a tomboy, she had naturally wished to have been born a boy. However, this is perhaps too simplistic an explanation: a childhood brought into contact with the theatrical and artistic people of her parent's circle, many of whom were homosexual, should have meant for a liberal atmosphere. Yet strangely for a man in his profession, her father was vociferously homophobic. For a daughter who virtually hero-worshipped her father, this was bound to have major repercussions in later life; guilt, shame and an instilled belief that homosexuality was utterly abhorrent could not have helped her form rational conclusions to her own doubts and anxieties. In letters released to her official biographer after her death, du Maurier explained to a trusted few her own unique slant on her sexuality; her personality, she informs, is comprised of two distinct people: the loving wife and mother (the side she shows to the world) and the lover, a decidedly male energy, hidden to virtually everyone and the power behind her artistic creativity.
This appears somewhat contrived by today's standards; a desperate explaining-away of deeply troubling feelings that she battled with all her life and an avoidance of the truth. Yet du Maurier undoubtedly believed this was the case; this was the demon which fuelled her creative life as a writer. One can best try and understand this if one looks to those novels such as The Scapegoat or The House on the Strand, written in the first person and as men, and being utterly convincing.
Dame Daphne du Maurier
Literary critics have berated du Maurier's writings for not being an 'intellectual heavyweight' like George Eliot or Iris Murdoch, but many regard her as a mistress of suspense. By the time of her death, her writing was felt to belong to a bygone age of fiction. Today, she is considered a first-rate storyteller: her ability to recreate a sense of place is much admired, and her work remains popular worldwide. Du Maurier provided her audience with an escapist world of glamour and adventure, and for several decades she was the number one author for library book borrowings.
The novel Rebecca, which has been adapted for stage and screen on several occasions, is generally regarded as her masterpiece. One of her strongest influences here was Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Her fascination with the Brontë family is also apparent in The Infernal World of Bramwell Bronté, her biography of the troubled elder brother to the Bronte girls. The fact that their mother had been Cornish no doubt added to her interest.
Other notable works include The Scapegoat, The House on the Strand, Julius,originally published as The progress of Julius and The King's General. The latter is set in the middle of the 1st and 2nd English Civil Wars. Though written from the Royalist perspective of her native Cornwall, it gives a fairly neutral view of this period of history and is written with a great flair for that era. She also wrote a collection of short stories published in 1971 under the umbrella title Don't Look Now.
In addition to Rebecca, several of her other novels have been adapted for the screen, including Jamaica Inn, Frenchman's Creek, Hungry Hill and My Cousin Rachel (1951). The Hitchcock film The Birds (1963) is based on a treatment of one of her short stories, as is the film Don't Look Now (1973). Of the films, du Maurier often complained that the only ones she liked were Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca and Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now. Hitchcock's treatment of Jamaica Inn involved a complete re-write of the ending in order to accommodate the ego of its star, Charles Laughton. Du Maurier also felt that Olivia de Havilland was totally wrong as the (anti-)heroine in My Cousin Rachel. Frenchman's Creek fared rather better with its lavish technicolour sets and costumes, though Du Maurier later regretted her choice of Alec Guinness as the lead in the film of The Scapegoat which she partly financed.
Du Maurier was often categorised as a "romantic novelist" (a term she deplored), though most of her novels, with the notable exception of Frenchman's Creek, are quite different from the stereotypical format of a Georgette Heyer or Barbara Cartland novel. Du Maurier's novels rarely have a happy ending, and her brand of romanticism is often at odds with the sinister overtones and shadows of the paranormal she so favoured. In this light, she has more in common with the 'sensation novels' of Wilkie Collins et al., which she admired.
Indeed, it was in her short stories that she was able to give free rein to the harrowing and terrifying side of her imagination; The Birds, Don't Look Now, The Apple Tree and The Blue Lense are exquisitely crafted tales of terror which shocked and surprised her audience in equal measure. Perhaps more than at any other time, du Maurier was anxious as to how her bold new writing style would be received, not just with her readers (and to some extent her critics, though by then she had grown wearily accustomed to their often luke-warm reviews) but her immediate circle of family and friends.
In later life she wrote non-fiction, including several biographies which were well received. This no doubt came from a deep-rooted desire to be accepted as a serious writer, comparing herself to her close literary neighbour, A. L. Rowse, the celebrated historian and essayist, who lived a few miles away from her house near Fowey.
One of her most imaginative works, The Glass-Blowers, traces her French ancestry and gives a vivid depiction of the French Revolution. The du Mauriers is a sequel of a sort, describing the somewhat problematic ways in which the family moved from France to England in the 19th Century.
The House on the Strand (1969) combines the elements of "mental time-travel", a tragic love-affair in 14th century Cornwall, and the dangers of using drugs. The name of the late Rule Britannia is clearly ironic for a book describing the resentment of English people in general and Cornish people in particular at the increasing dominance of the USA.
She died at the age of 81 at her home in Cornwall, a region which had been the setting for many of her books. In accordance with her wishes, her body was cremated and her ashes were scattered on the cliffs near her home.
Awards and recognition
Du Maurier was named a Dame of the British Empire.
- Du Maurier was a member of the Cornish nationalist pressure group/political party Mebyon Kernow.
- In Ken Follett's thriller The Key to Rebecca, du Maurier's novel Rebecca is used as the key for a code used by a German spy in World War II Cairo.
- Neville Chamberlain is reputed to have read Rebecca on the plane journey which led to Adolf Hitler signing the Munich Agreement.
- The central character of her last novel, Rule Britannia, is an aging and eccentric actress who was based on Gertrude Lawrence and Gladys Cooper (to whom it is dedicated). However, the character is most recognisably Du Maurier herself.
- Du Maurier's novel Mary Anne (1954) is a fictionalised account of the real-life story of her great-great grandmother, Mary Anne Clarke née Thompson (1776-1852). Mary Anne Clarke from 1803 to 1808 was mistress of Frederick Augustus, the Duke of York and Albany (1763-1827). He was the "Grand Old Duke of York" of the nursery rhyme, a son of King George III and brother of the later King George IV.
- Kelly, Richard (1987). Daphne du Maurier. Boston: Twayne. ISBN 0-8057-6931-5.
- Obituary in The Independent April 21, 1989
- Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, London, 1887– : Du Maurier, Dame Daphne (1907–1989); Browning, Sir Frederick Arthur Montague (1896–1965); Frederick, Prince, Duke of York and Albany (1763-1827); Clarke, Mary Anne (1776?-1852).
- Du Maurier, Daphne, Mary Anne, Victor Gollancz Ltd, London, 1954.
- The Queen's Book of the Red Cross
- Daphne du Maurier
- Daphne du Maurier
- Interview with Daphne du Maurier — 1977
- Website of The Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, Yorkshire
- Web news magazine of the Brontë Parsonage Museum
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