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‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’
Du Maurier’s name is synonymous with some of the greatest works of fiction - twisted gothic romances, psychological horror, nail-biting thrillers…she paved the way for the type of novels we know and love today.
Her books and short stories have been made into countless films and tv shows, including Rebecca, The Birds and Don’t Look Now. And despite her death over thirty years ago, reader’s love for Du Maurier shows no sign of slowing down - in 2021 a new adaptation of Rebecca came out, introducing a whole new generation of readers to this masterpiece of manipulation and plotting.
Daphne (right) and her two sisters
Daphne was born in London in 1907 to two actors, Gerald Du Maurier and Muriel Beaumont. She and her siblings grew up in the acting world, surrounded by the famous stage actors of the time. But Daphne’s first love was always books. She had two sisters, Jeanne, who would become a painter, and Angela, who was also a writer.
Daphne in 1936
Daphne spent her summers as a child at Fowey in Cornwall, which they also retreated to during the war years. She would later move to Cornwall permanently and spent the rest of her life there. It is the setting for a great deal of her books. Growing up, she could be her real self there - wearing trousers, exploring the coastline with her dog in total freedom. The protagonist of her novel Jamaica Inn, Mary Yellen, most resembles this free-spirited and independent side of herself.
Du Maurier’s writing career was kick-started by her extended family’s literary connections. She published her first stories in her uncle’s magazine, Bystander. She would publish her first novel in 1931.
Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (1940), directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Over the years, Du Maurier was described as a “romantic” novelist, which she hated. Her books rarely have a happy ending, with as critic Kate Kellaway said, have “riddles that persist”. There are elements of horror, time-travel, the paranormal and other sinister subjects. She published Rebecca in 1938 to enormous critical acclaim. It has sold millions of copies and has never gone out of print.
Daphne and her children outside Menabilly
Daphne married Frederick Browning in 1932, and they went on to have three children together. There marriage, while lasting, was an unhappy one. Daphne preferred writing to raising children and she and her husband grew distant after he returned from the war. Constrained by her situation, she often said she “wished she had been born a boy”. After her death, there was some speculation about a number of presumed affairs she might have had with women after some of her private correspondence became public. Her children vehemently denied these relationships, apparently having no knowledge whatsoever of their mother’s other life when she was alive. She would tell her biographer Margaret Forster that she experienced a type of duality - a female, “mothering” side that her family saw and a more “masculine” energy that drove her creativity and her writing. This alter-ego even had a name, established with her sister in childhood - Eric Avon.
One of Du Maurier's novels
In her later years, Du Maurier was deeply private, even reclusive. She rarely made public appearances or interviews. However, her close friend described her as warm person who welcomed guests to her home in Cornwall. She did not tell anyone when she received a dame hood, and reluctantly attended the ceremony at the behest of her children.
Menabilly, where she moved with her family in 1943, would be the setting and inspiration for the house of Manderley in her novel Rebecca. Du Maurier desperately loved the house and lived there for twenty-five years. She attempted to buy it but the family would not sell. In her old age, unable to maintain the house and the grounds, the lease was ended and she moved into one of the cottages on the estate, where she lived out the rest of her life. She died in her sleep at age 81, in 1989. Menabilly continues to be owned by the Rashleigh family and is private property.
Some of my favourite Daphne Du Maurier quotes...
Watch: Rebecca (1940) directed by Alfred Hitchcock
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