The menacing Daphne du Maurier
The prolific ‘grand dame of popular literature’ despised her reputation as a romance writer, not least because the truth of her life was darker than any of her plots, writes Sophie White
‘LAST night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” So begins Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier’s most famous novel. These are also the words that begin many of the countless articles and essays written about her.
Rebecca haunted du Maurier, these nine words in many ways overshadowed the words that made up the prolific author’s output of nearly 30 works of fiction comprising novels, plays and short stories and nine works of non-fiction.
“The critics will never forgive you for writing Rebecca,” her friend, author Arthur Quiller-couch warned her. Perhaps by the end of her life, she’d begun to despair of her greatest success a little also. And some success it was. In the first month of publication in 1938, it sold 40,000 copies, nearly twice its initial print run. In the early 1990s, some 50 years later, US publishers Avon estimated ongoing monthly sales at about 4,000 copies.
When it was released to popular adoration yet scathing critical reception, du Maurier was just 30, an army wife and mother of two. Despite having published four previous novels and two books of non-fiction, her aversion to publicity meant that many still did not know who this Daphne du Maurier was.
She is often identified with Rebecca’s narrator, the mousy second Mrs De Winter, an unnamed woman consumed by the spectre of her beautiful predecessor, fitting for a woman who remained opaque to her fans, friends and even family. Du Maurier was endlessly misunderstood and miscast; her mother called her a brute for her lack of maternal instinct, her father wished she was a boy, her critics called her a romance writer, and she herself vehemently denied her nature as a bisexual.
Biographers have mined her saga of a life to answer this question. The most recent effort by French novelist, Tatiana De Rosnay published this year fittingly distils the sweeping narrative into a novelistic form and the effect is immersive, as thrilling as any of du Maurier’s plot.
Many writers create their fictional worlds to escape their reality, however for du Maurier the world she grew up in was as theatrical and dramatic as the universe her characters inhabited.
The daughter of former actress Muriel Beaumont and actor Gerald du Maurier (a Hugh Grant of his day), the stage of her parents’ marriage was a tumultuous scene for the young du Maurier sisters to play on.
Daphne, born in 1907, was the dreamy middle child, Angela her older sister had aspirations to act though she too became a (largely frustrated) writer, while the baby, Jeanne became a painter. The family lived an impossibly bohemian and privileged life, first in London’s Mayfair and later Cannon Hall, an estate in Hampstead.
Aware her actor-father inhabited the lives of others, du Maurier became enthralled to the idea.
“I was always pretending to be someone else… historical characters, all those I invented for myself,” she told Cliff Michelmore in a 1977 interview. “I act even to this day,” she continued. “It’s the old imagination working, a kind of make believe.”
The du Maurier sisters were forever staging home productions, in which Daphne would enthusiastically take the male lead. As a child she cultivated a male identity, Eric Avon, and lamented the constraints of her sex.
This being the du Maurier household, the audience was not doting, doddery relatives but the writers, artists and stars of the day. A precocious young du Maurier was said to have bestowed high praise on the actress Tallulah Bankhead upon meeting her, pronouncing her a “beautiful creature”.
It was an unorthodox household. The young du Maurier sisters often found themselves the reluctant confidantes of their wayward and flirtatious father who was known to have a ‘stable’ of young actresses whom their distant mother chose to ignore.
There was much of her husband’s behaviour that Muriel studiously overlooked, not least his fixation on their middle daughter. As Daphne became known in society circles, he would subject her to aggressive, almost jealous, interrogations on the parties she was attending and the company she was keeping.
Though their relationship never went beyond the boundaries of familial love, it was uncomfortably enmeshed and the protagonist of her third novel, Progress of Julius, bears more than a passing resemblance to her father. Even more troubling, the character has an incestuous obsession with his only daughter.
The du Mauriers unanimously hated the violent book, only Gerald, ironically enough, wasn’t vocal on the disturbing novel. Soon after it was published, the patriarch succumbed to cancer of the colon leaving his wife and daughters utterly devastated. After his death, du Maurier even wrote a frank and uncompromising account of her father that explored his myriad flaws and celebrated his achievements.
In the du Maurier veins there seems to have been a hereditary blurring of the real and the fictional. Gerald’s father George turned to writing late in life after a career as a cartoonist for the Victorian satirical magazine Punch. He wrote in his debut novel, Peter Ibbetson, of a practice of ‘dreaming true’ whereby his characters would only have to imagine something to make it so.
His grandchild was to inherit this gift, as seemingly whatever Daphne sought, came to her: a first novel published by a prestigious publishing house which was an instant commercial hit. A handsome husband, Lieutenant General (and later Sir) Frederick Browning, three children and a house she worshipped, Menabilly — a Cornish Mansion that inspired the eerie Manderley in du Maurier’s Rebecca.
Places fascinated du Maurier; when her father purchased an old Cornish boathouse, Daphne was to begin one of her most enduring love affairs with the wild Cornish coast. Her new abode lead her, with all the portent of a du Maurier plot, to the man who would become her husband.
Du Maurier had completed her first novel, The Loving Spirit aged just 22. Frederick (Boy) Browning was so enthralled by the tale, he set off in his yacht to find the author. They met after a rather formal note:
‘I am not one of those mothers who lives for having their brats with them all the time...’
“Dear Miss Du Maurier, I believe my late father, Freddie Browning, used to know yours… I wondered if you would care to come out in my boat?” He signed it Boy Browning. He was a celebrated war hero and in the late 1920s had even competed in the Winter Olympics as a part of the bobsled team. After a three-month courtship, the Major, 10 years her senior, proposed.
The couple were married, eschewing an extravagant London wedding in favour of a small ceremony in Cornwall. They had a child, Tessa and so began what du Maurier thought of as her double life, that of a devoted wife and mother and her “disembodied spirit” as she described her masculine energy.
It was this energy that had been awakened when she was finishing her schooling in France and, as De Rosnay suggests in her lyrical biography, encouraged her to pursue an affair with the headmistress Fernande Yvon. Du Maurier was probably bisexual though she never confirmed this. Her older sister, Angela was gay. The lack of resolution around du Maurier’s sexuality has echoes of the persistent ambiguity of her plots and characters.
The relationship with Fernande Yvon certainly proved that du Maurier was not a woman who would ever conform to societal convention. The relationship ended, though the speculation about du Maurier’s sexuality did not. Later in life, there were rumours of trysts with other women, including the wife of her American publisher, though this was unrequited. She did, in the late forties, have an affair with an actress and, most intriguingly, her father’s former girlfriend, Gertrude Lawrence.
By the time her husband was called to Egypt in 1936, the couple had their young toddler Tessa in tow. Du Maurier resented having to follow her husband to Alexandria and was finding motherhood and the life of a military wife demanding on her time. She was struggling with ill health when she discovered she was pregnant for a second time. According to De Rosnay, this news
Author Daphne du Maurier walking with her children Flavia, left, Kits and Tessa, at home in Cornwall, June 1944. (Photo by J. Wilds/keystone Features/getty Images)