The men­ac­ing Daphne du Mau­rier

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - PEOPLE -

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)

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