When you think of the name “Daphne du Maurier”, perhaps, like many of us, you think of her most famous work of fiction, the Gothic novel: Rebecca. The book was immensely popular in its time, was made into an award-winning film by Alfred Hitchcock, and is still in print today.
Du Maurier, however, wrote a number of other very popular novels. And, in addition to these, she penned multiple collections of short stories, many of which are creepy little masterpieces.
These, her macabre stories, have been collected over the years in a handful of paper pack editions. One of her more recent beautifully illustrated hardcover editions of stories, which is getting more and more difficult to find, is called Daphne du Maurier’s Classics of the Macabre (pictured below) and includes wonderful full-color illustrations by artist Michael Foreman.
I highly recommend all of du Maurier’s fiction. It is of the highest quality technically and aesthetically. It is the kind of writing one can get lost in, and isn’t that what good books are about after all?
The only other authors I can think of who are in du Maurier’s league are Shirley Jackson and Joyce Carol Oates (Oates’ earlier Gothic work); and, even though she wrote more mainstream literature, Flannery O’Connor.
(Images: the macabre stories of Daphne du Maurier make up quite a canon of their own. The Doll and Other Stories, recently published, collects a number of the author’s “lost” stories.)
Many are not aware of the fact that it was du Maurier who wrote the short story “The Birds”, which inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s famous horror film of the same name, starring Jessica Tandy, Veronica Cartwright, Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Susan Pleshette, and the beloved British bird lady, Ethel Griffies. The short story is a subtle, quiet, insinuatingly dreadful little polished gem, from which the film, albeit influenced by the tale, diverts a great deal.
Du Maurier lived a life of luxury in many ways; and, yet, ironically, she lived a hidden life as well, one that she struggled with and repressed throughout her lifetime. She was a strong woman, and, perhaps, she was a woman of quiet contradictions, one who claimed it was her “masculine energy” that took over when she was writing, greatly influencing her work.
Either way, Ms. du Maurier is worth knowing better. And the canon of her work should be known by “well read” readers.
So, sit back, relax, and let me introduce you to a complex, beautiful, intriguing, and intelligent woman of letters…Dame Daphne du Maurier.
[Photos: Daphne (right) with her mother and sisters; at 15, right, with her mother and one of her sisters; and as a young adult]
‘The second of three daughters, Daphne Du Maurier was born into a prominent artistic and literary household in London on May 13, 1907. She was the granddaughter of famed caricaturist George du Maurier, the daughter of actor-manager George du Maurier and actress Muriel Beaumont, and the niece of both magazine editor. J.M. Barrie, also the author of Peter Pan; and Edgar Wallace, both of whom were frequent visitors to the du Maurier household.
Given her exposure to literary and artistic accomplishments in childhood, it is no surprise that du Maurier demonstrated an active imagination and a love of reading from an early age. She was fascinated by imaginary worlds and even invented an alter ego for herself named Eric Avon. Along with her sisters, Angela and Jeanne, du Maurier was largely educated by a governess before attending schools in London and Paris. While still a teenager, she wrote a short story which was published in Bystander magazine, and which resulted in a contract with a literary agent.
(In photographs such as these, one can almost feel the heaviness of the artistic nature, the weight of which du Maurier carried on her shoulders. As has been argued in literary scholarship for decades: “one woman’s art, may well be another woman’s gilded cage, working-out of suffering, or deepest well of pain”.)
In 1931, du Maurier wrote her first full-length novel, The Loving Spirit, which described three generations of Cornish people. This first novel, written in her early twenties, brought du Maurier immediate literary success. It also brought her the romantic attention of Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick “Boy” Browning, who sailed to Fowey to meet the author of the book after reading it and then married du Maurier in 1932.
The couple remained married for 33 years, until Browning’s death in 1965, and had three children: two girls, Tessa and Flavia, and one boy, Christian. However, the relationship suffered difficulties because of du Maurier’s secret bisexuality. After her death, in fact, it was revealed that du Maurier had an extramarital affair with actress Gertrude Lawrence and professed an attraction to Ellen Doubleday, the wife of her American publisher. According to her biographer, Margaret Forster, du Maurier viewed herself as two distinct individuals: first, a wife and mother; and second, a lover (comprised of male energy) which inspired her creative process.
Du Maurier’s next novels, The Progress of Julius (1932), Jamaica Inn (1936), and Rebecca (1938) multiplied her success exponentially. Rebecca, in particular, turned du Maurier into a household name, especially after Alfred Hitchcock directed an Oscar-winning film version of the story in 1940 starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. Over the course of her career, du Maurier wrote several novels, short stories, and plays including Frenchman’s Creek (1941), Hungry Hill (1943), “The Years Between” (1945), The Parasites (1949), My Cousin Rachel (1951), Mary Anne (1954), The Scapegoat (1957), The Glass Blowers (1963), The Flight of the Falcon (1965), The House on the Strand (1969), and Rule Britannia (1972).
Later in her life, du Maurier became a prolific non-fiction writer. She also took up an interest in her own ancestry. Her published non-fiction works include Gerald (1934), The Du Mauriers (1937), The Young George du Maurier (1951), The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë (1960) that focused on the eldest brother of the Brontë family, and Growing Pains (1970).
In addition to Rebecca, several other du Maurier works were turned into films among these, Frenchman’s Creek, Hungry Hill, My Cousin Rachel, The Birds (also made into a Hitchcock film), and Jamaica Inn.
After her husband’s death in 1965, du Maurier moved to Kilmarth, which became the setting for The House on the Strand. In 1969, she was honored by the Queen and named a Dame of the British Empire for literary distinction. However, she felt uncomfortable using the honor and never used the title. In 1977, she published an autobiography and received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America.
Du Maurier died in 1989, at the age of 81, at her home in Cornwall. Her pictorial memoir, Enchanted Cornwall, was published posthumously in 1992. In 2006, a previously unknown work entitled And His Letters Grew Colder was discovered and published.
Du Maurier was often criticized for having a “romantic” writing style, which seemed less intellectual than that of female authors George Eliot and Iris Murdoch. She disliked being characterized as a romance novelist, and some literary scholars have suggested that her non-fiction work stemmed from her desire to be taken more seriously as an author. However, few of her fictional works actually correspond to the romance novel stereotype: they rarely feature happy endings and are infused with Gothic and paranormal elements.’
Despite the insistence of some, hellbent on fitting everyone and everything into a palliable category, the work of Dame Daphne du Maurier has lived on…and it shall live on, and on.♢