Daphne du Maurier

In a writing career that spanned over four decades and brought her international renown, Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) published in a number of different genres. Among her most popular works were those that spun tales of mystery, suspense, and drama, including the classic Gothic novel Rebecca.

Daphne du Maurier was born in London, England, in 1907. The du Mauriers were a privileged and prosperous family. Her father, Gerald, was a well-known actor and theater manager whose own father, George, had been an artist and a writer. Her mother, Muriel Beaumont, was an actress until the birth of her third child in 1911. Du Maurier had both an older sister, Angela, and a younger sister, Jeanne.

Gerald du Maurier was a devoted and affectionate father, especially to Daphne. His longing for a son prompted her to dress like a boy, cut her hair short, and adopt an alter ego she named "Eric Avon." As a member of a theatrical family, she found that such imaginative flights of fancy met with encouragement rather than resistance. Upon reaching puberty, however, du Maurier put "Eric" aside. She later referred to this repressed side of herself as "the boy-in-the-box."

Du Maurier was privately educated at home by governesses. Maud Waddell, nicknamed "Tod," was her favorite. She was one of several older women who served as role models for the young girl and tried to make up for her rather cool and distant biological mother. An avid reader from early childhood, du Maurier was especially fond of the works of Walter Scott, W.M. Thackeray, the Brontë sisters, and Oscar Wilde. Other authors who strongly influenced her include R.L. Stevenson, Katherine Mansfield, Guy de Maupassant, and Somerset Maugham. Du Maurier herself began writing during her adolescence as a way to escape reality and in the process discovered more about herself and what she wanted in life. At the age of 18, she completed her first work, a collection of 15 short stories entitled The Seekers.

Attended Finishing School in France

In early 1925, just before her eighteenth birthday, du Maurier left England to attend finishing school at Camposena, a village near Meudon, outside of Paris, France. Life at Camposena was spartan-there was no heat in the rooms and no hot water. But these inconveniences were bearable given the school's close proximity to Paris, which allowed du Maurier to make frequent trips into the city to visit the Louvre, the Opera, and other points of interest.

In 1926, the du Mauriers purchased a vacation home called Ferryside in the town of Fowey, a harbor town on the rocky southwestern coast of Cornwall, England. Daphne had enjoyed previous family holidays to Cornwall during her childhood, and there she cultivated many interests that became lifelong passions. In Fowey she took long walks with her dog, learned to sail, enjoyed swimming, and went dancing. She also found the quiet seaside environment perfect for writing.

Yearned for Independence

After leaving school in France, du Maurier struggled to find her place in the world. Her father's doting attention had turned oppressive; he was suspicious of any young man in whom she expressed an interest. Furthermore, she found the constant entertaining in the family home in London extremely distracting as she tried to establish her writing career. She longed for financial independence. In the autobiographical work Daphne du Maurier: Myself When Young, she recalled the thoughts that went through her mind as she reflected on her plight: "It's no use. I must make money and be independent, but how can I ever make enough? Even if my stories are published they can only bring in a very little…. I won't go on the films, that would merely be slaving to no purpose, for I should never have time for anything else."

Eventually du Maurier convinced her family to allow her to live at Ferryside, where she could work undisturbed. She was 22 when she published her first short story, "And Now to God the Father," in the Bystander. Her mother's brother, Willie Beaumont, had helped her make the necessary contacts, and she was well aware that her family name was something of an advantage, too. Although the payment she received was modest, it encouraged her to continue writing.

Discovered Inspiration in Rundown Mansion

It was around that same time that she first came across the abandoned estate of Menabilly, near Fowey, which would play such a prominent role in both her personal and professional life. As she later wrote in Daphne du Maurier: Myself When Young, "the place called to me." Hidden from view and overgrown with ivy, Menabilly had been empty for many years and was full of dust and mold. But du Maurier was intrigued by the atmosphere of secrecy and decay that enveloped the house and grounds. Visiting the estate stimulated her vivid imagination and left her wondering about those who had lived and died there. Menabilly eventually served as the model for a number of her fictional locales, most notably Manderley in Rebecca.

During her early twenties, du Maurier was bursting with ideas for stories. Many of these came to her while on holiday. (She traveled extensively.) Commenting in her diary early in her career on the method of construction she often used in her stories, she noted "how often I seem to build a story around one sentence, nearly always the last one, too." She greatly admired Katherine Mansfield, who may have been her greatest literary influence.

In 1931 du Maurier published her first novel, The Loving Spirit. (The title was inspired by lines from an Emily Brontë poem.) The book's success finally made it possible for her to gain financial independence from her family.

First Novel Led to Romance

Among the many fans of The Loving Spirit was Major (later Lieutenant-General) Frederick Arthur Montague Browning, a member of the Grenadier Guards. Determined to meet the novel's author, he sailed his boat, the Ygdrasil (meaning "Tree of Fate"), into Fowey harbor several times before he could arrange for a neighbor to deliver a note to du Maurier asking if she would like to go out for a sail. The couple first met on April 8, 1932, and were immediately attracted to one another. They were engaged by June, and on July 19, 1932, they married in the Lanteglos Church near Fowey. In true romantic fashion, the new Mr. and Mrs. Browning then set off in the Ygdrasil to begin their life together.

Also in 1932, du Maurier published her second novel, I'll Never Be Young Again. It was very different from her first book in that it dealt with sexual issues, which was considered very racy for that time. Another novel, The Progress of Julius, followed in 1933. Although neither were as popular as The Loving Spirit, they made it clear that du Maurier would not be easily pigeonholed into one genre.

A little over a year after her marriage, du Maurier gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Tessa. (Du Maurier had hoped for a boy, so the arrival of a girl was a source of considerable disappointment.) After Gerald du Maurier's death from colon cancer in 1934, his daughter wrote his biography, which proved to be very successful upon its publication later that same year. This was followed by another novel, Jamaica Inn, a suspenseful, melodramatic adventure story set in Cornwall complete with smugglers and villains in a style similar to R.L. Stevenson's Treasure Island.

In March 1936 du Maurier sailed to Alexandria, Egypt, to join her husband at his new post, but she hated it and ended up returning to England in January 1937. There she gave birth to her second daughter, Flavia, in April of 1937. That same year, du Maurier published a biographical work on her famous family entitled simply The Du Mauriers.

Rebecca Earned Many Accolades

The year 1938 marked the publication of du Maurier's most acclaimed novel, Rebecca. Considered a classic work of Gothic fiction, it is a suspenseful psychological mystery that takes place on a "secretive and silent" estate known as Manderley. The novel's opening line-"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…."-ranks among the most memorable in modern literature and is typical of du Maurier in that she begins her story with the ending. Rebecca was a huge success; compared by some critics to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, it sold over a million copies and was made into a movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. (It went on to win the 1940 Academy Award for best picture.) But du Maurier herself never quite understood its popularity.

On November 3, 1940, du Maurier gave birth to a son, Christian. Another one of her fondest wishes came true in 1943 when she finally signed a lease on her beloved Menabilly. She then proceeded to spend a great deal of money restoring the property, an expense many considered foolish given the wartime shortage of manpower and materials as well as the fact that she did not actually own the house. Du Maurier ignored such comments and went ahead with her plans. She remained at Menabilly for more than 25 years until she was forced to vacate the estate in 1969 when her landlord decided he wanted to live there instead. Du Maurier then settled nearby at Kilmarth, a seaside home in the village of Par.

Throughout her life, writing served as a form of therapy for du Maurier; her days were structured around her various routines, which she found were as important to her creative process as inspiration. From the 1940s through the 1970s, she published many more novels, novellas, biographies, autobiographies, and short-story collections. Du Maurier's growing interest in the supernatural was reflected in some of her later work in particular, which blended her usual suspense with a touch of the macabre. The combination translated well to the screen; in addition to Rebecca, seven of her novels and one short story, "The Birds," were made into movies.

In 1967, du Maurier branched out into yet another genre when she and her son collaborated on a travel book about the Cornish countryside entitled Vanishing Cornwall. It featured du Maurier's text accompanied by Christian Browning's photographs. In 1971 Browning made a film of their joint effort that also proved to be a great success.

Du Maurier spent her later years walking, traveling, and writing. She eventually lost her appetite for life after her creativity and imagination began to fail her. By the late 1980s her health had declined to the point that she required nursing care, and on April 20, 1989, she died in her sleep at the age of 81 at her home in Par.

Further Reading on Daphne du Maurier

Contemporary Authors, Volumes 5-8, First Revision, Gale, 1969.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 6, Gale, 1976.

du Maurier, Daphne, Myself When Young: The Shaping of a Writer, Doubleday, 1977.

Forster, Margaret, Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller, Doubleday, 1993.

New York Times, April 20, 1989, sec. 2, p. 13.