Daphne du Maurier, Author of Rebecca and Other Literary Thrillers
By Nava Atlas | On April 10, 2018 | Updated August 17, 2022 | Comments (1)
Daphne du Maurier (May 13, 1907 – April 19, 1989) was a prolific British novelist, playwright, and short story writer, best known for Rebecca (1938) and other finely constructed works of suspense.
Her novels and stories were rich in detail, with elements of history, romance, and intrigue. Her works, which were quite popular in their time, were sometimes criticized as lacking in depth or intellect, a view that has since been revised.
Du Maurier is best remembered for a half a dozen or so books and stories that were adapted to film. But her publishing credits went well beyond her more famous works to include nearly forty novels and short story collections. She wrote plays and nonfiction and as well, including memoirs of her own talented family.
She was deeply influenced by and inspired by the Brontë sisters, so it’s fitting that among her nonfiction titles is The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë (1960), a portrait of the troubled brother of the literary sisters that she so admired.
Daphne du Maurier biography highlights
- Daphne du Maurier grew up in a family of writers and actors, including her father, Sir Gerald du Maurier, helping to set the stage for a creative life of her own.
- She was only twenty-two when her first novel, The Loving Spirit, was published in 1931.
- Her big breakthrough was the mysterious adventure novel Jamaica Inn (1936), though 1939’s Rebecca was an even greater success, a key to her lasting legacy, and considered her masterwork.
- Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, Don’t Look Now, and The Birds all became films. Several were directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
- Du Maurier was an aficionado of the Brontë family, and it’s believed that Rebecca was in some part inspired by Jane Eyre.
- It’s not as widely known that du Maurier also enjoyed some success as a playwright, having had several pieces performed on London stages.
- In 1969, she became Dame Commander of the British Empire for her literary accomplishments. Her full title was Dame Daphne du Maurier, Lady Browning, but she never used this designation, either publicly or privately.
- An extremely private person, she rarely gave interviews. As a result, many rumors floated about regarding her personality and private life, most of which proved untrue.
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Daphne du Maurier, born and raised in London, England, was one of three daughters of Sir Gerald du Maurier, a well-known actor. Her sisters were no less talented and unconventional than Daphne, though they wouldn’t achieve the anywhere near the kind of renown that she would. In Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters by Jane Dunn, the trio of sisters are described:
“Daphne, ‘Bing,’ was her father’s favorite — the family beauty … Her sisters may have felt overshadowed by Daphne, but their lives were not less exceptional. Angela, ‘Piffy’ —controversial and expressive — rose above humiliation and misfortune to become a writer of thirteen book and at last to find love. Meanwhile Jeanne, ‘Bird,’ pursued the life of a painter with a woman as her partner, undeterred by convention.
All three du Maurier sisters were haunted by the ghosts of their ancestors and the powerful presence of their parents. But the hidden lives of Piffy, Bird, and Bing were full of social and sexual nonconformity, creative energy, and compulsive make-believe.”
Educated by private tutors, Daphne began publishing articles and short stories when she was in her late teens. Growing up as she did in such a creative family, she was inspired to embark on a writing career at an early age. Her family’s connection to the literary and theater communities was helpful in getting her career off the ground.
First novel and marriage to “Boy” Browning
Her first novel, The Loving Spirit, was published in 1931 when she was only twenty-two years old. Beginning in the early 1800s, it tells the story of four generations of the fictional Coombes family. The novel captured the attention of a young British army major, Frederick A.M. “Boy” Browning. He resolved to meet the author, and traveled to Paris to find her. They met the following year in 1932 and married a few months later.
Her first novel was followed closely by I’ll Never be Young Again, which the author herself dismissed as “rather woman’s magazine-y.”
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Du Maurier’s Rebecca: A Worthy “Eyre” Apparent
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Rebecca and other film adaptations
Jamaica Inn, du Maurier’s 1936 novel, is a period piece set in the 1920s, in the author’s beloved Cornwall. It was her big breakthrough, becoming a bestseller. 1938’s Rebecca was an even greater instant success, and remains her best known and most influential novel.
The story is cleverly told by the shy and awkward young bride of Maxim de Winter, who is, like the other inhabitants of Manderley castle, haunted by the shadow by her husband’s deceased first wife, Rebecca. The book sold more than a million copies in hard cover alone and was reprinted numerous times, and translated into a number of languages.
Rebecca was the basis of the classic 1940 film of the same title starring Joan Fontaine and Lawrence Olivier. In addition to Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, My Cousin Rachel , as well as her short story “The Birds” were also made into films.
Altogether, six of her novels became movies, many by Alfred Hitchcock. Don’t Look Now was adapted from her novella of the same name.
A reconsideration of du Maurier’s work
While she was alive, Daphne du Maurier often resented the fact that she wasn’t being taken seriously enough as a fine writer; the commercial success of her books worked against her in that way. But modern re-evaluations of her work bestow greater appreciation for her artistry.
In an article in The Telegraph referencing the 2017 remake of the film My Cousin Rachel, Tammy Cohen encapsulated why du Maurier has been such a great influence on those who came after her. On Rebecca, she writes:
“Only on re-reading some years later did I pick up on the subtler joys of the book: the compelling, dreamlike writing, the brooding sense of place, the growing menace which creeps up on you so slowly it’s like looking up from an engrossing book to find the sky outside has darkened and the radiator long since grown cold … in many ways Daphne du Maurier was the architect of modern domestic noir.
She was the progenitor of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Her stories involve double lives, complex characters who simultaneously embody both good and evil, and a dark seam of suppressed violence and mistrust which runs through almost every relationship.”
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Becoming Lady Browning; family life
Her husband served as commander of British Airborne Forces in World War II, then as treasurer for Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, after which he was made a nobleman. She was, by default, made Lady Browning when he received that honor in 1946.
The Brownings had three children; two daughters and a son. They preferred to live out of the spotlight.
An accomplished playwright
It’s not often noted that du Maurier was also a playwright. She wrote three plays that were produced on the British stage. The first was an adaptation of Rebecca, which opened in 1940 at the Queen’s Theatre in London.
Next was The Years Between, staged first at the Manchester Opera House in 1944, and then at Wyndham’s Theatre in 1945. Finally, September Tide; opened at the Aldwych Theatre in 1938. All three plays were successful, particularly The Years Between.
A private person
As she gained fame, du Maurier remained down to earth, and did her best to avoid publicity. “I can’t say I really like people,” she once said, “Perhaps that’s why I always preferred to create my own instead of mixing with real ones.”
She was able to indulge her introvert tendencies at the mansion she and her husband least, Menabilly, on the Cornish coast of Britain. Cornwall, the beautiful English province, inspired the settings of many of her thrilling novels of romance and suspense.
A gardener’s hut served as her writer’s hideaway. She said, “I’d sit for hours on end, chain-smoking, chewing mints, and tapping away at my typewriter.”
Du Maurier liked her privacy. Because she was rarely forthcoming and gave few interviews, many rumors were floated about her personality and private life, most of which proved untrue.
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Later years and last novels
“Boy” Browning died in 1965. In 1969, she became Dame Commander of the British Empire for her literary accomplishments. Her full title was Dame Daphne du Maurier, Lady Browning, but she never used this designation, either publicly or privately.
She moved from Menabilly to nearby Par with her two Yorkshire terriers. She rented another mansion, Kilmarth. There she wrote The House on the Strand (1969) and Rule Britannia (1972), her last two novels. Curiously, despite the wealth she attained in her lifetime, she always rented, and never owned a home.
Daphne du Maurier believed in the capacity of each individual for evil as well as good, and many of her main characters struggle with that choice. Perhaps that’s one of the factors that make her books so timeless. Many believe that she didn’t get the respect due her as a dedicated and talented writer.
Up until about two weeks before her death, she took daily walks with her dog around the Cornish village near her home, where she indulged her introvert tendencies. Daphne du Maurier died quietly in her sleep in 1989 at age 81.
More about Daphne Du Maurier
On this site
- Du Maurier’s Rebecca: A Worthy “Eyre” Apparent by Jonathan Yardley
- Words of Wisdom from Daphne Du Maurier
- Daphne du Maurier: Her Writing Habits and Style by Tony Riches
- Quotes from Rebecca
- 8 Facts about Daphne du Maurier and Her Literary Life
- 6 Essential Novels by Daphne du Maurier
- Dear Literary Ladies: How Can I Celebrate Literary Success?
Major works – Novels
- The Loving Spirit (1931)
- I’ll Never Be Young Again (1932)
- Julius (1933)
- Jamaica Inn (1936)
- Rebecca (1938)
- Frenchman’s Creek (1941)
- Hungry Hill (1943)
- The King’s General (1946)
- My Cousin Rachel (1951)
- Mary Anne (1954)
- The Scapegoat (1957)
- Castle Dor (1961)
- The Glass-Blowers (1963)
- The Birds and Other Stories (1963)
- The Flight of the Falcon (1965)
- The House on the Strand (1969)
- Don’t Look Now (short stories – 1971)
- Rule Britannia (1972)
Major works – Plays
- Rebecca (1940 – adaptation of her own novel)
- The Years Between (1945)
- September Tide (1948)
- Gerald: A Portrait (1934)
- The du Mauriers (1937)
- The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë (1960)
- Vanishing Cornwall (1967)
- Golden Lads: Sir Francis Bacon, Anthony Bacon and their Friends (1975)
- The Winding Stair: Francis Bacon, His Rise and Fall (1976)
- Myself When Young – the Shaping of a Writer (1977)
- The Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories (1983)
- Enchanted Cornwall (1989)
- Daphne du Maurier: A Haunted Heiress by Nina Auerbach (1990)
- Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller by Margaret Forster (1993)
- Daphne du Maurier: A Daughter’s Memoir by Flavia Leng (1994)
- Official website
- Reader discussion of du Maurier’s books on Goodreads
- Daphne du Maurier: Literary Genius Hated by Critics
Selected film adaptations of Daphne du Maurier’s works
- Jamaica Inn (1939)
- The Birds (1963)
- Rebecca (1940; also 2003, 2020, and others)
- Hungry Hill (1947)
- The Scapegoat (1959, 2012)
- Don’t Look Now (1973)
- My Cousin Rachel (1952, 2017)
- Frenchman’s Creek (2006, Masterpiece Theater)