Daphne du Maurier
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Daphne du Maurier (May 13, 1907 – April 19, 1989) was a British novelist, playwright, and short story writer. She was born in London and grew up in a creative family, inspiring her to begin her writing career at an early age. Her family’s connection to the literary and theater communities was helpful in getting her career under way.
Du Maurier wrote intriguing works with elements of romance and suspense. These ‘simple’ works were sometimes criticized because they were seen as lacking depth or intellect, a view that has since been revised.
Daphne du Maurier was one of three daughters of Sir Gerald du Maurier, a well-known actor. Educated by private tutors in Paris, she began publishing articles and short stories when she was in her late teens.
Her first novel, The Loving Spirit, was published in 1931, when she was only 22 years old. Set in the early 1800s, it tells the story of four generations of one 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.”
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. This modern gothic tale has inspired a legion of works by other writers, and is itself an homage (intended or not) to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.
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. Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now was adapted from her novella of the same name.
A reconsideration of her 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.”
Read about Du Maurier’s Writing Habits and Style
Becoming Lady Browning, and 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.
Daphne du Maurier is best remembered for half a dozen or so books, perhaps not coincidentally, those that were adapted to film. But she was beyond prolific — her publishing credits include nearly forty novels and short story collections. She wrote nonfiction as well, including some memoirs of her own family, the talented du Mauriers.
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 admired.
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.
Daphne du Maurier page on Amazon
“Boy” Browning died in 1965. In 1969, she became Dame Daphne du Maurier in her own right for her literary accomplishments. 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
- Dear Literary Ladies: How Can I Celebrate Literary Success?
Major works – Novels
- The Loving Spirit (1931)
- Jamaica Inn (1936)
- Rebecca (1938)
- Frenchman’s Creek (1941)
- Hungry Hill (1943)
- The Scapegoat (1957)
- My Cousin Rachel (1951)
- The Glass-Blowers (1963)
- The Birds and Other Stories (1963)
- The House on the Strand (1969)
- Rule Britannia (1972)
Major works – Plays
- Rebecca (1940 – adaptation of her own novel)
- The Years Between (1945)
- September Tide (1948)
Biographies about Daphne Du Maurier
- Daphne du Maurier: A Daughter’s Memoir by Flavia Leng
- Daphne du Maurier: A Haunted Heiress by Nina Auerbach
- Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller by Margaret Forster
- 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)
- Rebecca (2003)
- Frenchman’s Creek (2006, Masterpiece Theater)
See also: Words of Wisdom from Daphne Du Maurier
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