6 Essential Novels by Daphne du Maurier

My Cousin Rachel - Daphne du Maurier

If you want to delve into the novels of Daphne du Maurier (1907 – 1989), where should you begin? The prolific British novelist, playwright, and short-story writer launched her publishing career at age twenty-two with The Loving Spirit (1931), her first novel. She went on to publish numerous works of full-length and short fiction as well as nonfiction and plays.

Arguably, Rebecca (1938) is du Maurier’s masterwork and best-known work. And there’s a group of novels among her canon that approach it in terms of quality and longevity.  Here we’ll list the books that Dame Daphne is best remembered for.

With the exception of The Loving Spirit, all of the following have also been made into well-known films, sometimes more than once.

The Loving Spirit (1931)

The Loving Spirit by Daphne du Maurier

Though no longer as well known as some of du Maurier’s more iconic works, The Loving Spirit is included here because it was her first, and launched what would become a stellar career.

Beginning in the early 1800s, The Loving Spirit tells the story of the Coombes family and is mainly set in Cornwall, a part of England in which the author spent much of her life. Janet Coombes marries her cousin, Thomas Coombes, who is a shipbuilder. The novel follows the adventures and trials of this family for four generations.

A modern reprint of this novel rightly described it as having “established du Maurier’s reputation and style with an inimitable blend of romance, history, and adventure.”

Many readers who are familiar with du Maurier’s later, and more famous works, have been delighted to discover her first novel. More about The Loving Spirit.

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Jamaica Inn (1936)

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

Jamaica Inn is a period piece set in Cornwall, England in 1820. Central to the story is a group of “wreckers” — murderers who run ships aground, kill sailors, and steal cargo.

Upon her mother’s death, Mary Yellan moves from the farm in Helford where she was raised, to live with her mother’s sister. Her Aunt Patience is married to a vicious drunkard who has her completely intimidated.

Mary soon realizes that things aren’t as they should be at this inn, which never has guests and isn’t open to the public. Filled with fascinating and creepy characters, Jamaica Inn is one of Daphne du Maurier’s best-known works. The film adaptation of Jamaica Inn came out in 1939 and was directed by Alfred Hitchcock. More about Jamaica Inn.

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Rebecca (1938)

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca is surely the most iconic of du Maurier’s novels. It celebrated its eightieth anniversary of publication in 2018, never having gone out of print. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” is one of the most iconic first lines in English literature.

The story is cleverly told in the first person by the shy, awkward, and nameless young bride of the older, mysterious Maxim de Winter. She is, like the other inhabitants of Manderley castle, haunted by the shadow by her husband’s deceased first wife, Rebecca. Like the best of du Maurier’s works, this one keeps the reader guessing until the very end.

The film adaptation of Rebecca, also directed by Alfred Hitchcock, came out in 1940. There have been a few mini-series adaptations as well. More about Rebecca.

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Frenchman’s Creek (1941)

Frenchman's Creek by Daphne du Maurier

Frenchman’s Creek is another of du Maurier’s Cornwall-set historical novels. Set during the reign of King Charles II. the story centers on a love affair between Dona, Lady St. Columb, and Jean-Benoit Aubéry, a French pirate. The novel was reissued in a new edition in 2020. From the publisher (Sourcebooks):

“A classic from master of gothic romance and suspense, Daphne du Maurier, Frenchman’s Creek is an electrifying tale of love and scandal on the high seas. Jaded by the numbing politeness of London in the late 1600s, Lady Dona St. Columb revolts against high society. She rides into the countryside, guided only by her restlessness and her longing to escape. But when chance leads her to meet a French pirate, hidden within Cornwall’s shadowy forests, Dona discovers that her passions and thirst for adventure have never been more aroused.”

The first film adaptation of Frenchman’s Creek was released in 1944. It starred the versatile Joan Fontaine as Lady Dona, in a very different role than the one she portrayed as the second Mrs. de Winter in the first film version of Rebecca. More about Frenchman’s Creek.

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My Cousin Rachel (1951)

My cousin rachel by Daphne du Maurier

My Cousin Rachel, like Rebecca, is a romantic thriller. It’s set primarily on a large estate in Cornwall, England, where du Maurier drew real-life inspiration from Antony House. There she saw a portrait of a woman named Rachel Carew, and the creative spark was lit.

Told by Philip young man heir to the estate of his uncle. The uncle, who marries the mysterious Rachel, rapidly and mysteriously declines and dies. Has he been poisoned by his young wife? Rachel, like eponymous Rebecca, remains a puzzle to the end. Is she a devil or an angel? The reader must decide.

The first, and very well-received  film adaptation of My Cousin Rachel came out in 1951, starring Olivia de Havilland, with Richard Burton in his first film role. There have been several adaptations since. including the less-than-successful 2017 film. More about My Cousin Rachel.

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The Scapegoat (1957)

The scapegoat by daphne du maurier

The Scapegoat was one of du Maurier’s successful mid-career novels, coming after Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, and My Cousin Rachel. In her skillful hands, this suspense novel makes an ingenious doppelgänger plot work on many levels.

It’s the story of a disaffected Englishman and an aristocratic Frenchman who meet by an accidental encounter and are at once struck by how much they resemble one another. John, an English academic, is compelled by Count Jean de Gué into switching places with him. What ensues is how he is swept into the count’s complicated intrigues and family life.

The 1959 film version of The Scapegoat starred Alec Guinness and Bette Davis. More about The Scapegoat.

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Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier page on Amazon*
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