Du Maurier, Daphne

views updated May 21 2018

Daphne du Maurier

BORN: 1907, London, England

DIED: 1989, Par, Cornwall, England


GENRE: Fiction

Jamaica Inn (1936)
Rebecca (1938)
Frenchman's Creek (1941)
My Cousin Rachel (1951)


Daphne du Maurier was a British author of popular fiction who had the rare quality of being nearly as highly regarded by many critics as she was by her readers. As Margaret Forster wrote for London's Sunday Times, “If all our popular bestsellers were of her excellence then there would be no need to deplore their existence, and the silly snobbery existing between ‘pulp' fiction and literary fiction would vanish.” Though she wrote dozens of novels, short stories, plays, and nonfiction works, she is perhaps best remembered for the film adaptations of her work, including two films by Alfred Hitchcock: Rebecca and The Birds.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Her Own Way Daughter of renowned actor Gerald du Maurier and granddaughter of artist and author George du Maurier (Trilby), young Daphne first turned to writing as a means of escape. Despite a happy and financially secure childhood, she often felt “inadequate” and desperately in need of solitude. She delighted in the imaginary world of books and play-acting and stubbornly resisted “growing up” until her late teens. After shunning the debutante scene and a chance at an acting career, du Maurier was determined to succeed on her own terms— as a writer. During one ten-week stay at her parents' country home on the Cornish coast, the twenty-fouryear-old Englishwoman wrote her first novel, The Loving Spirit, a romantic family chronicle. A best seller that achieved a fair share of critical acclaim, The Loving Spirit so impressed a thirty-five-year-old major in the Grenadier Guards that he piloted his motor launch past the du Maurier home in the hope of meeting the author. Major Frederick “Boy” Browning and du Maurier married a few months later, setting off by boat on a honeymoon “just like the couple in The Loving Spirit,” according to Nicholas Wade in the Times Literary Supplement.

Rebecca Daphne du Maurier lived in Cornwall for forty years, twenty-five of them in Menabilly, a seventeenth-century house that she described as the most beautiful she

had ever seen. Cornwall, a region of mystery and superstition and the home of legendary figures such as King Arthur and Tristan and Isolde, is a landscape easily made gothic; it is the home, as well, of pirates both fictional and historical, with a coastline that has been responsible for innumerable shipwrecks. While never a fully assimilated Cornishwoman, du Maurier was certainly inspired by her adopted home, the setting of some of her best and best-known novels: Jamaica Inn (1936), Frenchman's Creek (1941), and The House on the Strand (1969). It is, therefore, not surprising that du Maurier took time out from her many successful novels to write a history of Cornwall (1967).

It was in Alexandria, Egypt, where her husband was posted in 1936, that du Maurier began her fifth novel, Rebecca, published in 1938. Far from home, unhappy in the company of both the British military and the Egyptians, du Maurier often thought about Cornwall—fantasizing about, as much as recalling, its lush forests and pounding seas that stood in stark contrast to the stifling and arid desert. These fantasies and a sense of profound melancholy inform the mood of Rebecca, the story of a naive working-class woman whom the recently widowed Maxim de Winter marries and takes back to his palatial family mansion, Manderley, in the south of England. There the second Mrs. de Winter—her first name is never given—discovers that she must compete with the memory of the former mistress of the house, Rebecca, whose qualities, as the creepy housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, constantly points out, were in dramatic contrast to those of the unsophisticated newcomer. But the bride comes to learn that she need not be jealous of her predecessor, for Max hated his first wife. Late in the novel, he is charged with her murder, but during the trial evidence is introduced at the last moment that exonerates him. Returning home, the de Winters discover that the distraught Mrs. Danvers has burned Manderley down; Max and his bride are free to start their lives over again.

The response to Rebecca was overwhelmingly positive; critics pointed out that du Maurier could no longer be compared to the Brontës or to any other novelist, but had found her own voice.

Du Maurier basked in the delight of her sudden fame for a time, and then went back to what she knew best— writing. Frenchman's Creek was published in 1941, My Cousin Rachel in 1951, The Scapegoat in 1957, and Flight of the Falcon in 1965. According to Jane S. Bakerman, writing in And Then There Were Nine… More Women of Mystery, these books are, in addition to Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, the six novels on which du Maurier's “auctorial reputation rests most firmly.” There were certainly a bevy of others, including The King's General, Hungry Hill, and The House on the Strand, but the core of her work can be seen in these six.

Works in Literary Context

An avid reader from early childhood, du Maurier was especially fond of the works of Walter Scott, W. M. Thackeray, the Bronte¨ sisters, and Oscar Wilde. Other authors who strongly influenced her include R. L. Stevenson, Katherine Mansfield, Guy de Maupassant, and W. Somerset Maugham. From these writers, du Maurier grew to understand how to write a gothic masterpiece.

The Gothic Thread Gothic literature is marked by the fear of the supernatural's intrusion into one's life. Often, the setting for gothic literature is a large, dark, and foreboding castle or a weatherworn house on a wind-beaten plain, where characters find themselves isolated from the rest of society. The past—often represented by a ghost or the fear of a ghost—presents frightening challenges for the current inhabitants of these scary places. A further complication of traditional gothic literature is the inclusion of a love affair or marriage that is somehow challenged by the specter of the ghosts, both real and psychological, that haunt the settings. The Bronte¨ sisters effectively utilized this formula in novels like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, and it is in this tradition that one can best place du Maurier's fiction.


Du Maurier's famous contemporaries include:

Woody Guthrie (1912–1969): American folk singer who wrote “This Land Is Your Land.”

Thomas Keneally (1935–): Australian novelist best known for his novel Schindler's Ark (1982), which was later adapted into the film Schindler's List.

Gabriel García Má rquez (1928–): Colombian novelist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917–1963): The thirty-fifth president of the United States of America, John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. His term in office began in 1961.

Lawrence Durrell (1912–1990): British novelist who was famous for his tetralogy The Alexandria Quartet.

Legacy Du Maurier was most proficient in creating psychological or gothic thrillers—usually with some connection to the past—that focus on the struggle of an individual against an oppressive environment. Her best novels—Rebecca, The Scapegoat, My Cousin Rachel, The House on the Strand, and The Flight of the Falcon— are strong in characterization, setting, and plot. Although she was able to live comfortably as a result of the commercial success of her works and was made a dame of the British Empire in 1969 for her literary contributions to the United Kingdom, du Maurier did not occupy a place in the literary canon during her lifetime—much to her

disappointment. A reassessment of the canon has led in recent years to the “discovery” of several previously neglected figures in British literature, most of them women. This list includes Daphne du Maurier.

Works in Critical Context

While critics have praised a few of du Maurier's novels— Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel—with unabashed joy, the novelist has not fared so well with her other work. Indeed, some critics find the plots of her other novels unlikely and the writing sloppy and unbelievable. Despite these problems, however, the overall assessment of du Maurier's body of work has been largely positive—scholars finding the pleasure of du Maurier's unlikely stories to outweigh the problems they find in the texts.

Rebecca “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” With these words, among the most recognizable in twentieth-century gothic fiction, Daphne du Maurier began her classic novel Rebecca. Described by the Spectator's Kate O'Brien as “a Charlotte Brontë story minus Charlotte Brontë,” Rebecca takes a familiar situation (the arrival of a second wife in her new husband's home) and turns it into an occasion for mystery, suspense, and violence. Its primary features—an enigmatic heroine in a cold and hostile environment, a brooding hero tormented by a guilty secret, and a rugged seacoast setting —are now virtual staples of modern romantic novels. Though reviewers have long pointed out (and du Maurier agreed) that she could not take credit for inventing this formula, many critics believe that du Maurier's personal gift for storytelling places her novels a cut above other gothic fiction.

As V. S. Pritchett remarked in a review of Rebecca: “Many a better novelist would give his eyes to be able to tell a story as Miss Du Maurier does, to make it move at such a pace and to go with such mastery from surprise to surprise…. From the first sinister rumors to the final conflagration the melodrama is excellent.” M. F. Brown also commented in the New York Times on du Maurier's “ability to tell a good story and people it with twinkling reality,” while John Patton of Books wrote: “[Rebecca] is first and last and always a thrilling story…. Du Maurier's style in telling her story is exactly suited to her plot and her background, and creates the exact spirit and atmosphere of the novel. The rhythm quickens with the story, is always in measure with the story's beat. And the writing has an intensity, a heady beauty, which is itself the utterance of the story's mood.”

“Sloppy and Chaotic” Prose Despite the almost overwhelming critical praise for Rebecca, some critics believed du Maurier's other work exhibits too much melodrama, too many plot similarities, and too little character development and analysis. With the exception of My Cousin Rachel, a book several critics have hailed as another Rebecca, many of du Maurier's later novels suffer in comparison. The Spectator's Paul Ableman, for instance, declared that her “plots creak and depend on either outrageous coincidence or shamelessly contrived mood,” that her prose is “both sloppy and chaotic,” and that her dialogue consists of “rent-a-line, prefabricated units for the nobs or weird demotic for the yokels.” And L. A. G. Strong, another Spectator critic, pointed out the “facile, out-of-character lines that disfigure the often excellent dialogue,” as well as a certain “laziness over detail” and a “mixture of careful with perfunctory work.” In addition, insists Beatus T. Lucey of Best Sellers, “nowhere does the reader become engaged and involved in the action.”

Overall Assessment Despite the views of critics who complain about plot similarities and stereotyped characters, Jean Stubbs of Books and Bookmen remained convinced of the writer's success. “Daphne Du Maurier has the deserved reputation of being an outstanding storyteller,” Stubbs wrote. “She has the gift of conveying mystery and holding suspense, above all of suggesting the grip of the unknown on ordinary lives…. She is passionately devoted to Cornwall, and insists on our participation. Her sense of theatre creates some characters a little larger than life, and her commonsense surrounds them with people we have met and known, so that the eccentric and dramatic is enhanced.”


One of the staples of gothic literature is the importance of the home in which the action of the novel usually occurs. Often set in old castles and homes with rich and long histories, the gothic novel focuses on the life of the domicile itself. Here are a few more works that analyze the life force of a home:

Northanger Abbey (1817), a novel by Jane Austen. Written early in her career but published after her death, this novel is a witty response to the popular gothic fiction of Austen's day.

“The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. In this masterwork, the “House of Usher” reflects the decline of the family that inhabits it. As the last in the line of Usher becomes frail and his health fails, so, too, does the house of Usher crumble.

House of Leaves (2000), a novel by Mark Z. Danielewski. As the marriage between the protagonists in this novel is challenged, the house in which they live expands— new rooms appear out of nowhere—and the characters feel compelled to explore the dark depths of these strange caverns that seem to stretch out for miles.

Furthermore, as a critic for the Times Literary Supplement pointed out in a review of Rebecca, it may not be to anyone's benefit to approach du Maurier's work as one would approach great literature. “If one chooses to read

the book in a critical fashion—but only a tiresome reviewer is likely to do that—it becomes an obligation to take off one's hat to Miss du Maurier for the skill and assurance with which she sustains a highly improbable fiction,” the critic stated. “Whatever else she may lack, it is not the story-teller's flow of fancy. All things considered, [hers] is an ingenious, exciting and engagingly romantic tale.”

Responses to Literature

  1. Research the term melodrama. After having read Jamaica Inn, do you believe that du Maurier's work can accurately be described as “melodramatic”? Why or why not? Can you think of a film or novel that you have read that seems to be more melodramatic? In a short essay, explore these questions.
  2. Using the Internet and the library, research Menabilly, du Maurier's home. Menabilly has been cited as the inspiration for the places described in Frenchman's Creek and Jamaica Inn. In a short essay, discuss the ways in which du Maurier utilizes the real-life place Menabilly in her novels. (Consider the details du Maurier chooses to include and those she chooses to exclude.)
  3. Du Maurier said that she was less interested in writing individual characters than she was in writing types of characters. What effect did this decision have on her novels? How does this focus affect your feelings about the characters that populate her novels? In order to answer these questions, consider the novels Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel.
  4. People often say, “The book was better than the movie.” Considering how well du Maurier describes her settings, and considering how remarkably films can present these settings, which medium do you feel is more effective in capturing the essence of Rebecca? Why do you feel as you do? How important is the visual component in the appreciation of the novel?



Auerbach, Nina. Daphne du Maurier: Haunted Heiress. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

Cook, Judith. Daphne: A Portrait of Daphne du Maurier. London: Bantam, 1991.

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

Horner, Avril, and Sue Zlosnik. Daphne du Maurier: Writing, Identity, and the Gothic Imagination. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Kelly, Richard. Daphne du Maurier. Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1987.

Shallcross, Martyn. The Private World of Daphne Du Maurier. London: Robson, 1991.

Daphne du Maurier

views updated May 18 2018

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

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.

Du Maurier, Daphne

views updated May 23 2018

Du Maurier, Daphne (1907–89) English novelist. Her romantic novels include The Loving Spirit (1931), Jamaica Inn (1936), The Glass Blowers (1936), Rebecca (1938), Frenchman's Creek (1941), and My Cousin Rachel (1951). She also wrote plays, short stories (including The Birds), and a biography of Branwell Brontë.