In many ways the life of Daphne du Maurier resembles that of a fairy tale. Born into a family with a rich artistic and historical background, the daughter of a famous actor-manager, she was indulged as a child and grew up enjoying enormous freedom from financial and parental restraint. She spent her youth sailing boats, travelling on the Continent with friends, and writing stories. A prestigious publishing house accepted her first novel when she was in her early twenties, and its publication brought her not only fame but the attentions of a handsome soldier, Major (later Lieutenant-General Sir) Frederick Browning, who married her.
Her subsequent novels became bestsellers, earning her enormous wealth and fame. While Alfred Hitchcock's film based upon her novel proceeded to make her one of the best-known authors in the world, she enjoyed the life of a fairy princess in a mansion in Cornwall called Menabilly, which served as the model for Manderley in Rebecca.
Daphne du Maurier was obsessed with the past. She intensively researched the lives of Francis and Anthony Bacon, the history of Cornwall, the Regency period, and nineteenth-century France and England, Above all, however, she was obsessed with her own family history, which she chronicled in Gerald: a Portrait, a biography of her father; The du Mauriers, a study of her family which focused on her grandfather, George du Maurier, the novelist and illustrator for Punch; The Glassblowers, a novel based upon the lives of her du Maurier ancestors; and Growing Pains, an autobiography that ignores nearly 50 years of her life in favour of the joyful and more romantic period of her youth. Daphne du Maurier can best be understood in terms of her remarkable and paradoxical family, the ghosts which haunted her life and fiction.
While contemporary writers were dealing critically with such subjects as the war, alienation, religion, poverty, Marxism, psychology and art, and experimenting with new techniques such as the stream of consciousness, du Maurier produced 'old-fashioned' novels with straightforward narratives that appealed to a popular audience's love or fantasy, adventure, sexuality and mystery. At an early age, she recognised that her readership was comprised principally of women, and she cultivated their loyal following through several decades by embodying their desires and dreams in her novels and short stories.
In some of her novels, however, she went beyond the technique of the formulaic romance to achieve a powerful psychological realism reflecting her intense feelings about her father, and to a lesser degree, her mother. This vision, which underlies Julius, Rebecca and The Parasites, is that of an author overwhelmed by the memory of her father's commanding presence. In Julius and The Parasites, for example, she introduces the image or a domineering but deadly father and the daring subject of incest.
In Rebecca, on the other hand, du Maurier fuses psychological realism with a sophisticated version of the Cinderella story. The nameless heroine has been saved from a life of drudgery by marrying a handsome, wealthy aristocrat, but unlike the Prince in Cinderella, Maxim de Winter is old enough to be the narrator's father. The narrator thus must do battle with The Other Woman - the dead Rebecca and her witch-like surrogate, Mrs Danvers - to win the love of her husband and father-figure. The fantasy of this novel is fulfilled when Maxim confesses to the narrator that he never loved Rebecca; indeed, he hated her, a confession that allows the narrator to emerge triumphantly from the Oedipal triangle.
The Freudian subtext of Rebecca is embodied in a form that represents the first major Gothic romance of the twentieth century and perhaps the finest written to this day. It contains most of the trappings of the typical Gothic romance: a mysterious, haunted mansion, violence, murder, a sinister villain, sexual passion, a spectacular fire, a brooding landscape and a version of the mad woman in the attic. Du Maurier's work, however, is much more than a simple thriller or mystery. It is a profound and fascinating study of an obsessive personality, of sexual dominance, of human identity and of the liberation of the hidden self.
Rebecca and the two short stories, 'The Birds' and 'Don't Look Now', stand out among du Maurier's work as landmarks in the development of the modern Gothic tale. She breathes new life into the old form of the Gothic novel to come up with a classic tale of The Othcr Woman. Millions have identified with the plain, nameless narrator of Rebecca, a woman who defines her personality by overcoming the mother-figure of Rebecca to win the lasting love of her father-lover. 'The Birds' and 'Don't Look Now' established the twentieth-century sense of dislocation. The accepted order of things suddenly, and for no apparent reason, is upset. The great chain of being breaks and people find themselves battling for their lives against creatures they always assumed inferior to themselves: birds and children. The continuity of time itself is in question in 'Don't Look Now' as the future bleeds into the present.
Daphne du Maurier was not the sort of person to join the ranks of authors who appear regularly on television talk shows to promote their books. As her fame grew through her novels and the films based upon them. she became more reclusive. She viewed success as 'a very personal thing, like saying one's prayers or making love'. The greatest blow dealt to her came with the death of her husband. 'Boy' Browning, in 1965. In order to ease her pain she had at first taken over some of his things for herself. She wore his shirts, sat at his writing desk, used his pen to answer the hundreds of letters of condolence and by this process came to feel closer to him. The evenings were the hardest to endure: 'the ritual of the hot drink, the lumps of sugar for the two dogs, the saying of prayers - his boyhood habit carried on throughout our married life - the goodnight kiss.'
After his death, du Maurier moved from Menabilly to Kilmarth, a house once owned by a medieval steward named Roger Kylman in 1327 and subsequently by the Rashleighs. the descendants of whom are the current owners. It was in this historic house that du Maurier lived out the rest of her life, a house that she immortalised in the novel The House on the Strand.
In November 1988, I visited Daphne du Maurier in Kilmarth. She appeared quite small, sitting in a chair surrounded by piles of newspapers she had been reading. I had known her face from photographs taken in her youth, a beauty made haunting and foreboding by the deep shadows around the eyes. In her eighties, those eyes retained the same dark mystery of the recluse who had chosen to live amongst her memories and the ghosts that filled the room in photographs, paintings and memorabilia. In the dining room there was a large oil-painting of her as a young woman, many photographs of her father in jaunty poses, numerous medals that had been awarded to her husband during the war and a photograph of Dwight Eisenhower inscribed to him. 'Boy' Browning and Gerald du Maurier were the great heroes of her life and her fiction, the two ghosts of her past that embodied all the love. adventure and romance that through her writing she generously and skillfully shared with us all.
Reproduced by kind permission of Richard Kelly.
THE INDEPENDENT Friday 21 April 1989
All Copyright is acknowledged