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Daphne du Maurier

The official Daphne du Maurier website, approved by her Estate

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Early biographies on Daphne du Maurier following her death

When Daphne du Maurier died, in 1989, no less than five women stepped forward to write her biography.  Whilst Margaret Forster was chosen by the du Maurier Browning family to write the official biography, and Noel Welch’s book never got to publication, four excellent and significantly different books about Daphne du Maurier were published between 1991 and 1994.

The Oxford scholar and poet Noel Welch was the partner of Daphne’s younger sister Jeanne and, as such, had spent a lot of time with Daphne.  With Jeanne’s support she would have been in a strong position to write a du Maurier-related biography - and Daphne’s own publishing house, Victor Gollancz, was willing to publish – but, for reasons that have never been made clear, her book never reached completion.

Daphne: A Portrait by Judith Cook, published by Bantam Press in 1991, was the first of the four to be released.  Judith had met Daphne on a number of occasions and had written a play adapted from Daphne’s novel The King’s General but it could not be said that she knew Daphne well.  Judith based her book mainly on interviews with local people and did not speak to members of the du Maurier Browning family, other than Daphne’s sister Angela.  However the result was a good basic biography, taking the reader through Daphne’s life and documenting all her writing.  There are a few errors but Judith’s book presents a good representation of Daphne’s life and work.  I always consider this book to be a good starting point for the du Maurier enthusiast, possibly because it was the first biography that I read about her but also because it is straightforward and uncomplicated.  Sadly Judith’s book is out of print now, in both hardback and paperback, but second-hand copies can still be found.

Daphne du Maurier - Letters from Menabilly: Portrait of a Friendship by Oriel Malet was published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 1992.  Daphne and Oriel met at a cocktail party hosted by Ellen Doubleday, the wife of Daphne’s American publisher, in the early 1950s.  They forged an immediate friendship which endured until the end of Daphne’s life, despite the fact that Daphne was at the peak of her fame and Oriel, twenty years her junior, was at the beginning of her writing career when they first met.  Oriel constructed this beautiful book in such a way that, as you read, you learn what she is doing at different points in her life, whilst Daphne’s flow of letters, initially from Menabilly and later from Kilmarth, provide you with a real insight into the Daphne that Oriel knew.  Among discussions about the books that they were writing are scattered hundreds of incidental comments on day-to-day life and the people and things that mattered to Daphne and Oriel.  These provide the reader with a very different view of Daphne to the standard biography.  This is a must-read for anyone who has developed an interest in Daphne du Maurier and wants to know more.

In 1993 Daphne du Maurier by Margaret Forster was published by Chatto and Windus.  This was the official biography, approved by the du Maurier Browning family, and it continues to be regarded as the definitive biography on Daphne.  Margaret carried out extensive research, read thousands of letters and interviewed hundreds of people in order to gain a real insight into exactly who Daphne was.  She received the co-operation of members of the du Maurier Browning family and produced a detailed and comprehensive work.  If there could be one criticism of Margaret’s book it is the relentless references to Daphne’s sexuality that sometimes draw the reader away from the excellent detail about her life and her writing.  It is probably the one thing which dates the book; if this biography was being written now it is likely the content would have had a different emphasis. 

Daphne du Maurier: A Daughter’s Memoir by Flavia Leng, Daphne’s younger daughter, was published by Mainstream Publishing in 1994.  Flavia began writing the book two years before her mother died and it is an account of her childhood as the daughter of two famous parents.  Originally she had no plan to publish her book, intending it just as a record for the family to keep.   Thankfully she changed her mind and agreed to have it published after her mother had passed away.  It is such a good read, being a lively and honest account of Flavia’s young life and that of her sister Tessa and brother Kits, taking you through their early years and then as they grow up at Menabilly.






Much has been written about Daphne over the years but these four books provide a wide-ranging raft of information and interest that forms the basis for anything more that you might choose to read about her in the future.

©Ann Willmore 2016.

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