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
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.