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Daphne du Maurier

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The Loving Spirit, Daphne du Maurier's first novel, celebrates its 90th anniversary in 2021

On 3rd October 1929, Daphne du Maurier sat down at her desk in her bedroom at Ferryside, took a fresh piece of paper, and wrote The Loving Spirit at the top of the page in clear, bold writing.  The moment had come for her to begin her first novel, and on 23rd February 1931, that novel was published.

In this article, written to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the publication of The Loving Spirit, we take a look at the du Maurier family in the late 1920s and how the advent of Ferryside, as the du Maurier's holiday home, gradually altered the dynamics of Daphne's life.  We tell you how the Slade family and their boatyard's real story came to be written into Daphne du Maurier's first novel and what Daphne's life was like at the time she was writing it.  Even as a novice writer Daphne was able to conjure up the atmosphere of life in the boat building harbour of Fowey.  She described the sights and sounds, the smells and the weather, so much of which still the same today, giving the book a timelessness that means it never becomes dated and always offers more each time we read it.

The Loving Spirit - UK first edition

We have made a point of not telling you the storyline of The Loving Spirit in this article, so that people who have not yet read the book can still enjoy the surprises that unfold in this saga. 

I reviewed The Loving Spirit for this website back in 2002.  That review does include a résumé of the storyline, so if you want to remind yourself about the story or to read that review (bearing in mind that it contains spoilers), click here:

We begin our story in 1926.  Gerald du Maurier was an established and hugely successful actor-manager at Wyndham's Theatre in London's West End.  For years he had been able to do no wrong.  Gerald was a Matinee Idol, surrounded by celebrity friends, Muriel, his wife, who pampered him and three daughters, Angela, Daphne and Jeanne, whom he adored.  However, he was at a point in his career when he was beginning to feel his age.  His lease at Wyndham's was coming to an end, and he was on the verge of making some changes, including a move to the St James's Theatre.   Unexpectedly, he was contacted by the famous novelist Edgar Wallace with a proposal that was too good to refuse.  Wallace had written a novel called The Gaunt Stranger, which he had adapted into a play, and he wanted Gerald's help in getting it onto the stage.  The only thing Gerald didn't like about the play was the title, so they agreed to change the name to The Ringer, and work began. Gerald's expertise enabled him to tighten up the plot and turn The Ringer into a winner, making both men a lot of money.



A theatre programme for The Ringer

1926 was also a busy year for Daphne.  She wanted to write and fully intended to but was often distracted by family matters, holidays and the day-to-day life of a celebrity's daughter.  At Easter that year, she holidayed in the Lake District with her Mother and her sister Jeanne.  Fernande Yvon, known as Ferdy, joined them.  She was a teacher from Daphne's finishing school in France.  Daphne had formed what was probably the first of her rather unauthentic relationships with her, which would begin with passion and end in lifelong friendship.

During the summer, Daphne travelled to Paris to visit Ferdy and then they moved on to holiday in Brittany.  During this time, Daphne was struggling with the reality of her parent's relationship.  She had enjoyed a close and loving relationship with her father throughout her childhood.  But now, she was old enough to be aware of his affairs and the cavalier way with which he treated his ever-faithful and devoted wife.  She saw faults in her father and the weakness of her Mother, with whom she never felt at ease, and it troubled her as she tried to understand what relationships really meant to people.  While in France with Ferdy, Daphne settled down to writing a series of short stories.  The stories followed a theme, with men cast as cheats, and bullies, while the women were either low classed girls and prostitutes or just plain weak.  Daphne wrote the stories well, but their contents were startling, coming from someone so young and from such a privileged background.

At home at Cannon Hall, in Hampstead, the du Maurier's decided that they should use the windfall from The Ringer to buy the house in the country that they had talked of.  Muriel decided to take her three daughters on a trip to Cornwall to search for a second home.  Daphne, having returned from Britany, was planning to carry on with her writing, but somewhat reluctantly, she agreed to join her Mother and sisters on the trip to Cornwall, and they set off in September. 

It has often been recorded that the family drove from Looe to Bodinnick, pausing for lunch at the Old Ferry Inn, and there discovered the former boatyard and sail loft called Swiss Cottage, which was up for sale.  The girls loved it, especially Daphne, who was immediately fascinated by the working harbour of Fowey, with its little houses leading to the estuary and the scents and sounds of the river.  The house was perched on the edge of the river, the back wall was part of the rockface, and the river was so close to the front of the property that it almost touched it.  Of course, Muriel bought the house, which was promptly renamed Ferryside because of the ferry, which pulled up beside the house, as it plied its way back and forth between Fowey and Bodinnick.  Muriel began working her magic to create a beautiful home for the family and the many guests that would stay with them in their new Cornish location. 

This single chain of events altered all the du Maurier girls' lives forever and affected Daphne in particular.  She had never been comfortable with the crowded, social life of London and Hampstead, so this house was about to change everything. 

Imagine for a moment how different Daphne's story would have been if she had not found Fowey.  She would certainly have looked for another means of escape, another place to find her independence.  That place would almost certainly have been France, where, until the advent of Ferryside, she had felt she belonged more than anywhere else. However, Fowey it was that opened up new opportunities for nineteen-year-old Daphne.

Back in Hampstead for the winter, Daphne began to write regularly in a room above the garage.  However, there were interruptions, more socialising with the family, lunches in town with her father, Edgar Wallace and his daughter Pat, who became close friends, a trip to France to see Ferdy, a winter holiday in Switzerland.

A postcard showing Ferryside, the Old Ferry Inn and Bodinnick c1930s

(you can just see the figurehead of the Jane Slade to the right of the middle window, on the right)

Eventually, in early May 1927, converting Ferryside into the home that Muriel wanted was complete.  She and Angela when down to Fowey to oversee carpet laying and last-minute details.  Daphne followed a few days later and enjoyed her twentieth birthday at Ferryside.

Then, joy of joys, Daphne was allowed to stay on at Ferryside when everyone else went home.  She was alone for the first time in her life, and she immediately began to explore.  Daphne had always walked, especially on Hampstead Heath, but this was different.  There was a real sense of freedom, so many places to seek out, and things to discover as she went back and forth across the river or high above Ferryside along the Hall Walk.  The river was also a fascination to her, with all the passing ships and boats, mainly the clay ships, heading for the docks, just upriver.  With this fascination came a longing to be able to be on the water too.

Gerald had ordered a motor cruiser, called Cora Anne, named after the heroine in Edgar's play The Ringer, to be delivered to Ferryside, and had employed a man called Harry Adams to take charge of her.  But Daphne wanted a boat of her own so that she could sail herself.  She became friends with Harry, who taught her to fish, and how to handle the Cora Anne, and after a false start over a boat that he knew was for sale, he introduced her to Ernie Slade, at Slade's boatyard in Polruan, and she decided that she would have a boat built.  Daphne's boat was called Marie-Louise after her great Aunt May, and while building was underway, Daphne's Mother let her have a rowing boat to get about in, which she called Annabelle Lee.

The Jane Slade laid up in Pont Pill

While out exploring, Daphne found Pont Pill, a creek just off the river, opposite Fowey Town Quay and easy to reach from the Hall Walk or in Annabelle Lee.  Pont was a place where old ships were moored up, out of the way, when they were no longer of any use.  One such ship was the Jane Slade, which held a particular fascination for Daphne because of her beautiful figurehead.  She asked Harry what the connection was between this ship and the yard where her boat was being built.  He had lots that he could tell her because his wife, Dora, was a member of the Slade family and a granddaughter of Jane, after whom the ship was named and who the figurehead depicted.  Harry loaned Daphne many Slade family letters and paperwork relating to the boatyard, and her research into the Slade's began. 

Later, when the Jane Slade was broken up, the Slade family gave Daphne the beautiful figurehead, which was mounted on the wall of Ferryside, just outside Daphne's bedroom window, the room where she wrote The Loving Spirit.

Gerald arrived at Ferryside for his first visit in the summer of 1927.  Uncertain as to how much he would enjoy living in the house so close to the river and the unpredictable Cornish weather, a succession of friends and family members were invited to stay so that Gerald could be constantly entertained.  In due course, everyone left again except for Angela and Daphne, who were allowed to stay, providing they returned home to Hampstead by October.

During the next three years, a pattern began to form, where the family came to Ferryside for holidays, and Daphne was allowed to stay for much more extended periods.  When not in Fowey, Daphne continued her social round of family commitments, went on winter holidays to Switzerland, visited France, and even cruised to the Norwegian Fjords.  When in Fowey, she was often allowed to stay at Ferryside, but the house was usually closed up during the wintertime. At these times, Daphne lodged across the street, with a dear lady called Miss Roberts, while letting herself into Ferryside each day to write. 

During this time, Daphne was involved in another of her odd relationships, this time with her cousin Geoffrey Hoyer Millar, another actor.  He was considerably older than Daphne and married but had been hovering since she was little more than a child.  She did not really understand her feelings for Geoffrey, and her father was aware of the situation and furious with rage and jealousy.  It seems possible that Daphne's contempt for her father, as far as relationships went, encouraged her to string Geoffrey along, perhaps giving her a feeling of being in control.  However, he proved to be quite needy, and she was not sorry when his work took him away and out of the picture.

On one of the winter holidays to Switzerland, Daphne met Carol Reed.  Carol was only a few months older than Daphne and was the illegitimate son of the actor-producer, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. The latter was well known to the du Maurier family because of his role in the production of the play of Gerald's father, George du Maurier's novel Trilby.  Carol was also the half-brother of Viola Tree, a close friend of all the du Maurier family.  So, there he was, at last, the ideal boyfriend, handsome, the right age, and seemingly perfect as far as Daphne's parents were concerned because he worked in the theatre.  Daphne and Carol made a great couple.  They were friends as well as lovers and spent much time in each other's company.

In April 1929, Daphne was in Fowey for an extended stay, which included family visits during the summer, until she was eventual on her own again in October.  Over time, Daphne wrote several short stories at Ferryside, and some poetry, including her poem The Old Ship. She had enjoyed a level of success with various pieces being published in The Bystander Magazine that her uncle edited.  But now, on 3rd October 1929, Daphne was at last ready to begin her first novel, the story of the shipbuilding Slade family.  The book was a family saga spanning four generations, starting with Janet Coombe's marriage, the fictional Jane Slade.  Many of the people in the novel were real members of the Slade family, and they all became part of the fictional Coombe family.  Fowey, Polruan and Lanteglos were all woven into her story with the fictitious name of Plyn, and some licence was given to specific locations to aid the storytelling.  Daphne worked hard and quickly, and by the time she went back home for Christmas, much of the novel was written.  Daphne returned to Fowey in January 1930, and by the end of that month, her first novel was complete. 

An early painting of the Jane Slade by Livorno

A later photograph of the Jane Slade at Polruan Quay, she had three masts by the time this image was taken

In writing The Loving Spirit, Daphne was strongly influenced by Emily Brontë.  The style of writing is similar to that of Emily's novel Wuthering Heights, and the title of the novel came from the seventh verse of Emily Brontë's poem Self Interrogation:

Alas! The countless links are strong
That bind us to our clay;
The loving spirit lingers long,
And would not pass away!

The book was written in four parts, and each one began with lines from Emily Brontë's poetry.

Daphne had the manuscript typed up and then gave it to Michael Joseph, who had become her literary agent at Curtis Brown.  Two months later, at the end of March, Michael was able to tell Daphne that her novel had been accepted for publication by William Heinemann and that it would also be published in the US under the Doubleday imprint.  However, the book was far too long, and Daphne would need to make serious cuts to it.

Having made the necessary cuts to The Loving Spirit, Daphne moved on to writing her second novel; I'll Never Be Young Again.  At home in Hampstead, Daphne travelled into London each day to work on her second book.  Her Aunt Billy, Muriel's sister and Gerald's secretary, loaned Daphne a room, in her offices in Orange Street, off Leicester Square.

Being in London meant that Daphne and Carol could see each other often.  There was growing tension between Daphne and her parents, who did not approve of the time the young couple spent together or the late hours they kept.  But there is also a piece in The Stage, dated 24th July 1930, which reports on a cricket match that Gerald organised between an actor's eleven and the Actors Orphanage boys at Langley Hall.  Carol was on Gerald's team, and Muriel, Daphne and Jeanne were part of the large group of supporters who attended the match.  So, Carol seems to have been an accepted part of the du Maurier's social set.  But, when Daphne was away from Carol, especially when she was in Fowey, she didn't miss him, and as time passed, his need for her outweighed her need for him, and Daphne was happiest when she was away from everyone, back at Ferryside with her writing. 

Daphne at the time she wrote The Loving Spirit

After what must have felt like an eternity, The Loving Spirit was published on 23rd February 1931.  The book received a fair amount of interest, and within a few weeks, a second impression had been printed.  Reviews appeared in many newspapers and journals, including The Illustrated London News, The Observer, The Times Literary Supplement, The Daily Mirror, The Sketch and The Bystander, and The Saturday Review the US.  Of course, at this stage, Daphne still had to make a name for herself.  Nobody knew what the future held for her as a writer.  In reviews and articles, Daphne was primarily referred to as Gerald du Maurier's daughter, or even George du Maurier's granddaughter, rather than being considered a writer standing on her own merit.

In May 1931, Daphne sold one of her short stories to a magazine in the US.  Called A Symphony On Paper, it was published in the September 1931 edition of Hearst's Cosmopolitan as And His Letters Grew Colder.  Despite the beginnings of success with The Loving Spirit, the short story was still headlined as:

'A story worthy of the famous author of Trilby by his granddaughter – Daphne du Maurier'.

The Bystander, in their review of The Loving Spirit (25th February 1931), described Daphne as:

'A new star in the literary firmament – Daphne du Maurier, second daughter of Sir Gerald and Lady du Maurier whose first novel The Loving Spirit, is a remarkably mature piece of writing for so young an author'.

She had a long way to go yet, but she had her foot on the first rung of the ladder.

A rather grainy picture of Daphne beside the figurehead of Jane Slade, when she had just been attached to the wall of Ferryside

It is well documented that a young army officer called Frederick (Tommy) Browning read The Loving Spirit and was so impressed with the book that he came to Fowey to find the author.  From the moment Tommy and Daphne met, they became part of each other's lives, and the love affair with Carol was over.  But as with Ferdy and Geoffrey, and many other people who had not yet even entered Daphne's life, she maintained a lifelong friendship with Carol.  Daphne is often dismissed as a recluse, but in reality, she made many close and dear friends throughout her life, and once a connection was made, it stayed in place, and her friendships lasted a lifetime.  She liked to keep friends apart from one another, but that in no way diminished her many personal friendships.  Perhaps words such as independent and comfortable in her own company better describe Daphne du Maurier as a writer and a person.

A postscript to this story brings us to another writer and another book worth seeking out.  We pick up the story again with Harry Adams and his wife, Dora.  Daphne had kept in touch and wrote a letter of condolence to Dora when Harry died.  They had brought up their three children in Polruan, and their oldest daughter Gladys also had three children.  Of those children, Helen was particularly interested in boats and ships and the sea.  She was captivated with the fact that her ancestors' story had been recreated in a novel, written by the famous novelist Daphne du Maurier, who lived close by at Menabilly. 

On 1st April 1967, young Helen wrote to Daphne, asking about how she had come to document her family's history into the novel The Loving Spirit.  She received a wonderfully full letter in reply.  Daphne explained how the characters in The Loving Spirit related to the real people in the Slade family and the reasons for the fictional choices that she made in the novel.  She referred to the novel's character Katherine, who was really Helen's grandmother Dora.   She also told Helen that her dear grandfather Harry had taught Daphne how to row and fish and that he had been the du Maurier family's boatman for many years.

Helen Doe's first booklet published in 1997

Helen's interest in ships and the sea must have been born into her through her Slade family ancestors because she eventually became a maritime historian.  At the same time, her interest in her family and their links with The Loving Spirit continued to fascinate her.  In 1997 Helen produced a little booklet entitled From Facts to Fiction: The men and women of Polruan who inspired Daphne du Maurier's first novel.  The booklet was sold locally, and the proceeds went to St Wyllow Church for their Fabric Appeal.  St Wyllow Church in Lanteglos is, of course, the church where Jane and many other Slade family members are buried and where the fictional wedding of Janet Coombe and the real wedding of Daphne and Tommy took place.  In 2002 Helen published her first full-length book Jane Slade of Polruan.  In it, she combined the history of the Slade family and Slade's boatyard with the history of the Jane Slade and other ships built at the yard.  She also explained the connections between the Slade family and the fictional Coombe family in Daphne's novel.

Helen Doe with the figurehead of Jane Slade

You may well have realised by now that young Helen, whose great, great grandmother was Jane Slade, is in fact Dr Helen Doe.  Since her first book was published, she has written many informative works on a range of subjects mainly relating to maritime history and has been an advisor on maritime programmes on BBC radio and television.  She is a Fellow of the University of Exeter, Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and Vice Chairman and Trustee of the British Commission for Maritime History.  Helen maintains her interest in Cornish Maritime history as chairman of the Editorial Board of Troze, the online journal for the Maritime Museum Cornwall.  She is also a trustee of the SS Great Britain, and in 2018 she was appointed as a member of the Council of Experts for the National Historic Ships, a government advisory body.  Helen is also a dear friend to Fowey Festival, at which she had presented many events.



Currently available editions of The Loving Spirit and The Jane Slade of Polruan

Once you have read or re-read The Loving Spirit, I cannot recommend highly enough that you go on to fill in the facts with Helen's book Jane Slade of Polruan.  Both books are available from your local independent book shop or High Street bookstore such as Waterstones, most of which sell books online during the pandemic, so please do support them.  Then step back ninety years to the day that Daphne du Maurier's first novel was published and enjoy the wonders of generations of boatbuilders, both fact and fiction.

© Ann Willmore 2021.



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