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Daphne du Maurier

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Sources of Truth

I'm often asked, "Why Daphne du Maurier in particular, what is so special?" – and it's hard to give a succinct answer. In the end, I often encourage the enquirer to read one of her books – and all too often, the elusive quality of her writing seems to pass them by. If I had to try to explain it, I would say that the personal struggle she is expressing through her stories is one that I identify with. That does not mean that my struggle is the same as hers, but I feel some kind of connection - a kindred spirit searching for understanding and self-awareness – trying to make sense of it all.

This undercurrent of confusion in her work is one that not all her readers discern – and yet she was a phenomenally successful author. It is a tribute to her skill that the stories are still brilliant, even if you don't fully understand them. Many of her books have been adapted for the screen multiple times – but almost none of these productions have picked up on any of the underlying themes – with the possible exception of Hitchcock's Rebecca and Roeg's Don't Look Now. It is no coincidence that these were the only two adaptations of her work that Daphne actually liked. Nevertheless, new productions keep appearing, often with big budgets and high-profile participants, most recently the lavish Netflix adaptation of Rebecca.

The ideas and self-expression encoded in her work are cleverly interlaced so that the stories stand up on their own. I think of it as being a bit like the fugues of J.S. Bach. In conventional music, a melody is supported by harmony – the tune is what you remember – the rest plays a supporting role. In a fugue, there are multiple melodies that interact with each other, and you must listen carefully to hear and appreciate each one. For each melody to be distinct yet create a single coherent experience is something only a genius can accomplish. No-one, before or since, has written fugues like Bach. But if you only heard the primary theme, you might say, "Why Bach in particular – what is so special?" You will only be as fascinated by Daphne du Maurier as many readers of this website are if you can spot some of the secondary and tertiary themes.

Daphne had two powerful motivations for becoming an author. One was her wish to be independent – to take control of her own life. Put simply, she needed to earn money and felt that writing was her most bankable talent. Consequently, her work had to be successful – she had to sell books. As her career progressed, she became more financially secure, and this motivation may have eroded to some extent – but she was always anxious about money, partly because of the exceptionally high levels of personal taxation during her best years. The second motivation was her deep need for self-expression – to create her own world in which her inner turmoil could be resolved. The origin of this inner turmoil has been elusive – many authors have advanced compelling theories and supported them with evidence from her work. But the fact that several theories have been advanced, and failed to entirely convince, indicates that Daphne's deepest secrets, like the skeleton in the buttress at Menabilly, remain entombed.

To hear the subordinate melodies in the fugue, you must first understand Daphne's life. Her self-expression can only come to life if we understand the context. So, biography is an important tool for appreciating Daphne's work – and that may partly explain why so many books have been written. This article is concerned with how and when they were written – what sources were used and the different approaches the authors have taken to their work.

Early Years

Imagine then that we are going to write a new biography of Daphne! Where to start? To my mind, her life divides quite neatly into three parts. The first period, 'the early years runs from her birth until her marriage – 1907-32. Next, we have what I think of as 'the nomadic years' when Daphne was following her husband's army postings. This period runs from 1932-43. In 1943, Daphne renovated and moved into Menabilly – and though forced to move into the Dower House in 1969, she remained there for the rest of her life. So, this final period, 'the Menabilly years', runs from 1943-89. You can subdivide if you want to – but bear with me!

So now to begin. 'Daphne was born on 13th May 1907 …' The first part of a biography is usually the hardest because there are relatively few sources. What does a child do that is really interesting? What about school reports? That is always a good one – ah, but Daphne hardly went to school. Her parents were famous, so that helps. It is easy to find out what Gerald was doing – read the newspaper archive! It goes without saying that all biographies need sources. Some are obvious, such as public records and existing published works. But the 'value add' is always to find unpublished sources, for example, private letters or diaries – and for more contemporary subjects, the personal memories of friends and family.

For Daphne's early years, salvation is at hand – because she wrote them up in Growing Pains – The Shaping of a Writer (also called Myself When Young) when she was 70. She used her journal, which she wrote faithfully from 1919 to 1932, as her primary source material. So, we offer up a little prayer of thanks and open Daphne's memoir on our knee. All her biographers have more or less taken this approach – it's just too tempting – and there are so few alternative sources.

As a student of history, I remember being taught how to evaluate sources – this being the key to piecing together an understanding of long-past events for which no literal representation exists. Which sources are contemporary accounts, and which pieced together from urban myths decades later? Which sources are objective, and which written to support a pre-determined interpretation? Which sources are original, and which were copied or, worse, embellished from a previous account? What was the author's purpose in writing the account? Can the source be corroborated by other independent sources?

So, how reliable a source is Growing Pains? What I find remarkable is that authors treat it as a 'golden source' – Daphne's version of the events covered is never questioned. Any concerns about her motivation and objectivity - and the almost complete lack of corroboration - are simply not entertained.  This is even more surprising considering that Margaret Forster's comment on it was: -

As with so many autobiographies, what was most significant was what was left out.

After Growing Pains was published, Daphne put a moratorium on her journals. They will remain under wraps until 50 years after her death. This fact alone ought to have raised a warning flag about assessing this source as the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Daphne was already experienced in writing biography when she wrote Growing Pains – her last original book. The most relevant template is Gerald – A Portrait. This is remarkable in several ways – not least for speed of execution.

Gerald died in April 1934, after a very brief illness, at the age of just 61. He was still a contemporary celebrity, working right up to his death. He was not a discrete person – no doubt there were plenty of stories to tell – and the world of show business loved its gossip as much then as it does now. I can imagine there was some family discussion about this, and Daphne took control of the situation. Her biography was researched, written, edited, and published within six months of Gerald's death. This was lightning speed – especially as her publishers at the time, Heinemann, turned the book down. They did so because they thought it too racy. It was not appropriate for a daughter to write so candidly about her father, who today would be placed in the 'national treasure' category. It was simply not done to broadcast his affairs with actresses – even if they were common knowledge. Her book attracted quite a bit of criticism – but it is artfully constructed because, by today's standards, it tells nothing at all. It is cleverly disarming, and it successfully dissuaded others from poking about in the embers of Gerald's life.

In my opinion, Growing Pains has some of the same qualities. Some of what Daphne describes appears bold and candid. The relationship with Cousin Geoffrey feels creepy (especially for today's reader), and the way Daphne compares his attentions with the behaviour of her father, using references to the Borgias, is borderline disturbing. We are invited to believe that Daphne has been frank and fearless in telling all, and there is nothing more we need to know. After describing Geoffrey's antics on the family summer holiday at Thurlestone, Devon, in 1921, Daphne tells us not to go looking for this relationship in her own fiction.

If this was first love, and I believe it was, it found its way into no novel of after-years, though writers are said to draw upon their own experiences.

Some, perhaps; not all.

In 1949, Daphne wrote The Parasites – unique among her novels in that there is little in the way of a plot. In this novel, the themes that usually play under the surface take centre stage. Daphne described the three half-siblings in the book as 'the three people I know myself to have been'. Surely, the young Maria's encounter with the predatory Michel Leforge on a family holiday beach holiday in Brittany is a darker version of her Thurlestone experience.

Richard Kelly – The first portrait

Returning to our imaginary biography, Richard Kelly, a Professor of English at Tennessee University, was the first person to face this challenge in 1987. Because Daphne was still alive, he had no access to letters or personal recollections (it was well known that Daphne did not encourage people to write about her) and was restricted to published accounts and a few American magazine articles in Good Housekeeping and the like. Kelly's book, from a series called 'Twayne's English Authors', is predominately an academic study of her work. To appreciate it fully, you need to know your trope from your incubus and your microcosm for your macrocosm. But the first chapter, Life and Time, is a short biography, provided for the reasons with which I begin this article – it is crucial to an understanding of Daphne's work. In his preface, Kelly states that this first chapter 'pieces together what little is known about her life' - a reasonable caveat at the time of writing. But, armed with Growing Pains, he starts breezily enough. When the poor fellow hits 1932, it is as if the lights go out. His disorientation leaps off the page as if he were driving through unknown countryside and the SatNav suddenly died.  Using the essays that appear in The Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories – he ploughs on, hamstrung by lack of sources. This is not Kelly's fault – and his analysis of her work is mostly perceptive – with the added benefit of being the first.

Despite writing about Daphne's interest in Jung, in his conclusion, he states that 'she is not interested in ideas…or philosophy'. I have always thought this rather inconsistent and unfair. To my mind, there are a great many ideas and concepts that permeate her writing – for example, the many manifestations of unfair discrimination against women, of which I consider this type of comment to be one.

The Golden Source

All biographers accounts of 'the early years' are dominated and constrained by Growing Pains. Daphne has framed the narrative – and no subsequent author has had the courage to lever off the back and see what is hidden behind the picture. An example of the danger of treating it as a 'golden source' is the matter of Daphne's first published story in The Bystander. Daphne states that it was And Now to God the Father and appeared in May 1929. That story did indeed appear as described, but it was not the first – that was Terror in December 1928. This is not hard to check, but none of the authors did so. The positioning of the account of her dispute with the editor (her Uncle, William Comyns Beaumont) over the proposed cutting of the story suggests that this altercation was in late 1928 and concerned Terror, not the story that appeared later. Moreover, the substance of the editing dispute is substantially different from the way Beaumont described it in his autobiography (A Rebel in Fleet Street, 1943). If you read it carefully, Daphne's version does not hang together. Having been so adamant that her story was not to be cut, she provides no explanation for the sudden capitulation. Beaumont's version is far more credible – but no biographer has tracked it down, instead simply reproducing Daphne's account.

Cousin Geoffrey's second wife – a woman we might think badly wronged – appears in biographies as 'Meg' – because that is what Daphne calls her in Growing Pains. The use of obscure nicknames is common in the family history, but I suspect that Daphne was not keen to share her true identity. It worked because none of her biographers were curious enough to find out.  Perhaps Daphne knew that 'Meg' was still alive at the time she was writing. She died in 1982, aged 90.

A third example is the disappearance of Muriel's siblings. Angela tells us in Old Maids Remember (1966) that her mother was the second of five children. But family trees only show three, with incorrect or missing dates. Angela also mentions one of them by name (Aunt Timmie) in It's Only the Sister (1951), but biographers either did not spot this or considered her of no importance - because of her non-appearance in Growing Pains. I'm not suggesting that Daphne was deliberately controlling the agenda of future biographers – her book had a particular focus – her own development as a writer. Therefore, it was selective by design. 

Pedant's Corner

Facts, facts, facts! Do they matter? It's an interesting debate in this age of 'Fake News'. Readers of Private Eye will know that there is a regular spot in the letters section called 'Pedant's Corner' where annoying letters appear from people who don't get out enough, correcting some tiny and irrelevant detail of an article in the previous edition. It pains me to recognise myself in this category! A biography is meant to inform – but not all information is available, however hard you search. It is quite acceptable to fill in the blanks with what is most likely and to make inferences, but I think you should say when you are doing so. As to objective facts that are just plain WRONG – I am terrible; I have no patience with it. I do not know if biographies of Daphne are better or worse than average in this respect – but all contain a good many factual errors. Some of these are inherited from book to book, where authors have used previous works as a source without checking. Almost certainly, this irritates me more than it does most people!

I must acknowledge that for authors of the past, facts were harder to find than they are today. The Web is an amazing research tool and becoming more so every year. It's not just the accessibility of public records from the desktop – it is the digitisation of books and newspapers and the miracle of search engine technology – allowing you to find the most obscure sources with a few clicks. I have to allow 20th-century writers some leeway; time and budget may have constrained research. It is hard to be so lenient for more recent projects when an afternoon with your laptop would enable you to check many of the facts used in earlier publications.
If the tendency for mistakes to be inherited from book to book is unfortunate – imagine how much worse the problem is in the digital world of copy/paste. Once a falsehood exists online, it is almost impossible to eradicate. I should say here that if anyone finds any factual mistakes in what I have written on this site, PLEASE come forward with corrections. We all make mistakes sometimes, but the benefit of this medium over print is that it takes a few seconds work to amend.

Nomadic Years

The next phase of Daphne's life, the nomadic years, was very fact-intensive. Judith Cook wrote the first full-length biography in 1991, and it's a fine effort. (See Ann Willmore's review of the early biographies under 'Book Recommendations'). Judith uncovered a lot – but the extra time and 'official' status afforded to Margaret Forster allowed for an even richer picture to emerge in her 1993 biography. Forster becomes the 'golden source' for this period. So, if we are writing a new biography today as we were imagining – then after 1932, we would open Forster on our knee, with Flavia's 1994 book, A Daughter's Memoir, close at hand.

There was a lot going on in the decade that followed Daphne's marriage. She had three children and eight homes. She wrote the books that made her famous, and the world was plunged into another World War. This gives the biographer an easy time in a way. The narrative has a natural chronological momentum. Daphne helps because she was an amazing letter writer. She was away from family and friends for much of this time, so many letters were written, and many survive. Her letters are full of humour and perceptive observations.

Sources are important – because, as noted, information is passed from book to book. It is there in black and white, so must be correct. In this way, 'alternative facts' can become normalised through repetition.

Poor Henry Puxley is so defined by his disastrous infatuation with Daphne; it has even changed his name for posterity. Flavia called him 'Christopher' in her memoir because that was what her mother called him at the time. Margaret Forster also went with Daphne's pet name for Henry – and only explained the derivation in the notes at the back of the book in tiny print, which only people like me read! Now, he is almost always referred to as Christopher, as if it were his real name, but it is noticeable that in letters written after their affair ended, Daphne no longer calls him that. In a 1957 letter to Maureen Baker-Munton, she calls him 'that Puxley person'. I think the poor man suffered enough, and we should now allow him the dignity of his own Christian name. 

I'm a big fan of Flavia's book, and as a source, it is superb – because it's a first-hand account, but it is very objectively written. In fact, I find the absence of bitterness very touching because, in many ways, it seems she had the hardest time of the three children. It takes you right inside those early days at a rather bleak sounding Menabilly, and her handling of the challenge her father faced in re-joining the family after WW2 is sensitive and moving. 

The book covers the period from Flavia's birth in 1937 through to her admission to boarding school in 1950. Common sense dictates that the very earliest memories in the book cannot be her own. It seems unlikely that she remembers 'Greyfriars' – a house the family left shortly after her second birthday.  This house would be something of a du Maurier shrine, were it still standing – the birthplace of Rebecca. It was demolished in the late 50s or early 60s to make way for a housing estate. The developers were certainly aware of the connection because the estate features roads such as 'Rebecca Close' and 'Danvers Drive'.

A few years ago, I was collecting material on the houses Daphne lived in during these 'nomadic years', and I contacted the Church Crookham History Society, who sent me some 1950s estate agent's particulars for 'Grey Friars' showing a large house with a tiled roof. Flavia described it as a 'thatched house with small rooms and poky passages.' Probably because of this notion of it being thatched, other books describe it as 'Tudor'. But if it had been a thatched Tudor house, I don't think it would have been demolished! The history society assured me it was no older than the 19th century and not architecturally significant. I tell this tale not to be a pedant – but as an illustration of the importance of source evaluation. I'm sure Flavia's own memory is accurate – but the opening part of the book must have relied on other sources, which it appears are less so.

Menabilly Years

Having returned to Fowey in 1942 and rented a small cottage at Readymoney Cove near the mouth of the harbour, Daphne was in despair about the state of Menabilly. It was in serious danger of deteriorating beyond repair. She had her lawyer write to the Rashleighs to ask if she could acquire a long lease on the house without any real expectation that they would agree. But, miraculously, they did, and by sheer force of personality, Daphne turned Menabilly from a decaying wreck into a home in a few short months. She remained there for the rest of her life – twenty-six years in the main house and another twenty in the Dower House, Kilmarth.

On the subject of Daphne's homes – a quick word on Hilary Macaskill's book Daphne du Maurier at Home. There are no original biographical revelations in this book – but the pictures are superb – in my opinion, the best in any book about Daphne. It is in a coffee table format and well worth acquiring - they say a picture paints a thousand words - in this book, it is true.

During 'the Menabilly years', Daphne rarely left Cornwall if she could possibly help it, except for holidays. On the whole, the world came to her – even the Queen and Prince Philip. This makes the biographer's task a rather different one. In addition to Forster (for the facts) and Flavia's memoir (up to 1950) for post-1950, I would add Letters from Menabilly as a source.

By the time Daphne moved into Menabilly, she was already famous – and the fact that she used the house as a location in her books made the combination of the author and her magical setting a good story – so there are many magazine articles and interviews in this later period. However, Daphne never gave too much away. As she got used to being interviewed, she developed stock answers for stock questions – such as why the second Mrs De Winter had no Christian name. She only did two television interviews, both at Kilmarth. The first was in 1970, and the second as part of her 70th birthday celebrations, around the time that Growing Pains was published in 1977. This is available on a DVD entitled The Make Believe World of Daphne du Maurier. In it, she states that she does act for much of the time. For these TV interviews, she developed a public persona that was very polite, charming, and wryly amused. We don't really learn very much about the real Daphne from published interviews. Her letters are a much better source in this respect.

When I first read Letters from Menabilly, I did so in one sitting, as I recall. I simply could not put it down. When I'd finished it, I felt I knew Daphne at least twice as well as when I had started. But even then, on reflection, you realise that she created a sort of version of herself for each correspondent – and that letters written to different people covering the same incident are very different. Additionally, the editor (in this case, Oriel Malet) exerts some influence by excising material which might be problematic if published.

The Secret - Gertie

Many authors have had a go at finding 'The Secret' – the elusive hidden construct that is the key to Daphne's personal struggle. Margaret Forster reached the end of her biography without finding it – but then, at the editing stage, she suddenly got access to Daphne's letters to Ellen Doubleday, with whom Daphne had a close friendship she would later describe as obsession. These letters suggested that Daphne's relationship with the actress Gertrude Lawrence had been physical – and Margaret Forster took them at face value. This led her to deduce that the 'The Secret' was repressed lesbianism – that was the hidden trauma that lies beneath. She hastily revised the book, and it seemed to become its dominant theme, as Ann Willmore notes in her review – see 'Book Recommendations' on this site.

I seriously doubt Forster's interpretation for two reasons. The first is that Daphne was quite adamant that she was not a lesbian. In today's society, self-identity is paramount. If Daphne did not consider herself a lesbian, then it is not for others to label her as one. The second reason is that Gertrude Lawrence's daughter, Pamela, was 100% convinced that her mother was not a lesbian either, dismissing the claim in Daphne's letters to Ellen as 'an obvious fantasy'.  She wrote: -

'I would have no moral objection to her [Gertie] having a lesbian relationship, but she was the last person in the world to do so.

Where are the letters [between Daphne and Gertie] that would support this alleged affair? And if my mother was a lesbian, how is it that no one in her family, or among her friends, ever heard of any woman with whom she had an affair? But there were plenty of men.'

It has always seemed to me that Daphne's claim was an attempt to make Ellen jealous in some way, as she was frustrated over the limits Ellen placed upon their friendship. Because of Daphne's obsession with Ellen, she wanted something more – but this does not mean she was a lesbian, in the normal meaning of the term.

These days, I am in a minority on this – because Forster's well-respected book and the 2007 BBC biopic Daphne have ensured that her view is now the established one. Daphne's reluctance to identify as a lesbian is said to be the result of deep-rooted homophobia that she inherited from her father, together with the societal pressures that kept homosexuals 'in the closet' during most of her lifetime. Pamela's objections are ignored – Daphne's letters to Ellen are apparently enough evidence to establish a physical relationship.

The Secret - Barrie

In 2009, Piers Dudgeon wrote a most intriguing book, Captivated. This is not a biography of Daphne as such, but it makes another attempt to identify 'The Secret'. The subject of the book is J.M. Barrie – who had strong links with the du Mauriers. He had known George du Maurier and was a fan of George's first novel, Peter Ibbetson. In the 1890s, he became friendly with George's daughter Sylvia, her husband Arthur and their five sons. Tragically, Arthur died of cancer in 1907 and Sylvia in 1910, leaving the boys orphaned. Using some sleight of hand in the transcription of Sylvia's will, Barrie became guardian of the boys. This has always been controversial, with many people alleging that he had sinister motives.

A by-product of Barrie's love for Sylvia's 'lost boys' and the make-believe games he invented for them around the turn of the century was Peter Pan. In the original production in 1904, Gerald played the combined roles of Mr Darling and Captain Hook – and he went on doing so for the rest of his career. Barrie wrote many other plays in which Gerald acted - including Dear Brutus, The Admirable Crichton and What Every Woman Knows.

Piers Dudgeon is not a Barrie fan – in fact, the portrait of the playwright in his book makes Svengali look like a party entertainer in comparison. Barrie was a malevolent manipulator and, unbeknownst to herself, Daphne was being controlled by him, even beyond his death in 1937. The book is utterly fascinating and well-researched. You must decide for yourself whether you are convinced by the premise or not. For myself, I am more convinced by Jane Dunn's take on it in her biography - Daphne du Maurier and her Sisters. It was not Barrie that mesmerised Daphne; it was Peter Pan. She grew up with Barrie's 'terrible masterpiece' (Peter Llewelyn-Davies' description) from birth, and its messages had a profound impact on her. I do have to give Piers kudos for pointing out that Rebecca is not a 'study in jealousy', though. In my opinion, Daphne introduces this notion to try to stop people from calling it a romance, which drove her potty. I think the true meaning of Rebecca is more complicated – and it is the reason why the 1947 court case in New York defending a plagiarism charge was so traumatic for her. She was terrified that in order to defend herself, she would be forced to decode the novel – but in the end, the production of her original outline of the story in her notebook proved sufficient.

Jane Dunn's 2013 book is my favourite biography of Daphne, even though she has to share the stage with Angela and Jeanne. I find Jane's judgements on Daphne to be more balanced and perceptive than in any other biography to date. I think the joint biography concept actually enhances the reader's view of Daphne rather than diluting it. The only snag was that Jeanne's partner, Noλl Welch, then in her 90s, declined to cooperate with the book, so insight into Jeanne was limited. Noλl sadly died in 2017, and the house she shared with Jeanne on Dartmoor was left to the National Trust. Whether it will be possible for Jane to revise her book with any new information that might become available (or indeed whether she would want to), I do not know.



The Secret - Gerald

The third and most recent attempt to find 'The Secret' is showcased in Teresa Petersen's Looking Inward (2017). Teresa is an English Professor at Macquarie University in Australia – this is an academic book and carefully analyses a number of Daphne's works in support of its contention. Essentially, her thesis is that Daphne's inner turmoil was driven by incest – and it was her relationship with her father that was the source. This idea had been floated earlier by journalist Michael Thornton – at least in part as a response to Margaret Forster's repressed lesbianism theory, with which he strongly disagrees. Thornton was a regular lunch guest at Menabilly, and he recalls that the subject of incest was one of Daphne's favourite icebreakers.

I remember when I took my sister Jean to lunch at Menabilly, Daphne remarked on the family resemblance and said: 'You seem unusually close for a brother and sister. What do you think about incest?' I recall glancing across at my sister and seeing her face frozen in horror.

Thornton recalls that Daphne more or less told him that her relationship with her father was not healthy.

'We crossed the line,' she admitted to me in 1965, 'and I allowed it. He [Gerald] treated me like all the others as if I was an actress playing his love interest in one of his plays.'

He supported this with the kind of anecdote that Daphne had successfully suppressed in 1934 by writing Gerald's biography herself.

Friends noticed that Gerald was constantly tactile with his second daughter. 'He couldn't keep his hands off her,' observed one of their neighbours, the tennis star Bunny Austin. 'It was quite embarrassing at times.'

Teresa Petersen does not include any of these revelations in her book – though they were published in the Daily Mail in 2014. Instead, she martials her evidence from Daphne's own pen – with the short story A Border-Line Case being the most obvious 'Gotcha'. But Teresa's book analyses a wide range of Daphne's work and finds many examples of texts that support her interpretation. I am not really in a position to offer a critique of this book, not having the requisite academic qualifications, but I found it thorough and impressive.

That does not mean that I unreservedly agree with the conclusion. Again, we tiptoe across sensitive ground – because one can bandy about terms like 'incest', but in the end, just like the Gertrude Lawrence question, it comes down not to how they felt about each other but what they did behind closed doors - and this we can never know. Two things are beyond dispute; there is too much evidence to brush them aside.

The first is that Daphne's relationship with her father was unusually close. He spent his life 'being someone else', and consequently, the relationship in his own mind between what he did physically and the conclusion most people would draw from it may have become semi-detached. "They know I don't mean it – I'm an actor." Although Daphne never went on the stage, she also, by her own admission, continuously acted. It is possible they 'played scenes' together that others could easily misconstrue.

The second is that incest is a subject that exercised Daphne much more than it does the average person. Most of us find it an uncomfortable concept, and we shy away from it. Daphne did not – to her, it was a legitimate topic of interest that she was happy to discuss and to write about. We can make of all this what we will – but for myself, I do not believe Daphne's relationship with her father was incestuous in the literal sense.

A Rogue Source

So, there you have it – 'The Secret' may exist – or it may not. I do not think that repressed lesbianism, mesmeric control, or incest is the answer. If you still search for this Holy Grail, you might imagine, from the title anyway, that The Private World of Daphne du Maurier by Martyn Shallcross (1991) could illuminate. It is long out of print – but if you're curious, you can pick one up on eBay for a few pounds. Many subjects have apocryphal sources – those that have contradictory information of doubtful provenance that you won't find anywhere else. This book is one of those.

The background is that Martyn claims to have encountered Daphne on her holiday in Crete with Kits and Olive in April 1969, when he was about 15. Chatting in the hotel lobby, Daphne invited Martyn and his aunt to join her party on a trip to Spinalonga, the island that had been used as a leper colony. Being polite, Daphne offered her new acquaintances an open invitation to visit her in Cornwall. By the time Martyn got around to taking this up in 1972, Daphne had great difficulty remembering who he was. A few years later, Martyn wrote to Daphne seeking help with research he was doing that involved Lawrence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, the stars of Hitchock's Rebecca.  He had lunch with Daphne at Kilmarth and tea on the terrace of the Fowey Hotel. 

Later meetings between Martyn and Daphne took place at Kilmarth when her health was failing. Daphne's illness in her last years does not seem to have been very accurately diagnosed, but it's clear that her memory was severely affected, and not just her short-term memory. On one occasion, she asked Oriel Malet, "Do tell me, did I write Gone with the Wind, or was it someone else?" That indicates how bad things were. Margaret Forster comments that during this time, Daphne's housekeeper, Esther Rowe, welcomed visitors as they provided stimulation for Daphne, helping to pass the time. The book has three pictures of Martyn with Daphne, who looks very frail and almost frightened. I find them troubling.

Martyn's real interest was in the films – and for this book, he tracked down quite a few people who appeared in adaptations of Daphne's work or were otherwise involved. Some of what they told him is interesting – and if this had been the sole focus of the book, it would stand up as a useful source. However, in a rather narcissistic way, he keeps repeating that Daphne had declared that he was 'the only person who could write about her'. So, he set about compiling a sort of biography, which is a pastiche of the available sources at that time – Daphne's own work and some UK magazine articles, which he passed off as his own insights into her 'private world'. Given the state of her memory at this time, there are some bizarre episodes in the book – for example, Daphne and Agatha Christie (who she never met) strolling the banks of the Thames discussing plots and characters of novels, including The Scapegoat, to which Agatha supposedly made a great contribution. In short, the book is not to be trusted as a source – except on the films, where his original research is good.

Manderley Forever

In 2017 the first new standalone biography of Daphne since 1993 appeared - Manderley Forever by Tatiana de Rosnay. This was originally written in French, which was, in part, its raison d’κtre as there had been no previous French language biography. Given this, the book naturally focuses on Daphne's French roots. I always thought this was a bit of an affectation – when Daphne wrote things other people found offensive, she liked to blame 'the old French blood'. But by 1907, this was very diluted! Only one of her great grandparents was French, and even he was born in England. You have to go back to the 18th-century glass blowing Bussons to find any genuine 'born and bred' French ancestors. Daphne was a Francophile without question – mostly because of her fascination with her bilingual Grandfather, George – but apart from her brief time at finishing school, she was never more than a tourist in France.

The book was very well received on this site, and it is much more readable than Margaret Forster's book, which has a more conventional biographical format. This makes it a bit dry at times, and Daphne does not really come to life as a person. By contrast, Tatiana's book flows much better and tries to put you inside Daphne's world. On the back of the dust jacket is a quote from her daughter, Tessa, which demonstrates her success in doing just that.

It's impressive how Tatiana was able to re-create the personality of my mother, including her sense of humour. It is very well written and very moving. I'm sure my mother would have loved this book.

A device Tatiana uses to give you a sense of 'being there' is to write in the present tense. Not all reviewers liked this – and I found myself wondering if it works better in the French language. That one is a matter of personal taste. Something else reviewers picked up on is evidenced by the second quote on the back cover.

Tatiana de Rosnay, for whom Daphne du Maurier has been an idol since adolescence, has published a biography that is fascinating, thorough and embodies Daphne du Maurier.

I mentioned in my comments on sources that historians look for objectivity when evaluating them. If you put your subject on a pedestal, that rather goes out of the window. Several reviewers commented that the book comes across as written by a 'fangirl' and, though I am a committed fan myself, I want to understand, not admire, and the book does little to further my understanding. Not everything Daphne did in her life was creditable, and she was the first to admit it. Some of the more awkward moments are swept under the carpet in this account of her life.

Although Manderley Forever is subtitled 'A Biography', in many ways, it is more a biographical novel, in the mould of Daphne's Mary Anne perhaps, because it describes thoughts and feelings for which there are no sources – they are from the author's imagination. That doesn't make it a bad book, though, far from it. Overall, I enjoyed it, and I'm very glad it has been written, as Margaret Forster's book, although unchallenged as a reference work, now belongs to another time.

Getting Started

If you are new to this site or simply haven't yet got around to reading one of these books – where should you start?

My advice would be to read Manderley Forever – as it will give you a good contemporary overview of Daphne's life. Then read Growing Pains, the essays in The Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories and then Letters from Menabilly. If you are still hungry for more, you can take your pick from the others based on what I have written, together with other reviews on this site or elsewhere.

And what of our imaginary biography – the one we are writing? Well, I would say that if we wrote it using the golden sources I have listed, it would be unlikely to advance our understanding of Daphne's life by very much. If another biography is ever written, it needs to offer new insights based on sources as yet untapped. Who knows if any will come to light – but there is the expiry of that moratorium in 2039 to look forward to for some of us – if we are spared!

Having studied Daphne's life, when you read her novels, you will start to spot the other melodies that play in the background and, like me, you may conclude that the tunes we know are fewer than ones we cannot yet pick out. But that is why we keep reading.

© Chris Main March 2021

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