Last night I dreamt I went to Platres again
This is almost the same as one of the most famous opening lines in modern literature – from the novel Rebecca - except this time it is not Manderley.
So where on earth is Platres?
It is a mountain village high in the Troodos mountains on the island of Cyprus, which Daphne du Maurier visited before the war. It is where, also, she planned and wrote some of Rebecca.
Daphne du Maurier
In 1936, a young Daphne du Maurier was in Alexandria, Egypt, as her husband, Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick “Boy” Browning and his battalion had been posted there. They also took their young daughter Tessa and her nanny, Margaret.
Daphne carried out her duties as a wife of a commanding officer in an exemplary manner, attending or hosting many of the social occasions and events. Despite living in a large house allocated to them on the beach at the Mustapha Barracks and having plenty of household help, Daphne quickly became very unhappy with the lifestyle.
In reality, all she wanted to do was carry on with her writing. Her books had met with huge acclaim in England, and she was trying to finish her latest – the biography of her family, The Du Mauriers. She longed for the cooler climes and solitude of her beloved Cornwall and the chance to have time to think and write.
Before long, in her incessant struggle to be all things to all people and the blistering heat of Alexandria, Daphne soon began to feel unwell. A doctor was summoned, and everybody was most surprised when he confirmed her second pregnancy.
It was thought that the best thing would be to have a complete break and to seek some respite in Cyprus, which at the time was a British colony and only a short sailing from Egypt.
One of the favourite destinations was the village of Platres, which was fast becoming extremely fashionable with the elite of the international scene because of its cosmopolitan feel, a network of hotels, bars, and forest walks.
The newest of these hotels was the Forest Park Hotel. Its tall, majestic façade was imposing, set amongst the pine forests. Inspired by Bauhaus, the characteristic semi-circular shape of the building is truly magnificent. Indeed, many other holiday villas in Platres built at that time were of the same striking Bauhaus design.
The Forest Park Hotel
Daphne and her husband, along with their young daughter Tessa and their nanny, were given the most auspicious rooms in the hotel with spectacular views over the forest. The Cyprus Mail knew of the famous author’s stay – the newspaper reported on it on 5th September 1936.
It may have come as a surprise to Daphne to find that the colonial lifestyle from which she had been trying to escape was thriving here, too. Platres was vibrant, with dances, soirees, and formal dinners held daily at the hotels and clubs. Many activities were laid on for demanding guests, such as horse-riding, special tours to the nearby monasteries, Curium Castle and amphitheatre, and guided walks to nearby waterfalls through mountain trails.
The expectations and standards of the resort’s hotel clientele were high – many of whom may have come to holiday in the hills for only a short time but who would have brought their servants and staff with them. Despite being thought of as a holiday retreat, every formality was observed – such as dressing for each meal - the custom in pre-war days of genteel living. Silver-service dining was de rigueur - formal meals accompanied by a full Palm-Court Orchestra such as the Al Bahari Ensemble and other notable bands of the era.
But Daphne had come to find some solitude, and so she preferred the quiet hillside walks of Platres, with its shady pine trees. It was just what she needed, both as a young, pregnant wife and mother but more importantly as a writer.
Here she could spend her time just thinking - and also planning her new novel. She had managed to finish The Du Mauriers, and the seeds of a novel about a haunted second wife were just starting to be sown in her imagination. She had, at last, found some freedom, and although it was not her beloved Cornwall, it was a welcome retreat.
It was during this time on one of her walks that Daphne came across a young Cypriot woman - Theodora Pierides, in the garden of the Pierides’ family holiday home. This elegant house, built in the same Bauhaus style, banks the lower walls of the Forest Park Hotel.
From the beginning, Daphne felt a close affinity with Theodora, and they quickly became firm friends. Theodora was refreshingly different - she was not like the army wives whose company she had recently endured. They had much in common - they were almost the same age, [Daphne was twenty-nine and Theodora twenty-five], young married women, each with a little girl and both of them staying in Platres to escape the summer heat.
Theodora was a beautiful woman – slim and graceful. She was from a well-known Cypriot family held in high regard throughout the island for its philanthropic and cultural interests. She was well-educated, spending a year at a private school in Wimbledon then going on to finishing school in Paris.
Theodora and her husband Zenon [a prominent businessman who was also Consul General of Sweden, Austria, and Germany] liked to entertain at both their Larnaca and Platres homes. Members of nobility and also the arts attended their soirees and gave many impromptu performances whilst staying there.
This was not unlike the environment in which Daphne herself grew up. Her father, Sir Gerald du Maurier, had been an actor famous in the theatres of Edwardian London and their household was often filled with visiting thespians of the era. This may have indeed encouraged Daphne’s vivid imagination and thus her career as a writer – just like her grandfather before her – George du Maurier.
Daphne and Theodora started going for walks together through the cool forest, often followed by an enjoyable afternoon tea. Their favourite venues would be at either the Forest Park Hotel or the Berengaria – another new local hotel.
Whilst taking tea and watching the other guests dancing to the sounds of the Palm Court Orchestra, the two friends had plenty to talk about, sharing a mutual love of literature and all things French. They both had a strong love of family and were true patriots of their countries. Daphne had written two family biographies and was fiercely loyal to England, whilst Theodora was passionate about preserving her Cypriot heritage through the acquisition of artefacts and antiquities.
Sometimes, Daphne visited Theodora’s summer home in the village. Whilst their mothers chatted, their two little girls, Tessa and Loukia - both aged three - played together happily in the shady garden. Daphne was, of course, pregnant with her second child, and Theodora planned to have her next baby soon.
But all too soon, it was time for the Browning family and nanny Margaret to say goodbye to Platres. Daphne found it very difficult leaving her friend Theodora as during their short time together, a matter of weeks only – they had grown fond of each other. Daphne promised to return to Cyprus whenever she could.
There is an entry in the register at The Forest Park Hotel, signed by Daphne, saying, “we have spent four and a half peaceful weeks at the Forest Park Hotel – and wish the management every success in the future.” The family returned to Egypt and happily found it more bearable in the cooler winter months. Then, on 16th January 1937, Daphne sailed to England with Tessa and her nanny to await the birth of her child.
A second daughter, Flavia, was born on 2nd April and Lt. Colonel Browning was given three months leave to return home from Egypt to see his new baby. The happy time with the family all together again flew by, and soon Daphne and Lt. Col Browning were on their way back to Alexandria, but this time it was decided that it would be best to leave both children and their nanny at home in England.
It was a brave decision on Daphne’s part to return, and she once again fervently hoped that this time she would somehow find the inspiration to write. The book which had been developing in her mind for over a year now and which succeeded in eluding her many times – Rebecca - was still tormenting her. Indeed, she tore up about 15,000 words of this book whilst in Egypt – something she never did with her work.
However, again, the searing Egyptian summer heat was unbearable. So, as in the previous year, they made another retreat to the hills of Cyprus. Daphne was now desperate to find the time and the inclination to write, and she wanted to meet up again with her dear friend Theodora.
Daphne and Theodora were absolutely delighted to see each other again. They met as often as they could as, by now, things had changed somewhat. Theodora had her new baby - a son, Demetris. On her regular visits to the Pierides house, Daphne was happy to spend time holding baby Demetris [born 30th June 1937 in the Pierides’ Platres home]. It must have been a poignant time, as she was missing her own baby Flavia, so far away.
As in the previous year, the friends enjoyed their walks through the shady Platres trails together, relaxing in each others’ company. Again, this was often followed by afternoon tea, at exactly five o’clock, sometimes taken in the cool shade of the Pierides’ garden. There, Theodora’s would delight in showing Daphne the dainty bags, trimmed with blue ribbon that she made from her garden lavender and explain how, instead of allowing the lavender to dry first, she preferred to capture the fragrance straight away. Every year, Theodora loved to give these little lavender bags to her friends and family for their linen cupboards, and Daphne was duly presented with some to take home with her, as a token of Theodora’s friendship and love and as a souvenir of her time in Platres.
One of the talking points at their regular meetings was how the writing of Rebecca was coming along. The book was still rather eluding Daphne, and they would talk at length about its progress. Daphne confessed to her friend that she needed to come down from the Park to Theodora’s house to “become inspired by breathing in the fragrance of the lavender” in her garden.
One morning, when Daphne was visiting and lovingly cuddling baby Demetris, Theodora asked her a question.
“Tell me, where does all this come from – the ability to enthral and scare your readers, Daphne?”
Daphne thought for a while and replied
“Well, with technique and a literary imagination and knowing my readers’ feelings and sensitivities...but maybe a bit like you, Theodora, who can captivate with merely your presence and your beauty.”
But all too soon, Daphne had to return to Egypt again, the two friends promising to write often to each other. There was now much unrest in Europe, and it seemed like war might develop very soon. Also, Lt. Col Browning’s battalion was ending its tour of duty in Egypt, and so, Daphne and her husband sailed for England.
Demetris recounted in his autobiography that his mother Theodora received her first letter from Daphne in October that year.
My dearest friend Theodora
As strong as the scent of chestnuts is in Hyde Park just now, still the fragrance of the lavender at your home pervades my being.
Rebecca is still giving me grief. I am seriously thinking of letting go, but it is impossible. Only the living can harm you. Ghosts can do nothing at all. And for you to know, they live amongst us all the time. Never be afraid if you encounter them, they will not hurt you. Whatever evil they did, they did it whilst alive.
It is true that the beautiful mountains and the true light of Cyprus did not help me much for my writing of my book. Maybe you could tell, sometimes when we used to chat, my thoughts were on the buildings and not on you. That is because I told myself to observe everything around me in the Gothic style of Rebecca...
My husband and I will always hold the most beautiful memories. I am waiting for you in London for next Spring, just like you promised me.
London October 1937.
So, it seems that, from what she writes in this letter, Daphne confirms that she had fervently hoped that her second visit to Platres in 1937 would have helped to inspire her to better envisage the setting of the new book. She had imagined that the tall trees and the architecture of the lofty buildings in the village would have given the visual prompts she needed. Unfortunately, she had found it almost impossible and later came close to “letting go.”
It was only when she was back in England with its rugged Cornish countryside and seascapes making it easier to work on the dark, Gothic novel that she managed to find, at last, the precise inspiration she sought to finish her Rebecca.
Rebecca, perhaps Daphne Du Maurier’s most famous novel, was finished at last later that year and was published in 1938. It has been made into two films, several dramas, theatre plays, and the book has never been out of print since.
As for Daphne and Theodora, the situation in Europe made it too difficult to pursue their friendship. Both their husbands were highly involved in the ensuing war, and so Theodora’s proposed visit to London could not take place. Restrictions made letter writing unsafe, and increasing family commitments took priority, and so sadly, their communication dwindled.
However, the sincerity and warmth of the unique friendship between Daphne and Theodora and the memories of their time in Platres lasted throughout their lives.
© Helen Barrett, July 2021.
Daphne du Maurier – Margaret Forster, Chatto and Windus 1993
The Presence of Cyprus in English Literature: From Shakespeare to Durrell and Du Maurier – Demetra Demetriou
Rebecca and Daphne du Maurier in Platres - Professor Gina Wisker, Sunjet magazine 1996
Life with a sense of humour [Athens 2004] - Demetris Pierides [∆ηµήτρης Πιερίδης, Ηζωήµεχιούµορ - Athens 2004]
The Trailblazers [Theodora Pierides, Gems of Wisdom] – Dolores B. Lasan, Cyprus 1995
Archive and the management – Forest Park Hotel.