One of my favorite authors has always been Daphne du Maurier, the author of The Birds (made into the famous Alfred Hitchcock movie), Rebecca, Jamaica Inn and many others. But though her books are considered classics today, she was overlooked by critics during much of her lifetime.
In an industry and country largely monopolized by men, she was dismissed as a “romance novelist” which at the time meant her writing did not consist of serious works of art. Today she is known as a mistress of suspense and a master storyteller. She was born in London in 1907. Her grandfather was George du Maurier, the author of Trilby which introduced the character Svengali, a character soon to become a word in the English language that means someone who controls, manipulates or excessively influences another person. Her cousins were the Llewelyn Davies boys, who influenced J. M. Barrie’s imagination so much that he patterned the boys in Peter Pan after them.
Despite the critics’ disdain for her, when Rebecca was originally published in 1938, it became an instant hit, leading to the movie starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine and directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Du Maurier enjoyed gothic tales, the sinister and the paranormal. A more recently discovered short story written when she was around 21 years old is entitled The Doll and was about a woman’s infatuation with a male sex doll; in 1928, I can only imagine what a scandal that might have caused had she tried to publish it!
She married Frederick Browning in 1932, who later became known as the “father of the British Airborne”. He was portrayed by actor Dirk Bogarde in the award-winning movie A Bridge Too Far, in which he led Airborne troops during Operation Market Garden. He later became treasurer in the Office of the Duke of Edinburgh under Queen Elizabeth II’s reign.
Daphne and Frederick lived in a mansion (now an historic estate) called Menabilly, which inspired Manderley, the home in Rebecca. The home is hidden behind acres of woods and cannot even be seen from the shoreline. The home also inspired Du Maurier’s novel The King’s General, in which a skeleton is found in the cellar.
Though her books were dismissed as romance, they are not typical romantic fare, as they tend toward the dark, the mysterious, and to psychological suspense. Her books have influenced my own writing; when I awakened one night in a cold sweat after reading a chapter of Jamaica Inn, I had to sit up in the middle of the night and read it again in an attempt to discover how she caused me to be so terrified. Her heroines almost always caused me to shout out loud, “Go back!” even when I knew they would not; they would venture into places that would put them in peril, causing me to read wide-eyed until the last page.
Daphne du Maurier died in 1989 at the age of 82, having lived 24 years after her husband died in 1965. They had two daughters, Flavia and Tessa, and a son, Christian.
Have you ever read a Daphne du Maurier novel? Which is your favorite?