Daphne du Maurier, Lady Browning DBE (13 May, 1907–19 April, 1989) was a British author of plays, novels and short stories. Many of her works have been adapted into films, including the novels Rebecca, which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1941, and Jamaica Inn and her short stories The Birds and Don't Look Now; the first three were directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Her elder sister was Angela du Maurier, also a writer.
She married Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick "Boy" Browning and had two daughters and a son (Tessa, Flavia and Christian). Biographers have noted that the marriage was at times somewhat chilly and established du Maurier could be aloof and distant to her children, especially the girls, when immersed in her writing. "Boy" died in 1965 and soon after Daphne moved to Kilmarth which became the setting for The House on the Strand.
Du Maurier has often been painted as a frostily private recluse who rarely mixed in society or gave interviews. A notable exception to this came after the release of the film A Bridge Too Far in which her late husband was portrayed in a less-than-flattering light. Du Maurier was incensed and wrote to the national newspapers decrying what she considered unforgivable treatment. Once out of the glare of the public spotlight, however, many remembered her as a warm and immensely funny person who was a welcoming hostess to guests at Menabilly, the house she leased for many years (from the Rashleigh family) in Cornwall.
After her death in 1989, numerous references were made to her alleged lesbianism; an affair with Gertrude Lawrence as well as her infatuation for the wife of her American publisher, Ellen Doubleday, were cited. Du Maurier stated in her memoirs that her father had wanted a son and being a tomboy, she had naturally wished to have been born a boy. However, this is perhaps too simplistic an explanation: a childhood brought into contact with the theatrical and artistic people of her parents' circle, many of whom were homosexual, should have meant for a liberal atmosphere. Yet strangely for a man in his profession, her father was vociferously homophobic. For a daughter who virtually worshipped her father, this was bound to have major repercussions in later life; guilt, shame and an instilled belief that homosexuality was utterly abhorrent could not have helped her form rational conclusions to her own doubts and anxieties.
In letters released to her official biographer after her death, du Maurier explained to a trusted few her own unique slant on her sexuality; her personality, she informs, comprises two distinct people: the loving wife and mother (the side she shows to the world) and the lover, a decidedly male energy, hidden to virtually everyone and the power behind her artistic creativity. Du Maurier evidently believed this was the demon which fueled her creative life as a writer. One can best try to understand this if one looks to those novels such as The Scapegoat or The House on the Strand, written in the first person and as men, and being utterly convincing.
In the Queen's Birthday Honours List for June 1969, Daphne du Maurier was created a Dame of the British Empire. She never used the title and according to her biographer Margaret Forster (Daphne du Maurier, Chatto and Windus, 1993, ISBN 0701136995), she told no one about the honour. Even her children learned of it from the newspapers. "She thought of pleading illness for the investiture, until her children insisted it would be a great day for the older grandchildren. So she went through with it, though she slipped out quietly afterwards to avoid the attention of the press" (page 370).
English Heritage created controversy in June 2008 when an application to commemorate her home in Hampstead by a Blue Plaque was rejected by them.
The novel Rebecca, which has been adapted for stage and screen on several occasions, is generally regarded as her masterpiece. One of her strongest influences here was Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Her fascination with the Brontë family is also apparent in The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, her biography of the troubled elder brother to the Brontë girls. The fact that their mother had been Cornish no doubt added to her interest.
Other notable works include The Scapegoat, The House on the Strand, and The King's General. The latter is set in the middle of the first and second English Civil Wars. Though written from the Royalist perspective of her native Cornwall, it gives a fairly neutral view of this period of history and is written with a great flair for that era.
In addition to Rebecca, several of her other novels have been adapted for the screen, including Jamaica Inn, Frenchman's Creek, Hungry Hill and My Cousin Rachel (1951). The Hitchcock film The Birds (1963) is based on a treatment of one of her short stories, as is the film Don't Look Now (1973). Of the films, du Maurier often complained that the only ones she liked were Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca and Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now. Hitchcock's treatment of Jamaica Inn involved a complete re-write of the ending in order to accommodate the ego of its star, Charles Laughton. Du Maurier also felt that Olivia de Havilland was totally wrong as the (anti-)heroine in My Cousin Rachel. Frenchman's Creek fared rather better with its lavish Technicolor sets and costumes, though du Maurier later regretted her choice of Alec Guinness as the lead in the film of The Scapegoat which she partly financed.
Du Maurier was often categorised as a "romantic novelist" (a term she deplored), though most of her novels, with the notable exception of Frenchman's Creek, are quite different from the stereotypical format of a Georgette Heyer or Barbara Cartland novel. Du Maurier's novels rarely have a happy ending, and her brand of romanticism is often at odds with the sinister overtones and shadows of the paranormal she so favoured. In this light, she has more in common with the "sensation novels" of Wilkie Collins et al., which she admired.
Indeed, it was in her short stories that she was able to give free rein to the harrowing and terrifying side of her imagination; "The Birds", Don't Look Now, The Apple Tree and The Blue Lenses are exquisitely crafted tales of terror which shocked and surprised her audience in equal measure. Perhaps more than at any other time, du Maurier was anxious as to how her bold new writing style would be received, not just with her readers (and to some extent her critics, though by then she had grown wearily accustomed to their often luke-warm reviews) but her immediate circle of family and friends.
In later life she wrote non-fiction, including several biographies which were well-received. This no doubt came from a deep-rooted desire to be accepted as a serious writer, comparing herself to her close literary neighbour, A. L. Rowse, the celebrated historian and essayist, who lived a few miles away from her house near Fowey.
Also of interest are the "family" novels/biographies which du Maurier wrote of her own ancestry, of which Gerald, the biography of her father, was most lauded. Later she wrote The Glass-Blowers, which traces her French ancestry and gives a vivid depiction of the French Revolution. The du Mauriers is a sequel of sorts, describing the somewhat problematic ways in which the family moved from France to England in the 19th century and finally Mary Anne, a novel based on the life of a notable, and infamous, English ancestor—her great-grandmother Mary Anne Clarke, former mistress of Frederick, Duke of York.
Her final novels reveal just how far her writing style had developed; The House on the Strand (1969) combines elements of "mental time-travel", a tragic love-affair in 14th century Cornwall, and the dangers of using mind-altering drugs. Her final novel, Rule Britannia, written post-Vietnam, plays with the resentment of English people in general and Cornish people in particular at the increasing dominance of the USA.
She died at the age of 81 at her home in Cornwall, the region which had been the setting for many of her books. In accordance with her wishes, her body was cremated and her ashes were scattered on the cliffs near her home.
In late 2006 a previously unknown work titled And His Letters Grew Colder was discovered. This was estimated to have been written in the late 1920s, and takes the form of a series of letters tracing an adulterous passionate affair from initial ardour to deflated acrimony.
In the summer of 1943 she began writing the autobiographically-inspired drama The Years Between about the unexpected return of a senior officer, thought killed in action, who finds that his wife has taken over his role as Member of Parliament as well as starting a romantic relationship with a local farmer. It was first staged at the Manchester Opera House in 1944, then transferred to London, opening at Wyndham's Theatre on 10 January 1945 starring Nora Swinburne and Clive Brook. The production, directed by Irene Hentschel became a long-running hit, completing 617 performances.
Better known is her third play, September Tide, about a middle-aged woman whose bohemian artist son-in-law falls for her. The central character of Stella was originally based on Ellen Doubleday and was merely what Ellen might have been in an English setting and in a different set of circumstances. Again directed by Irene Hentschel, it opened at the Aldwych Theatre on 15 December 1948 with Gertrude Lawrence as Stella, enjoying a run of 267 performances before closing at the beginning of August 1949. It was to lead to a close personal and social relationship between Daphne and Gertrude.
Since then September Tide has received occasional revivals, most recently at the Comedy Theatre in London in January 1994, starring film and stage actress Susannah York in the role originally created by Lawrence, with Michael Praed as the saturnine young artist. Reviewing the production for the Richmond & Twickenham Times, critic John Thaxter wrote: "The play and performances delicately explore their developing relationship. And as the September gales batter the Cornish coast, isolating Stella's cottage from the outside world, she surrenders herself to the truth of a moment of unconventional tenderness."