Daphne du Maurier is one of the most overlooked writers of the twentieth century, says Oxford University's Laura Varnam. As Rebecca celebrates its eightieth anniversary and du Maurier enjoys a critical renaissance, Varnam explores the books which highlight this novelist's sheer range and brilliance—from biography and fiction to history and horror.
Before we start talking about Daphne du Maurier books, I wonder if we might start with a simple question: who was Daphne du Maurier?
She’s one of the most important and most neglected 20th-century writers—hugely popular and bestselling but often underrated. At the moment, she’s enjoying a resurgence of interest and starting to be critically recognised for her talent.
Apart from several short stories published at the end of the 1920s, du Maurier’s writing career really began with her first novel, The Loving Spirit (1931), and Daphne du Maurier continued writing books right up until the publication of her last novel in 1972, Rule Britannia. So her career spans a wide temporal range across the twentieth century.
Obviously, she’s most well-known for Rebecca and the big Cornish novels: My Cousin Rachel, Frenchman’s Creek, Jamaica Inn. But in my own five choices of Daphne du Maurier books, I wanted to showcase the wide range of styles and genres in which du Maurier wrote. Despite celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, I didn’t want to pick Rebecca, though it’s brilliant of course. Du Maurier is often incorrectly categorised as a romantic novelist, dismissed as just a bestseller. The assumption is that writers who are popular bestsellers simply can’t be literary. Obviously that’s not true.
“Du Maurier is often incorrectly categorised as a romantic novelist, dismissed as just a bestseller”
Daphne wrote short stories, biography, plays, poetry, biographical fiction and fictional biography, and literary criticism as well as novels. In a nutshell, that’s who she is: she’s a writer. But she’s also a mother of three children (Tessa, Flavia, and Kits). She’s the woman who lived at the famous Cornish house Menabilly and transformed it into one of the most potent and haunting locations in literature, Manderley in Rebecca. She’s also the wife of Sir Frederick Browning, a public figure important for his role in both the First and Second World Wars, who then worked for the Queen and Prince Philip after he left the military (1948–59). Du Maurier connects very interesting people, in terms of 20th-century history. Her father Sir Gerald du Maurier was the most famous actor-manager of his day and his nephews, Daphne’s cousins, were the inspiration for J M Barrie’s Peter Pan. Gerald played Captain Hook and Mr Darling in the stage play, so throughout her life Daphne was part of a fascinating artistic and social milieu.
Part of what your first choice, the recent biography Manderley Forever – which we’ll get on to in a moment – highlights is the fact that she lived through two World Wars. How do Daphne du Maurier’s books reflect that?
The Second World War generated incredibly interesting fiction, especially by women. Du Maurier wrote a play called The Years Between (1945), which is about what happens to women who are left at home when husbands go away to war. The husband is presumed missing, so the wife becomes an MP in his stead. She gains both independence and another love interest, but then her husband comes back and finds that things have changed in the ‘years between.’
The King’s General (1946), one of my choices, is a Civil War novel, but she wrote it in 1944–45. In a way, it’s another Second World War novel; it’s an exploration of being the woman at home when men are involved in all of these public events. But it’s also a way of thinking about the place of women in history and, importantly, giving such women a voice to tell their own stories.
Is she unusually independent for her time, do you think?
She comes from a very privileged background. She lived in Cannon Hall, a large 18th-century house in Hampstead, from the age of nine with her father and mother, Sir Gerald du Maurier and Muriel Beaumont, and there were often great society parties there, with Gerald’s theatrical friends. It’s quite an impressive, grand background. There’s an illustrious heritage from her grandfather, George du Maurier (author of the bestselling novel Trilby, and Punch cartoonist). So her family heritage and history enable her to aspire to creative success and to do things working-class women wouldn’t have been able to do at the time.
But she also fights against that privilege. When she goes to finishing school in Paris, she really tries to find her own way, despite being ‘a du Maurier’. To stake her own claim to her heritage, she spends time investigating her grandfather’s Paris, as George was born and grew up there, and wrote about the Paris of his childhood in his first novel Peter Ibbetson. She keeps going back and forth between Paris and London when she’s in her twenties and this sense of having a dual identity and a pride in her French ancestry can be detected in much of her work.
“‘I for this and this for me’, she famously says, falling in love with the Cornish coast at first sight”
Once she goes to Cornwall in 1926, she finds the stunning coastal town of Fowey: “I for this and this for me”, she famously says, falling in love with the Cornish coast at first sight. This represents proper independence. She can be on her own; she can write; she can walk; she can do all the things that she can’t really do in the social world at home. She can learn to fish, sail a boat.
What she really wants to do is earn money from her writing as quickly as possible. She wants to be able to support herself. She wouldn’t necessarily have to do that because of her background. In fact, her parents buy and renovate Ferryside, a house on the river Fowey that had been part of a boatyard and this becomes their holiday home, where Daphne is able to escape the London scene and write her first novel, The Loving Spirit.
The biography you picked as your first choice, Manderley Forever, is very recent. The author weaves her own story as a biographer into telling du Maurier’s life narrative. She tells the reader about emotional experiences she has visiting places significant for du Maurier such as Cannon Hall in Hampstead, London, and Ferryside in Fowey. Does this unusually novelistic style work?
When I first heard there was going to be a new biography, I thought, ‘Well, Margaret Forster does a fantastic job, so what’s the new angle going to be?’ There have been good biographies of du Maurier before. We already know the big landmarks in her life. But what de Rosnay shares with du Maurier is her Franco-British identity. Manderley Forever really captures the richness of Daphne’s time in Paris in the 1920s and the enduring importance of her French heritage throughout her writing life.
What this biography does above all is to re-invest the story of her life with suspense, with the texture of emotions she’s going through. You get caught up in it. It’s a real page-turner. It feels like a du Maurier novel.
“It’s a real page-turner. It feels like a Du Maurier novel”
It taps into something that fans of Daphne—and I count myself in that group, because I first read her when I was 14—love. Readers become obsessed and want to visit the places of the novels. Of course, you often can’t: you can’t go to Menabilly; you can only get a glimpse of it. But what Tatiana de Rosnay captures really well is the desire to be close to these places. That desire springs in part because du Maurier is so brilliant at creating a sense of landscape in her writing. When you read The House on the Strand (1969) and go to Tywardreath in Cornwall, you feel as though you’ve viscerally experienced the places where the story happens already.
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De Rosnay mimics Daphne’s own style of writing biography: putting herself into the story, thinking about the connections between her own life and the life of her subject, and writing in this novelistic way (e.g. du Maurier’s biography of Branwell Brontë). I don’t think de Rosnay was doing this consciously, necessarily (I’ve interviewed her a few times, and we’ve talked about this), but it really works. If Daphne had written her own life story, I think it may have read like Manderley Forever.
You mentioned a moment ago the big landmarks of Daphne du Maurier’s life and thought we might talk about what they are. When does she become well-known as a writer? It seems to be quite early in her career.
Even the first novel, The Loving Spirit, immediately captured the public’s imagination, particularly the imagination of her then-future husband, Frederick Browning. Tommy, as he was known in the family, read the book and thought, ‘Wow, I’d love to meet the woman who wrote this novel.’
He sailed down to Fowey, sailed up and down in front of Ferryside. Daphne and her sister Angela were inside. Angela said, ‘Come and have a look! There’s a handsome man who keeps sailing up and down in front of the house. Who is he?’ They met, fell for each other, and quickly got married in Lanteglos Church, where the characters marry at the end of The Loving Spirit. In a beautiful way, du Maurier wrote her own story.
That’s such an excellent advertisement for being a writer.
It’s amazing. Life and fiction intersect throughout her life, really. Tommy and Daphne went sailing on the Helford river for their honeymoon and they found themselves at Frenchman’s Creek, which became the setting for her famous 1941 novel.
Obviously, going to Fowey is the big landmark moment in the mid-twenties. The family renovate Ferryside; Daphne has real freedom for the very first time. Then she finds Menabilly, the Manderley house. She trespasses; she thinks about it constantly. The house is very run-down; it seems like this fairytale, almost-Sleeping Beauty-like house.
She writes about it before she lives in it, right?
Yes, she does. She finally persuades the Rashleigh family, who own the house, to allow her to rent it (and restore it as it was in quite a state) and she moves in by Christmas of 1943, five years after the publication of Rebecca. But from the moment she discovered it at the end of the twenties, she immediately thought of it as her “house of secrets”, her “house of stories.”
“Life and fiction intersect all throughout her life”
In a way, the house is waiting for du Maurier to wake it up. She wrote that at night, when everyone is sleeping, “the house whispers her secrets, and the secrets turn to stories, and in strange and eerie fashion we are one, the house and I.” In Rebecca, there’s a powerful sense of wanting to possess Manderley, and of the house being a character in its own right. This is partly because when writing the novel, du Maurier wasn’t in Cornwall—she was partly in Egypt and partly in England, but not Cornwall. What she wanted more than anything was to be back in the place that she loved. So there’s a real desire for this elusive, secretive house and that’s why it has such a tangible, imaginative presence in Rebecca. Once she moves in, The King’s General is the first proper ‘Menabilly novel.’
Before we move on to the works of du Maurier’s on your list, I wonder if you might talk about your method of choice. Many Daphne du Maurier novels most people will have heard of like Rebecca (1938) and Jamaica Inn (1936) are published before the first Daphne du Maurier book that you’ve chosen, The King’s General (1946).
That was deliberate. I wanted to not only showcase the range and versatility of her writing, but also get people to read some of her books they wouldn’t otherwise know about. I also picked this particular novel for du Maurier’s historical research, which is incredibly meticulous and accurate.
King’s General is the great novel of Menabilly. Again, the house a character. What’s more, there’s a strong female narrator. Du Maurier is often known for her male narrators. Unusually, King’s General, Rebecca and The Glass-Blowershave female narrators.
Honor Harris is one of the great du Maurier heroines. She’s strong, rebellious, adventurous, independent, and a writer keen to have her own voice. I love the way King’s General opens with her saying that while Sir Richard Grenvile’s public defence of his actions, written in exile in Holland, is discussed by the world, ‘I will say for Richard what he never said for himself’. She takes control of history’s assessment of her lover and tells her side of the story.
What’s the novel’s plot?
It’s an English Civil War novel set in Cornwall. Here, the Civil War plays out differently than elsewhere in the country. Cornwall is staunchly royalist, with all kinds of connections to the crown and Richard Grenvile is the King’s General in the West, leading the fight for the royalists. What interests Daphne is that the Cornish spirit is one of independence and rebellion—a notion which comes up in other novels such as her last, Rule Britannia.
The King’s General is about the love affair between Honor Harris and Richard Grenvile, which goes on for the whole of their lives, despite the fact they never actually marry. Richard marries someone else, and very early on in the novel, Honor suffers a terrible accident. There’s an incredibly dramatic set-piece scene where they’re hawking with Gartred, Richard’s sister, whose ‘serpent’s eyes’ and ‘hard, voluptuous mouth’ remind us of Rebecca de Winter. Gartred doesn’t warn Honor that there’s a chasm and as they’re riding their horses, and the falcons are flying. Honor falls and then is disabled for the rest of the book; she’s in a wheelchair.
This doesn’t stop her from doing achieving all kinds of feats in the novel, though. She goes off and becomes a kind of camp follower, trailing Sir Richard around. She’s right at the heart of things in Menabilly, and starts to gradually find out the house’s secrets, including a hidden room in the buttress that plays a crucial role at the end of the novel. She’s also there at the great sack of Menabilly, that amazing scene where she’s playing cards with Gartred as their enemies strip the house. Her and Gartred are sort of enemies throughout the book. Quite often you get a strong sense of female rivalry in du Maurier’s work, just as you see with Rebecca and the second Mrs de Winter.
There’s a lot of the Gothic novel in there, as well—the trope of the house, the pair of enemies, the overly affective and perceiving narrator.
Definitely. Du Maurier uses Gothic tropes to invest the story with drama and emotion but predominantly it is a historical novel.
In a documentary, du Maurier mentions that King’s General was optioned, but the film was never made. Her works have frequently been adapted for stage and screen and she wrote the script for the stage version of Rebecca herself.
Yes that’s right. Writing a play-script was nothing new to her—she grew up in the theatre. Many of her novels, The Parasites in particular, have a vivid sense of setting, you can really picture where the characters are in the scene. Du Maurier is fascinated by houses and places, almost like a theatre set. This is part of why Hitchcock liked her. Not only for suspense and atmosphere, but also the strength of visual setting in her works.
Hitchcock’s relationship with Daphne du Maurier’s books—much like his relationship with women in general—is that he pretends she wasn’t a great influence on him. But she was. She taught him about suspense. She’s a great plotter, good at cliff-hangers and unexpected endings.
Ultimately, du Maurier didn’t like Hitchcock’s take on Jamaica Inn. But she did like his adaptation of Rebecca. As with Jamaica Inn, he had to make changes in line with The Hays Code, the motion picture production code. You couldn’t have a hero get away with murder in films of that period. This is why Max de Winter has to push Rebecca. She bangs her head and is ‘accidentally’ killed, whereas in the book, she’s very clearly murdered and this is crucial to the plot.
“Hitchcock pretends du Maurier wasn’t a great influence on him. But she was. She taught him about suspense”
Jamaica Inn faces the same problem. In the book, du Maurier’s great trick is that the real villain is the vicar. But you couldn’t have an evil vicar in a Hollywood movie in the thirties, so the evil vicar is replaced by a caricatured, evil squire played by Charles Laughton, who had far too much interest in shaping the plot to his own liking. As a film, Jamaica Inn just didn’t really work in the way that Rebecca did, with the terrifying Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers and the oversized set that made Joan Fontaine’s Mrs de Winter look even more insignificant and small. It’s a shame that The King’s General wasn’t made into a film but it would have been a huge undertaking to produce such a large scale historical adaptation.
Is that part of why it’s such a compelling read, then? Because it has such a rich historical imagination?
Definitely. She brings it alive. You feel like you’re living that period of history, emotionally.
Even though we know the outcome—it doesn’t ultimately end happily for the Cornish—we can’t help but be impressed by the way she intersects Honor’s personal narrative with public events. The sack of Menabilly by the Parliamentarians takes place at the same time as the Royalists fight to regain control of the surrounding land, it’s incredibly dramatic. Here, her historical research is brilliant. She went back to original documents, and read up-to-the-minute research.
How did she acquire those skills without a university degree?
She taught herself. That’s one of the things I think is most extraordinary about her. She read and studied all of these original documents, despite having no university education. She was just a voracious reader who read everything. And this eclectic reading continued throughout her life: she was well read in English literature and classical mythology, but she was fascinated by history and psychology too. She loved doing research. She would have made a great university student, actually. But that just wasn’t something women of her class and background did.
Third, we have The Parasites (1949). Why did you pick this Daphne du Maurier book?
I picked it because it’s quite unusual for du Maurier. Normally, she plots and plans in great detail. Every single chapter—how it’s going to start, how it’s going to finish—will be worked out in advance. The Parasites is unusual because she pretty much just sat down and wrote it. I also picked it because it’s contemporary. People think she mostly writes historical fiction, but she does contemporary stuff, too, and is great at satirising social mores and pretensions.
It’s the first book she writes in the writing hut in the grounds of Menabilly. It’s 1949, the year just following a return to the theatre with plays like Rebecca (1940), The Years Between (1945), and September Tide (1948). Being back in the theatrical world of her childhood stirred up a lot of memories of her father and mother, and their lifestyle, which contributes to the strong theatrical sense of The Parasites.
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It’s also autobiographical. There are three main characters: Maria, Niall and Celia. Du Maurier spoke about them all as facets of her personality, they were ‘the three people I know myself to have been’ she said. In her work, du Maurier is known for being obsessed with doubles, for example, Mrs de Winter and Rebecca, and John and Jean in the doppelgänger novel, The Scapegoat (1957). Here, she fragments herself into three. Maria is an actress; Niall is a musician; Celia is an artist and illustrator. She’s playing with different reactions to the idea of talent.
They have quite complicated relationships. Mama, the mother of Niall, is a dancer, while Pappy, the father of Maria, is a singer and actor. Celia links the two. Together, they’re half brother/sister, step-brother/step-sisters. While not technically related, Niall and Maria have been brought up together, and have a possessive, rather incestuous relationship. Daphne is fascinated by the emotional intensity of family relationships throughout her work. She’s also preoccupied with imaginative, artistic relationships between siblings, which is also why she’s so interested in the Brontës. Her own sisters were creative too; Angela was a novelist and Jeanne a painter.
Bits of Daphne shine through in the character of Maria. She talks about herself as always acting, and play-acting is a big theme in Daphne’ du Maurier’s books. Early in the novel, Maria says, “I’m seeing a person called Maria lying on a sofa and losing the love of her husband, and I’m sad for that poor, lonely soul, I want to weep for her; but me, the real me, is making faces in the corner.” There’s this mocking, satirical side of du Maurier. She was very funny, witty, and had all these code-words—a du Maurier language. What you get through Maria is a sense of constantly acting, playing or being other people. Daphne was always doing that, taking on these characters and playing games of make-believe, just like her father did in the theatre.
For readers who think du Maurier is all dark Gothic, The Parasites is packed with plenty of wit, both in the narrative voice and in the form of farcical, slapstick humour. For instance, there’s the scene at the big country house, Coldhammer, where Pappy turns up with far too much luggage and Freada, Niall’s older lover, is mistaken for his mother. She has packed her meagre things in brown paper parcels which the servants mislay, then she overflows the bath and the water seeps through the library ceiling. It’s a completely mad, comedic scene and timed to perfection.
“Du Maurier is always taking on these characters and playing games of make-believe, just like her father did in the theatre”
I picked The Parasites not only for du Maurier’s humor, but also for its style. The novel is written in first person plural. It begins, “It was Charles who called us the parasites.” The narrative moves in and out between ‘we’ and ‘us’. In parts, it’s quite clear that that the novel is given over to the thought process of one character and the reader sees from one individual’s perspective. Yet it’s impossible to deny that all of their thought processes are linked.
This is quite an unusual style—not many novels use it. In some ways, it’s similar to what Virginia Woolf is doing in The Waves with six characters: Bernard, Jinny, Louis, Neville, Percival, Susan and Rhoda. Bernard says, “I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am—Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda, or Louis; or how to distinguish my life from theirs.” Daphne achieves this stylistically by using the plural ‘we.’ It’s impossible for the reader to divide the three characters into distinct selves and this is precisely what du Maurier is interested in here, the ways in which our identities are inextricably shaped by and intertwined with family relationships.
That sounds fascinating. Your fourth choice is completely different from the previous three. It’s not a novel, but a biography called The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, the first full treatment of the fourth Brontë sibling (who, before reading this, I didn’t even know existed, I have to admit!) Why does Daphne du Maurier write this book?
She was always fascinated by the Brontës, and used different aspects of the sisters’ work in her novels. Rebecca, for instance, is often considered a re-writing or response to Jane Eyre. The title of The Loving Spirit is a phrase from one of Emily Brontë’s poems, and the four books of The Loving Spirit are prefaced by quotations from Emily Brontë. Wuthering Heights also provides some of the atmosphere in Jamaica Inn with its wild moors and extreme passions.
So, she was always reading around and about the Brontës. A friend and fellow writer, Oriel Malet, sent her Fannie Elizabeth Ratchford’s The Brontës’ Web of Childhood (1941), which was published when the Angria and Gondal juvenilia was first discovered. Before that, nobody had really known that the Brontës as children collaborated on this kind of fantastic kingdom.
Daphne was fascinated by both that and the fact that Branwell was such an important part of it, too. It wasn’t just the sisters; he was the driving force of the imaginary kingdoms, to some extent. One of the kingdoms is Gondal, one is Angria, and ‘gondalling’ quickly goes into du Maurier vocabulary meaning ‘to make believe’, ‘to fantasize’, ‘to pretend’.
“Branwell Brontë should have had everything in his favour, and yet it was the sisters who became successful. Why?”
In the preface to her biography, du Maurier says the trouble with Branwell is that he couldn’t distinguish reality from fantasy. That’s why she calls the biography the ‘infernal world’ of Branwell Brontë, borrowing a phrase from Charlotte—he was completely taken over by this imaginative life and it ruined him.
The dual power and danger of the imagination is a fascination of du Maurier’s. What went wrong with Branwell? Why the brother? He should have had everything in his favour, and yet it was the sisters who became successful. Why? Why not him?
I think the catalyst for writing the Branwell biography is she’s asked to write an introduction to Wuthering Heights in 1954. She went back to the Fannie Ratchford book, and her introduction to Wuthering Heights ends up being as much about the imaginary kingdoms and Emily’s relationship with her siblings and Branwell as it actually is about Wuthering Heights, it’s a fascinating response to the novel.
When writing the Wuthering Heights introduction in the mid-fifties, instead of just sitting at home and writing it, she went to the Brontë parsonage with her daughter, Flavia, and her friend Oriel Malet. They had a great time striding around on the moors and walking in the Brontës’ footsteps. Daphne did a lot of research in the parsonage museum and archives, and saw many of the original documents. It dawned on her that there was much more to be said about Branwell than she had initially thought.
Then she started, and realised she was in a race against time versus Winifred Gérin, the great Brontë biographer. Gérin had already written a biography of Anne, published in 1959, and her next target was Branwell. They’d both go somewhere, and one would discover the other had gotten there before them. They had an exchange of letters in the TLS, too, which lit a fire under du Maurier to publish her biography quickly. She thought, ‘No one’s going to read mine when hers comes out, because she’s known as the real Brontë scholar.’
What did go wrong with Branwell Brontë, in du Maurier’s estimation? What’s the story that she tells?
It is this story about the relationship between imagination and fantasy. He doesn’t always make the best of the opportunities he’s given and he allows himself to be taken over by his imaginative world. Daphne doesn’t really believe that Branwell had an affair with Mrs Robinson and that this was why he was fired from his role as a tutor, precipitating his ultimate decline. Whatever the true reason for his dismissal, du Maurier suggests that the love affair became ‘the ultimate excuse’ for Branwell, ‘the valid reason for failure’.
Because the lie is somehow better than outright failure, or?
To some extent, yes. He mythologises his own failure and lack of abilities. Branwell actually gets his poetry published before the sisters, but he is also retreating into alcohol and laudanum. Charlotte in particular becomes fed up with him, and the sisters ultimately close ranks against him. But Daphne’s sympathetic to his plight. She doesn’t shy away from the fact that he was a nightmare to live with when his demons took possession of him but there was talent there that he just didn’t take advantage of.
He lacked discipline, which is something you really need as a writer. Daphne had it—she had what she called her ’routes’, her routines. Writing in the morning, lunch, big walk over the cliffs to the sea in the afternoon, a bit more writing before supper. Just keep going, just do it. She wanted to be published, to make a living. She was taken over by stories and loved writing, of course, but she’s also a proper working writer, a professional. By contrast, her sister Angela—who’s also a novelist, and has written some good stuff that should be more well-known—liked traveling and spending time with friends. She was much more of a socialite than Daphne. In Branwell and The Parasites there’s a real sense that talent must be nurtured. You have to put the work in, otherwise you’ll end up like Branwell.
Is this part of why she’s so attracted to biography? She writes a biography of Francis Bacon as well—I notice a theme of her interest in genius, in picking apart the minds and lives of fascinating, complicated intellectual men.
I think it’s a bit of both. It’s the thrill of discovery. In all her biographies, she finds stuff. She finds stuff out. She does have people who help her with the research. But in order to employ a researcher, you have to tell them what to look for, which is a skill in itself. She loved ‘finding things out and establishing the truth’, as she put it; she enjoyed telling the stories of other people’s lives and trying to find patterns in them.
The first biography du Maurier writes is of her father, Gerald: A Portrait (1934). She had written three novels—The Loving Spirit (1931), I’ll Never Be Young Again (1932), The Progress of Julius (1933)—and then Gerald died. He’d been such a big influence on her, and they had such an intense, close relationship. So, within a year of him dying, she wrote this fictionalised biography, in which she presented him as a kind of character. It was very candid, and portrayed Gerald as he truly was: always play-acting, quite mercurial, prone to melancholy towards the end of his life. A man who had various affairs, who was a witty practical joker. She put everything out there. In 1934, that wasn’t how it was done.
It was quite controversial. Many of his friends were shocked and disapproving. But she had a conversation with him once about biography and he said he hoped if he ever wrote his own biography, that he’d have the courage to tell the truth. So she wrote it the way he would have done. You get a real sense of his character.
The theme of biography intersects all the way through her career. She wrote Gerald: A Portrait, and then Jamaica Inn, and then The du Mauriers (1937), the fictionalised account of her French ancestors, and then Rebecca. She’s going back and forth between fiction and biography, but whatever she’s writing, just as with King’s General, she loves the research process. And she does often like to have real-life individuals as ‘pegs’ to hang the story on.
Finally, your fifth choice is The Birds, a collection of short stories. This is generally regarded as a stark departure from the earlier historical romances such as The King’s General; it is dark, sinister and apocalyptic. What are some of the highlights of this collection that stand out to you?
First of all, I don’t agree with the term ‘historical romance.’ ‘Romance’ is a label that gets stuck to du Maurier and just will not go away. She admits that this is a correct label for Frenchman’s Creek, the novel where the aristocratic woman has an affair with a pirate. That is ‘Romance with a capital R!’, as she put it. She wrote it as escapism in 1941, during the war—Dona St Columb escapes her dull life with her dull husband by being swept off her feet by a pirate, it’s very beguiling! But it’s also romance in the medieval sense. The romance form in England is actually about adventure.
“‘Romance’ is a label that gets stuck to du Maurier and just will not go away”
In a way reminiscent of Walter Scott, it’s historical romance but in the sense of quests, adventure, rebellion, strong women, and so on. The portrayal of love in some ways in King’s General is probably one of the most emotionally felt. There’s a realism about the relationship between Honor and Richard Grenvile, Honor knows him for who he truly is and doesn’t shy away from his dastardly reputation.
Often, sex and love in du Maurier are quite dark. Sex is often about power, which you certainly see in The Birds collection with the lady in ‘The Little Photographer,’ the Marquise, who has an affair because she’s a bit bored, and enjoys being in control and in power over the photographer with the clubfoot who is clearly completely besotted with her. When she’s had enough of him, she pushes him off a cliff in the most cold, calculating way. But the twist in the tale shows that the Marquise may get her comeuppance after all. Du Maurier’s short stories are masterful in their unexpected endings.
How do newly sinister themes in Daphne du Maurier’s books come out in The Birds—or have they been there all along in her work, hidden under the surface?
I think they have been there all along. For example, Gartred in The King’s General is out for what she can get. She wants her own life and independence, she wants to make her own kinds of choices. That’s also a major theme in My Cousin Rachel(1951), which is written around the same time as The Birds, and deals with an enigmatic, bewitching woman who may or may not be a murderer, it’s up to the reader to decide! Daphne often uses male narrators to show how men represent or misrepresent or attempt to control women and women’s identities. This is apparent in Rebecca, too. Maxim can’t stand the idea of Rebecca’s control over her own life, indeed her control over Manderley, the symbol of his patriarchal identity. It’s quite timely, actually, in the #MeToo era.
What does it say, then, that the female protagonist of Rebecca remains unnamed?
Part of it is a play with technique. She often experimented with form, especially in her short stories. For example, she wrote a short story in the form of letters and telegrams.
But it’s also typical du Maurier sleight-of-hand. While she’s nameless, it’s easy to think the book is all about Rebecca. But I found this when re-reading it this year for the 80th anniversary, that Mrs de Winter is actually a much stronger character than you think she is. This is her narrative; she’s controlling our perspective. She’s both encouraging us to fantasise and imagine and fall for Rebecca, but she’s also very powerful in moments when she wants to assert her own identity and consciousness. She says to Mrs Danvers, “I am Mrs de Winter now, you know.” On first reading, you think of her as a mousy, shy, nothing of a person. But it’s a bit of a pretence. Actually, she’s the voice controlling the narrative.
Let’s talk about the title story, a little novelette called ‘The Birds.’ It tells the story of a farm worker living on the coast in Cornwall, Nat Hocken, and his attempts to fend off attacks from the vicious seabirds that beset him and his family. What makes the story so compelling—and, frankly, so terrifying?
Du Maurier brilliantly shows us how things that are very familiar, domestic and ordinary can suddenly turn on us. ‘The Birds’ had a real-life inspiration: she was walking around the Menabilly lands. She saw a farmer with all these gulls circling around him. As some began flying down towards him, she suddenly thought, ‘What if the birds turned?’
It’s not just one species—it’s all the species of birds. It’s as if they’re all working together. The attacks, too, work like the tide; when it comes in, they attack, and when it goes out, they retreat. There’s this awful suspense, relief followed by inevitable attack. It’s terrifying. Her publisher Victor Gollancz described it as a ‘masterpiece’ and much of that is down to the pacing.
Cornwall is also right on the edge of things. The characters have to fend for themselves, because no one ‘up country’ is going to do anything. Once the radios stop working, they’ve had it. Nat has to step up and protect his family.
“It’s no wonder Tippi Hedren had a nervous breakdown at the end of filming Hitchcock’s The Birds”
The most disturbing part of the story is when he’s trying to secure the house against attack. He hasn’t got quite enough stuff to do it with, but there are dead birds everywhere, so he decides to use them. He wedges them in the gaps in the windows. The image of this house, covered in blood and feathers, ‘the bleeding bodies of the birds’, is completely horrifying and repulsive.
It’s no wonder Tippi Hedren had a nervous breakdown at the end of filming Hitchcock’s The Birds. His control of her as a director was terrifying on so many levels. Loads of people ended up in hospital when The Birds was being filmed, because they had real birds and actors were often smeared with meat and fish to attract them. Sure, they had bird handlers, but they were essentially throwing birds at people. Worst of all was filming the attic scene, which is the most horrifying bit. Hedren had been told that they would use mechanical birds for the scene but not only did they use real birds—when I read this, I couldn’t believe it, as a fan of Hitchcock’s work—he tiedthe birds to her costume with elastic. They flew at her and bounced back, they were literally attached to her clothes. She nearly got her eye pecked out. The terror in her eyes, in that scene? That’s real.
Wow. You can’t pay someone enough to do that.
His exploitation of her was extraordinary. At that time, she wasn’t a well-known actress. She’d done commercials mainly. He also slapped Joan Fontaine across the face during a Rebecca scene. She played it and played it and played it, and said, ‘I can’t do it. I can’t do any more tears; you’ll have to slap me.’ Instead of telling her to have a rest, he slapped her. He really made her feel as insecure as Mrs de Winter throughout the filming process. She was already anxious because she felt that Laurence Olivier didn’t want her in the part (which he didn’t—he wanted Vivian Leigh, because he was having an affair with her.) The power dynamic between men and women recurs again and again in du Maurier’s work as characters are pushed to their breaking point.
What other tales from The Birds stand out to you?
There are two with female killers, ‘The Little Photographer’ and ‘Kiss Me Again, Stranger.’ Here and in My Cousin Rachel, too, women refuse to be controlled by men. At the end of ‘The Little Photographer,’ she feels some guilt for what she’s done, but she’s also worried that she’s going to be blackmailed, and that she may have a child that will betray the fact that she had an affair. She’s worried for her own sake.
‘Kiss Me Again, Stranger’ is so powerful because it’s an inversion of what you’re expecting. The male narrator is, in a way, stalking the cinema usherette girl, and you get this awful sense of him as a predator following her. Of course, the sting in the tail is that she’s the predator. She’s been murdering all these RAF men and he only just escapes. But he still doesn’t really quite clock who she is, and the danger he was in. It’s a great inversion and quite thrilling.
I suppose in a way this choice goes back to something that’s touched upon in de Rosnay’s biography and in the reception of du Maurier more generally, which is that she’s mistakenly seen as this popular, bestselling author. Would you make a different case, and why has this impression become so culturally predominant in the first place?
I think it’s partly because she was publicised and advertised as best-selling. ‘The latest best-seller from du Maurier’ was pretty much how most of the books were sold—you know, ‘From the author of Rebecca, which has now sold a million copies.’
Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, the Cambridge English professor, and friend and mentor of Daphne’s, said ‘The critics will never forgive you for writing Rebecca’, and it’s basically true. She says in one of her letters—I nearly picked one of her letter collections, Letters from Menabilly—when The Scapegoat is being published in 1957, that if her publisher, Victor Gollancz, said “this book has sold no copies, and nobody who has looked at it can understand a word”, the critics would be nice for once!’ And I think she was right in that assessment.
So, she’s never read on her own terms after Rebecca? There’s always a looming shadow.
Yes. Even early on with The Loving Spirit, when people began to realise she might be a writer in the tradition of the Brontës and one to watch, it was never quite a favourable comparison. It was that she wasn’t quite as good as the Brontës, for all the atmosphere and sense of place in her work. And her historical fiction came in for a lot of criticism. Reviewers said she had no sense of the language of the period and yet as my research has shown, her knowledge of the Civil War was excellent and her ability to recreate its drama was second to none.
Women who write historical fiction are often dismissed for such failings and the ‘romance’ label is persistently used as a way to pigeon-hole and dismiss writers such as du Maurier. Aside from Frenchman’s Creek, her work isn’t romantic at all! Unfortunately, women writers in particular are far more likely to be criticised than applauded, even today. Overall, the critics just didn’t recognise the range and quality of what she was writing, even though the reading public clearly did.
What writers like Woolf and Angela Carter are praised for—stylistic experimentation, feminist themes, for example—du Maurier often does at the same time or even earlier. Daphne works hard to achieve a room of her own and she is a huge influence on modern women writers, from Sarah Waters to Sarah Perry. So the difference in reception is very strange. It’s partly Rebecca; it’s partly the ‘romantic’ label; it’s partly how authors are mythologized and categorised, especially those who are bestsellers. That’s the subject of my next book: a redefinition of du Maurier.
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