In Praise Of: Daphne du Maurier

22nd Feb 2011

Daphne Du Maurier
“Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Responsible for one of the most famous lines in English literature, Daphne Du Maurier is nevertheless one of its most overlooked daughters.

Frequently derided as a romantic novelist whose works fail to pack much of a feminist punch, but whilst du Maurier’s dark tales of obsession occasionally veer towards melodrama, her abilities as a storyteller cannot be questioned.

Virago’s publication of forgotten short stories written at the start of du Maurier’s career are a welcome reminder of the talent she possessed, and of the odd places that her version of romance may be found.

The title story of The Doll is about a woman’s obsession with a mechanical sex doll, and it is this off-kilter desire that best characterises her work, perhaps more so even than the dramatic Cornish landscape where Daphne du Maurier both lived and set some of her most famous novels.

Although Daphne du Maurier achieved literary fame primarily as a novelist, it is the plots of some of her short stories that have endured. They captured the imagination not just of readers but Hollywood – Hitchcock’s adaptation of The Birds remains one of his most famous films, and Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now is a chilling exercise in psychological horror.

And then, of course, there is Rebecca. Sarah Waters, describing Du Maurier’s most famous novel as the book she wishes most that she had written, says that it “just feels so fundamentally right – like a myth, or a fairy tale”.

Heavily influenced by Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Rebecca has been a film, a musical – in German, no less – and a radio drama. It has been televised on Sunday nights and spawned sequels, prequels and contemporary retellings.

Most importantly, it has been clutched to the bosom of queer theorists everywhere as an example not only of lesbian gothic, but of the author’s own barely-suppressed Sapphic passions.

Although Rebecca is her most explicitly queer work, with the eerie housekeeper Mrs Danvers keeping a shrine to her beloved dead mistress, Du Maurier’s ambiguous sexuality permeates much of her work, and features prominently in her private correspondence.

Margaret Forster’s 1989 biography revealed that as well as an unrequited love for Ellen Doubleday, her American publisher’s wife, she had a passionate relationship with actress Gertrude Lawrence, who had previously been her father’s mistress.

She wrote in letters about what she called her “Venetian” tendencies, but refused point blank to ever associate herself with lesbians. “By God and by Christ,” she wrote to Ellen, “if anyone should call [my] love by that unattractive word that begins with ‘L’, I’d tear their guts out.”

One thing about which she was decidedly not ambivalent was Cornwall, her adopted home. A passionate advocate of Cornish devolution, it was the setting for some of her best-loved novels – Menabilly, the house she rented for much of her life, was the inspiration behind Rebecca’s beloved Manderley and even today visitors are drawn to the small seaside town of Fowey to follow in her footsteps.

It is apt, then, that the new collection of stories came about after Fowey bookseller and Daphne du Maurier enthusiast Anne Willmore made it her mission to unearth some of the author’s early work.

Daphne Du Maurier wrote often of feeling not like an adult woman but like a boy, or like a “phantom, who was neither boy nor girl but disembodied spirit”.

Whether this was a reflection of her inability to accept herself as one of her despised “L people” or frustration that her “boy’s mind and a boy’s heart” were so incorrectly packaged is unclear now, but her precise (if not always sympathetic) understanding of the human condition is what makes her so deliciously readable long after the world she describes has disappeared.