10 Reasons to Love Daphne du Maurier
14th May 2012
1. Her name
To start with, ‘Daphne’ is a beautiful name. In Greek mythology, Daphne was a minor goddess (possibly some sort of Artemis-like huntress) who was pursued by the lusty Apollo.
Unable to outrun him, she prayed to the gods to help, and they turned her into a laurel tree so that she was safe and, according to Ovid, ‘only her shining beauty was left’.
Like Apollo’s twin sister, Artemis, she is a symbol of female courage and purity, vowing to remain a virgin. Du Maurier wasn’t a ‘Daphne’ archetype, but she certainly had courage and beauty.
The Greek Daphne remains a symbol of purity (in whatever sense) and bravery, as well as a refusal to give in to others’ desires. As we shall see, Du Maurier always did her best to do as she pleased.
2. Her beauty
When reading Rebecca, the new Mrs De Winter always made me think of Du Maurier herself – reserved and inexperienced (when young) but with a beauty that was subtle yet striking.
Her quiet energy is what draws Maxim to her, and these qualities can be seen in Du Maurier herself. A tomboy with bright, wide eyes and striking features, her photographs are oddly engaging. Her face is attractive because it is beautiful, but also because it seems to have something more mysterious hidden behind it.
3. Her connections to J. M. Barrie and the ‘Lost Boys’
I became aware of this connection only when I saw Piers Dudgeon’s marvellous book, Captivated: J. M. Barrie, Daphne Du Maurier and the Dark Side of Neverland, in a bookshop.
It’s a brilliant book, encompassing the lives of Daphne, Barrie and the Llewellyn-Davies family who provided the inspiration for the Darlings and the Lost Boys in Peter Pan.
The Llewellyn-Davies were cousins of Daphne on her mother’s side and so she spent as much time with Barrie as they did in the childhood years. Dudgeon’s book examines the influence Barrie had on the Daphne as well as the boys, and the ways it influenced her work.
A combination of her grandfather George Du Maurier’s influence and Barrie’s own charismatic and overwhelming presence helped Daphne to create her more sinister characters and develop a subtle sense of doom or danger in her later work.
4. Her heritage
Daphne’s grandfather George was a writer too. His most famous work is Trilby (1894), the story of an artist’s model (named Trilby) who becomes completely enraptured with the artist himself – Svengali.
He hypnotises the tone-deaf Trilby and makes her into a great singer. She remembers nothing of her trance afterwards. The story had a great affect of the young Daphne, and she became interested in hypnotism and Victorian mesmerism.
Suggestions of hypnotism are present in Don’t Look Now and in several others of Daphne’s short stories. Though not always explicit, this influence comes out in much of her work as a fascination with the power of the mind to manipulate perspective and the feelings of fear and doubt that this can create (Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, for example).
5. Her life in Cornwall
Cornwall was a huge source of inspiration for Daphne. She moved there later in life but spent a great deal of time there from a young age. It is the setting for several novels, including, most famously, Frenchman’s Creek, and provided inspiration for the harsh sea in Rebecca.
The reader loves to think of Daphne sitting in her ‘writing hut’ (a little shed constructed in the garden of the main house, with terrific views) and looking out over the landscape and the water, dreaming up her next story. It is undeniable romantic and helped to create some of her most romantic and dramatic stories.
6. Her non-conformity
A tomboy from an early age and fascinated by the different sides to one’s character (influenced by the effects of hypnotism and mesmerism), Daphne liked to dress up as male characters as a child.
She is said to have wished she was born a boy, and resented the restrictions in the life of a woman. She married largely because it was expected of her, but managed to maintain her rich inner life.
Her rumoured lesbian affairs only add to the image of her as a non-conformist. She was certainly unafraid to do as she wished and was often separate from her husband for long periods of time – he would be busy with the army, and she would go to Cornwall to write.
There have been mixed reviews of Daphne as a mother, another role that she apparently did not relish. Unlike many other women of her time she did not give up her career or her lifestyle when she married; she was a wife and mother, but she never let these things define her.
7. Her female characters
Throughout much of Daphne’s writing her female characters are said to represent aspects of herself. There are those that are young and unsure, those that are older, married and worldly; bold and brave. The women are also often quite mysterious. We are never quite sure what they are thinking or what they are going to do.
Daphne may have identified with a lot of male characteristics, but it was women that she understood. More than one critic has suggested that Rebecca and the new Mrs De Winter are like the two sides of Daphne – one is reckless, lusty, bold; and the other is lost, inexperienced, earnest. Daphne’s female characters help to give an insight into her own character.
8. Her use of suspense
Her short stories in particular demonstrate Daphne’s ability to keep her readers on the edge of their seats. Don’t Look Now has to be the best example – a deceptively simple story with shocking and disturbing moments dotted throughout, it will really keep you hooked.
Questions of madness, murder, kidnapping and deceit come up over and over again but Daphne keeps the truth hidden until the very end; and even then you have to go back over the story to check details.
Her stories are not ‘scary’ although there are chilling moments; rather they are suspenseful and mysterious, psychological thrillers that get you hooked right from the first sentence.
9. Her engaging writing style
It was said that Daphne’s writing managed to meet the criteria of both popular fiction and ‘serious’ literature, something not many are able to do. This is surely one of the reasons her work is so successful.
The mystery and suspense keep you entertained, while the pure skill of the writing challenges you and stimulates your mind. Daphne’s work is easy to read but it is not ‘easy’.
The language flows and her descriptions transport you, and there is always something deeper underneath. The engaging nature of her writing ‘lures’ you in, and you are then left to tackle the complex psychology of her story.
10. Her imagination
Much of Daphne’s work may have similar themes (a mysterious figure, madness, intrigue), but the contrasts between the subject matter are vast. She takes all manner of human relationships and exploits them for every fault, every mystery and every potentially great story they could produce.
It is amazing how many stories she came up with, and all of them engaging, original and beautifully constructed and written. Seventeen novels and several short story collections, and all of them brilliant and well worth reading. She was published constantly until about ten years before her death, and left behind a wealth of stories for us to choose from. Which will you read first?