Gerald du Maurier was a devoted and affectionate father, especially to Daphne. His longing for a son prompted her to dress like a boy, cut her hair short, and adopt an alter ego she named "Eric Avon." As a member of a theatrical family, she found that such imaginative flights of fancy met with encouragement rather than resistance. Upon reaching puberty, however, du Maurier put "Eric" aside. She later referred to this repressed side of herself as "the boy-in-the-box."
Du Maurier was privately educated at home by governesses. Several served as role models for the young girl and tried to make up for her rather cool and distant biological mother. An avid reader from early childhood, du Maurier was especially fond of the works of Walter Scott, W.M. Thackeray, the Bronte sisters, and Oscar Wilde. Other authors who strongly influenced her include R.L. Stevenson, Katherine Mansfield, Guy de Maupassant, and Somerset Maugham. Du Maurier herself began writing during her adolescence as a way to escape reality and in the process discovered more about herself and what she wanted in life.
After finishing at a school near Paris, she moved into the family home, Ferryside, in the harbor town of Fowey on the Cornish coast. Later she rented a local estate, Menabilly, located nearby, which became one of the models for Manderley. For most of her adult life she resided primarily in the area around Fowey (except when she left to travel with her husband, F.A.M. (Boy) Browning, who was a professional soldier) and set a number of her novels, including Rebecca, in that area.
Du Maurier was blessed with an active imagination and made up stories to act out with her two sisters as they were growing up. Often based on the fiction she was reading, these stories of adventure and romance set the tone for her later best-selling fiction. She began writing short stories in the late 1920s. Her first publication, "And Now to God the Father," appeared in the May 8th issue of The Bystander, edited by her uncle Willie Beaumont, her mother’s brother. As she later would write in her autobiography, Myself When Young (1977), "I went self-consciously into the W.H. Smith’s [the booksellers] in Fowey and bought a copy, hoping the girl behind the counter did not know why I was getting it." Du Maurier’s self-effacing reaction to her first publication was characteristic of her response to her later fame as well. She remained leery of self-promotion and publicity throughout her professional life.
Although she sold a number of other short stories to The Bystander, she quickly realized that if she was going to reach financial independence as a writer, she would have to turn her hand to longer works. During the autumn of 1929 she began her first novel, The Loving Spirit, which became the first of her many books inspired by her life in Cornwall. In The Loving Spirit, du Maurier first put to use the combination of romance, adventure, history, and a sense of atmosphere that would characterize all of her later fiction. It was a winning combination. Over the next fifty years she turned out a couple of dozen books, half of which—and the most memorable—were set in Cornwall. One of the most famous, Jamaica Inn, was suggested in part by a stay in the old coaching inn, long associated in local history with the Cornwall smuggling trade.
Although her first novels, The Loving Spirit (1931), I’ll Never Be Young Again (1932), The Progress of Julius (1933), and Jamaica Inn (1936), sold well and established her as an author in Great Britain, it was the publication of Rebecca in 1938 that brought Daphne du Maurier international recognition.
The mystery evolves slowly and involves the death of Rebecca around which du Maurier deftly creates a plot twist. Up to the time of the accidental discovery of Rebecca’s body, both the reader and the heroine have been led to believe that Maxim still loves his first wife. However, at this point in the novel Maxim reveals that he had never loved Rebecca, that in fact he had despised her, eventually developing toward her a loathing so powerful that it had led him to kill her. In the film version, Rebecca’s death is portrayed as accidental.
The gothic elements revolve around the house itself—Manderley—and its menacing housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, one of the eeriest figures in fiction who, in her own particular way, terrorizes her new mistress. Although du Maurier forgoes the usual trappings of gothic writing—hidden staircases, floating ghosts, and the like—the atmosphere of the house is so pervaded by the memory of Rebecca that the marriage of the romantic couple is nearly destroyed and the young bride, believing her marriage a failure, nearly commits suicide—with the encouragement of Mrs. Danvers. It is Mrs. Danvers who destroys Manderley in the end by setting it on fire before disappearing from the novel. In the Hollywood version, she is destroyed along with the house which she has set ablaze.
Despite the fact that the film is fairly true to du Maurier’s original, there are other significant differences which affect the tone as well, such as those between the respective closing scenes. At the film’s conclusion, Maxim and his wife meet during the burning of Manderley and embrace in front of the flames of the house, a typical Hollywood happy ending. In the novel, however, after the destruction of Manderley, Maxim and his wife are described as living in self-imposed exile somewhere on the European continent. There they lead a quiet, placid life, skirting carefully around subjects that might rekindle memories of Rebecca and Manderley and "that sense of fear, of furtive unrest." The ending of the book, therefore, is much darker than that of the film. By the end of the novel, the dream-like opening has taken on a more nightmarish quality, one that more accurately reflects the way the past still haunts the lives of Maxim and his second wife.
Daphne du Maurier continued actively writing for almost forty years after she wrote Rebecca. In 1969 she was made a Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire, and in the same year she finally left her beloved Menabilly. In 1977 she was awarded the Grand Master Award by the Mystery Writers of America, and in 1982 she published her last books, The Rendezvous and Other Stories and, appropriately enough, The Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories. She died in1989 in Cornwall at the age of 82. Throughout her life the fame of Rebecca, both in print and in film, provided her with a constant bond to the past.
Both poems can be found in The Rebecca Notebook & Other Memories
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