Dame Daphne du Maurier DBE (May 13, 1907 – April 19, 1989) was a famous British novelist best known for her short story "The Birds" and her classic novel, Rebecca, published in 1938. Both were adapted into films by Alfred Hitchcock; Rebecca won the Oscar for best film. Du Maurier's novels generally fit into the category of the romance novel, but strayed somewhat from the typical format. Her short stories, such as "The Birds," give reign to her interest in the supernatural.
Du Maurier was born in London (though spent most of her life in her beloved Cornwall), the daughter of the actor-manager Sir Gerald du Maurier, and granddaughter of the author and cartoonist, George du Maurier. These connections gave her a head start in her literary career, and her first novel, The Loving Spirit, was published in 1931. Du Maurier was also the cousin of the Llewelyn-Davies boys (George, Jack, Peter, Michael, and Nicholas), who are known for serving as J.M. Barrie's inspiration for the play Peter Pan. As a young child, she was introduced to many of the brightest stars of the theater thanks to the celebrity of her father; notably, on meeting Tallulah Bankhead she was quoted as saying that she was the most beautiful creature she had ever seen.
She married Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick "Boy" Browning and had two daughters and a son (Tessa, Flavia, and Christian). Biographers have drawn attention to the fact that the marriage was at times somewhat chilly and that Du Maurier could be aloof and distant to her children, especially the girls, when immersed in her writing. As a product of well-to-do Edwardian society, it was the nanny who took care of the children.
Indeed, she 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 David Lean's film, A Bridge Too Far, which portrayed her late husband in a less-than-flattering light. Du Maurier was incensed and wrote to the national newspapers decrying what she considered this unforgivable treatment.
Though literary critics have often berated Du Maurier's writings for their lack of intellectual heft in the manner of George Eliot or Iris Murdoch, admirers of her novels highlight her talent for unfolding a story full of suspense. By the time of her death, her writing was felt to belong to a bygone age of fiction, but today she is considered a first-rate storyteller: Her ability to recreate a sense of place is admirable, and her work remains popular worldwide. Du Maurier provided her audience with an escapist world of glamor and adventure.
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 Bramwell Bronté, her biography of the troubled elder brother to the Bronte 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, Julius, originally published as The Progress of Julius, 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. She also wrote a collection of short stories published in 1971, under the umbrella title Don't Look Now.
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 categorized as a "romantic novelist" (a term she deplored), though most of her novels, with the notable exception of Frenchman's Creek, do not fit neatly into the stereotypical format of a typical romance 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 favored in her short stories. In this light, she has more in common with the "sensation novels" of Wilkie Collins among others, which she admired. Sensation novels were precursors to modern detective fiction or suspense novels.
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 Lense" 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 lukewarm 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 neighbor, A.L. Rowse, the celebrated historian and essayist, who lived a few miles away from her house near Fowey.
One of her most imaginative works, The Glass-Blowers, traces her French ancestry and gives a vivid depiction of the French Revolution. The du Mauriers is a sequel of a sort, describing the somewhat problematic ways in which the family moved from France to England in the nineteenth century.
The House on the Strand (1969) combines the elements of "mental time-travel," a tragic love-affair in fourteenth century Cornwall, and the dangers of using drugs. The name of the late Rule Britannia is clearly ironic for a book describing the resentment of English people in general and Cornish people in articular at the increasing dominance of the United States.
She died at the age of 81 on April 19, 1989, at her home in Cornwall, in a 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.
Du Maurier was named a Dame of the British Empire.
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