Updated: October 31, 2020 12:17:58 pm
Ben Wheatley’s cinematic adaptation of Rebecca, that released on Netflix Wednesday (October 21), might have drawn tepid reactions from viewers but there’s no denying the hold that Daphne du Maurier’s Gothic mystery has continued to have on generations of readers since its publication in 1938. The story of an unnamed narrator who unexpectedly finds herself married to a wealthy widower and forever trying to match up to the purported perfection of his first wife — the deceased Rebecca — the book sold 2.8 million copies between 1938 and 1965 and has never gone out of circulation. It has been adapted multiple times for the stage and the screen, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning 1940 film.
Even though it was the defining work of her oeuvre, Rebecca was far from being the only success of its unconventional writer, Daphne du Maurier.
Who was Daphne du Maurier?
Daphne du Maurier was born in 1907, in London, the second of noted theatre actor and manager Sir Gerald du Maurier and his wife, stage actor Muriel Beaumont’s three daughters. Thanks to the artistic legacy that she inherited and her own versatile writing, du Maurier occupies a unique position in 20th century cultural history. Her grandfather George du Maurier was the author of the bestselling novel, Trilby (1894), besides being a cartoonist for the Punch magazine. The Scottish novelist and playwright JM Barrie, known for his timeless classic, Peter Pan, that was first produced as a play in 1904, and, later, as a novel in 1911, is said to have been inspired by du Maurier’s first cousin Peter Llewelyn Davies in creating his beloved character.
In 1932, Daphne du Maurier married Sir Frederick Browning, a distinguished officer of the British army, who played a significant role in both the World Wars. After leaving military services, Browning would go into the service of the British royal family.
Notwithstanding her extraordinary lineage, du Maurier was fiercely independent and eschewed conventions throughout her life. Even though she never had a university education, she was interested in history and psychology, in classics and mythology, reading them on her own. Her writing often took precedence over her three children, whom she entrusted to the care of hired help. Though proud of her Franco-British heritage, it was in Cornwall that she came into her own, unencumbered by her social inheritance.
In 1926, when she was visiting the coastal town of Fowey, du Maurier famously declared, “I for this and this for me.” Cornwall would be where she wrote her first novel, The Loving Spirit (1931) and it would be the mainstay of her writing career and her life. In Menabilly, the historic manor that she would lease and live in for over 25 years, she would write some of her best-known works.
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Daphne du Maurier’s writing
Even though she is often dubbed as a romance writer, du Maurier herself chafed at the description. Writing in the Guardian in April 2007, a month before du Maurier’s birth centenary, Kate Kellaway wrote, “Du Maurier was mistress of calculated irresolution. She did not want to put her readers’ minds at rest. She wanted her riddles to persist. She wanted the novels to continue to haunt us beyond their endings.”
Du Maurier wrote short stories, novels, plays, poetry, literary criticism and biography and her themes and style could hardly qualify as romantic, even if some of them included tempestuous affairs of the heart. Almost gothic in their strong sense of atmosphere, her novels often came with unhappy or open endings. There is a strong undercurrent of feminine rivalry and individual assertion, of social norms that constrict female aspirations and masculine ambitions. Her short stories are laced with an unnerving sense of dystopia, and, sometimes, the macabre.
These elements would appeal to the director Alfred Hitchcock, who adapted many of du Maurier’s works for the screen. “She satisfied all the questionable criteria of popular fiction, and yet, satisfied, too, the exacting requirements of ‘real literature’, something very few novelists ever do,’ wrote Margaret Forster in her 1994 biography of the writer.
Du Maurier started her literary career with short stories that found an easy home in Bystander, the magazine edited by her maternal relative, William Comyns Beaumont. She wrote over 40 books, of which some of her most famous novels, apart from Rebecca, of course, include Jamaica Inn (1936), Frenchman’s Creek (1941), The King’s General (1946) and My Cousin Rachel (1951).📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram
A witness to both the World Wars, du Maurier wrote at a time of momentous socio-political upheavals. Almost all her novels are set to historical events; a few have women narrators, who paint a picture of a changing world in which the men inhabit public offices and negotiate strife while the women are left to cleave a life of their own at home.
Despite their conventional lives, these are free-spirited women with agency, who have an appetite for adventure and discovery, and, like their creator, strained at the restrictions to their freedom. “How lacking in intuition men could be in persuading themselves that mending some stranger’s socks, and attending to his comfort, could content a woman,” thinks a character in The Glass-Blowers (1963).
In Daphne du Maurier (1994), Forster wrote about du Maurier’s apparent bisexuality, and, of her passion for two notable women — Ellen Doubleday, the wife of her American publisher, on whom she apparently modelled the eponymous character of My Cousin Rachel, and, the actor Gertrude Lawrence, who had acted in one of du Maurier’s plays September Tide (1949), and, with whom she apparently had a brief but intense affair. The writer, who remained married to Browning throughout her life, dismissed both as “part of a nervous breakdown going on inside myself” in a letter to a family friend.
Accusations of plagiarism
Despite its almost instantaneous success, Rebecca was also the novel that plagued du Maurier the most. Its strong resemblance to Brazilian writer Carolina Nabuco’s A Sucessora (1934, The Successor), who had apparently sent a French translation of her work to a publisher in Paris, who also happened to be du Maurier’s publisher, was noted by critics and readers. Both du Maurier and the publisher denied the allegations.
In 1944, American writer Edwina DeVin MacDonald had sued du Maurier, her US publisher Doubleday and several others for allegedly copying plot elements of Rebecca from her work. Du Maurier successfully defended herself against the allegations in court.
Some of the best-known screen adaptations of du Maurier’s works were directed by Alfred Hitchcock, including the unforgettable Rebecca, Jamaica Inn (1939) and The Birds (1963), based on one of her short stories.
Other cinematic renditions include Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), Henry Koster’s My Cousin Rachel (1952), and, again, by Roger Michell in 2017, Mitchell Leisen’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Frenchman’s Creek (1944) and The Scapegoat in 1959 by Robert Hamer and by Charles Sturridge in 2012.
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