Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) is one of the finest suspense authors of the 20th century. She is best known for her novel Rebecca, the semi-gothic tribute to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Most of her novels fall into the suspense category, some as chilling as anything composed by Edgar Allen Poe. Du Maurier also wrote non-fiction works lauded by both critics and fans. The relatively quiet life of du Maurier is in strict contrast to her fictional works.
Du Maurier was born to famous actor and theater manager, Gerald du Maurier. Her literary heritage extends to her grandfather who was an illustrator and writer of the novels Trilby and Peter Ibbetson. She received an education at home with her siblings and then was sent to Paris to “finish” her education.
Her first works were written when du Maurier was barely 21. Her first novel, The Loving Spirit was published in 1931, when du Maurier was 24. Du Maurier’s initial works did not receive much notice. However, her biography of her father, Gerald: A Portrait was considered exceptional, and was noted for being a particularly frank and honest evaluation of her father’s life. Jamaica Inn, published in 1936, won her a reputation as a worthy novelist. In 1938, the publication of Rebecca would further amplify du Maurier’s reputation, with most considering her one of the best novelists of her age.
Rebecca was so popular that it was immediately considered for a screenplay. The 1940 film adaptation directed by Alfred Hitchcock, featuring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, won him his only Oscar for best picture. It should be stated however, that the film adaptation was not pleasing to du Maurier, especially since the location was moved to America, instead of remaining in Cornwall. A BBC production in the 1980s, and one in the 1990s were both more faithful to the novel.
It is fair to say that du Maurier never again quite approached the success of Rebecca in her writing. However, several of her novels and short stories enjoyed immense popularity in her lifetime, although they are now read infrequently. Several other novels and short stories saw film adaptations, including Frenchman’s Creek, Jamaica Inn, My Cousin Rachel, The Scapegoat, and the short stories Don’t Look Now and The Birds. Most of the works of du Maurier were set in her beloved Cornwall, fueling an interest in what was already a popular tourist location.
Du Maurier also wrote many non-fiction works. She was very interested in the life of the Bronte sisters and wrote a biography of their brother Branwell. Perhaps her most interesting non-fiction work is The Vanishing Cornwall, published in 1969, where she describes in loving detail her memories of Cornwall as a child, and the glory that still exists there. One frequently sees du Maurier quoted in travel brochures for Cornwall.
Unlike her heroines and heroes, du Maurier was happily married to Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Montague Browning in 1932. The couple had three children and no hint of trouble or scandal ever touched the marriage, which lasted until Browning’s death in 1965. Perhaps it was this loving and beloved life that made it possible for du Maurier to write so prolifically. She published a novel, biography, or collected short stories virtually every year. Her autobiography, published in 1977, is an interesting evaluation of her life.
Du Maurier was recognized by Queen Elizabeth II and named a Dame of The British Empire. When she died in 1985, her ashes were scattered upon the Cornwall cliffs, as she had requested. Since her death a sequel to Rebecca, titled Mrs. De Winter, was authored by Sally Hill. The reviews of the second novel are scathing. Since du Maurier disapproved of sequels written by others, it is doubtful she would have sanctioned this novel.