As kids, the three du Maurier sisters—Angela, Daphne and Jeanne—had a code. Something "wain" was embarrassing, a "crumb" was a boast, a "tell him" was to be boring, to "nim" was to pee. Someone "beady" was observant. All three girls grew up "beady" themselves.
Their father, Gerald du Maurier, was a famous London stage actor, with a flock of hangers-on and mistresses. With time the girls learned to sort which visitors to their home were there to flatter their father, which also to borrow money from him, and which to sleep with him. In the family universe, Gerald stood at the center. Their mother Muriel, who'd been an actress too, was devoted to him, and long after her retirement continued to put her acting skills to use by pretending not to notice the mistresses.
Another word the girls used among themselves was "a menace." This meant someone attractive. It also could be used as a verb as a stand-in for "attracted": "I was menaced." "I wasn't menaced." The word combined attraction with fear, frisson with suspense. Daphne du Maurier, the second of the sisters, used it that way all her life. Her novels would all be about "menaces." (Amusingly, decades later, upon meeting Prince Philip, she described him to a friend as "a menace," although, she added, he wasn't her type.)
Daphne was pretty, very beady, and her father's acknowledged favorite. This meant, however, that she was her mother Muriel's least favorite, a wounding status. Gerald wished Daphne had been born a boy (he'd wanted a son), and so did Daphne, most sincerely. He hoped, too, that one day she'd write books, as his own father had. Daphne wrote nearly 40, including novels and plays, story collections, and several biographies, including a good one of Gerald himself. You probably know her better from Hollywood. Alfred Hitchcock directed three films based on her work, Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and The Birds. Another movie, directed by Nicolas Roeg, was made from her perfect (and terrifying) short story, "Don't Look Now."
Rebecca remains her best-known book. This is as it should be: Rebecca is fantastic and gripping, a fever dream wrapped around a sharp thriller. It was her fifth, and when she turned it into her publisher, Victor Gollancz, she was apologetic. "The ending is a bit brief and a bit grim," she told him, wrung out from writing. This, she warned, would probably keep the book from being a success. The in-house editor, thought differently. While deploring du Maurier's "incredible" spelling, he wrote in an editorial note: "I don’t know another author who imagines so hard all the time." The novel came out in 1938, selling 45,000 copies its first month. Soon after came the Hitchcock movie starring Lawrence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. Last year, at its 75th anniversary, Virago put its paperback sales as a steady 4,000 copies a month.
America is about to cement a love affair with another sort of Rebecca. Gone Girl will be everywhere this fall, brought to you by Ben Affleck’s unnaturally small mouth, and Flynn's tale of a crap marriage capped off by a mysterious disappearance owes something to du Maurier's.
Gone Girl brought us Amy's now infamous (and beady!) Cool Girl rant: "Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot." Whatever you may think of Flynn's novel (I ripped through it), Amy’s anger was clearly a key element of its popularity. Pretending to be something you’re not, some kind of improbably Perfect Woman, is a familiar source of dread and resentment for a lot of women.
A Perfect Woman has a perfect man in the ideal case; this, too, is silly, du Maurier seemed to want to tell us. The action opens with handsome, rich, widowed Maxim de Winter—a super menace if ever there was one—swooping in to marry the awkward, wistful, penniless young narrator. But jealousy, not love, is Rebecca's subject. It’s Jane Eyre if Rochester mattered much less, and the mad wife in the attic much more (and if it turned out that poor Bertha Mason had, in her day, given some amazing dinner parties). The character of Rebecca, Maxim's first wife, looms in ever-sharper focus: beautiful, tall, accomplished, captivating, beloved. An uber Jolene, unstoppable even after death.
Transported to our time, Rebecca wouldn't be a Cool Girl. Not exactly. She's too lustrous and slinky for that, commanding rather than self-deprecating, more Angelina than JLaw. Rebecca’s underwear would never be Hanes Her Way briefs (comfy! cottony! possibly period stained!); it'd be pristine silk bra-and-pantie sets all the way, and somehow she'd manage it so the lace of her bra never lumped up under her slip of a shirt. She’d have done something amazing overseas a few years ago, maybe involving orphans. Or sculpture. She'd have played a tough, obscure sport in college. She’d drink lakes of Scotch but never get drunk and maudlin and have to lie in bed the next morning feeling embarrassed. Standing next to her at a party you’d know yourself as some horrible botched attempt at womanhood, an Igor in a dress.
The Rebecca that haunts du Maurier’s novel is, it seems, missed by everyone: the estate’s servants, its dogs, her in-laws. Whereas the narrator, whom we know only as the second Mrs. de Winter, creeps around the giant house like an intruder, always getting lost and ducking behind doors and making the servants snicker. She never tells her first name, and in this, the story of her own life, Rebecca snatches even the title. (Think if Jane Eyre had been called Bertha.)
In the end, it does come out that Rebecca had at least one flaw: she was evil. Or at least according to Max, she was. In a recent interview, du Maurier’s son, Kits Browning, a photographer and director now in his 70s, points out that it’s only through Max that we have any idea of Rebecca was cruel and the one at fault in their marriage: "It’s Maxim’s version, isn’t it? … Why is it that everyone else thought the sun shone out her arse?" This isn’t quite accurate—a few other characters give winks in the "manipulative and cruel" direction—still, if you love the book, it’s a pretty delightful observation.
Bit of illuminating trivia: Gerald du Maurier was the first person to play Captain Hook in the play of Peter Pan. Its author J.M. Barrie was a close family friend and regular visitor to the du Maurier nursery. In fact, the Lost Boys were based on their five cousins, the Llewelyn Davies. When you read accounts of Angela, Daphne and Jeanne as children, it's clear they had a lot of Lost Boy in them as well. A joint biography of the sisters, written by Jane Dunn and due out in paperback stateside later this month, describes them at this age, and they sound magnificent. From a review of Dunn's book by Simon Callow:
All three daughters escaped into a fantasy world of their own, inventing male personas for themselves. "Sisters?" wrote Noël Welch, Jeanne's girlfriend. "They should have been brothers. They would have made splendid boys." Daphne was Eric Avon, a dashing captain of games, and derring-doer; Jeanne became David Dampier. Sometimes these later egos slipped into the real world: the actor Roland Pertwee, staying with the Du Mauriers, was surprised to find Jeanne in his room, having folded his trousers and put toothpaste on his brush: "I'm Dampier and I'm your fag. Shout if you want anything else.
Daphne had a few romantic relationships with women as well, although she rejected the term "lesbian." "… by God and by Christ if anyone should call that sort of love by that unattractive word that begins with "L", I'd tear their guts out," she warned in one stormy love letter, whose recipient, being a woman, might have felt she had a right to call the love exactly that. This avoidance gets complicated, and her biographer Margaret Forster writes perceptively about it.
Part of it was surely internalized homophobia, a reluctance to acknowledge herself as that way; something, too, to do with her time period's narrow conventions of what being a lesbian meant. But also mixed up in there is du Maurier's recognition of herself as a boy—an identification she only allowed herself to make in her 40s—and a boy isn't a lesbian. This boy was who Daphne had been as a child; she'd put him away as a teenager ("locked him in a box," she described it), but he emerged in her writing, she felt, giving it its vim and daring. The male narrator of My Cousin Rachel, for example, was a psychological self-portrait of Daphne in love (and behaving badly). He's there in The Scapegoat, too, a great novel about a man and his more freewheeling, rakish double. (It's the other of her books I wish Hitchcock had made a movie of.)
Daphne's "boy" also showed up in a couple of her relationships to women. He surfaced in her obsession with Ellen Doubleday, wife of Nelson Doubleday, du Maurier's American publisher. She met Ellen on a cruise from England to the U.S., and the attraction on Daphne's side was instant and galvanic. As she later described in a letter, she had to immediately sit down, she was so stunned by it. Both women were married, with children in tow.
Daphne reacted to the attraction as a teenage boy might have: by skulking around the rest of the cruise, avoiding Doubleday and rebuffing her friendly gestures. Eventually she calmed down enough to speak to her, and they became friends during her stay in the Doubledays' home. It was beautiful there, and Ellen such a thoughtful hostess that Daphne frequently joked about her being "Rebecca." (This in terms of capability and beauty, not hidden evilness.) Later Daphne declared herself, writing some fantastic swashbuckling love letters. She wished, she said in one, "to ride out and fight dragons for you…"
Daphne's affection went unrequited. Ellen wasn't attracted to women; she also had a much-loved husband who was seriously ill. When Daphne would launch herself at her, Ellen would retreat behind a cloud of loveliness. The two became lifelong friends, though, and for Daphne the obsession led to another, more fulfilling relationship.
Du Maurier wrote a play, September Tide, based on her feelings for Ellen. When the theater star Gertrude Lawrence, an English actress living in America, came to act in it, du Maurier resented her at first. Lawrence took the role based on Ellen, and Daphne felt she wasn't doing it justice. She derided her in letters as "a dyed-hair tart clinging to youthfulness." She then of course—this is how it goes—fell in love with her.
This time her feelings were reciprocated, and the affair, conducted on the sly, was intensely satisfying. Gertrude was affectionate and very funny. On one of Daphne's later visits to New York, where Gertrude was starring in The King and I on Broadway, a cab driver screamed at them in traffic, and Gertrude shouted back, "Fuck you, we're in a hit!" Lawrence's star temperament and vibrancy, her need for constant attention and cossetting reminded Daphne of Gerald, and in that way felt both familiar and endearing.
Gertrude died of liver cancer in 1952, a couple years into her friendship and subsequent affair with du Maurier. The illness surfaced suddenly. Lawrence complained of fatigue, but this might be expected for someone acting in a Broadway show ( The King and I was still running), and besides doctors previously had found nothing wrong with her. Then she fainted after a performance and went into a coma soon after. Hearing the news of her death, du Maurier took to her bed for three days. Her grief was a mysterious event for her children, who knew nothing except that Lawrence was "her dearest friend." (In her biography's afterword, Forster recounts their shock at learning Gertrude's real role in her life from letters uncovered by Forster: "To her children she was a mother who seemed happy and content.")
During the period of obsession with Ellen and her affair with Gertrude, Daphne fell back on another bit of code from her childhood, "Venetian tendencies," her alternative to the forbidden "L" word. (I assume it grew out of some association with "Venusian," but who knows!) That is the helpful thing with codes; they make their users citizens of two countries, one public, the other a private place where the code is spoken and understood by an exclusive bonded few. The du Maurier sisters had, from their volatile, crowded childhood onward, formed this private country they could slip in and out of, where "menaces" and "Venetian tendencies" could be freely discussed. In other words, they found a way to use games of pretend to tell the absolute truth.
In 1929, Daphne, then 21 years old, and her sister Angela went out walking to hunt up an estate, Menabilly, they’d heard about. In ruins, Menabilly sat not far from their family's vacation home in Cornwall. Their first excursion failed, but on the second try they found it. There it was: a mansion house, once grand but now falling to decay, ivy creeping up its sides. Deep woods, tangles of rhododendron, and the sea just beyond view. It was a secret little island of a place, and du Maurier loved it immediately. It fit her attraction for secret places and worlds apart, for adult-free pockets of Never-Never Land.
She used the estate as the setting for Rebecca. It enters into the book’s very first line: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. She started writing the book in Egypt, where her husband Frederick Browning (called Tommy in the family), an officer in the British Army, was stationed. She was unhappy there, alienated and depressed. She had two small children, a book due she was stalled on—she’d already discarded one 15,000-word draft—and her husband was impatient with how she managed the household. She brooded, and one of the things she brooded on was a woman, Jan Ricardo, to whom Tommy had once been engaged. Ricardo and he had never married but some mementos from the relationship remained around, including, as du Maurier's son describes here, a few cards that Ricardo had signed with the “R” of her last name large and confident—similar to how the “R” in Rebecca’s signature is described in the book.
Eventually, after that failed first attempt, the story began to come together. An early notebook entry went:
… very roughly the book will be about the influence of a first wife on a second … she is dead before the book opens. Little by little I want to build up the character of the first in the mind of the second … until wife 2 is haunted day and night …. a tragedy is looming very close and CRASH! BANG! something happens.
Writers will recognize 'CRASH! BANG! something happens' as an excellent stand-in for 'I haven’t worked out that part of the plot yet.' A billionaire decides to clone dinosaurs on his private island and CRASH! BANG! A man buries his family's dead cat in a spooky pet cemetery and CRASH! BANG!
Du Maurier’s previous books had been good sellers, especially Jamaica Inn. Rebecca did even better, and du Maurier later used her royalties to lease Menabilly and move her family there. This is like if Jane Austen had used the proceeds from Pride & Prejudice to buy Pemberley.
Du Maurier called the house her "rat-filled ruin." It wasn’t hyperbole. Rats, dozens of them, scuttled along the house’s floors at night. Bats flit in and out. It was freezing, too, even by the stoic standards of the time, and damp, with a hard, nipping cold rising off the sea. Scarves and hats were routinely worn indoors. The family now had three children—Tessa, Flavia, and baby Kits—and Browning was away a great deal, first in the army’s infantry division, then as commander of the 1st Airborne Division in WWII. After the war, he served as comptroller and treasurer for Princess Elizabeth’s household in London, continuing on after her coronation. This last post, held for over a decade, led to incidents like known menace Prince Philip, down at Menabilly for a weekend of sailing or shooting, being told "not to worry if he heard crashes in the night—it was only the old wing falling down."
Menabilly's Neverland aspects makes itself felt in accounts of what life was like there for du Maurier's children. From Forster's biography:
[Daphne] was entirely relaxed about any kind of mishap, and also about the state of the house, just so long as she could go on writing. Tessa’s two goats, Freddie and Doris, were allowed to wander wherever they liked, on condition they didn’t actually sleep on the beds, and the rabbits and bantams, thought meant to be outside, were not unwelcome either. … Tucked away in her room, where even Kits was not allowed to disturb her, Daphne wrote serenely on.
This was picturesque, but lonely—there’s a plaintive note in the biography’s repeated mentions of young Tessa’s friendship with her goats. (Also recommended is this memoir by Flavia.)
What’s striking, though, is Daphne's success in creating a place where she could shunt off those parts of adult life she found tedious and disagreeable (for du Maurier, housekeeping and wearing anything other than pants) and lock herself away to write. If it was cold or uncomfortable, that was a small price to pay for independence and command of her own private island. Sometimes the only way to escape ghosts, after all, is to give into them.
[Photograph by the National Portrait Gallery on a Creative Commons license. Image text by Jim Cooke.]