Biography of Daphne Du Maurier (1907-1989)
Daphne Du Maurier
The second of three daughters, Daphne Du Maurier was born into a prominent artistic and literary household in London on May 13, 1907. She was the granddaughter of famed caricaturist George du Maurier, the daughter of actor-manager George du Maurier and actress Muriel Beaumont, and the niece of a magazine editor. J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, and Edgar Wallace were both frequent household visitors.
Given her exposure to literary and artistic accomplishments in childhood, it is no surprise that Du Maurier demonstrated an active imagination and a love of reading from an early age. She was fascinated by imaginary worlds and even invented an alter ego for herself named Eric Avon. Along with her sisters, Angela and Jeanne, Du Maurier was largely educated by a governess before attending schools in London and Paris. While she was still a teenager, Du Maurier wrote a short story that was published in Bystander magazine and resulted in a contract with a literary agent.
In 1931, Du Maurier wrote her first full-length novel, The Loving Spirit, which described three generations of Cornish people. This first novel, written in her early twenties, brought Du Maurier immediate literary success. It also brought her the romantic attention of Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick “Boy” Browning, who sailed to Fowey to meet the author of the book after reading it and then married Du Maurier in 1932.
The couple was married for 33 years (until Browning’s death in 1965) and produced three children: two girls named Tessa and Flavia, and one boy named Christian. However, the relationship suffered difficulties because of Du Maurier’s secret bisexuality. After her death, it was revealed that Du Maurier had an extramarital affair with actress Gertrude Lawrence and professed an attraction to Ellen Doubleday, the wife of her American publisher. According to her biographer, Margaret Forster, Du Maurier viewed herself as two distinct individuals: first, a wife and mother, and second, a lover (comprised of male energy) which inspired her creative process.
Du Maurier’s next novels, The Progress of Julius (1932), Jamaica Inn (1936), and Rebecca (1938) multiplied her success exponentially. Rebecca, in particular, turned Du Maurier into a household name, especially after Alfred Hitchcock directed an Oscar-winning film version of the story starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in 1940. Over the course of her career, Du Maurier wrote several more novels, short stories, and plays, including: Frenchman’s Creek (1941), Hungry Hill (1943), “The Years Between” (1945), The Parasites (1949), My Cousin Rachel (1951), Mary Anne (1954), The Scapegoat (1957), The Glass Blowers (1963), The Flight of the Falcon (1965), The House on the Strand (1969), and Rule Britannia (1972).
Later in her life, Du Maurier also became a prolific non-fiction writer and extremely interested in her ancestry. Published non-fiction works include Gerald (1934), The Du Mauriers (1937), The Young George du Maurier (1951), The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë (1960), which focused on the eldest brother of the Brontë family, and Growing Pains (1970). Several more of her works were turned into films, including Frenchman’s Creek, Hungry Hill, My Cousin Rachel, The Birds, and Jamaica Inn, with Alfred Hitchcock famously directing two of the adaptations.
After her husband’s death in 1965, Du Maurier moved to Kilmarth, which became the setting for The House on the Strand. In 1969, Du Maurier was honored by the Queen and named a Dame of the British Empire for literary distinction. However, she felt uncomfortable using the honor and never used the title. In 1977, she published an autobiography and received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Du Maurier died in 1989, at the age of 81, at her home in Cornwall. Her pictorial memoir, Enchanted Cornwall, was published posthumously in 1992. In 2006, a previously unknown work entitled And His Letters Grew Colder was discovered and published.
Du Maurier was often criticized for having a “romantic” writing style, which seemed less intellectual than that of female authors George Eliot and Iris Murdoch. Du Maurier disliked being characterized as a romance novelist, and some literary scholars have suggested that her non-fiction work stemmed from her desire to be taken more seriously as an author. However, few of her fictional works actually correspond to the romance novel stereotype: they rarely feature happy endings and are infused with Gothic and paranormal elements.