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Daphne du MaurierBeyond Rebecca

Published In The Kiss of Death, January/February 2006


In 1999, The Kiss of Death chapter of the Romance Writers of America wanted to rename and enlarge their existing contest. They wanted something prestigious. Something that would stand out among the Maggie, the Dixie. A request went out for suggestions with the top three or four ideas being submitted to the loop for a vote. And though Daphne du Maurier never considered herself a romance writer, she did consider herself a suspense writer, and elements of romance sometimes found their way into her plots. Her name was attached to Kiss of Death’s with the blessing of the late Daphne’s estate.

“I suppose I was born into a world of make believe and imagination,” said Ms. du Maurier. “I was always pretending to be someone else. Some historical figure in a book or someone I made up.”

Born in 1907 in London to a family of unusual creativity, Daphne’s father, Gerald du Maurier, was the most famous actor of his time. Her grandfather, George du Maurier, was the top caricaturist of his, as well as the author of Peter Ibbetson and Trilby.

Even her aunt, her father’s sister, Sylvia Llewellyn Davies, though not an actress or writer herself, befriended a writer named James Barrie. Sylvia’s five sons, Daphne’s cousins, would become the composite used to create Sir Barrie’s greatest creation, Peter Pan. Mr. Barrie became Daphne’s, as well as many children’s, “Uncle Jim”.

These are the people that helped shape Daphne du Maurier into one of the leading authors of her time.

“I began reading at the age of four,” she said, “and I wrote short stories throughout my teens... my first novel, The Loving Spirit, came out in 1931. It was sure a surprise it was successful.”

She wrote The Frenchman’s Creek. She wrote Jamaica Inn. And in an act of brilliance, she wrote Rebecca, a book critics claimed was “sentimental ... but in a haunting, melancholy way that captured the reader’s attention and sympathy from the very first paragraph.”

It was Rebecca that skyrocketed her to fame. Here was a book she thought was nothing extraordinary, who told her agent “... I tried to get an atmosphere of suspense ... the ending is a bit brief and a bit grim.” She went on to warn “it is certainly too grim to be a winner ...”

However ... “It’s the favorite of all the readers of my books,” she said years later. “I never knew quite why ... I never thought of it as anything spectacular when I was writing it.”

Her first notes on the book read:
... 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 ... is not a ghost story.

And it was a story that was not easy for her to write. Where usually she could complete a manuscript in about nine months, she agonized over the first 15,000 words of Rebecca, then tore them up in disgust. “This literary miscarriage has cast me down rather as I have never done such a thing and hate going over the ground again.”

In her novel, My Cousin Rachel (published in 1951), she is never quite sure if her heroine, Rachel, was the murderer the hero suspected.
Yes, Rachel’s husband had died just six months after they were married. Yes, she tricked and manipulated men. But murder? Said Daphne: “Sometimes I think she did it but sometimes I didn’t – in the
end, I just couldn’t make up my mind.” By the last page of the book it is Rachel who dies and takes the secret with her. Not even the author herself knew the answer to that prominent question.

A native Londoner who relocated herself to the cliffs of Cornwall, she said: “As soon as I saw Cornwall, I knew that this was my place. These were my people.” She was married for thirty-three years to Colonel Frederick Arthur Montague Browning II, who to her was simply Tommy. The mother of three children, Tessa, Flavia and Christopher (Kit), Daphne kept at her writing all through the years.

“The driving force,” she said, “was I must write, I must get this story out of my system. But following closely upon that was I must be independent. I always wanted to be independent so that my family wouldn’t have to pay for my whims and wishes.”

Daphne lived by routines, or by what she called ‘routes.’ She didn’t like to deviate from them and could only write when everything was in order. By the time she started Jamaica Inn she had established
a strict writing schedule: three hours in the morning, starting at 10:15 sharp; another two hours in the afternoon after her walk; and then, if Tommy was away on assignment, another hour in the evening. It
wasn’t until 1936, that she acquired a typewriter and taught herself to type. It wasn’t one of her greatest skills, but she managed. And with a dictionary always on her desk, she tried to overcome her spelling deficiency, with some success.

To Daphne, privacy was of most importance, and as she grew older she became to be thought of as a recluse. “The reason I’m thought to be a recluse is I don’t go out socially, I don’t go to lunches ... when I’m working what I like to be is alone and more less up to date, I’ve been working.”

Made a Dame of the British Empire in 1969, Daphne du Maurier had everything she had ever dreamt she wanted. A good family, a house on the cliffs of her beloved Cornwall. Success, as she was read my millions the world over. She even had the independence she so craved when she was younger. And though some people thought her lonely, she denied it, saying instead that there was a difference between loneliness and solitary and solitary was how she liked it.

When she was alone, she could write. And writing was the greatest joy of her life. It was her driving force in her every day life, where she could escape the real world and live, for a brief time, in the worlds that she created. With over forty books sold, numerous short stories written, screenplays produced as well as films made of her stories, work is what she did. And she continued writing into her seventies. Her last work, a collection of her stories, was released on her eightieth birthday, under the title Classics From The Maccabe.

Said Dame Daphne du Maurier sometime before her death in 1989: “I walked this land with a dreamer's freedom and with awaking man's perception - places, houses whispered to me their secrets and shared with me their sorrows and their joys. And in return I gave them something of myself, a few of my novels passing into the folk-lore of this ancient place.”

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