Who was Daphne du Maurier?

Liz Highleyman | October 31, 2006

Daphne du Maurier

Bisexual author Daphne du Maurier, best known today through film adaptations of her work, helped define the gothic romance genre of literature.

Du Maurier was born May 13, 1907, to an artistic family in London. Her mother was an actress, her father, Gerald, was a theater manager and famous actor, and her grandfather, George, was a well-known author and cartoonist. Du Maurier and her two sisters had a privileged and permissive upbringing, educated privately at home and at schools in London and Paris. An avid reader, she enjoyed creating imaginary worlds, often featuring a male alter-ego she dubbed "the boy in the box." Her family´┐Żs holiday home in Cornwall would later become the setting for much of her best work.

Her father's and grandfather's connections gave du Maurier's literary career an initial boost, and her uncle published one of her short stories in his magazine, The Bystander, when she was still a teenager. Her first novel, The Loving Spirit, appeared in 1931; this was followed by Jamaica Inn, in 1936, which brought her critical acclaim and financial success.

In the summer of 1932, du Maurier married Frederick "Boy" Browning, a military officer who had sought her out after admiring her work. Du Maurier was ill-suited to the life of a traditional military wife, however, and she hired a nanny to care for the couple's son and two daughters. After several years, the family moved to Cornwall, living in a 17th-century mansion that served as a model for Manderley, the setting of her best-known novel, Rebecca (1938). Du Maurier and Browning – who rose to the rank of lieutenant general and commanded the British First Airborne Division during World War II – remained married until his death in 1965.

Although she reportedly had a crush on a female teacher while studying in Paris, du Maurier's sapphic tendencies came to the fore in midlife. In the late 1940s, she became infatuated with Ellen Doubleday, the wife of her American publisher, who did not reciprocate her affections. Soon thereafter, du Maurier embarked on a relationship with stage and film actress Gertrude Lawrence, who had co-starred and had an affair with her father years earlier. Du Maurier characterized herself as "neither girl nor boy but disembodied spirit," and insisted that she wasn't "that unattractive word that begins with 'L'."

Du Maurier pioneered the gothic romance style, often featuring female protagonists and elements of the supernatural. While her novels earned her wealth and fame in her day, she is best known to modern audiences through Alfred Hitchcock's film adaptations of Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, and her short story, "The Birds." Over the course of her five-decade career, du Maurier wrote more than 25 books, among them family histories and biographies.

Even as her fame grew, du Maurier – who in 1969 was named a Dame of the British Empire in recognition of her literary achievements – became more reclusive, though she maintained contact with her two sisters, both lesbians, and their female partners. She spent her final years in Cornwall alone, save for her dogs. "Here was the freedom I desired, long sought-for, not yet known," she wrote in Vanishing Cornwall (1967). She died there in April 1989, a month shy of her 82nd birthday, and her ashes were scattered over the cliffs near her home.

For further reading:

  • Auerbach, Nina. 1999. Daphne Du Maurier: Haunted Heiress (University of Pennsylvania).
  • Forster, Margaret. 1993. Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller (Doubleday).

    Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

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