Even if she had written just one or two of her over dozen novels, she would have easily figured among the world’s greatest writers with her brand of ‘Gothic romances’, but Daphne du Maurier went on to leave a wider literary impact — not the least with an unexpected consequence of a Brexit-like situation nearly a half-a-century ago.
But while credited with reviving the Gothic romance in the 20th century, Du Maurier, whose 110th birth anniversary is on Saturday (March 13), went on to show this genre didn’t only need sinister, haunted locations or brooding, mysterious characters, for the true darkness lay in the human mind.
This is most evident in her most famous work. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” is the evocative beginning of “Rebecca” (1938), which shows her craft in abundance.
Despite the typical gothic features: a mysterious, haunted mansion in near desolation and equally mysterious hero, an unwitting heroine, violence and murder, love and passion, a sinister villain, and a confined mad woman, it was much more than a gothic romance.
For “Rebecca”, which inverts the Cinderella story, adds psychological realism (particularly obsession, manipulated memories, and the hidden or imprisoned self) to make it a combined romance/gothic romance/psychological novel and even adding an element of autobiography – the bid to get rid of a domineering presence.
And while popular in its own right, it went on to inspire authors like Stephen King, Danielle Steel and E.L. James (of the “50 Shades..” series) as well as Alfred Hitchcock who adapted into a classic film – and even Bollywood filmmakers (“Kohraa”, 1964).
But this darkness seemed strange for the life of Du Maurier (1907-89) itself, as Professor Richard Kelly of the University of Tennessee wrote in an obituary, in a way, resembled “that of a fairy tale”.
Born into a prominent family (her father was prominent actor, Sir Gerald du Maurier — with whom she seemed to have a complex relationship — and grandfather was author and Punch cartoonist George du Maurier, who created the immortal character of ‘Svengali’), she was “indulged as a child and grew up enjoying enormous freedom from financial and parental restraint”.
With her connections, her first novel “The Loving Spirit”, the story of a family over four generations, was accepted by a leading publisher and came out in 1931, bring her not only fame but a husband: Major (later Lt Gen Sir) Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning (of “A Bridge Too Far” fame). They were married in 1933.
Her second, “I’ll Never Be Young Again” (1932) was totally different, not only for the fact that it was told from a male perspective while “The Progress of Julius” (1933, later re-published as “Julius”) dealt with a controversial and unexpected theme of incest.
It was however “Jamaica Inn” (1936) that set her style. Set in the early 19th century, it is the tale of a young woman who goes to live with her only surviving relative — an aunt, who is married to a bullying landlord of an inn. However, this establishment, set in the middle of the deserted moors, is never open for business and the heroine soon learns that most things and people are not what they seem.
With her books becoming bestsellers, Du Maurier enjoyed a lavish life in a leased mansion in Cornwall called Menabilly (it served as model for “Rebecca”s Manderley).
“Frenchman’s Creek” (1941) and “The King’s General” (1946) were historical romances or “Hungry Hill” (1943) another multi-generational family story, but Du Maurier returned to her theme in “The Parasites” (1949), the strange relationship of a trio of siblings, and “My Cousin Rachel” (1951) about selfish, deceptive love and more.
Du Maurier wrote a number of short stories, mostly with a paranormal or macabre theme, collected in three anthologies. Among the most famous of them was “The Birds” – due to the shock it evokes. The Hitchcock movie also helped.
But the author, who had become a recluse of sorts after becoming a widow in 1965, was still not done experimenting. “The House on the Strand” (1969) is about a romance across centuries, ‘time travel’ and mind-altering drugs, while “Rule Britannia” (1972) has Britain joined in union in the US but the association may not be entirely benign for it.
“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety..” seems to have been written for her.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org )
By Vikas Datta