Custom Search


Daphne du Maurier Biography And Visits

Jamaica Inn, Bodmin Moor

Daphne du Maurier is a good author for a tourist web site, since her books are very clearly linked with specific locations, most of them in her favourite part of the world, Cornwall. But du Maurier doesn't just use pretty Cornwall locations as background colour. So often the location is dependent on who is looking at it. You might visit places associated with the stories, and how you'll feel about them will probably depend on the mood you're in. You might not feel that Jamaica Inn feels sufficiently Olde Worlde. You might visit Frenchman's Creek on a crowded tourist boat and not experience the sense of freedom associated with it in the book of that name. But this just goes to show that you are sharing in the strange indefinability that locations have in Daphne du Maurier's books. Everything, in fact, is difficult to pin down in du Maurier's writing.



Daphne du Maurier was born on 13th May 1907, the second of three daughters, to Muriel and Gerald du Maurier. Gerald was a successful actor manager, who ran Wyndam's Theatre in London's Charing Cross Road. The family, enjoying privilege and wealth, lived at Cannon Hall, Hampstead. The three du Maurier sisters are described by biographer Martyn Shallcross as enjoying a pampered upbringing, while nevertheless having to accept strict discipline, particularly where boyfriends were concerned. Daphne attributed her father's unyielding parenting "both to the era in which he lived, and to his knowledge of his own behaviour within the theatrical world in which he moved" (The Private World of Daphne du Maurier by Martyn Shallcross P29). In the books which Daphne would come to write the contradiction of her father's bohemian lifestyle and his strict parenting would be a typical irony. Often the strictest behaviour and moral attitude go together with something far less rigid. Roy Jenkins said of Victorian prime minister William Gladstone that his behaviour "was reminiscent of an intoxicated guardsman who could prevent himself from falling over only by standing too rigidly to attention" (Gladstone P184). There was a strong element of that in Gerald du Maurier's parenting, and in Daphne du Maurier's writing, where opposites tend to collide. There were other clashes of opposites in Daphne's childhood. Most young girls, for example, would dream of show business as a distant glamorous world full of other worldly figures. But famous people were everyday faces to the du Mauriers. J.M. Barrie, for example, was a family friend who wrote Peter Pan for Daphne's cousins in 1904. What everyone else thought was glamorous and exciting was simply Daphne's daily life. Yet another collision of opposites is seen in the beautiful Daphne wanting to be a boy, and often dressing in boy's clothes.


Ferryside, the Du Maurier holiday home in Boddinick, just across the river from Fowey


Daphne was educated at home by a governess named Miss Waddell, and then at a finishing school in Paris. Miss Waddell encouraged Daphne in creative writing, which she started to pursue seriously from the age of thirteen or fourteen. Her uncle, Comys Beaumont was editor of The Bystander magazine, and he encouraged his niece to go to the literary agent Curtis Brown. An equally important step in this literary development was a series of family holidays in Cornwall. Using profits from a play called The Ringer Gerald du Maurier bought a house known as Ferryside overlooking Fowey harbour in south Cornwall. It was Fowey and the neighbouring village of Polruan which gave early inspiration to Daphne as a writer. The idea for her first novel came on a walk along Pont Creek, an estuary separating the villages of Bodinnick and Polruan. A wreck of the Jane Slade sat on the beach, a schooner built by the Slade family of Polruan. Research on the schooner led to a novel called The Loving Spirit published in 1931. It was an immediate best seller. Frederick Browning, a young army officer in the Grenadier Guards read The Loving Spirit, and was so impressed with its descriptions of south Cornwall that in 1931 he visited for himself. The following year he learned that the now well known Daphne du Maurier was staying in Fowey, so during a trip to Cornwall he decided to try and meet the author. His efforts were rewarded with a chat and a romantic boat trip. Frederick's good looks stood him in good stead, and marriage soon followed on 19th July 1932. In a scene recreated from The Loving Spirit the couple went to their wedding at Lanteglos Church by sailing along Pont Creek.


For a few years Daphne became the rootless wife of an army officer. There was a period living in Alexandria in 1937 when Frederick, or Tommy as his wife called him, was posted there as commander of a battalion of Grenadier Guards. There was also a period living in Aldershot. Daphne returned to Cornwall whenever she could. It was during one of these frequent Cornish retreats that a visit was made to a remote hotel on Bodmin Moor called Jamaica Inn. (Accommodation is available at Jamaica Inn on our South West England Accommodation page.) The inn became the inspiration for Daphne's fourth novel, Jamaica Inn published in 1936. This novel displays many of the characteristics of du Maurier's writing: there's the confusion over morality - the book has "good" villains and "bad" villains, acceptable crime and unacceptable crime, idealised clergymen who turn out to be the biggest villains of all, and villains who turn out to be decent people. Similarly the settings are ambivalent. Cornwall, Bodmin Moor and the towns surrounding it, can be both heaven and hell. All this ambivalence was too much for the censors during efforts by Alfred Hitchcock to turn the novel into a film. The Hays Office which supervised the censoring of films, made it clear that a clergyman could not be portrayed as a criminal, which meant the gang leader had to become a local squire. The film, like the book, was a success, but du Maurier was not happy with the changes which had to be made to her story.

The next du Maurier novel was to make its author world famous. Rebecca published in 1938 was in many ways inspired by a large abandoned house called Menabilly near Fowey. Menabilly was the ancestral home of the Rashleigh family, and Daphne had become fascinated by it. Researching Menabilly's history she discovered that one Rashleigh gentleman had married a very beautiful woman. For some reason he had then divorced his wife to marry a much younger woman. Musings on how the second wife might feel about the first led to the plot of Rebecca. It told the story of Maximillian de Winter who meets an unnamed young girl in the south of France, and marries her after a whirlwind romance. Maximillian takes his new wife back to his home of Manderley in Cornwall. It was at Manderley that he had lived with his first wife, the beautiful Rebecca, who had died in mysterious circumstances. The Manderley housekeeper Mrs Danvers had adored Rebecca, and as a result hates the new Mrs de Winter. Later in the book there is a storm which wrecks a ship in the bay. Divers go down to look at the wreck, only to discover a second wreck, with Rebecca's body in the cabin. Maximillian is suspected of murder, and though he escapes charges, he subsequently confesses in private his true feelings for Rebecca, and that he killed her. The whole overheated situation eventually ends when Mrs Danvers sets fire to Manderley. As usual in a du Maurier novel, the demarcations of everyday life mean little. The dashing hero is a villain, and he is not punished for murder at the end of the book. This defiance of conventional images of morality again caused problems when the Hollywood producer David Selznick tried to turn the book into a film. The Hays Office simply refused to accept a story in which murder went unpunished. So if the book's ending was to be retained, Rebecca's death had to be portrayed as an accident. The film makers also had to be very careful with veiled suggestions of a lesbian love affair between Mrs Danvers and her beloved Rebecca. Perhaps in light of these frustrations it is fitting that in the next du Maurier novel Frenchman's Creek of 1941, the heroine, Dona Lady of St Columb finds freedom not in escaping to sea, or the big city, or the open road, but in a small creek off the main river, where she meets her French philosopher pirate lover. If Daphne du Maurier can't be free, she would turn expectations of freedom upside down at Frenchman's Creek.


National Maritime Museum Cornwall, home of Prince Philip's boat Bluebottle,

By now World War Two had begun, and with her husband away much of the time with the army, Daphne became determined to rescue Menabilly, the house which had inspired the book which had done so much for her. In 1943 she managed to rent Menabilly from the Rashleigh family, and began a long and expensive programme of restoration. Work was far enough advanced to win over her husband's misgivings when he returned home on leave. Daphne du Maurier settled down to life at Menabilly. She would write in a shed at the bottom of the garden. Meanwhile in September of 1944 Browning had met with a defining moment in his army career. He had been promoted to general, commanding Britain's parachute forces. Following the allied invasion of Normandy, Browning was involved in devising a plan to seize a series of bridges behind enemy lines in Holland. It was hoped the British Army could then quickly advance through Holland, cross the Rhine at Arnhem bridge, enter Germany and end the war. "Operation Market Garden" was, however, a disaster. Planning may have been suspect, but General Browning's career was not finished. The dubious business of putting a brave face on the whole affair required that he continue as a senior figure. He was posted out to the Far East and worked in Earl Mountbatten's command staff. Official exoneration did not seem to assuage an inner sense of responsibility. Browning himself never seemed to recover from the Arnhem disaster which killed so many of his men. He began drinking heavily. In 1946 his wife published The King's General set in Cornwall during the English Civil War. The dedication read "To my husband, also a general, but, I trust, a more discreet one." There seems much nervous over-sensitivity in the way Browning objected to this, thinking it might refer to the Arnhem operation, or perhaps to his post in the Far East that followed. Through 1945 he had spent long periods with Earl Mountbatten in Ceylon. Mountbatten was a member of the royal family, a war hero, and it appears " a joyous bisexual who had enjoyed many affairs with members of his own sex" (according to Martyn Shallcross -see The Private World of Daphne du Maurier P48). Normal categories of life seem as slippery here as they are in a du Maurier novel.


After the war Browning took up a post working for the royal family at Buckingham Palace. The Queen and Prince Philip would sometimes visit Menabilly. Prince Philip would keep a boat called Bluebottle at Polruan for excursions. This boat can sometimes still be seen today moored at the pontoon of the National Maritime Museum Cornwall in Falmouth. Daphne continued to write, and continued to produce novels which challenged normal expectations. 1951 saw My Cousin Rachel, where the heroine was either a scheming murderer or a sweet, good natured woman. The book leaves room for both possibilities. A short story called The Birds (1952) became famous when Alfred Hitchcock turned it into a film in 1963. There is the familiar du Maurier contradiction in the way an animal generally regarded as benign is portrayed as a monster. Then in 1973 Nicolas Roeg turned another short story called Don't Look Now into a successful film. Here ordinary family life collides with nightmarish disaster, murder and the occult. While her career continued with world wide success, in her private life the already retiring du Maurier had become more reclusive. Her husband died on March 14th 1965, following a period of heavy drinking. Then in 1969 the Rashleigh family decided to claim back their ancestral home of Menabilly, even though it was Daphne who had saved the property. She was obliged to move to the Menabilly dower house at Kilmarth. That same year an invitation to attend Buckingham Palace to be awarded Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, was declined. During the 1970s there was a strange novel which envisaged Britain being taken over by America - Rule Britannia (1972) - and biographies of Francis and Anthony Bacon, both of which sold poorly. There was also an autobiography in 1977. This was the year that the film A Bridge Too Far was released telling the story of the Battle of Arnhem which had so traumatised Frederick Browning. Browning was not reflected in a very flattering light in the film. The idea of her respected husband being protrayed as incompetent was one collision of expectation too far for Daphne. She took legal action to try and protect his reputation, with the case eventually being settled out of court. Daphne's health then began to seriously decline in the autumn of 1982, and after a long period of illness she died on 19th April 1989 at Kilmarth.



Short cruises which pass Frenchman's Creek can usually be booked from the quay side at Falmouth.

Also try the Daphne du Maurier Literary Centre at 5 South Street, Fowey, PL23 1AR. This centres is an add-on to the Fowey tourist information centre. There is an exhibition on the life and work of Daphne du Maurier and other writers with links to Cornwall. Telephone 01726 833616. Daily opening, except for Christmas Day and Boxing Day.