No. 7: Daphne du Maurier at 40

The novelist, playwright, biographer and short story writer Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) turned 40 years of age in 1947. By that time she was married to Lt-Gen Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning (1896-1965), the mother of three children, and a well-known novelist following the immense popularity of her fifth book, Rebecca (1938). None of her work was published in 1947 but The King’s General (1946), and The Parasites (1949), are novels composed around that time, as were the stories in The Apple Tree (1952).

From one perspective Rebecca rewrites Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) and the narrative is often cited as the first twentieth-century Gothic novel. The dark theme of murderous jealousy is typical of du Maurier’s writing, which is generally designated as ‘macabre’ — Stephen King is a du Maurier fan. The King’s General centralises a disabled protagonist, Honor Harris, whose paralysis acts metonymically for an emerging nation-state scarred by Civil War. Du Maurier’s focus is Cornish families riven apart by factional violence and how the personality of leaders directs national events as much as their military strategy.

 

The Parasites foregrounds a trio of siblings — the Delaneys — whose incestuous self-sufficiency is portrayed as a psychological exploration of character types in which individual personalities are dissected to reveal the ugliness within. Du Maurier enjoyed experimentation, so neither text shares much with Rebecca, in spite of the temptation to repeat a successful formula. Her theatrical background led her to write plots focusing on the relationship between artifice and authenticity, and The Parasites is a thinly veiled expose of the du Maurier family of actors. Daphne was the granddaughter of George du Maurier, painter, illustrator at Punch magazine, and the author of Trilby (1894), the best-selling Victorian novel that inspired the trilby hat. She was the daughter of Gerald du Maurier, actor-manager of Wyndhams Theatre, London. Noel Coward and J.M. Barrie were family friends and Gerald was the first actor to play Mr Darling/ Captain Hook in the play of Peter Pan (1904).

Du Maurier was writing through the decades surrounding two world wars and, being married to Browning, it is unsurprising that her fiction references the war through questions of justified and unjustified violence. What is surprising is the anti-war subtext from the wife of ‘the father of British airborne forces’.[1] At the core of du Maurier’s short fiction is the portrayal of brutal events whose violence offers insights into the realities of a Britain in post-war recovery.

In her stories characters are disabled, deformed or degenerate, reflecting a society littered with the physical and mental casualties of the war years. The open-ended structure of the tales offers a challenge to readers, who have no option but to ‘write’ the ending for themselves. ‘The Alibi’ presents a would-be psychopath and itinerant refugees in a London of derelict houses and derelict lives. Here, du Maurier presents the death penalty as a price worth paying for fame and notoriety as a character confesses to a murder he did not commit. In today’s culture of desire for visibility at all costs, this story strikes a chillingly prescient note.

In 1947 Daphne du Maurier was mid-way through her writing career with a substantial body of work just published and masterly tales about to be written. Her mythic, complex texts remind the reader the power of a good story told by a good storyteller. Not to mention her family’s lasting legacy to the millinery trade!

[1]Richard Mead, General ‘Boy’ : the life of Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Browning, GCVO, KBE, CB, DSO, DL (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2010), p.66.

Du Maurier at Buckingham: This post was written by Setara A. L. Pracha, a lecturer at the University of Buckingham who is currently researching Daphne du Maurier and the short story.

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