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The Writer’s Almanac for May 13, 2017: Bad News Good News

May 13, 2017: birthday: Daphne du Maurier

It’s the birthday of English novelist Daphne du Maurier (books by this author), born in London (1907). Her parents were wealthy, but bohemian, theater people. Her father was a successful actor-manager, and he was frequently unfaithful. Her mother, as du Maurier remembered her, was a cold woman. “I can’t remember once being held by her, feeling her arms round me, sitting on her lap,” she told a friend. “All I can remember … is someone who looked at me with a sort of disapproving irritation, a queer unexplained hostility.”

Her parents bought a summer home in Cornwall when du Maurier was a teenager, and she felt a strong affinity for the place. She and her sister loved to explore the coast, and she wrote about it in many of her books and stories. She published her first novel when she was 24, and her descriptions of Cornwall captivated an army major named Frederick Browning. He sailed to Cornwall to see it for himself, and met the author, and three months later they were married. But du Maurier found some letters written to her husband by his former fiancée, who had committed suicide. She became consumed with jealousy of this dead woman, and that jealousy inspired her novel Rebecca (1938). When she sent it off to her editor, she warned that it was “a bit on the gloomy side,” and she had serious doubts about whether people would read it. She modeled the novel’s gloomy mansion, Manderley, after an abandoned house in Cornwall that she and her sister had discovered back in 1926. The house was called Menabilly, and she was fascinated by it. She took a lease on the house in 1943, and lived there for 26 years. Even though it was cold and rat-infested, she once said she loved it “more than people.”

Alfred Hitchcock adapted three of du Maurier’s works to the screen: Jamaica Inn (1939) wasn’t a big hit, but Rebecca (1940) and The Birds (1963) became movie classics. Hitchcock was a friend of du Maurier’s father. Sir Gerald was an actor who had appeared in Hitch’s movie Waltzes from Vienna (1933); he even told French director François Truffaut that he considered Sir Gerald “the best actor anywhere.” The two men both loved playing practical jokes, and Hitchcock once invited Sir Gerald to a black tie and tails party, but he told him it was a fancy dress party instead, so Sir Gerald showed up in costume. In spite of their friendship, Hitchcock never met Sir Gerald’s literary daughter. Truffaut once asked him how many times he had read The Birds; Hitch said he read it only once, and very fast. Daphne du Maurier was quite happy with his version of Rebecca, but didn’t like the film The Birds, perhaps because the director had kept very little of her original story.

French novelist Tatiana de Rosnay recently published a new biography of du Maurier; it’s called Manderley Forever (2017). A new film adaptation of My Cousin Rachel hits theaters this summer.