Herstory at its fucking finest.
“What goes on in the twisted, tortuous minds of women would baffle anyone.” Unknown, Rebecca.
It’s 1945. Daphne Du Maurier is experiencing something of a personal crisis. Her marriage to army officer Tommy Browning has suffered an early glitch thanks to his absence during the war. She’s not taken to motherhood easily – much like her own mother – and is finding it particularly difficult to bond with her daughters. She’s becoming known as a commercial, populist writer, the critical acclaim she longs for continues to elude her and the success of Rebecca is eclipsing her other work. Then she learns that an American author, Edwina MacDonald, is attempting to sue her and everyone else involved in the 1940 film adaptation of (the already arduous) Rebecca, for plagiarism.
En route to the trial in New York, Daphne meets Ellen Doubleday, the wife of her publisher in the states, and is instantly enamoured. The women become friends. Good friends. Writing long letters to each other and holidaying together in Italy, it’s not long before Daphne’s imprudent crush intensifies. Ellen catches wind of Daphne’s attraction to her and tells her she’s flattered but she is, in no uncertain terms, hetero. Nobody likes a “ta, but no ta”, so to deal with her pain, Daphne immortalises the subject of her unrequited love in September Tide, a dark play about the inappropriate desires between a young man and his mother-in-law.
She throws herself into her work, and when she’s casting the part of the mother-in-law, Stella – the part modelled on Ellen, no less – she meets Gertrude Lawrence, an out-bisexual actress. Compared to the sophisticated, demure Ellen, Gertrude seems tarty and loud, and Daphne doesn’t take to her immediately. But whether it’s seeing Gertrude act Ellen’s part, or the realisation that her feelings for Ellen are redundant, Daphne begins an affair with Gertrude, which will continue (on-and-off) for most of her life. But neither time, nor a new beau, is a healer. Although it’s Gertrude who shows her affection, who indulges her fantasies about women, it’s Ellen that Daphne continues to adore. This love triangle so forms the basis of Daphne’s secret life, a life she only ever shares through her characters.
Sarah Waters, described here as du Maurier’s literary successor, thinks Daphne used her novels to work through her unruly feelings about women. As much through repetition as actual scrutiny, this became (circa Margaret Forster’s 1993 biography when the writer’s attraction to women surfaced) the ligne du parti when it came to any modern reconsiderations of Daphne’s novels.
This skewed interest has seen everything from the outting of Mrs Danvers to Daphne’s relationship with her beloved Menabilly House being described as an illicit affair (predictably, the illicit part comes from the fact that Daphne never actually bought Menabilly, she just rented it. So in the world of real estate, renting is tantamount to bonking out of wedlock.)
Maybe Waters is right. Literature, as opposed to history, has been the one documenting unconventional love for centuries. And Daphne’s romantic feelings obviously troubled her. While the death of their small minded, suffocating actor-come-manager father, Gerald, enabled both her sisters to pursue the liberal lives they had long desired – Jeanne, an artist, once riddled with guilt because she enjoyed the cross-dressing games she played with her sisters as a child, and stifled creatively by her dad’s disdain for anything nouveau, quickly established herself in modernist social circles, finally free to experiment with both her painting and her identity. Angela, a poet, travelled, lived openly as a lesbian, had numerous affairs with powerful women and eventually fell in love with Olive Guthrie, Scottish Laird, Churchill’s aunt and thirty-two years her senior.
But Daphne remained in Cornwall, writing, struggling through a traditional family life that emulated the one her parents had struggled through. The death of the mercurial, maladroit Gerald left her grief stricken and, unlike her sisters, she never shook his smothering influence. She continues to be conflicted about her sexuality. Her womanhood. Anecdotes frequently reference Daphne’s feelings of unfemininity, of wanting to be ‘a boy’. A popular story recalls how she wishes she could be reincarnated as Ellen’s son. Something her father used to say to her. A possible indication of how familial love was easier for her to acknowledge. In letters made available to Forster by those close to her, Daphne attempts to explain her sexuality. She believed that she had two distinct personalities; the wife and mother (her public self) and her sexual, secret self, ‘a decidedly male energy’ who was not only responsible for her crushes, but the source of her talent as a writer. Eric Avon, a dashing captain, was the name Daphne gave herself when she had ‘played’ being men with Jeanne and Angela. During her adolescence Eric became the male energy she felt when she fell in love with the Parisian headmistress of her finishing school.
“At 18 this half-breed fell in love, as a boy would do, with someone quite 12 years older than himself who was French and had all the understanding in the world and he loved her in every conceivable way up to the age of 23 or so. And in so doing he learned almost all there is to know about that complex thing, a woman’s heart. The boy realised he had to grow up and not be a boy any longer, so he turned into a girl, and not an unattractive girl at that, and the boy was locked in a box and put away for ever.”
Forster read these as a homophobic denial of her bisexuality, a way of making it okay for her to love women. That to ease the disapproval her late father would have undoubtedly felt, she tried to distance herself from her male energy, the unfortunate half-breed, as if it were an alter ego, an unwelcome presence that needed exorcising. Whatever their true meaning, the thing that becomes blazingly clear from these exchanges is that Daphne’s feelings for Ellen are only the very tip of the confusion she felt.
When The Doll, a collection of short stories written in Daphne’s early twenties, was published in 2011, interest in Daphne’s love life was rekindled. The title story imagines a relationship between a woman and a mechanical sex doll, Julio, so lots of “Daphne was cripplingly conflicted sexually” biographical things, coupled with “look, this book we thought was gothic and boring and blah is actually HEAVING with hidden sexual meaning” ensued. But focusing all rereadings of du Maurier’s novels against a backdrop of latent, lesbian desires says much less about her work than it does about our obsession with women’s sexuality.
Suddenly Jamaica Inn, My Cousin Rachel, The Loving Spirit – they’re all remnants of a life lived unfulfilled. And it’s easier to ignore any work that doesn’t fit the unresolved sexual issues diagnosis. What about The Birds? Full of themes of dislocation, nature, dystopia and a growing fear of a world that appeared to be changing rapidly each day, the iconic story about a Cornish farmer who experiences an apocalyptic attack of birds, was written in the winter of 1951 as part of The Apple Tree, a collection of stories all concerned with the natural order. They marked a turning point in Daphne’s career. The lukewarm reviews she frequently received from critics always commented on the historic setting of her novels. Compared to her contemporaries, who were tackling war, injustice and exploring new techniques like the stream of consciousness, Daphne’s previous work had felt old fashioned. Yet these new stories were a nod to the future.
“Arguably, it was the starting point for an entire genre devoted to environmental disaster narratives. The Birds seemed to anticipate, with no little prescience, imminent large-scale catastrophe.”
The writing that followed was varied and grew increasingly powerful, the best of which includes Not After Midnight, another collection of shorts that, this time, toyed with the supernatural (featuring Don’t Look Now) and The House on the Strand, a fantastic sci-fi novel about psychological time travel. Her love of history never wained, but was instead refocused into non fiction. Daphne was a wonderful, meticulous biographer, and my favourite of these works is Mary Anne, the story of Daphne’s great-great-grandmother Mary Anne Clarke, French mistress of The Old Grand Duke Of York and kiss and tell girl de l’orginale.
As writings about Daphne increase for the seventy-fifth anniversary of Rebecca, it looks as though her romantic exploits are still in fashion. Kits Browning, Daphne’s son, revealed last week that the plot of Rebecca was based on Daphne’s own jealousy of husband Tommy’s first fiancé, Jan Ricardo.
“‘I know that she came across one or two letters or cards, fairly sort of harmless things, where Jan did sign Jan Ricardo with this wonderful great R,’ says Browning, flourishing his hand in the air. It is a portentous curlicue that is emulated in the book. ‘The name Rebecca,’ wrote du Maurier, ‘stood out black and strong, the tall and sloping R dwarfing the other letters.’ Ricardo later threw herself under a train, although not, Browning says, due to his parents’ marriage. Still, it is said that Daphne was haunted by the suspicion that her husband remained attracted to Ricardo.”
While this may be true, it does little to provoke new interest in the book and only adds to the long list of reasons why you should read Daphne du Maurier’s work, instead of reading it just because she’s amazing. I’m glad we’re coming to grips with the fact that women have always had sex outside the realms of fecundity, and while I’m not suggesting you read Rebecca through a modesty bag or anything, it is a classic. So try not to take her home unless you’re looking for a loving, committed read.