Daphne du Maurier: truth and fiction.

I picked up Margaret Forster’s 1993 biography of Daphne du Maurier looking for a little background on My Cousin Rachel, nothing more. I quickly discovered that you can’t just drop into the middle of Daphne’s life and then walk away. Or rather, when you look up 1949 you’re faced with a lot of statements that imply a mass of missed backstory.

Ellen was rightly worried by Daphne’s increasingly distorted view of her life and tried to console and put an alternative, more attractive hypothesis forward. But what saved her friend was what had always saved and rescued her: the very work she saw as fatal to her human relationships. In Florence, Daphne had felt the first faint stirrings of a novel about a woman, a widow like Ellen, who would have many of Ellen’s characteristics and even look like her: the point of the novel would be that this woman was the source of great torment to others.

I’m nosy. I found the simple answers I’d hoped for, but they carried with them a lot more questions. Who was Ellen? What kind of torment was she to du Maurier? What did ‘distorted view‘ mean?

Here was a writer who’d been on my shelves since my young teenage. I can still remember being gripped by, The Loving Spirit. She’d rarely let me down. I particularly liked the strand of Gothic that threaded it’s way through so much of her long and short fiction.

Some of her books carried her photo. It was a rather lovely, kindly, face, I thought. Other publicity, of her sailing with her husband, or playing with her children, left me with an impression of a sun-lit, sea-bound, model family. For years, if I imagined her life at all, it was one of endless summers.

I know, how impossible is that? Still, it didn’t necessarily follow that the alternative would be anything significant, or ground shaking, did it?

How wrong I was. The story of du Maurier, according to Forster, is a very modern one. It includes a dominant father, a strong but distant mother, and questions about gender identity and sexual freedom. All of this is played out in the early years of the twentieth century, largely in London.

A biography written by a novelist might be expected to explore character, to look for the motivations and inciting incidents that lead to a career as a successful and prolific writer. I found myself caring about Daphne in the same way I cared about Rachel and Philip in, My Cousin Rachel.

There were moments when I pulled back from the biography and reminded myself that du Maurier was a real woman. Then I began to ask myself questions about her right to privacy.

Like any other narrator, Forster had chosen which scenes we would see, which fragment of diary or letter to share. If I was questioning the narrator in My Cousin Rachel, shouldn’t I also question Forster?

When I look again at my first quote, I have a perfect example of where my discomfort comes from. It’s the occasional inclusion of a word, like ‘rightly‘. Take it away and I feel less pushed.

Ellen was worried by Daphne’s increasingly distorted view of her life and tried to console and put an alternative, more attractive hypothesis forward.

I probably seem niggly. This kind of direction is so slight, it’s questionable whether there is an intention to direct. But then there’s:

It was as though she…

Or even:

The whole tone of her letters was one of outraged distress…

As in any biography, there are gaps in the evidence. Sometimes because du Maurier had written about the same event in contrasting ways, to different people, at others because nothing had been written at all, and yet other people had supplied details of actions.

This is the point at which hypothesis has to take over, however unsatisfactory…

I wish Forster had trusted me to draw my own conclusions. Worse, were the times when Forster insisted on summing up a situation after she’d presented the evidence.

If Daphne had been prepared to sacrifice Menabilly, she could have made a home in or near London for both of them, so that their marriage would have had a better chance of flourishing once more.

My favourite moment? It’s from a letter written by the senior editor to Victor Gollancz, about the manuscript of her novel, Rebecca.

…brilliantly creates a sense of atmosphere and suspense… I don’t know another author who imagines so hard all the time. …the spelling is quite incredible.

I take heart any time I find an author who has struggled with spelling, aside from the typos, mine seems to get worse and werse.

*Photo on header, of Fowey, Cornwall, by Alan Hearn

30 thoughts on “Daphne du Maurier: truth and fiction.

  1. Lol, I have the most atrocious Raynauds where routinely making any meal I chop my fingers, burn them, don’t even notice, cos I don’t feel it, so the typing??? Well throw in the fact my PC is miles from the router… ok that is an exaggeration but it well tucked away in my eerie, so the flickering signal causes havoc when you are typing. Oh and did I mention the letters have worn off half the keys and there you have my spelling… And yeah I used to get a pasting from editors for it and once from the head of one of my publishers. AFTER, my ed sent it unproofed which gave me cause, I must say, to keep this present book and put it out myself. Anyway, I love Du Maurier. Like you I have read and loved all her books. I loved this post about her. Like everybody else she was complicated and I can understand her not wanting to sacrifice Menabilly. I also love that you question some of Forster’s conclusions. We all say different things to people about the same happening for very different reasons. So great post. Thank you again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, Shey, Reynauds sounds horrendous. However, I love your summary of yourself, great material for your future biographer to stumble across. I wonder how they will sum you up….

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Daphne du Maurier has been much under-rated, I think, and I have a suspicion that part of the key to her writing was that she was complicated – but then aren’t we all?

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      • Totally agree re the under-rated. I loved that all her books were very different. Yes they were historical mainly–the short stories weren’t, Rebecca neither–and yes there were themes..like pirates, smugglers,..Cornwall, obviously… but they were multi layered. We didn’t just take the main characters and shove different clothes on them. You take Frenchman’s Creek and it doesn’t conform to the traditional HEA although it is mainly a romance. But it’s not genre romance that way. Also she’d a use of language and imagery that put her way above many popular writers of that time. Then there’s her settings. And yes people are complicated and obviously her life was complicated by a number of factors. Personally a lot of writers are driven to write and they retreat into writing when life is tougher but that make seem distant, cold etc, as she was sometimes seen.

        Lol, smiling at your first bit there. Aye chance wid be a fine thing. Raynauds is quite misunderstood. Seriously. They say circulation but it is actually the body’s inability to recognise and cope with a change in temperature. I never feel the cold and that has led to me having hypothermia in some instances..just got to joke about it.. So my problems always come not in getting too cold, but in when I go cold to hot as in cooking. grand excuse but I like cooking. And you know I never had this at all until I had a blood transfusion so I must have [icked it up through that. xxxx

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  2. I’ve never read biographies before, but I’m under the impression (maybe wrongly?) that the author would impart with their opinion and impressions of the person they’re talking about? And yes, I assumed they’d even put in the conclusions they believed was right. I read once a book- fiction – where a celebrity paid a famous author to right her biography. It was…. enlightening, I’d say.

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    • I’ve read a few biographies, and in my experience they vary. I suppose my problem with this one is that I prefer the kind that aim to present the evidence without making their slant obvious. I like being allowed to understand without someone nudging me to see exactly what they see, and I think in this case the material was interesting enough that it didn’t need explaining.

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    • Shamefully, I’ve only read summaries and quotes from ‘Myself When Young’. It’s been added to my reading list. I’m going to look up Letters from Menabilly now. Thanks for the tip, Sheila, very useful.

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    • Another of her short stories, also filmed, was Don’t Look Now, with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. I’ve seen it, but all I can remember is that it made me feel really uncomfortable – not sure if that was in a good way. Thanks for dropping by, Neil.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent post! It never hit me before about biographies; it’s one thing to write an AUTObiography, and share your own personal insights and experiences. You went through them, they’re yours to share. But how far should others be allowed to dig into people’s lives? Hmmm. One to ponder. And I love your point about how tone can shift on a single, little word. There’s laying out the evidence for the audience to draw its own conclusions, and there’s leading the jury. Sounds like this book’s leading the jury, my friend. x

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks, Jean.
    Leading the jury is a good way to sum-up my concern. There were times when I was aware of feeling very uncomfortable about digging into a real life, and when I looked into why, it often did come down to a single word. Though I only really started trying to work out what was happening after I’d read a couple of clearly directive passages. It really made me think about writing on a word-level. Dangerous stuff.

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  5. As I’ve said before, words have their own agenda, as do biographers. When I read the brief introduction to Jack Kerouac in advance of the story, I chose not to read further. A biographer rewrites history and makes me cautious about the detail. It is uncomfortable prying into somebody’s head – as it should be.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree Lynda. I use biography material for work, and can’t see a way to avoid needing to. But, your point about rewriting history remains in my mind at the same time, and I try to balance my biographical reading by checking out alternate versions, and adding a pinch of salt.

      For personal preference, I’ll stick with fiction – so much more reliable and true.

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  6. I do get annoyed with excessive speculation in biographies — I believe it can be done in a responsible way, but saying things like “she must have felt/thought…” should be a no-no. Sneaking in those little adjectives like “rightly” that impost the biographer’s judgment is especially disturbing.

    Du Maurier is a fascinating subject though. I enjoyed another version of her biography, Manderley Forever, which was really more like a biogropahical novel (and so contains a good measure of authorial intrusion, which must be forgiven in advance if it’s to be read at all).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manderley Forever sounds interesting. I’m fine with authorial intrusion when I’m expecting it, and I think du Maurier’s speculations would be intriguing.

      I can see how tempting it must be for the autobiographer to draw our attention to what seem to be highly relevant details, but i expected Forster would be more restrained.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Glad I noticed this post, Cath; I’m a huge DdM fan and this is a fascinating angle on her life (and biographies in general of course). Coincidentally, I read and noted that same opening quote when turning to Forster’s book having recently watched a production of ‘September Tide’ (one of DdM’s 3 plays) which was written at that same time. Picking up Forster, for the same reasons as you did prompted me to want to re-read the whole book and when I do I shall keep your comments in mind. There has been so much written about her (including a book by her daughter) yet she remains an enigma. Thanks for this additional food for thought 🙂

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  8. I have read some of her books, but rarely read biographies, as I tend not to trust them.
    They seem to be either ‘approved’, in which case they favour the person, or ‘unapproved’, usually critical as a result. Maybe I should read more, and discover if my assumption is incorrect?
    Many thanks for following my blog, which is appreciated.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think your assumption pretty much matches up with my experience, but don’t let that stop you from making your own mind up.

      I’m enjoying your blog, Pete. Looking forward to reading more.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It’s certainly thought provoking, Chris.

      I’m looking out for some of the alternative accounts – including du Maurier’s autobiography – and see how they contrast or confirm this one.

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