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Daphne du Maurier | Biography

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Early Life and Family

Daphne du Maurier was born on May 13, 1907, in London, England, into a creative family of actors and writers. Her grandfather, George du Maurier, was an illustrator and author, best known for the novel Trilby (1894). Her father was renowned actor-producer Sir Gerald du Maurier, best known for bringing to life Captain Hook on stage in Peter Pan, a story that had a profound influence on Daphne. Her older sister, Angela, was also a novelist and memoirist, and her younger sister, Jeanne, became a painter. Remaining around the edges of Gerald's theatrical spotlight provided a comfortable existence, but shy Daphne loathed the constant socializing of opening nights and parties. She preferred playing the role of Peter in her own productions of Peter Pan around the house, including performing for its author and family friend J.M. Barrie.

Taught by governesses, du Maurier was considered a bright child, but higher education was not an expectation. She was meant to take her place running a household for a successful husband, so after a short duration at a Paris finishing school in her teens, du Maurier's formal education was over. At about the same time, she fell in love with Cornwall, an English county, when her parents purchased a summer cottage and where she wrote her first novel, The Loving Spirit (1931). Cornwall was to remain one of the enduring loves of her life.

Major Works

Du Maurier went on to publish plays and many books, including historical fiction, short fiction, an autobiography, and even a travel guide. Her novels include Jamaica Inn (1936), Rebecca (1938), Hungry Hill (1943), My Cousin Rachel (1951), The Scapegoat (1957), and The Glass Blowers (1963). Du Maurier's fifth novel, Rebecca, is her most popular and enduring work and was made into an Academy Award-winning film by English director Alfred Hitchcock in 1940. It was the first of her books to use the setting of Menabilly, an old estate house in Cornwall with which du Maurier was obsessed. Du Maurier's last novel, Rule Britannia, was published in 1972. In addition she published two autobiographies: Growing Pains: The Shaping of a Writer in 1977 and The Rebecca Notebooks and Other Memories in 1981.

Influences

The influence of the theater is evident in du Maurier's plot-driven fiction. My Cousin Rachel unfolds through dialogue and letters, with action reserved for eating, drinking, and traveling. This structure is similar to what an audience would experience in watching a play. Detailed description is usually employed for the setting and weather, as du Maurier conveys a sense of place and atmosphere. She establishes mood with candles and shadows, almost like stage directions and lighting.

Du Maurier had a life-long relationship with the story of Peter Pan. As a child, she imagined herself as Peter, fighting epic battles, doing heroic deeds, never growing up, and wishing she were a boy. As an adult, she wrote capably from the male point of view, as she did with the protagonist Philip, because she was able to draw from her own internal gender conflicts.

Du Maurier was interested also in the work of the English Brontë sisters—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. Rebecca has been compared to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), partly for content and setting, partly for style. The comparison is no coincidence; the du Maurier sisters identified strongly with the Brontë sisters and enjoyed their novels and poems. In fact du Maurier wrote a biography of their brother, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë (1961).

In addition, the work of modernist writer from New Zealand Katherine Mansfield greatly appealed to du Maurier. Mansfield was best known for the collection of stories The Garden Party (1922). However, in contrast to du Maurier, Mansfield eschewed traditional plotting to create an impressionistic flow in her short stories. Du Maurier credited Mansfield as her greatest influence, perhaps having more to do with language than structure—du Maurier kept her plots tightly controlled.

Marriage, Motherhood, Honor, and Death

Du Maurier married Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Browning in 1932 and had three children. Awarded the honorary title Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1969, du Maurier died 20 years later, on April 19, 1989, in Cornwall. Du Maurier's body of work has a timeless quality ensuring it will be read by generations to come. Readers continue to connect with her novels through new editions, films, television series and stage plays, just as they have since 1931.

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