Daphne du Maurier (1907–1989) is one of the best-loved authors of popular fiction of her generation. Her novels established her as a master storyteller, but she also wrote plays, short stories and biographies. Haunting and atmospheric, her work occupies a unique place in 20th century literature, appealing to a broad audience yet worthy of literary merit.
Born in 1907 in Regent’s Park, London, to actress, Muriel du Maurier (née Beaumont) and the highly successful actor-manager, Sir Gerald Hubert Edward Busson du Maurier, Daphne du Maurier grew up among a theatrical milieu.
Mainly home-educated by governesses, du Maurier and her two sisters were extremely close, bound together in a world of the imagination, stories and fantasy. This rarefied early existence was to have a huge influence on Daphne du Maurier’s future creative work, as was her close relationship with her volatile father and her uneasy feelings around her mother. It was during family holidays at the du Maurier country home in Bodinnick by Fowey, that she developed a life-long passion for Cornwall, an area which provided the back-drop for many of her stories.
Daphne du Maurier’s first novel, The Loving Spirit, was published in 1931 to critical acclaim. She married Major Frederick Arthur Montague ('Boy') Browning in 1932 and had her first daughter, Tessa, in 1933. Her frank biography of her father, Gerald: A Portrait (1934) shocked some of her father’s admirers but also gained her recognition as a talented writer. In 1936, publication of Jamaica Inn propelled her to the top of the best-seller lists.
An unhappy period in Egypt as an army wife gave rise to Daphne du Maurier’s best-known novel, Rebecca (1938). An intense study of female jealousy, Rebecca was made into a successful film in 1940, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Frenchman’s Creek (1941) and Hungry Hill (1943) followed, both of which were also made into successful films. She had another daughter, Flavia, in 1937, and a son, Christian, in 1940, and while her husband was away at war, she moved back to Cornwall with the children to live in 'Menabilly', a house which she had loved since her early 20s.
During and after the war, the du Mauriers’ marriage became strained. This prompted her to write a play, The Years Between (performed in 1944), which explored the effects of war on marriage. My Cousin Rachel (1951) was followed by two collections of short stories, The Apple Tree (1952) and The Breaking Point (1959); the latter was also influenced by her psychological stress. The Scapegoat (1957), a novel exploring themes of stolen identity and the self, is appreciated by critics as a more serious work, though at the time it was pigeonholed as another of her romantic thrillers. In 1963, Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of her short story The Birds, was released and became a cult classic.
The death of her husband, in 1965, affected Daphne du Maurier profoundly and her unease was compounded by a growing sense that her imaginative talent was waning. Unable to renew the lease on her treasured home, Menabilly, she moved to Kilmarth, in Par, where she wrote the well-received The House on the Strand in 1969, the same year that she was made a DBE. She subsequently entered into a period of creative and personal decline, culminating with a nervous breakdown in 1981. She died at home in Cornwall in 1989 at the age of 81.
Further information about the life of Daphne du Maurier can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.