Manderlay Forever: Following in the footsteps of Daphne du Maurier
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Tatiana De Rosney’s book charts the life of the celebrated author, who spent her childhood in Hampstead’s Cannon Hall
“She has always been a tremendous influence on me and my writing,” says Tatiana De Rosnay of her idol Daphne Du Maurier.
“Like her I am part English, part French. She inspired me and it’s been fascinating to put my footsteps in hers.”
She explains why she loves Du Maurier’s unsettling stories that inspired movies such as The Birds, and Don’t Look Now.
“She always goes for the dark side to disturb the reader and her books never have a proper ending. You have to make it up for yourself. It’s quite audacious to leave readers hanging off a cliff. She also had an extraordinary way of turning houses into characters and creating a sense of atmosphere, or writing hypnotic, worrying characters like Mrs Danvers.”
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Born in 1907, Du Maurier was the prettiest and most gifted daughter of famous actor Sir Gerald Du Maurier.
The family moved into Georgian mansion Cannon Hall in 1916 and Daphne attended St Margaret’s School in Oak Hill Park. (Her novelist grandfather George du Maurier lived for decades in Hampstead Grove). But life could be difficult with her adoring but attention-seeking and spoilt father.
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“He was quite a handful; funny and always mimicking people but not always a nice person. She was his favourite and he was a wonderful support for her but his excessive love became overpowering. She describes how difficult it was living with him. When (film director) Carol Reed drove her back late after a date she saw her father’s stern face at the window and faced a tirade of rebukes. He was a friend who would confide intimate things about his affairs, but become the Victorian father whenever his daughters wanted to lead their own lives. He died before Rebecca was published but it would have been difficult for him to be upstaged by a famous daughter. She suffered from being the daughter and grand-daughter of famous men even though she overshadowed them completely.”
Encouraged to write by a governess, Du Maurier enjoyed daily walks on the Heath. “Writing became a way to escape family life and express the intensity of her feelings.”
She left Hampstead in 1925 to attend a finishing school in Paris where she fell in love with the headmistress 12 years her senior.
“She seized the chance to escape her father’s oppressive love and met a woman who would change her life. It opened another door. Paris was a hub of artistic creativity and it was her first love with someone who encouraged her as a writer. It was the start of a secret life that would be an inspiration to her writing.”
Du Maurier had to hide both that affair and subsequent trysts with women including Gertrude Lawrence.
“It was impossible to admit she was lesbian, she hated the word and didn’t consider herself bisexual. She called that part of herself ‘The boy in the box’ saying she had a woman’s body but a boy’s heart. The incredible secrecy of this double being fuelled the intensity of her writing, she poured these secret longings into her books.”
It was Du Maurier’s first novel that catapulted her to fame at 21. Her publisher marketed Rebecca with an eyecatching cover which was scoffed at by critics.
“She is now perceived as an incredible talent but at the time she was unfairly branded a romantic novelist and compared to Barbara Cartland and Agatha Christie, which was a huge casting mistake,” says de Rosnay. “The tragedy is she was never taken seriously by critics who didn’t bother to open her books. I’ve been trying to peel it off, to show she was a writer who wrote deep, dark novels about terrifying issues. Even Rebecca isn’t a love story. It’s about a man who kills his first wife and drives out the second.”
Success meant Du Maurier was expected to deliver more bestsellers.
“It was hard to be this huge star, she was never able to get rid of Rebecca, people asked her about it all her life.”
Rebecca’s setting Manderley was inspired by Menabilly a house near Fowey in Cornwall which Du Maurier rented for two decades with her husband, World War II hero Sir Frederick Browning, and their three children. Psychologically frail and suffering from black moods, Du Maurier could be a distant mother, and when Browning was embroiled in scandal and she was forced to give up Menabilly, she became reclusive.
“Her husband died in sad circumstances, she had no peg on which to hang all her fantasies, she could no longer count on the incredible imagination that had fuelled her since a child. By the end of her life she was very sad, lonely and frightened,” says de Rosnay who has since become friends with Du Maurier’s daughter Tessa Montgomery.
She adds: “Her children were important to her, even if she wasn’t considered very motherly they adored her. She had such an incredible personality one couldn’t help being in love with her.”
Manderlay Forever (Allen&Unwin £18.99). Hear Tatiana de Rosnay in conversation with Dr Laura Varnam at Waterstones Hampstead on October 6.