Daphne du Maurier, one of the best-loved authors of popular fiction of her generation, was born on 13 May 1907 in Regent’s Park, London, to the highly successful actor-manager, Sir Gerald Hubert Edward Busson du Maurier, who was obviously an unfaithful husband and actress, Muriel du Maurier, who seemed indifferent to her husband’s infidelities. Daphene and her two sisters were very close, bound together in the world of the imagination and fantasy. Taught at home by governesses, the three sisters were expected to make fine marriages, not fine careers and when Daphne began to write fictions in her teens, even her family tried to dissuade her. It is interesting to note that, later in life, apart from Daphene, her elder sister, Angela also became a writer and her younger sister Jeanne a painter.
When her father expressed how he longed to have a son, she cut her hair, dressed up as a boy and created an alter ego called Eric Avon, the shining captain of cricket at Rugby, who gradually became more than a childhood fantasy. He was the imaginary representation of the repressed side of herself and her attraction to other women. Even before puberty, Daphne du Maurier strongly felt that she was not a girl, she was a boy caged in the body of a girl. As a child she used to dress in shorts and ties and spent most of her time in her land of imagination, pretending to be her alter ego, but as she grew up the boy inside her soul was locked in a box. However, in her lonely hours she used to open it up and let the phantom, who was neither boy or girl, but disembodied spirit, dance in the evening when there was no one to see.
Though her first crush was on Carol Reed, the director of The Third Man, she is alleged to have had her first same-sex affair with her French teacher when she was around 18, during family holidays at their country home in Bodinnick, a riverside village in southeast Cornwell. Since then, she had developed a lifelong passion for Cornwall, an area which provided the backdrop for many of her stories.
Daphne du Maurier’s first novel The Loving Spirit was published in 1931 and she married Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning, an Army major in 1932, with whom she had three children. An unhappy period in Egypt as the wife of an army wife gave birth to Daphne du Maurier’s best-known novel, Rebecca (1938), which was made into a successful film in 1940, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It is said that their marriage dwindled after Browning returned from the Second World War and she felt that her massive success as the author of Rebecca damaged the relationship. But, it is also true that, after he came back from the war, Browning showed no inclination to resume sexual relations with his wife, though Daphne was still a beauty in her late thirties. His attitude probably depressed Daphne and she turned to women for comfort.
She fell madly in love with Ellen Doubleday, the wife of her American publisher and wrote her many letters, expressing her unruly Venetian passion for Ellen openly. While ‘Venetian’ was a slang for lesbian, the two women became great friends, but Ellen, even when holidaying with Daphne in Italy, did not reciprocate her feeling. She told Daphne earnestly that she believes, everyone has the right to love without censure. Nevertheless, she is not a lesbian and cannot return Daphne’s feelings. Though it broke her heart, it also opened the gates for a later affair with Gertrude Lawrence, an English actress, singer, dancer and musical comedy performer, with whom her father had also been involved. Daphne had her most passionate lesbian affair with Gertrude, who became a substitute for Ellen. During that time, Gertrude was playing the role of Stella, a character based on Ellen, in Daphne’s play ‘September Tide’, the story of a forbidden love between a young man and his mother-in-law. Although initially Daphne was contemptuous of Gertrude, whom she took as brash and slutty, she was increasingly drawn to her charisma and eventually the two became involved in a steamy affair.
However, much later, Pamela Cahan Clatworthy, daughter of Gertrude Lawrence, denied the stories about her mother supposedly being a lesbian and according to her version, her appetite for men was almost like a nymphomaniac. Nevertheless, her statement did not include any proof to indicates that she never had any such relationship with Daphne du Maurier.
In fact, though she was beautiful, Daphne du Maurier never wanted to be an example of soft femininity. Though she was married and never walked out on her husband, she was bisexual, with a strong lesbian trend. While she felt she was a man, very much in love and stuck in the wrong body, she also knew that she was a woman committed to staying married to her husband. However, she did not want to be a mother, at least not of daughters or wear dresses. Once she described herself as a person with dual personality, one her female self and the other a male lover, who she said did her writing. Even though she was attracted to women, she was repulsed by lesbians. She disliked lesbianism and struggled to come to terms with her bisexuality.
The strong obsessive passion of Daphne du Maurier was reflected in her novels, which are famous for their passion, tension and alarmingly candid psychological takes on men and women, who were often trapped in unhealthily obsessive relationships.
Daphne du Maurier lost her husband in 1965, which was a big blow for her. Somehow, it affected her confidence and it was compounded by a growing sense of helplessness that, her imaginative talent was waning. She died at the age of 81, on 19 April 1989, at her home in Cornwall, which had been the setting for many of her books. Her body was cremated and her ashes scattered off the cliffs at Fowey, in south Cornwall.