Daphne du Maurier Updated the Brontës, Inspired Hitchcock, Was a Gender-Fluid Iconoclast

Daphne du Maurier, born on this day in 1907, is a difficult author to categorize. While British literature was heading into the realm of complex modernism, her gothic mysteries and twisted love stories were a deliberate throwback to the motifs and concerns of writers like Anne Radcliffe and the Brontës, particularly Jane Eyre. Yet her storytelling was so eerie and compelling, so full of twists on the uncanny, that she inspired a few of Alfred Hitchcock’s most memorable screen efforts.

Rebecca, her most enduring work, which still regularly sells thousands of copies a month, is an obvious play on the themes of Jane Eyre — with a controlling husband, a first wife who haunts the second, and a great house with a great secret, a house that ends up collapsing in flames.

Du Maurier’s work was a major inspiration for the golden age of cinema. Alfred Hitchcock’s big-screen adaptation, starring Joan Fontaine and Lawrence Olivier, marked a turning point in his career; he later adapted du Maurier’s gruesome short story The Birds, which contains echoes of the Blitz and fears of the Cold War, transporting it from the Cornish coast to California and putting a glamorous Hitchcock blonde (Tippi Hedren) at center stage, rather than a gruff English farmer type.

Doubles, dark revelations, Byronic heroes, and domineering men come up again and again in du Maurier’s work, most of which is set in her beloved Cornwall, with its dramatic cliffs and great estates. Du Maurier was the granddaughter of Trilby author George du Maurier and the daughter of notable actor Gerald du Maurier, the charming but strong-willed center of the household. She married “Boy Browning” an adventuring army man and friend to Prince Phillip.

While du Maurier’s gift as a writer was her vivid and even wild imagination, she borrowed elements from her extraordinary life for her novels. The tyrannical yet charismatic heroes who populate her books are said to be based on her father’s type, while du Maurier based her novels’ famous settings on a ruined house on the Cornish coast, Menabilly, which she ended up renting with the book’s proceeds. And her envy of her husband’s former lover Jan Ricardo, who died in a suicide by train, was one emotional source of the central conflict in Rebecca — which du Maurier called a “study in jealousy.”

The gender play and lesbian undertones found in novels like My Cousin Rachel and in the relationship between the sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers and the late Rebecca arise in part from du Maurier’s own uncategorizable sexual ambiguity. She felt she had once been a “boy” and called her attractions to women “Venetian tendencies.” As Carrie Frye noted in her essay on du Maurier,

Daphne had a few romantic relationships with women as well, although she rejected the term “lesbian.” “… by God and by Christ if anyone should call that sort of love by that unattractive word that begins with “L”, I’d tear their guts out,” she warned in one stormy love letter, whose recipient, being a woman, might have felt she had a right to call the love exactly that…

Part of it was surely internalized homophobia, a reluctance to acknowledge herself as that way; something, too, to do with her time period’s narrow conventions of what being a lesbian meant. But also mixed up in there is du Maurier’s recognition of herself as a boy—an identification she only allowed herself to make in her 40s—and a boy isn’t a lesbian.

As a mother, du Maurier was known to be wrapped up in her work, letting her kids and their animals have the run of the place while she wrote. But her children say she was also a lot of fun, and always up for a game of cricket. This contrast between her aristocratic side — full of sailing, socializing, and adventuring — and her more reclusive writer side surely informed the doubling she used in her work. Her son Kit says he feels that she was both the bold Rebecca and the cowering second Mrs. DeWinter.

What makes du Maurier’s work continue to fly off shelves is the way she works in ambiguity, as she did in her life. We accept the idea that Rebecca was pure evil, until we’re done reading. As her son tells the Telegraph: “It’s Maxim’s version, isn’t it? There’s so much in that book, you know. Was he lying? Why is it that everybody else thought the sun shone out of her a—? There’s never a bad word about Rebecca except from Max. That’s why it runs and runs.”