On my mum’s anniversary I remember one of our last conversations. It was about Daphne du Maurier, the woman who wrote Rebecca. We both shared an admiration for the first chapter of the book. I admire the opening passage, its slow build that kind of takes you down a winding path until you are in Manderley again. I can’t recall how many times I read that passage, but it always reminds me of the first time I watched the movie with her. I think my admiration for that book is based also on the same admiration I have for the woman who gave me life. I guess that anything is useful to remind me of the good old days, when she was with us. I used to love the way she painted the world for me. Also liking the way her words jumped into the future for a moment that came back to the present. So today I decided to include a text written some years ago. It is about Rebecca, her mystery, her secrets, her passions and, of course, it’s a tribute to my mother.
Sergio Calle Llorens
'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.' Daphne du Maurier's famous opening line of Rebecca - one of the most memorable first sentences ever published - appears to beckon the reader through a padlocked iron gate and down a long, serpentine drive to a hidden mansion, a house of secrets and dreams.When du Maurier wrote those words, she was far away from her beloved
Yet in an odd twist of homesickness, what she missed most was not her children, but an abandoned house - Menabilly, which she had fallen in love with long before her marriage, dreaming of rescuing it from ruin - and it was this that she summoned up as the mysterious Manderley.
Manderley, like its inhabitant, Rebecca - a ghost as alive as the house itself - was at the heart of what became an enormously successful novel which was subsequently adapted into a Hitchcock film in 1940. And it was with the proceeds from Rebecca that du Maurier was able to lease Menabilly in 1943, so that she could move into the place that had provided her with such inspiration. She could never fully possess the house - it had been entailed to the Rashleigh family for 800 years, and still continues to be - but it possessed her, almost as if it were an elusive lover. By 1957, du Maurier had written two more novels set in Menabilly - The King's General, based on the history of the house as a Royalist stronghold during the Civil War, and My Cousin Rachel, in which it provided not only the setting, but a key part of the plot, in a story of a woman as enigmatic and compelling as Rebecca.
Thus, 20 years after she had written Manderley into life, du Maurier was living in the house at the end of that twisting drive; a haunted, shadowy place hidden from the road and the sea, surrounded by dense woodland and a headland of sheer cliffs and jagged rocks. Her reclusive reputation was well-established by then - Menabilly was never open to sightseers; its gates remained closed to all but du Maurier's closest family and friends. Yet in July 1957, she was due to hold a party there to celebrate her silver wedding anniversary with her husband, who was by then a lieutenant general, honoured with a knighthood and a senior position at
Tommy Browning was
The following spring, Tommy returned to Fowey, still in search of the girl who had written The Loving Spirit. Introductions were made - his father had met her father at the Garrick Club; he had been at
'He's the most amazing person to be with, no effort at all, and I feel I've known him for years.' Just over three months later, on 19 July, they were married nearby, at Lanteglos church, and then set off aboard Tommy's boat to the
A quarter of a century later, du Maurier and Browning still appeared to be the most loving and charming of couples. She was beautiful, rich and famous, as well as an apparently devoted wife, entertaining Prince Philip when he came to stay at Menabilly, and accompanying Browning to Balmoral when they were invited there by The Queen. Yet just as a du Maurier novel is never quite what it seems - danger is always lurking close to the surface; a kiss can cut like a knife - her marriage to Browning was under threat, and both of them were at breaking point. He collapsed in
Du Maurier was terribly shocked by the news, but there was no question in her mind that they should separate, nor that his trusted position at Buckingham Palace be undermined - indeed, she kept the truth from nearly everyone around her, aside from her closest family and two trusted friends, Maureen and Monty Baker-Munton. Everybody else was told that Browning was suffering from nervous exhaustion, and that his blood was going too slowly through his system. But du Maurier's own sense of guilt and spiralling anxieties became evident when she spoke to Maureen (Browning's personal assistant, whose husband, Monty, a former Spitfire pilot, was as loyal to the du Mauriers as she was).
For like Browning - and so many of her fictional personae - du Maurier had her own secrets to hide, including a wartime affair with a married man, Christopher Puxley, and two intense relationships with women, Nell Doubleday (the wife of her American publisher) and Gertrude Lawrence (the actress, who had not only appeared as the romantic lead in du Maurier's play, September Tide, but had previously been one of her father's lovers).
'It was like being faced with a great jigsaw puzzle,' du Maurier wrote to Maureen, in a long and anguished letter soon after Browning's breakdown, in which she reported her attempts to confess her own infidelities to her husband: '[I said to him] how to blame I had been for so much of his unhappiness during the past years, and came clean about the Puxley man, and then tried to explain in easy language for him to grasp how my obsessions - you can only call them that - for poor old Ellen D. and Gertrude were all part of a nervous breakdown going on inside myself, partly to do with my muddled troubles, and writing, and a fear of facing reality.'
But what was the reality that du Maurier feared facing? This is a question I have attempted to address in my novel - and the choice of fiction to explore the mysteries of her past is in part an acknowledgement that one can never know the entire truth of another's life. There has been a much speculation about her bisexuality (a subject thoroughly covered in Margaret Forster's perceptive 1993 biography).
It seems, however, that the intricate ambiguities of her love life (or lives) only begin to make sense when one considers the complexities of her relationship with her father, Sir Gerald du Maurier; for while there has never been conclusive proof that he expressed explicitly incestuous desire for his daughter, his extreme possessiveness veered towards the inappropriate. Thus when du Maurier announced, at the age of 25, that she and Browning were to be married, her father is said to have burst into tears and cried, 'It's not fair!'
He died less than two years afterwards, at the age of 61, though not before he had read du Maurier's novel The Progress of Julius, published in the year after her marriage, which describes a father who drowns his 25-year-old daughter because he cannot bear the prospect of her involvement with another man. Du Maurier's description of his incestuous feelings was remarkably open in a novel of that period - Julius's wife is shocked by his 'voracious passion' for their adolescent daughter, and when he watches her playing the flute, he is himself aware of 'an odd taste in his mouth, and a sensation in mind and body that was shameful and unclean'. (According to du Maurier's son, Kits Browning, 'It's a fascinating story, with an awful lot based on Daphne's father. Julius is utterly ruthless, but he has a magnetism and charm.')
She was the second of Gerald's three daughters, and his favourite, growing up in a sophisticated
Her parents' romance began on stage - her mother, Muriel, was a pretty young actress when she was cast opposite Gerald as the romantic lead in J.M. Barrie's play The Admirable Crichton, and Barrie went on to write a number of other plays and stories for du Maurier's family: most famously, Peter Pan, which was inspired by her cousins, the five Llewellyn Davies boys, and starred Gerald as a menacing double-act of Captain Hook and Mr Darling.
The du Mauriers formed a tight-knit group, with family nicknames and code words: 'menacing', for example, was slang for sexual attraction, which provides an intriguing context to du Maurier's own, sinister stories, where sex and murder often go hand in hand, and desire can lead to death by drowning. It therefore makes a certain sort of warped sense that at 14, on a family holiday beside the sea in
He was already married to his second wife by then, but appears to have enjoyed the illicit flirtation with his adolescent cousin. 'As the August holiday progressed so did the understanding, and this was something that must not be told to others,' wrote du Maurier, nearly six decades later, '…and after lunch, when we all lay out on the lawn like corpses to catch the sun, rugs over our knees, Geoffrey would come and lie beside me, and feel for my hand under the rug and hold it…'
Later, the hand holding progressed to passionate kisses, when Geoffrey came to stay at the du Maurier family home, Cannon Hall in Hampstead, while his wife was convalescing in a nursing home. Du Maurier wrote in her diary at the time, 'When the others go to bed I let him kiss me in the drawing-room… It seems so natural to kiss him now… The strange thing is it's so like kissing D[addy]. There is hardly any difference between them. Perhaps this family is the same as the Borgias. D[addy] is Pope Alexander, Geoffrey is Cesare, and I am Lucretia. A sort of incest.'
Marrying Browning was, perhaps, du Maurier's way of escaping the confusion of these relationships. He was upright, honourable and courageous - he had been awarded a DSO for bravery during the First World War - and a commander of men in a milieu very different from her father's. A quarter of a century later, however, unsettling similarities between Gerald and Browning had surfaced: both drank too much, both had affairs and suffered from debilitating bouts of black depression, despite the polished demeanour they presented to the outside world. But even more disturbing to du Maurier were her mounting fears that her husband might mirror Maxim de Winter (a character who also bears some resemblance to her father; especially in Lawrence Olivier's portrayal of him in the film version of Rebecca).
'I don't want to resurrect Rebecca,' she wrote to Maureen Baker-Munton in July 1957, yet seemed to be doing exactly that, suggesting in the same letter that her husband could, 'in a blind rage, shoot me as Maxim shot Rebecca, and put my body in Yggie [Browning's boat], and take Yggie out to sea, and then the old tragedy be re-enacted, and when he married, as he would in time [the second wife would] be haunted by my ghost… The evil in us comes to the surface.'
And if Browning was de Winter, then was it Rebecca's face that she saw when she looked in the mirror at night, or did the ghost of Rebecca walk beside her, down the long corridors of Menabilly? These were the unquiet thoughts that haunted Daphne du Maurier, as she awaited her husband's return from hospital; this was the breaking point that she had reached, alone in her house of secrets, behind a locked iron gate, surrounded by woods where the leaves whispered like voices, and beyond the trees were the beckoning waves. What happened next would take an entire book to unfold in full - a novel that I have therefore written...