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Volume 34
Issue 42
 
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Past Out by Liz Highleyman
Who was Daphne du Maurier?
by Liz Highleyman - SGN Contributing Writer

Bisexual author Daphne du Maurier, best known today through film adaptations of her work, helped define the gothic romance genre of literature. While other writers of her era were dealing with subjects such as alienation, religion, Marxism, and World War II, du Maurier, wrote professor Richard Kelly, "produced 'old-fashioned' novels with straightforward narratives that appealed to a popular audience's love of fantasy, adventure, sexuality, and mystery."

Du Maurier was born May 13, 1907, to an artistic family in London. Her mother was an actress, her father, Gerald, was a theater manager and famous actor, and her grandfather, George, was a well-known author and cartoonist for Punch magazine. Du Maurier and her two sisters had a privileged and permissive upbringing, educated privately at home and at schools in London and Paris. An avid reader, she enjoyed creating imaginary worlds, often featuring a male alter-ego she dubbed "the boy in the box." Her family's holiday home in Cornwall would later become the setting for much of her best work.

Her father's and grandfather's connections gave du Maurier's literary career an initial boost, and her uncle published one of her short stories in his magazine, The Bystander, when she was still a teenager. Her first novel, The Loving Spirit, appeared in 1931; this was followed by Jamaica Inn, in 1936, which brought her critical acclaim and financial success.

In the summer of 1932, du Maurier married Frederick "Boy" Browning, a military officer 11 years her senior who had sought her out after admiring her work. Du Maurier was ill-suited to the life of a traditional military wife, however, and she hired a nanny to care for the couple's son and two daughters. After several years, the family moved to Cornwall, living in a 17th-century mansion that served as a model for Manderley, the setting of her best-known novel, Rebecca (1938). Du Maurier and Browning spent considerable time apart as he rose to the rank of lieutenant general and commanded the British First Airborne Division during World War II. The couple remained married until Browning died in 1965.

Although she reportedly had a crush on a female teacher while studying in Paris, du Maurier's sapphic tendencies - which she referred to as "Venetian" - came to the fore in midlife. In the late 1940s, she became infatuated with Ellen Doubleday, the wife of her American publisher, who did not reciprocate her affections. "I glory in my Venice, when I am in a Venice mood, and forget it when I am not," du Maurier wrote in a letter to Doubleday. "The only chip is the dreary knowledge that there can never be Venice with you."

Soon thereafter, du Maurier embarked on a relationship with stage and film actress Gertrude Lawrence, who had co-starred and had an affair with her father years earlier; her relationship with Lawrence continued until the older woman's death in 1952. Du Maurier characterized herself as "neither girl nor boy but disembodied spirit," and insisted that she wasn't "that unattractive word that begins with 'L'."

Du Maurier pioneered the gothic romance style, often featuring female protagonists and elements of the supernatural. While her novels earned her wealth and fame in her day, she is best known to modern audiences through Alfred Hitchcock's film adaptations of Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, and her short story, "The Birds" (from her 1952 collection, The Apple Tree). Though some critics have interpreted the relationship between Rebecca - the dead former wife of the narrator's wealthy older husband - and her housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, as Lesbian, biographer Nina Auerbach claims that Rebecca's "great trespass is not loving women but laughing at men."

Over the course of her five-decade career, du Maurier wrote more than 25 books, among them family histories and biographies (including one of her father). Her story about Ganymede, the beautiful adolescent lover of the god Zeus, appears in an American anthology of Gay short fiction (In Another Part of the Forest, 1994). Her memoir, Growing Pains, published when she was 70, chronicled only the years leading up to her marriage. She declined to pen a follow-up, telling an interviewer, "All I can say is that I had a very happy married life and have a delightful family...I don't like books which are full of name-dropping."

Even as her fame grew, du Maurier - who in 1969 was named a Dame of the British Empire in recognition of her literary achievements - became more reclusive, though she maintained contact with her two sisters, both Lesbians, and their female partners. She spent her final years in Cornwall alone, save for her dogs. "Here was the freedom I desired, long sought-for, not yet known," she wrote in Vanishing Cornwall (1967). "Freedom to write, to walk, to wander, freedom to climb hills, to pull a boat, to be alone." She died there in April 1989, a month shy of her 82nd birthday, and her ashes were scattered over the cliffs near her home.

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.
 

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