The opening line of Rebecca is among the most evocative in the whole of English fiction: ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’
I vividly remember the day in 1965 when I sat in the long drawing room at Menabilly, the Cornish manor house that had partly inspired the fictional Manderley, listening as Daphne du Maurier — a friend of mine for many years — revealed for the first time what had really impelled her to write the novel that turned her into one of the most celebrated storytellers of modern times.
Throughout the 30 years I knew her, nothing irritated Daphne more than being described as a ‘romantic novelist’.
She always insisted that was ‘the very last thing I am’ and derided the description of Rebecca as a ‘romantic novel’ or a ‘Gothic romance’.
‘Rebecca,’ she would say, ‘is a study in jealousy.’ But whose jealousy was she talking about?
And jealousy, too, was at the root of the most traumatic relationship of her life: her love-hate affair with her father (pictured together)
People might assume she meant the jealousy of the book’s second Mrs de Winter, constantly undermined by her beautiful and accomplished predecessor Rebecca, Maxim de Winter’s late first wife.
But during my visit to Menabilly 55 years ago, Daphne revealed for the first time that it was jealousy of a far more personal nature: her own.
Then newly widowed, Daphne, I learnt, was deeply jealous of a society beauty with whom her husband Tommy had been in love — and to whom he had even been engaged.
And jealousy, too, was at the root of the most traumatic relationship of her life: her love-hate affair with her father.
In the 82 years since Rebecca was published, it has never been out of print, selling millions of copies in many languages.
In 2017, it was voted the UK’s favourite book of the past 225 years.
It became an Oscar-winning Hollywood film, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, a play presented in London and on Broadway, a stage musical and even an opera.
A new film version of Rebecca premieres tomorrow on Netflix, starring Hollywood’s Armie Hammer as Maxim and Lily James as the second Mrs de Winter (pictured)
And now, a new film version premieres tomorrow on Netflix, starring Hollywood’s Armie Hammer as Maxim, the owner of Manderley, Downton Abbey’s Lily James as the second Mrs de Winter (haunted and undermined by the late Rebecca) and Dame Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs Danvers, Manderley’s sinister housekeeper.
The new film seems certain to extend and prolong Rebecca’s literary legend, as its English director, Ben Wheatley, promises it is substantially different from Hitchcock’s 1940 classic.
But no one who reads Rebecca or sees it on screen or stage can fail to sense the overpowering note of jealousy that runs through it — a jealousy Daphne felt keenly herself.
She was the granddaughter of George du Maurier, the author of a bestselling novel called Trilby, which had introduced the word ‘svengali’ into English, and the daughter of Sir Gerald du Maurier, a West End star.
Once, when Gerald took Daphne and her sisters, Angela and Jeanne, out to tea, she saw a woman nudge her companion and whisper ‘That’s Gerald du Maurier’ — and she realised, with shock and rage, that ‘D’, as she called him — ‘My Daddy’ — did not belong exclusively to her.
Gerald was regarded as a vicious homophobe who despised gay people.
Yet Daphne always believed there were ‘deep ambiguities’ in her father’s sexuality and that his attitude towards her was strangely homoerotic.
I vividly remember listening as Daphne du Maurier — a friend of mine for many years — revealed what had really impelled her to write Rebecca, writes Michael Thornton (pictured)
‘If only she’d been born a boy,’ he once lamented in a poem addressed to her. ‘My very slender one, so feminine and fair, so fresh and sweet, so full of fun and womanly deceit.’
Friends noticed that Gerald was constantly tactile with his second daughter.
‘He couldn’t keep his hands off her,’ observed one of their neighbours, the tennis star Bunny Austin. ‘It was quite embarrassing at times.’
As she aged, Daphne began to encourage ‘inappropriate intimacies’ between her father and herself.
‘We crossed the line,’ she admitted to me in 1965, ‘and I allowed it. He treated me like all the others, as if I was an actress playing his love interest in one of his plays.’
She didn’t specify what she meant exactly by ‘crossed the line’ but everyone thought there was something deeply odd about their relationship and incest became a recurrent theme in Daphne’s thoughts and conversation for the rest of her life.
I remember when I took my sister Jean to lunch at Menabilly, Daphne remarked on the family resemblance and said: ‘You seem unusually close for a brother and sister. What do you think about incest?’ I recall glancing across at my sister and seeing her face frozen in horror.
It became an Oscar-winning Hollywood film, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine
In her teenage years, Daphne’s attitude to her father underwent a sharp change when she became aware of his numerous affairs with young actresses.
Her reaction was a mixture of jealousy and deep resentment at the humiliation these liaisons caused her mother.
One of Gerald’s many mistresses was the stage star Gertrude Lawrence, to whom Daphne was intensely hostile. ‘She hated her,’ said Bunny Austin, ‘calling her ‘that bloody bitch’.’
In 1932, when Daphne was 25 and Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning — ‘Tommmy’ to his family — a 35-year-old major in the Grenadier Guards, came sailing into Fowey Harbour in his boat, Ygdrasil, to claim her as his bride, Gerald broke down and wept. ‘It’s not fair, it’s not fair,’ he cried, over and over again.
Two years later, after Gerald had died at the age of 61 from cancer of the colon, Daphne wrote an astonishingly candid biography of him, revealing her father’s vanity, his drinking and his frequent and extreme mood swings, in which his celebrated charm gave way to ugliness and violence.
At Menabilly, a life-size portrait of Gerald dominated the staircase. Daphne sometimes stood in front of it, gazing up at her father and murmuring gently, ‘Oh D! Oh D!’
Tommy, ten years her senior, became both her lover and a substitute father figure.
The first elements of unease in the marriage came with Daphne’s discovery that he had been besotted with his former fiancée Jan Ricardo, who was to become, in Daphne’s mind, Rebecca.
This discovery came about when Daphne opened a drawer in Tommy’s desk and found a bundle of letters tied up with ribbon.
They were in a bold and confident hand, utterly unlike Daphne’s own spidery scrawl.
The letters, which she read covertly, glancing guiltily over her shoulder, were passionate and explicit, exchanged between two people who had clearly been deeply in love.
But Tommy’s relationship with Jan — real name Jeannette Louisa Ricardo — was broken off by Jan herself, according to Daphne.
In 1929, two announcements appeared in The Times. The first stated that the wedding of Major F.A.M. Browning and Miss Jan Ricardo ‘will be postponed’.
The second announcement stated that the marriage would not take place.
Jan Ricardo was dark-haired and beautiful, with a reputation for wit and elegance. After reading and re-reading the letters, Daphne became convinced that Tommy had been deeply in love with her and had been left devastated by the cancellation of their wedding. Why else would he have kept her letters for years afterwards?
Jan’s bold, sloping handwriting caught Daphne’s imagination, especially the curving capital letter R, which Hitchcock used to such effect to identify Rebecca’s personal possessions in his film.
The writing was almost intimidating and conjured up in Daphne’s mind the moment when the second Mrs de Winter opens a book that does not belong to her and reads on the fly-leaf the words: ‘Max from Rebecca’.
On April 6, 1937, while Daphne was working on the manuscript of Rebecca, Jan Ricardo married Captain Ian Constable-Maxwell, an army officer from an aristocratic Scottish Catholic family.
Strangely, among the wedding guests was Daphne’s elder sister, Angela du Maurier.
On April 26, 1942, Jan gave birth to a daughter, Jeannette Constable-Maxwell, but the story was to end in tragedy.
On August 4, 1944, Jan committed suicide by throwing herself under the wheels of a train. She was 39 and her baby daughter was only two years old.
The new film version stars Dame Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs Danvers, Manderley’s sinister housekeeper
Six years earlier, she had read Rebecca and realised she was the model for Maxim de Winter’s alluring and rather wicked first wife.
Given the intrigues that surround the creation of Daphne’s magnum opus, it is somehow appropriate that the actress playing the role of the second Mrs de Winter in Netflix’s adaptation of Rebecca has herself courted controversy in recent days.
Lily James was plastered over the front pages only last week after being seen ‘passionately kissing’ married actor Dominic West during a romantic trip to Rome.
Rebecca made Daphne du Maurier internationally famous and also a wealthy woman. In 1943 she at last persuaded the Rashleighs, an aristocratic Cornish family, to grant her a long lease on Menabilly, then virtually derelict, in whose grounds she had trespassed for years.
She moved a small army of workmen into her ‘house of secrets’ and, little by little, restored it to its former glory.
After the war, when Browning returned from his ‘bridge too far’ exploits at the Battle of Arnhem, he and Daphne were virtual strangers, in spite of their three children, Tessa, Flavia and Christian (‘Kits’).
During his absence, Daphne had pursued an affair with a Hertfordshire landowner, Henry ‘Christopher’ Puxley, while Browning brought back with him from the war a beautiful 23-year-old staff officer, Maureen Luschwitz, whom Daphne instantly believed — and went on believing — was her husband’s mistress.
Perhaps it is not an entire coincidence that it was to Maureen, then the wife of her executor, Monty Baker-Munton, that Daphne wrote, in 1957, a long and curiously contrived letter stating that ‘my obsessions — you can only call them that — for poor old Ellen (Doubleday) and Gertrude (Lawrence) 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’.
Were these ‘muddled troubles’ she mentioned evidence of lesbianism? Daphne’s official biographer, Margaret Forster, chose to believe they were. I think not.
Ellen Doubleday was the wife of Daphne’s American publisher.
Daphne had met her aged 40 in 1947, and Ellen became both an emotional sounding-board and the inspiration for the character of Rachel in the novel My Cousin Rachel.
But both of them insisted there was never any physical intimacy between them.
When Gertrude Lawrence died in 1952 from cancer at the age of 54, Daphne was ‘virtually catatonic’, according to her biographer.
Daphne admitted to me that this was true — but her shock was not for Gertie, a woman she frequently derided.
It was for her father Gerald, who had been Gertrude’s lover and whose spectre once again came back to haunt her.
Forster went on searching for years for letters that would prove Daphne and Gertie were lovers. None was ever found.
And Gertie’s daughter once told me: ‘My mother was heterosexual to the point of nymphomania.’
Daphne’s later years were easier for her than for her husband Tommy.
Appointed Comptroller of the Household at Buckingham Palace, he somewhat embarrassingly ‘fell in love with the Queen’, according to Daphne, and could not even enter a room where the monarch was without going to pieces.
His drinking became chronic, and a severe nervous breakdown forced his resignation from the Palace.
Back at Menabilly, his alcoholism and erratic driving became a local scandal, and he had both a mistress in Fowey — right under Daphne’s nose — and two other girlfriends in London.
Yet when he died suddenly, collapsing in front of her from a blood clot that entered his heart, Daphne’s grief was mixed with guilt.
Had she been too selfish, spending all those hours away from him, shut up in her little wooden hut in the grounds, tapping away at her aged portable typewriter?
The loss of Menabilly in 1969, when Philip Rashleigh, the head of the family that owned it, reclaimed the property when her lease expired, was a bitter blow.
But just as she moved to the estate’s dower house, Kilmarth, she was created a Dame of the British Empire.
She never used the title Dame Daphne — ‘it sounds like something out of a pantomime’ — preferring to remain Lady Browning DBE.
At the age of 74, she suddenly found herself unable to write any more. ‘I think the imagination gene in my brain must have died,’ she told me.
A black depression descended.
For the first time in her life, she wrote despairing letters that alarmed her friends, so utterly unlike her did they sound. Her severe depressive illness grew worse in her final years and she began refusing food.
On Sunday, April 16, 1989, after six weeks of virtually no food, Daphne, by then a skeletal figure weighing just six stone, insisted on braving lashing rain and wind to go down on to Pridmouth Beach, where Rebecca’s cottage had stood in her book.
Then Daphne made a final visit to Menabilly, her house of secrets. By Tuesday night, April 18, no one could any longer doubt that she was winning the battle to will herself to die.
When her nurse Margaret Robertson took in her breakfast at 8.30am the next day, she found the light still on and Daphne’s eye-shade still in place across her eyes. She had died in her sleep.
Daphne’s vivid life, in which a great storyteller’s make-believe so often merged with reality, had come to its final chapter.