In the midst of a hot summer, Daphne Du Maurier’s Cornwall seems distant, impenetrable.
The beating heart of it all, Du Maurier’s estate Menabilly, remains a secret few have been allowed to penetrate. Nestled behind locked gates, a visitor would find it impossible to catch even a glimpse of its infamous facade from the roadside. Nearby is the town of Fowey. Another great love. Once referred to as Du Maurier’s ‘salvation’, it is the picture of gentle tranquillity. By a twinkling blue estuary lined with quaint white cottages, you can glance at her other famous home —Ferryside. The coves are full of families, the beaches always busy. Journey on for forty minutes more, and you might stumble across the infamous Jamaica Inn. Far from an isolated hub of menacing activity and excitement, it now stands on a busy motorway leading out of Cornwall — an impersonal, family stop on the way back from a typical summer road trip.
I first came to Cornwall searching for Daphne Du Maurier in August 2013, the first of many family trips to the coast. I imagined the high, thrashing waves of the sea, the ruined mansions, the wild landscape untamed, overrunning every bend in the road. Instead, I found Cornwall to be a place of solitude. It was a disappointment to the unquiet mind of a teenager—it was always going to be. I was seeking adventure and excitement where Du Maurier had gone seeking refuge and escape.
Though even in the August sun there was at least one landscape that has refused to change for the trendy tides of tourists flocking to England’s rugged coast. If you sit outside Du Maurier’s titular inn for just long enough, you might catch a glimpse of its more dangerous neighbour, Bodmin Moor. Even on a hot afternoon, you can see the moor stretching out its foggy fingers, ready to ensnare everything in its path. No matter the time of day, it is easy to find yourself trapped, and in a matter of minutes unable to see further than a few meters in front of your own face. A small promise of the Gothic Romanticism Du Maurier so famously lifted from these same scenes.
They were scenes that captured the imagination of the young writer, and that instigated a love that would define the rest of her career and almost all of her books. Perhaps most famous, though, was a historic estate hidden on the southern coast of Cornwall that was the inspiration for Rebecca’s Manderley, and which featured in more than one of her novels.
In her memoir, The Rebecca Notebook: and Other Memories, Du Maurier describes, with all the grace and power of Rebecca’s acclaimed opening chapter, seeing the then-abandoned Menabilly for the first time. She describes how she saw “the windows were shuttered fast, white and barred. Ivy covered the grey walls and threw tendrils round the windows. It was early still, and the house was sleeping. But later, when the sun was high, there would come no wreath of smoke from the chimneys. The shutters would not be thrown back, nor the doors unfastened. No voices would sound within those dark rooms. Menabilly would sleep on, like the sleeping beauty of the fairy tale, until someone should come to wake her.”
The unique location captivated Du Maurier from the very first time she set eyes on it, and, of course, Du Maurier knew straight away that she would be the one to wake Menabilly from its decay; not only in her residence there, and restoration of the grounds, but by immortalising it forever in one of the greatest British literary novels of all time. In her descriptions of both Menabilly and Manderley, Du Maurier describes the estate with both a startling beauty and suspenseful undercurrent that suggests something much darker is lurking beneath.
It was this creeping suspense, as might be found on Cornwall’s hidden, harsh landscapes, that Du Maurier was such a master of. Although she was long overlooked by critics, there is much that has since been said about her skills as a writer and the Gothic duality, splendid settings, and sexual possession that can be found in all her novels. Few books have so darkly, yet so precisely explored the human mind in all its unbridled femininity, and with such unapologetic artistry. Her writing is haunting, obsessive, jealous, decadent. Everything a woman is taught never to be.
This dismissal of the highly femininized aspects of Du Maurier’s writing is evident even in supposed tributes to her, where her style is often diminished and belittled. In a 2017 New York Times column titled “In Praise of Daphne Du Maurier”, the author describes Du Maurier’s books as an “addiction”, with the backhanded stipulation that it is “one that can withstand some very purple prose”.
‘Purple prose’ is a judgement that lacks a clear definition, but the consensus seems to be that it describes any text that is overly “ornate” and “extravagant”; categorised by the ‘excessive’ use of metaphors, adjectives, and adverbs. Despite being a common accusation, there is no specified measure for what makes prose ‘too purple’, and no agreement on exactly which novels fall into that category. It is an entirely subjective criticism, and begs the question; who, exactly, gets to gatekeep the line between what is purple, and what is lyrical? Surely that Du Maurier’s novels have remained consistently popular since their publication, with so many readers around the world, should testify that her writing is expressive, rather than something excessive that a reader must endure.
Indeed, it’s hard to view it as coincidental that the much-venerated label of ‘purple’ is a trope most often attached to Gothic fiction, romance, and poetry; all genres traditionally associated with women, being ostensibly written by and for them. This unhelpful binary, which favours minimalist writing such as the styles of Hemingway, or Orwell, over more lyrical, and arguably feminine writing, makes it impossible for many readers to abjectly appreciate the literary merit of a wide range of prose. As a writer, Hemingway is chronically associated with ‘masculinity’, and his work in synonymous with machoism; yet he is read widely by both genders, and his style is almost universally revered. There’s even a writing app named after him, that evaluates your prose based on its simplicity; long, complex sentences, adverbs, elaborate phrases and use of the passive voice will all result in a low grade.
I first studied Du Maurier’s work on an academic level in the last two years of high school. At this point, my schoolmates and I were only partaking in subjects we had chosen to pursue. Everyone in our classroom was not only serious but passionate about English literature. Excited by this new novel I had discovered, I gushed to my English tutor, who I found to be equally devoted to the author’s body of work. Noticing our excitement, the young man assigned to the seat next to me asked to see the book. I eagerly told him that I thought it was brilliant, that he should read it, and that he could borrow it if he wanted. He seemed eager after my effusive descriptions, but then he held the book in his hand and took one look at the cover. “Oh, no thanks”, he responded. “Too girly for me”.
To this day, Du Maurier’s books are still mostly consigned to the unfortunate literary death sentence that is labelling a piece of literature a “woman’s novel”. Yet the idea that books have gender binaries would be otherwise preposterous. You will much more rarely see a young girl declining to read classic literature by, or about men. Whilst ‘chick-lit’ remains a distinctive, and much-ridiculed genre, sometimes quite literally separated from the rest of ‘general fiction’ in bookstores, the equivalent term, ‘lad-lit’ hasn’t caught on quite so widely. You’d be hard-pressed to find a bookstore containing Nick Hornby, David Nicholls or David Eggers to their own corner of shame. These authors are still extensively recognised and read and treated as seriously as any other type of literary fiction- despite their supposedly gendered subjects. Where Du Maurier’s work suffers for dealing with the minds, and lives of women, we would never ghettoize or dismiss a male author, much less one with as much literary talent as Du Maurier, for doing the same.
It seems the problem with “women’s” novels are not that their style simply does not appeal to a whole half of the human population, but that it is their focus on the female experience that makes them ‘too’ feminine—no matter how interesting, distinguished, or complex these female characters may be. The women in these noirish tales are inevitably always troubled, much like Du Maurier herself. Perhaps semi-autobiographically, in My Cousin Rachel our narrator is warned that “there are some women…good women, very possibly, who through no fault of their own impel disaster. Whatever they touch, somehow turns to tragedy”. Du Maurier’s own life was similarly full of heartbreak and misfortune. The eponymous antagonist of this novel is even said to be one of Du Maurier’s rumoured same-sex loves.
Though Du Maurier’s sense of self within her writing is strong, perhaps, still, the most identifiable part of her stories remains the settings with which she still so strongly associated, and yet which—unlike the autobiographical elements of her novels – could not be any further from her own experiences. Du Maurier’s Cornwall has become a brand. Although a major inspiration in her works, Cornwall was also Du Maurier’s sanctuary——a hideaway from the intense emotions and conflicting, heavy feelings she often wrote about. In her pictorial memoir, Enchanted Cornwall, Du Maurier wrote that in the harbours of England’s southernmost coastal county, she found the freedom she “desired…long sought-for, not yet known. Freedom to write, to walk, to wander, freedom to climb hills, to pull a boat, to be alone”.
In a similar way, each of my own visits to Cornwall seemed to be marked by a new adversity. I remember them as the summers of my first real heartbreaks, and disappointments. Not knowing how to face them alone, I always found in each trip a relief; an opportunity to disappear from my own life and find sanctuary in the same places that my favourite author had walked, lived, and sailed.
One of my favourite stories of Du Maurier’s life in Cornwall is her discovery of an inconspicuous carved figurehead in a Cornish port that would become the inspiration behind her first novel, The Loving Spirit. The figurehead was of a real Victorian woman, Jane Slade, who lived in Polruan in the late 1800s. Against societal expectations of the time, Slade ran a successful boat builder’s business, and held shares in several ships—all the whilst running her own inn. One of her most successful ventures was a fruit schooner which was named The Jane Slade of Poluran, after herself. Years later, whilst on holiday in Fowey, Du Maurier would rent a small dinghy and practice sailing in the Fowey river. A short distance away, the budding author discovered the rotting wreck of the Jane Slade at Port Hill, just opposite Fowey town. Struck by the figurehead of Jane protruding out of the waters, Du Maurier’s imagination was ignited, and out of this small encounter came the intergenerational novel that launched her career. One young man, a soldier, Frederick Browning, was so struck by Du Maurier’s depiction of Fowey that he went to visit the town himself, later being introduced to the young author. They would be married that same year, after Du Maurier proposed to him.
Our trips to Cornwall may not have been filled with daring adventures in sailboats, like Du Maurier’s, or with smugglers, like those of her heroines, but they were often a time of quiet sorrow that cultivated in me a special connection with literature. Stuck in the routine of school, and then university, the summers were a unique transitionary period often spent mourning lost friends, failed relationships, and wasted grades. For whatever problem I was trying to navigate, I applied books like band-aids and buried my head in new worlds, as a last-ditch attempt to temporarily escape from my own.
One particular summer was spent dealing with the fall out of a relationship that I, as young girls often do, had believed to be the most important thing in my life. First loves are often a wounding experience, and as a teen I wanted nothing more than to reach across the long stretch of time, grow up as quickly as I could, and know exactly who I was going to be. It was a jarring experience to try—and then fail so foolishly—to sail across this sea of urgency with somebody else. I had realised from a young age that life was serious, and I could not allow myself to be a child.
In the world Du Maurier was brought up in, to be young was a condition to be cured. “What a pity I am not a vagrant on this earth”, she wrote, “Only a silly sheltered girl in a dress, knowing nothing at all”. To be young was to be stuck. To be a woman was to be small. “I wondered how many people there were in the world who suffered, and continued to suffer,” she mused in Rebecca, “because they could not break out from their own web of shyness and reserve, and in their blindness and folly built up a great distorted wall in front of them that hid the truth”. Like Rebecca’s narrator, I felt stuck in my own shyness, and youth. Her novels were dramatic, and romantic, but somehow still relatable, even to a teenager. Du Maurier’s stories of dashing men, murderous plots, and sexual rage seem to be a bold rebellion against a world that wanted to stick her in a box of mother, daughter, wife.
One of Du Maurier’s most notorious and controversial biographers, Margaret Forster, claims that this ‘regular’ life was torturous for the free-spirited writer. She allegedly confessed to being sexually abused by her father, and later to becoming sexually obsessed with more than one woman, though she remained throughout her life a staunch homophobe. Indeed, although she eventually proposed to her husband, Browning, it was only as a last resort, after realising they would not be allowed to live together without marrying. Du Maurier didn’t even believe in marriage. She was both often chilly towards her alcoholic husband, and at times hotly jealous. Her most famous novel, Rebecca, was born after Du Maurier, bored, and feeling increasingly caged as an army wife in Cairo, longing to return to Cornwall, came across a secret stash of her husband’s correspondence with his former fiancée, a famously exotic beauty who later threw herself in front of a train.
When reading Du Maurier, you do not have to search far to find snapshots of the woman herself penetrating the writing. On the issue of young love, she wrote in Rebecca that “they are not brave, the days when we are twenty-one. They are full of little cowardices, little fears without foundation, and one is so easily bruised, so swiftly wounded, one falls to the first barbed word”. I stumbled across Du Maurier at a time in my life when I was already hurt and confused. Desperate to grow up, and navigating my own first heartbreak, there were no writers who seemed to understand what I was feeling as precisely as Du Maurier did.
For a quiet, young girl burning to pave her own way in the world, Du Maurier’s novels held a certain kind of magic. It is Rebecca’s eponymous character, not its heroine, who captivates the reader. Rebecca is described as intense, deadly, manipulative—but she is also powerful, controlled, assured. These same qualities are what make the eponymous character in My Cousin Rachel so memorable, so attractive. Her narrators are often young, naïve, foolish, and blinded by inexperience. In all of her books, Du Maurier communicates a desperate desire to be allowed the freedom to grow up, and to behave terribly about it.
Going through my own teenaged phase of terrible behaviour, I needed to know that this was ok. That it was ok to fall in and out of love so intensely. That it was ok to be selfish, to be too much, to not be enough. My first relationship had been serious, exhausting, and unhealthy—much like many of the romances in Du Maurier’s novels. Through Du Maurier, I learned that even the most brilliant people can be flawed, that stubbornness can be a virtue, and just how powerful—and dangerous—it could be to allow your own desires to grow out of control, uninhibited. After the relationship ended, it was time to learn how to let my mind be quiet again.
So I resolved to stick my head in my books. On the same fields, beaches, and walks I was reading about, I fell in love with Du Maurier’s brilliant, bright, flawed women, and it felt like I was falling in love with myself. I admired the poeticism of her writing and the unapologetic intensity of her world. Although considered a classic genre, Gothic novels have been historically devalued and degraded. That a young woman like Du Maurier, sick of London and sick of life, could rise above that to write something so completely her own filled me with a new love for literature at a time when I was taught that simplicity was superior. Panned by the critics of her time, Du Maurier has been a bestseller ever since Rebecca was first published 80 years ago, and remains one of the most enduring English writers of all time.
This is party due to how Du Maurier redefined her genre by using traditional Gothic motifs and imagery in an unprecedented way. This led her books to have a huge impact on the world she lived in. Alfred Hitchcock adapted several of her stories. There have been no less than 18 film, stage, and television interpretations of her books. She was instantly celebrated as a contemporary author and is no less successful today than she was in her lifetime.
But Du Maurier didn’t always prevail. Her books are still disparagingly dismissed as too feminine, even by the critics paying her tribute. They were laughed at by contemporaries. She once wrote of the literary scene; “I am generally dismissed with a sneer as a bestseller”. Some novels, such as Hungry Hill, were commercial failures, whilst some of her stories are still only being rediscovered and republished today.
Meanwhile, Du Maurier married young and regretted it. She fell in and out of love, travelled to London, to Egypt, and all around the world. But – like the ominous name of Rebecca’s boat, Je Reviendrai – Du Maurier always returned to her true love—Cornwall. In the face of defeat, she believed in herself, she believed in her own redemption, and she continued to fight. Throughout her life, Cornwall remained an anchorage, a centre around which the rest of her world revolved – much like it seemed for many of my own childhood summers.
But I realised that Du Maurier’s ability to make so much of Cornwall was not a testament to the place itself, it was a result of her unrivalled imagination. Du Maurier could find interest in the smallest of details. She scouted, she dreamed, and she created. In 1946, sitting in dark of Menabilly, Du Maurier wrote; “At midnight, when the children sleep, and all is hushed and still, I sit down at the piano and look at the panelled walls, and slowly, softly, with no one there to see, the house whispers her secrets, and the secrets turn to stories.”
She looked over to Fowey. She scribbled in her diary. “The lights of Polruan and Fowey. Ships anchored, looking up through blackness. The jetties, white with clay. Mysterious shrouded trees, owls hooting, the splash of muffled oars in lumpy water… All I want is to be at Fowey. Nothing and no one else. This, now, is my life.”
At least once every trip, my family and I would attempt to predict which would be the sunniest day all week and camp up at the back of the St Ives beach. With a satchel of books at the ready, I would prepare to get through as many stories as possible in so many hours whilst soaking up the summer heat. Of all the novels I got through, it was those hyper-romantic, hyper-feminine, hyper-dramatic ones that stayed with me the most. They had romance, they had adventure, they had the messages that I needed to hear.
Du Maurier’s Cornwall was not about discovering adventure, it was about discovering herself. In her beloved 1941 novel, Frenchman’s Creek, the book’s heroine, Dona, overhears a conversation about the role of women in her society—to produce, and raise children. “I wish I were a man”, she laments in response, “because I too would find my ship, and go forth, a law unto myself.”
Du Maurier’s heroines were flawed, they were intense, and yet they were still loveable. On the sunny beaches at the very end of England, I might not have found Du Maurier’s Cornwall, but I found that I could be myself, that I could write like myself, and that maybe my place in the world was not as distant, or impenetrable as it seemed.
Kitty Wenham is a freelance writer based in the North of England. She is currently working with several female-led publications to produce regular essays on women’s literary history, domestic abuse, and the Gothic. Her interests include arts, culture, and literature, especially Eastern-European surrealism, magic realism, and the Harlem Renaissance.
Photo of Daphne Du Maurier by автор неизвестен/author unknown – The Chichester Partnership (copyright), University of Exeter (publication), Copyrighted free use, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9012971
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