As the author of four previous biographical works, Margaret Forster is no stranger to research. When she undertook a biography of Daphne du Maurier, however, she found herself in a unique situation. On one hand, there was no dearth of documents or of recollections about the writer, and her children, who held much of the source material, had expressed their intention of cooperating in every way on what was meant to be the official biography of their mother. On the other hand, as her research proceeded, Forster began to make some discoveries that she realized might well disturb du Maurier’s family, in particular accounts of her lesbian involvements. Fortunately, as the acknowledgments indicate, du Maurier, who herself had written several biographies, had made her opinions on the subject quite clear. While she did not wish to see her own biography published during her lifetime, she felt very strongly that such works were worthless unless they were totally truthful. By allowing Forster to see and to use all the source materials in their possession, du Maurier’s children made it possible for her to turn out a book that meets their mother’s high standards.
When she subtitled her volume The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller, the biographer indicated what she sees as the central truth of Daphne du Maurier’s life:
that she habitually concealed her real identity by assuming the personality that others expected or demanded. As a result, du Maurier’s fiction became not only a way to achieve financial independence but also, by admitting her to the only world in which she could feel perfectly free, a necessity of her existence.
Du Maurier’s problem with identity had its source early in her childhood. She was born on May 12, 1907, the second daughter of the highly successful actor Gerald du Maurier and his wife, Muriel Beaumont du Maurier, a former actress. Of the du Mauriers’ three girls, Daphne was the one most like Gerald and, perhaps for that reason, most troubled by her father’s desire for a son. Forster quotes a poem that Gerald du Maurier wrote for Daphne in which he expresses his love for her but reiterates his belief that she should have been a boy, whether to fulfill his needs or to realize her true nature is not clear. In a theatrical family, it was perhaps not surprising that an imaginative little girl would invent an alternate identity for herself, dressing as a boy and pretending that she was the daring “Eric Avon” instead of the pretty and feminine Daphne.
Certainly in her adolescence Daphne du Maurier behaved like a girl, falling violently and obviously in love with a married thirty-six-year-old cousin. Forster points out, however, that Daphne continued to think of herself as a boy in a girl’s body. These feelings, Forster suggests, may have been more than a wish to please her father; they may also have been Daphne’s response to her father’s well-known infidelities, which were one more example of the freedom afforded to men and denied to women. At any rate, when at eighteen Daphne was sent to school in France, she soon found herself attached to Fernande “Ferdy” Yvon, a lesbian teacher. In letters to her former governess describing Ferdy’s advances to her, what Daphne seemed most concerned about was her own responsiveness. She could not imagine having her homophobic father discover that she was a lesbian, or a “Venetian,” in the term used by the family. Moreover, Daphne was convinced that any woman who desired another woman must in fact be a man in a woman’s body, as she feared was the case with her. Breaking off her physical intimacy, though not her friendship, with Ferdy, Daphne now limited herself to heterosexual relationships. She also found some release for her frustrations by throwing herself into full-time writing. In 1931, when her first novel was published, she had the satisfaction of seeing it become a bestseller.
Having established a firm basis for her theory about the nature of du Maurier’s inner conflicts, Forster can offer new insights into her works. It is significant, for example, that the protagonist of du Maurier’s first novel, The Loving Spirit (1931), often bemoans the fact that she was born a woman, not a man, and hopes after her death somehow to live on through her beloved son. In the realistic novel that followed, I’ll Never Be Young Again (1932), the author explores sexual passion through the eyes of her protagonist, who is a male. The autobiographical implications of du Maurier’s third novel are also unmistakable. In The Progress of Julius (1933), a self-made millionaire adores his daughter to the point of nearly suffocating her, and finally strangles her rather than let any other man take his place in her life. In her examination of the rough drafts of this novel, Forster found that du Maurier had initially modeled...
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