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Du Maurier, Daphne 1907–
Du Maurier is an English novelist, short story writer, playwright, editor, biographer, and autobiographer. She is predominantly known for her Gothic novels, which have made her a highly successful popular author. The wild Cornish coast is the setting for most of her novels, notably Rebecca, which combines the mystery, romance, and melodrama characteristic of the Gothic novel. Though never a critical success, du Maurier popularized a genre that is imitated to this day. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
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Jamaica Inn [makes] one realise how high the standard of entertainment has become in the modern novel. I do not believe R.L.S. [Robert Louis Stevenson] would have been ashamed to have written Jamaica Inn, with its smugglers, wreckers, wild moors, storms, its sinister inn, misplaced confidences, pretty and gallant heroine, and romantic love story…. There is here all the melodrama that one can desire—and let nobody say "It is an old fashion." The old fashion was good. (p. 144)
Sean O'Faolain, in The Spectator (© 1936 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), January 24, 1936.
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So Cinderella married the prince, and then her story began. Cinderella was hardly more than a school-girl, and the overworked companion of a snobbish woman of wealth; the prince was Maximilian de Winter, whom she had heard of as the owner of Manderley in Cornwall, one of the most magnificent show places in England, who had come to the Riviera to forget the tragic death of his wife Rebecca…. There was some mystery about Rebecca's death …; but the book is skillfully contrived so that it does not depend only on knowledge of it for its thrill; it can afford to give no hint of it till two-thirds of the way through. But the revelation, when it comes, leads to one of the most prolonged, deadly, and breathless fencing-matches that one can find in fiction, a battle of wits that would by itself make the fortune of a melodrama on the stage.
For this is a melodrama, unashamed, glorying in its own quality, such as we have hardly had since that other dependant, Jane Eyre, found that her house too had a first wife. It has the weaknesses of melodrama; in particular, the heroine is at times quite unbelievably stupid, as when she takes the advice of the housekeeper whom she knows to hate her. But if the second Mrs. de Winter had consulted with any one before trusting the housekeeper, we should miss one of the best scenes in the book. There is also, as is almost inseparable from a melodrama, a forced heightening of the emotional values; the tragedy announced in the opening chapter is out of proportion to the final outcome of the long battle of wits that ends the book. But it is as absorbing a tale as the season is likely to bring.
Basil Davenport, "Sinister House," in Saturday Review (© 1938 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), September 24, 1938, p. 5.
Forty-eight hours after having turned the last page of "Frenchman's Creek" you have some difficulty in remembering what it was all about. What you do remember is the impression of rich, satiny, glass-slippered triumph that Miss du Maurier made in the reading, the conquering Prince Charming atmosphere of the entire performance. Remembering that, the details of an almost preposterously innocent but very smooth, very skilful, very bright-eyed fairy tale come back. This is the story, in a vague Restoration setting, of a gallant French pirate and a beautiful lady of St. James's who loved and parted. By all the rules it should have turned out a tame if decorative trifle. Miss du Maurier, of course, makes rather more of her little effort, but exactly how she achieves her effect of truly romantic sensibleness is something of a mystery. The tale has ease, charm, a certain finish, and yet none of these things seems to matter very much by comparison of her tone of voice. It is this ring of innocent assurance in matters of pure ordinary conviction with the extra-romantic make-believe that does the trick….
What is there not merely to reconcile the reader to this faded tinselly stuff but to draw from him a faint breath of wonder? Analysis does not really help. Miss du Maurier's graces of style are not to be despised, and even her too artificially pointed dialogue, somewhat in the manner of Restoration comedy, has its elegant merit. But it is, above all else, the astonishing self-confidence with which she unfolds so girlishly daydreaming, a history that infects the reader, and in so doing carries him along as far and as fast as Miss du Maurier wills. Like "Rebecca," its predecessor, "Frenchman's Creek" is dope—though of an inferior sort. But an element of dope enters into all fiction, the best included.
"Pirates and Lovers," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1941; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission) September 13, 1941, p. 457.
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In the thirties, Miss du Maurier was a kind of poor woman's Charlotte Brontë. Her Rebecca, whatever one's opinions of its ultimate merits, was a tour de force. In its own way and century, it has achieved a position in English Literature comparable to "Monk" Lewis's The Bleeding Nun or Mrs. Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho. To-day Miss du Maurier the novelist is Miss Blurb's favourite Old Girl whose published appearances are heralded with the brouhaha of a privileged ex-hockey captain come down to give the home team a few hints about attack. This, one imagines her telling newcomers to St. Gollancz's, is how it should be done. Frankly, I cannot help feeling that Miss du Maurier's books have been successfully filmed so often that by now she may be said not so much to write a novel as shoot it. The present scenario [in My Cousin Rachel] is a honey for any Hollywood or Wardour Street tycoon. Slick, effective, utterly mechanical, the book is a triumphant and uncanny example of the way in which a piece of writing can be emasculated by unconsciously "having it arranged" for another medium. Close-ups, fade-ins, sequences by candlelight or long shots from the terrace—it has all been taken care of in the script and there is little call for anything in the way of imagination on the part of the director….
Producers, admiring the general effect, will forgive such occasional anachronisms, as "forget it," "slapped my bottom with a hair-brush," and "Why not tell these gossips I'm a recluse and spend all my spare time scribbling Latin verses? That might shake them." Boyish sulks, mares in slather, and a lot of old lace at the throat and wrist, eked out with constant cups of poisoned tisane, complete the formula. A rare and irresistible bit of kitsch, whose clichés will soon be jostling and clashing in merry carillions up and down the premier cinema circuits of the English-speaking world. (p. 163)
John Raymond, in New Statesman (© 1951 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), August 11, 1951.
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Daphne du Maurier has a talent for mystification. In Rebecca she wrote of a heroine we never saw in the flesh but whose spell was woven through every page. In My Cousin Rachel … she tells the story of an Italian widow who captivates two English bachelors, Ambrose Ashley, the elder, whom she married and subdues in Italy, and Philip, his cousin and heir, whom she comes to live with in Cornwall after Ambrose's mysterious death. (pp. 78-9)
Miss du Maurier is a caster of spells, and the first she casts is on Ambrose in Tuscany; the second upon Philip when he is drawn out of his solitary rustic state by the cries for help from abroad….
And then comes the third spell as Rachel begins to wind him around her finger as she had his cousin….
Rachel in her Italian sophistication and Philip in his naïve manhood are a pair to watch. The minor parts—Seecombe, the old steward; Nick Kendall, the guardian; Tamlyn, the gardener; Louise, the girl Philip might have married—are well drawn, and the mists and cold of the Cornish coast with its occasional bright pane of sunlight are beautifully contrasted with the heat and haze of Tuscany in the blaze of August.
The last spell and the hardest to throw off is the plausibility that Philip Ashley, so diffident, so unliterary, and so close-minded, would have been willing to tell this story on himself. In real life neither wild horses nor a psychiatrist could have pulled it out of him. (p. 79)
Edward Weeks, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1952 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), March, 1952.
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[Francis Bacon] seems an odd choice for Daphne du Maurier, with her fine wayward imagination and her gothic suggestiveness. Few Elizabethans had less of the mantic about them than Bacon; few steered a less infernal course…. Bacon was humdrum both in his grandeur and his decadence. He went meekly, if glumly, to his disgrace, arraigned as a Poulson and not as a Trotsky.
Yet some compulsion has drawn the author of Jamacia Inn, the biographer of Branwell Brontë, to this unlikely assignment…. [In writing The Winding Stair: Francis Bacon, his Rise and Fall, her] feeling was that 'the ordinary reader … has never been sufficiently interested in, or understood, the extraordinary complexity of Francis Bacon's character and the many facets of his personality. The endeavour to explain him would be a challenge.' It is a challenge boldly taken up, with evidence of energetic reading, an orderly and consecutive narrative, and a warmly personal tone….
But the book remains something of an uphill struggle. Though the story is accurately and sympathetically told, there is not much real penetration into the springs of Bacon's activity. Sensibly, since Bacon was a great writer, Dame Daphne tries to make his works supply some kind of revelation. But they won't afford the kind she wants. The major works on scientific method have a few choice phrases culled from them; Dame Daphne combs the essays for clues to Bacon's personality, and does what she can with speeches in Chancery or pamphlets on diplomacy. We are constantly told, Monty Python-fashion, that Bacon was The Most Brilliant Intellect of the Day, but we are forced to take this on trust. There is nothing wrong with searching out the 'intimate side' of a great man, even if it means itemising some fairly routine household accounts. But the ordinary reader (however patronisingly defined) wants explanation of the greatness besides chitchat about private foibles.
Anxious not to overplay her hand, Dame Daphne studs the biography with reminders about the dearth of evidence. Sometimes she is pawky…. At other moments she grows impatient [or quizzical]…. Dame Daphne loves to lose herself in a reverie of what might have been; the whole text is replete with 'may well' and 'perhaps' and 'possibly' and 'would have' and 'we have no means of knowing.' Responsible scholarship seldom has need of such a battery of conditionals, for the historical imagination should function not to muse or to guess … but to reanimate the known.
When we reach the time of the Shakespearian First Folio, the Baconian heresy naturally provides 'food for speculation'. The biographer disappears briefly behind an intrusive passive voice [which suggests the possibility of collaboration between Bacon and Shakespeare]…. Not a shred of evidence is brought to support this half-hearted contention, and indeed it scarcely could be. The true Baconians, with their ciphers, anagrams and hermetic signals behind Shakespeare's back, would find such lukewarm advocacy disappointing. The answer is that Dame Daphne would like to add Macbeth and Twelfth Night to Bacon's claims as The Most Brilliant Intellect: on the other hand, she is forced to emphasize as always, the poverty of physical evidence. Daphne du Maurier has many literary gifts, but I am not sure that this book has fully enlisted them. Her archaising vein ('But stay, what was this?') is perhaps more suited to Cornish romance, and her cosy relationship with her hero 'Francis' consorts oddly with his fiercely private nature and conscious dignity. Against this must be set a brisk narrative pace, an avoidance of pedantry, and some shrewdness in judging people…. As an all-round character study, I am still inclined to prefer Catherine Drinker Bowen's The Temper of a Man of a decade ago. But there is always room for another book on anyone as complex and diversely gifted as Bacon. The man who took all knowledge as his province should not be left to specialists and scholars; he deserves a revival, and if Daphne du Maurier has not taken us to the inmost recesses she has made a good studio portrait of the outer man.
Pat Rogers, "Saving Her Bacon," in The Spectator (© 1976 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), July 31, 1976, p. 20.
E. S. Turner
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Growing Pains is about the delights and irresponsibilities of adolescence, the sowing of mild oats…. Writers of best-selling fiction tend to have peculiar bees in their bonnets, but if Dame Daphne has any she is keeping them for later. She writes with enough warmth and humour to captivate all but those who are allergic to the small stuff of childhood and other people's dogs and boats.
E. S. Turner, "Mild Oats," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1977; reprinted by permission of E. S. Turner), June 9, 1977, p. 760.
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[Daphne du Maurier] has chosen to use whole portions of her girlhood diaries [in "Myself When Young"], verbatim, to gird her memory. The result is a gently gushing prose, full of exuberant clichés and heedless adverbs ("The tide of adolescence was running at full spate" and "This beauty is too much. It's defeating, utterly bewildering, Beauty most exquisite…. Somehow profoundly unhappy" …). (p. 18)
If the memoir would have benefited from less wholesale use of diaries, it surely would have gained from the excision of numbers of her early, jejune poetry. There is also much conventional foreshadowing of events ("There were so many stories waiting to be written. Perhaps one day …").
I suppose what I would have liked is to hear the mature successful novelist remembering her youth in her mature voice, suggesting the sources of her fiction in full detail instead of dropping tantalizing hints about it, and estimating from her present vantage point her contributions to popular fiction.
In one place Daphne du Maurier records that "scrappy but endearing letters came from Carol (a suitor) almost every day." Her own book is often like that, scrappy but, somehow, endearing. (pp. 18, 20)
Doris Grumbach, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission). November 6, 1977.
In its opening chapters, Daphne du Maurier's slim autobiography of early years, Myself When Young, reads like a novel. This is both strength and weakness for thus it provides passages of interest and charm but it also unfolds a life of apparent artificiality. The novel later fades and in its place is a kind of journal. In neither framework, unfortunately, does the author allow the reader to sufficiently know her. Not often enough is one able to fathom why she thinks as she does. And in some instances one wonders if she thinks at all. Except with animals and places, her relationships often seem unreal. Her descriptions of people are, for the most part, clinical and detached rather than warm and loving. Or is this only British understatement? I doubt it. Her sub-title is "The Shaping of a Writer," and one sees this taking place, but it fails to satisfy fully….
Yet the book has a fascination. Daphne du Maurier was a child of privilege, growing up in a world that will never happen again. (p. 81)
The Critic (© The Critic 1978; reprinted with the permission of The Thomas More Association, Chicago, Illinois), Spring, 1978.