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Daphne du Maurier’s three mystery novels, Jamaica Inn (1936), Rebecca (1938), and My Cousin Rachel (1951), are landmarks in the development of the modern gothic romance. Working out of the tradition of the nineteenth century British gothic novel, du Maurier breathed new life into the form through her evocations of the brooding, rugged landscapes of Cornwall and its ancient buildings and mansions. She created a world filled with a rich history of superstitions, danger, and mystery. Manderley, the great house in Rebecca, haunted by the ghostly presence of its dead mistress, and Jamaica Inn, an isolated tavern near the Cornish coast, filled with dark secrets and violence, are so powerfully drawn as to become equal in importance to the characters who inhabit them. The naïve heroines of these two novels must overcome their anxieties and insecurities in the face of physical and psychological threats and penetrate the secrets that surround them before they can achieve final happiness, peace, and love. Du Maurier’s use of setting, her characters, and her plots became models for the countless gothic tales and romances that followed on the publications of these novels.

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My Cousin Rachel retains some of the gothic flavor of her earlier works but focuses more on the ambiguous psychology of its heroine. Unlike the typical mystery or detective novel, this book ends with, rather than solves, a mystery: Is Rachel an innocent, misunderstood woman or a sinister, calculating murderer?

In her two famous short stories, “The Birds” and “Don’t Look Now,” du Maurier establishes the twentieth century sense of dislocation. These tales of horror show the accepted order of things suddenly and for no apparent reason disintegrating. Her characters find themselves battling for their lives against creatures they have always assumed to be their inferiors: birds and children. The continuity of time itself is in question in “Don’t Look Now,” where du Maurier introduces the startling theme of precognition. Her innovative use of horror in “The Birds” has given rise to a host of stories and films about creatures, ranging from ants to rabbits, that threaten to destroy civilization.

Other literary forms

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In addition to her many novels, Daphne du Maurier (dew MOHR-ee-ay) wrote and edited biographies, collections of letters, travel books, plays, and short stories. Her biographical works include Gerald: A Portrait (1934), the life story of her actor father; The du Mauriers (1937), the inside story of her famous family of actors, dramatists, and novelists; and The Young George du Maurier: A Selection of His Letters, 1860-1867 (1951), a collection of her caricaturist-novelist grandfather’s letters. She earned a place among playwrights with The Years Between (pr. 1944) and September Tide (pr. 1948). Her travel book Vanishing Cornwall (1967) describes the rugged coastal area of southwestern England, where she set so many of her novels and stories. Often weaving elements of the supernatural into her tales of mystery and romance, du Maurier produced several notable volumes of short stories, including Echoes from the Macabre in 1976 and Classics of the Macabre in 1987.


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The theatrical quality of Daphne du Maurier’s novels is evidenced by the frequency and reported ease with which her works have been adapted for the big screen. Alfred Hitchcock directed film versions of Jamaica Inn (1939) and her best-selling gothic novel Rebecca (1940). The latter won an Academy Award for Best Picture. Paramount Pictures released Frenchman’s Creek in 1944, and Universal Pictures released a film adaptation of Hungry Hill in 1947, for which du Maurier herself wrote the first draft of the screenplay. My Cousin Rachel became a Twentieth Century Fox production in 1952, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released The Scapegoat in 1959. Hitchcock turned her story “The Birds” into a highly successful motion picture of the same title in 1963, and her story “Don’t Look Now” became a hit film in 1973.

Rebecca won an award from the American Booksellers’ Association in 1939. In 1969, du Maurier was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Discussion Topics

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What restrictions did Daphne du Maurier’s early literary reputation impose on her later writing career?

What did du Maurier gain by her custom of having her narrators ask so many questions?

In Rebecca, was du Maurier doing more than exploiting the well-known turns in the plot of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847)?

To what extent was du Maurier’s “The Birds” not just a provocation but a guide to the film directed by Alfred Hitchcock?

Explain the “menace just below the surface” in du Maurier’s fiction.


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Abi-Ezzi, Nathalie. The Double in the Fiction of R. L. Stevenson, Wilkie Collins, and Daphne du Maurier. New York: Peter Lang, 2003. Examines the figure of the double as a trope of mystery and suspense fiction, comparing du Maurier with two of her predecessors in the genres. Bibliographic references and index.

Auerbach, Nina. Daphne du Maurier: Haunted Heiress. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. Noted critic Auerbach discusses her fascination with du Maurier.

Block, Maxine, ed. Current Biography: Who’s News and Why, 1940. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1940. Up close and personal with the novelist at the beginning of her career, including insights into her involvement with the war effort.

Breit, H. “Talk with Lady Browning.” The New York Times Book Review, March 16, 1952, p. 25. A glimpse into the character of du Maurier in her maturity.

Cook, Judith. Daphne: A Portrait of Daphne du Maurier. London: Bantam Books, 1991. Good insights into the woman and the author.

Du Maurier, Daphne. Letters from Menabilly: Portrait of a Friendship. Edited by Oriel Malet. New York: M. Evans, 1994. A selection of Du Maurier’s correspondence during the middle part of her life.

Forster, Margaret. Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller. New York: Doubleday, 1993. A candid, meticulous, and riveting biography, prepared with cooperation of the du Maurier family after du Maurier’s death.

Horner, Avril, and Sue Zlosnik. “Daphne du Maurier and Gothic Signatures: Rebecca as Vamp(ire).” In Body Matters: Feminism, Textuality, Corporeality, edited by Avril Horner and Angela Keane. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. A reading of the title character of Rebecca, arguing that she possesses the same traits as do vampires in gothic fiction.

Horner, Avril, and Sue Zlosnik. Daphne du Maurier: Writing, Identity, and the Gothic Imagination. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. An evaluation of du Maurier’s fiction from historical, cultural, geographic, and female gothic literary perspectives.

Kelly, Richard Michael. Daphne du Maurier. Boston: Twayne, 1987. A solid introduction to the author’s works. Includes index and bibliography.

Leng, Flavia. Daphne du Maurier: A Daughter’s Memoir. Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1994. A good biography of du Maurier written by her daughter.

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