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Back on the du Maurier trail

I visited Jamaica Inn, with its Daphne du Maurier museum. We Du Maurier fans were disappointed that the BBC made such a hash of dramatising the book. It’s an early novel, her second, and reflects the independence of spirit that symbolised those years in her life, as seen in the heroine the feisty Mary Yellaan. It also illustrated an ever-present theme of her writing, namely her historical  research. She was always fascinated by the stories that houses such as Jamaica Inn produced. Cornish smuggling was huge business and implicated every strata of society, not least  the local priest. William Peel’s free trade brought it to an end in the 1850s.

Menabilly generated My Cousin Rachel and The King’s General and, most celebrated of all, Rebecca. We watched the film on DVD last night and it has stood the test of time, largely because  of the acting of a stellar cast comprising Joan Fontaine in her first major role, Laurence Olivier, George Sanders, C Aubrey Smith and Nigel Bruce. It was Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film for the Selznick studio and won an Oscar. The second de Winter wife, though the central character, is not the dominate one: Mrs Danvers, Maxim de Winter and Rebecca and the first Mrs Winter, all have personalities that dwarf hers. We can see a maturity in her story telling. Many classify her as a romantic writer, but this is unfair as she has a dark imaginative side as well as a sure touch in spinning a yarn. These traits might be derided by literary academics and critics but not by her enormous readership and appeal to all generations, even to the present day.

In a further piece, I will be reflecting on her later novels, which are quite different from the ones I cite here. The Scapegoat is a very clever story set in post war France, where two identities are exchanged, and House on the Strand – whilst rooted in Cornish lore and locale – delved into transcendental drugs . Both novels have as their central characters weak men, a further shift from her earlier heroines. The sixth sense was explored in Don’t Look Now. There is also an underlying sexual leitmotiv in the infatuation of Mrs  Danvers for Rebecca and the homo-eroticism  between Magnus and Dick Young in House on the Strand. Du Maurier did not go into sexual specifics or graphic description of the act but it is a powerful theme of her writing, and indeed her life, as she never sought to contain her desires for both men and women.

In conclusion, I would argue her canon of writings, that include a biography of the Bronte brother and her father, reflect a diversity as eclectic as her own personality.

About Melanie Gay

A former literary agent with three published novels of her own, Melanie retains her life-long love of the written word and recently mastered the Kindle. She is currently writing a historical novel set in 17th Century Britain and Holland. More Posts