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On the Daphne du Maurier trail

It’s good to be back in Menabilly – the estate that Daphne do Maurier occupied for some 20 years and the inspiration for Rebecca, The Birds and Don’t Look Now. Yesterday I organised a trip to Fowey and Bodinnick to visit the places that shaped her life. Daphne du Maurier, whom I feel I know well enough to call Daphne, came here as her father Gerald du Maurier, the owner of the Wyndhams Theatre and celebrated actor had a second home for summer holidays in Bodinnick, a Swiss style chalet they called Ferryhouse as it’s right opposite the slipway for the ferry that crosses the estuary to this day. It’s now occupied by Daphne’son Kit, a photographer, and his Irish wife Olive.

On the Fowey side you walk past the house of the literary figure Arthur Quiller Couch known as Q, once Professor of English at Cambridge. He was as well as a distinguished academic, the inspiration for  Ratty in the Wind and the Willows written by his close friend Kenneth Grahame . One day Daphne went riding with Q’s daughter and her lifelong friend Foy and the two were lost in bad weather in Dartmoor. They decided to let the horses take them where they wanted and they finished up in Jamaica Inn, the title of her novel on Cornish smuggling. I am the proud possessor of letters from Daphne to Foy.

foweyViewing across the estuary you can see the white and blue Ferry house and the church where Daphne married Boy Browning, himself a figure of some interest. The youngest major in the army, he fought with distinction in the First World War but it is thought his later depression might have been caused by the trauma of it. In the Second World War he masterminded the Montgomery Plan to foreshorten the campaign bogged down after the Normandy landings by seizing the bridge at Arnhem. It failed and Daphne was incensed by the account of it in the film. In 1932 she and her sister saw a handsome sailor bring his small cruiser into the estuary. The sailor asked a local boatman where Daphne lived as he was impressed by her first novel The Loving Spirit. They were introduced and married in the church 3 months later. It was an unusual but successful marriage. Both parties were unfaithful, Daphne had affairs with men and women and her husband, in the fifties when he was Comptroller of the Royal Household, in effect treasurer to the Royal Family, was an alcoholic depressive. She never thought of divorce and indeed was unsympathetic to her daughter Tessa’s divorce whose second  husband was Montgomery’s son David. I had a chat about Daphne with one of the foremost authorities on her,  Ann Watmore,  who owns the independent bookshop Bookends just opposite the Daphne du Maurier literary centre where Ann Grant works and conducts themed Daphne walks

Coming back from Fowey we overshot he Menabilly turning and found ourselves in Tywardreath of The House On the Strand. This is a dark imaginative novel set in two time frames – the England of the twelfth century and the sixties and a couple staying at the house of a  Professor called Magnus who experiments with hallucinatory drugs. In fact Daphne ‘s occupation of the Menabilly Estate ended with much rancor withe Rashleigh family who owned since the time of Elizabeth I and wanted it back from Daphne who had a lease at a peppercorn rent as she refurbished the entire property. She was rehoused at the Dowey house Kilmarth where she noticed the lab of the previous occupiers. This inspired  The House on the Strand.

Though something of a recluse she was a great supporter of Cornwall and local causes and a popular person. My perception of her is a of woman that could not control her passions but had old fashioned values of loyalty to her family. She was certainly wilful but kind too. She has been labeled as a sort of Georgette Heyer, amateurish historical fiction but this is unfair as her best novels like Rebecca, ( never out of print) The House On The Strand and Scapegoat are well told, have interesting motifs of repressed sexuality and drugs which were quite avant garde for the time. Crucially she is still read today, some 110 years after her birth and over 80 years after she was first published.

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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