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Literary biography of the great 20th century gothic novelist, author of REBECCA and of short stories of the supernatural and the bizarre

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"Incest being denied us, we must make do with second best" (Daphne du Maurier)

  • Jul 18, 2013



I doubt that Dame Daphne du Maurier (1907 - 1989) lived so long that our current mantra "think outside the box" was in her active vocabulary. But allow her thoughts, imaginative and speculative powers to lead where'er they would she emphatically did. 


Read all about Daphne's refusal to be "boxed" in Richard Kelly's 1987 DAPHNE DU MAURIER. It is not precisely a biography (but the first of seven chapters is about Daphne du Maurier's "Life and Time"). The book is rather a chronological review of most of du Maurier's works as they stood by 1986 or thereabouts. The only works not discussed are her two plays and biographies of Branwell Bronte and Anthony and Francis Bacon.


The author, a much-published University of Tennessee Professor of English, parcels out the rest of du Mauriers' works first among the four earliest novels, followed in Chapter 4 by her gothic masterpiece REBECCA, then her romantic fiction of the 1940s and 1950s with their focus on "escapist themes of love adventure and rebellion,"  next the "more introspective novels of the last thirty years,"  then her supernatural and macabre short stories and finally, in the concluding Chapter 7, du Maurier's current standing as a writer. 


There are a handful of persistent themes in the works of Daphne du Maurier, most rooted in her personal life. Here are some:


-- (1) incest is fascinating, tempting. This virtual obsession flows, according to author Kelly, from young Daphne's "Electra complex."  That is, from early girlhood Daphne competed, with growing success, to take away her actor father's affections from both her actress mother and her father Gerald's casual amours with young actresses and focus them on the future writer herself. 


Du Maurier wrote most explicitly on this subject in a 1980 essay, "This I Believe." Human survival is rooted in certain fundamental laws. "The strongest of these is the law of the family unit, the binding together of a man and a woman to produce children. ... Incest being denied us, we must make do with second best" (Kelly, Ch.2, 33f).


-- (2) Every human personality has two elements. Call them masculine/feminine or active/passive, dominating/submissive. These show themselves especially strongly in the 1957 novel THE SCAPEGOAT, made into a 1959 feature film with Alec Guinness and Bette Davis.


-- (3) Biology and families matter. There is an echo of every single ancestor in each of us. See for instance du Maurier's THE LOVING SPIRIT (1931), JULIUS (1933), HUNGRY HILL (1943) and MARY ANNE (1954), the last about the author's real-life great grandmother.


-- (4) Other recurring du Maurier motifs include

the gothic -- "seductive villains and houses of horror and mystery, set against a pseudo medieval atmosphere of  castles, cliffs, lonely moors and storms" (Chapter Three, p. 53;

strong women dominating weak men; the collective unconscious;

ideas of Darwin and Jung;

and England's Cornwall (Daphne's preferred place of residence for most of her life).


What is weak in Richard Kelly's DAPHNE DU MAURIER? Not a whole lot: there are, alas, no photos (other than dust jacket front and back covers), no maps, no family genealogical charts, and the bibliography is not extensive .


On the other hand Kelly describes in adequate detail the contents of every du Maurier work that he discusses. As a result you need not have read a single word by or viewed a single movie derived from Miss du Maurier in order to emerge with a decent, balanced introductory knowledge of this famous 20th Century author. Also useful are Professor Kelly's quotations from contemporary reviews of her work, e.g. one by Graham Greene.


On balance, Richard Kelly's DAPHNE DU MAURIER is a notably better than average treatment of the author of REBECCA (1938), "one of the most widely read novels of all time" (Kelly, Chapter Three, p. 66).



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About the reviewer
(Thomas) Patrick Killough ()
Ranked #94
I am a retired American diplomat. Married for 47 years. My wife Mary (PhD in German and Linguistics) and I have two sons, six grandsons and two granddaughters. Our home is Highland Farms Retirement Community … more
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