When a novel can affect the human heart in such a way it seems to mean one thing only: not that the tale is exceptional in itself, but that the writer has so projected his personality on to the printed page that the reader either identifies with that personality or becomes fascinated by it, and in a near sense hypnotised.
Here Daphne du Maurier is talking about her grandfather, George du Maurier, author of the popular 1894 novel Trilby, but I think this quote could just as easily apply to Daphne herself. The more I read about her and about her background and family, the more I can see how her own personality and experiences found their way into the writing of her famous novels and short stories. I’ve now read all of those novels and stories (and looked back at my favourites in this post from last year) and am now working through her non-fiction. The Rebecca Notebook: and Other Memories, first published in 1981, was my choice for this year’s Daphne du Maurier Reading Week hosted by Heavenali.
The first part of the book consists of du Maurier’s notes and drafts relating to the writing of Rebecca – in fact, her notes were used as evidence when she had to defend herself against plagiarism allegations in the 1940s. It’s fascinating to see the similarities and differences between the early outline of her novel and the finished version (did you know that Maxim de Winter was originally called Henry, for example?) and her chapter summaries get longer and more detailed as the story takes shape and the characters develop. The original epilogue – which eventually became the prologue – is included in full and in another piece of writing, The House of Secrets, du Maurier describes her discovery of Menabilly, the house in Cornwall that was the inspiration for Manderley in Rebecca and later became Daphne’s home.
The rest of the book collects together some of the essays and poetry written by du Maurier, including the piece about her grandfather, George du Maurier, which I quoted from above, and other biographical accounts of her father, who was the famous actor-manager Gerald du Maurier, and her cousins, the Llewelyn Davies children, who inspired JM Barrie’s Peter Pan. Having previously read Daphne’s autobiography Myself When Young, I was already familiar with some of this information but was happy to read it again, from a slightly different perspective.
In her other essays, du Maurier discusses subjects such as Shakespeare, her views on romantic love and her feelings on becoming a widow. She talks a lot about fame and what it’s like to live life in the public eye; coming from what we would now consider a ‘celebrity family’ and being a private person herself, it’s understandable that this topic would be of particular relevance to her.
Tip the scales, and the hands that acclaim the artist become the hands that tear him to pieces. The wreath of laurel is the crown of thorns. The actor and the writer are especially vulnerable today, when worldwide publicity through press and television makes them into that treacherous thing, a ‘personality’.
None of these pieces are very long – the whole book is under 200 pages long – but I found most of them interesting and insightful. They don’t really need to be read in any particular order either, so it’s the sort of book you can easily dip in and out of and come back to later. Most people who pick up this collection will probably do so because of the Rebecca connection, but be aware that only a relatively short section of the book is devoted to Rebecca; however, if you’re interested in du Maurier as a person as well as a writer and would like to try some of her non-fiction, this is a good place to start.