Long after her death, decades removed from the days when she was a brand-name novelist, famed for dark, romantic thrillers, Daphne du Maurier remains a Hollywood favorite.
“My Cousin Rachel” — remade and unleashed just this summer — delivered a dark dash of literary pretense to this summer of Spandex clad super-heroines and heroes.
But long ago, Hitchcock filmed “Rebecca,” “Jamaica Inn” and her short story “The Birds,” and irritated the writer no-end with his meddling with her narratives. Nicholas Roeg turned “Don’t Look Back” — a short story — into a sinister, smart hit in the early ’70s.
“The Scapegoat,” “Hungry Hill,” “Frenchman’s Creek,” “September Tide,” “Kiss Me Again, Stranger” — the titles filmed, re-filmed, turned into teleplays, revived — the list goes on and on. And year after year, the works seem to endure, at least as film fodder.
Stephen King may be “having another moment,” with “The Dark Tower,” “It'” and other works of his returning to the big and small screen. Du Maurier’s had decades of “moments.”
Why? Because, like Jane Austen before her — Du Maurier got something about Englishwomen that resonates with women the world over. Whatever the great loves of her life, when she lit into a book, architecture mattered. Houses matter.
Think of Elizabeth Bennett only swooning over Mr. Darcy when she first lays eyes on Pemberley. You know, in the Jennifer Ehle “Pride & Prejudice.” It’s the most orgasmic moment of the book and any film of it. And it’s over a house.
Tatiana de Rosnay’s new biography, “Manderley Forever,” makes that connection. Her book, a sort of fictionalized interior monologue biography — has brief chapter intros written about the places that mattered in Du Marier’s life. What follows those place settings is a not-quite-first-person memoir of a woman in emotional turmoil, a life of dating Carol “The Third Man” Reed and vacationing in Naples (Florida) with stage legend Gertrude Lawrence.
What follows would, I think, make a helluva good movie. Not just a truncated exterior British TV movieNot just a truncated exterior British TV movie — but a full-on “Aviator” styled birth to death epic.
Her parents wanted a boy — she grew up with two sisters. And Daphne internalized this, a vigorous manly woman who could channel her childhood alter ego — whom she called “Eric Avon” — into a male narrator when need be, a smoldering anti-hero if that’s what suited, or just a man trapped inside a woman who coveted other women.
Reserved and just a touch aristocratic — her father was a famous actor, and ancestors were painters and George L. Du Marier, the famous author of “Peter Ibbetson” — she loved the sea, boats, carried crushes for women and men (and had flings with many of them).
She was already published, a middling writer of little achievement aside from a famous surname, when she and her mother talked her actor-dad (Gerald Du Maurier did a few films @1930) into buying a landmark home in Fowey, Cornwall. Ferryside, built into the edge of a cliff, is and remains near what was then an abandoned Great House, hidden by trees and vines, which Daphne discovered and fantasized about.
The ivy-encrusted Menabilly (above) inspired “Manderley” and “Rebecca,” the novel that made her reputation, its opening line one of the most famous in literature.
“Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
One of the disappointments of the biography is being reminded that she was never able to buy the house off the landed-gentry that owned it. But she did rent it, renovate it and call it home from the 1940s through the 1960s.
She all but ignored her daughters — and doted on her only son. She let her rising-through-the-ranks Army officer husband assume postings around the world, and in London. But once she got her hands on Menabilly, they were only together on his leaves, or on weekends.
She fell for a governess, a French boarding school teacher and the wife of a publisher. She had a fling, it is implied, with the great bawdy British actress Gertrude Lawrence, the “I” in the original “King & I.” But she fell hardest for the house.
She took on one last house — Kilmarth — for her last years, and Rosnay documents that piece of land’s impact on her work, her last passions as a writer emerging from the place she was coming to know.
Despite the odd misstep in English usage (French is her first language), Rosnay recreates, with brilliant sensitivity, the “fog” of old age, closing in and making the writer suicidal when Du Maurier realizes she’s utterly spent as an artist.
An aristocrat who grew up knowing the author of “Peter Pan” as “Uncle Jim” Barrie, a novelist who took inspiration from the Brontes, a bisexual pop culture phenomenon described as a great beauty, a woman who married but kept distant a major figure in World War II military circles (She defended Lt. Gen. “Tommy” Browning after Richard Attenborough and Dirk Bogarde besmirched his name in “A Bridge too Far”)?
That sounds like a movie, to me. Cate Blanchett, are your ears burning?