22 November 2014

Daphne du Maurier's Cornwall

I have cited Daphne du Maurier (1907–1989) twice in recent blog posts. Firstly du Maurier was the cousin of the Llewelyn Davies boys, who served as JM Barrie's inspiration for the characters in the play Peter Pan. Secondly Justine Picardie is the author of four books, including the book on the Ritz Hotel that I reviewed; her most recent novel was about Daphne du Maurier.

Now I want to concentrate on Daphne du Maurier in her own landscape. She was born in London to an artistic, theatrical and literary family. I have no doubt that her close family members helped her in estab­lish­ing her literary career, but if she had stayed in London for the rest of her life, her novels and plays would have looked very different.

Of her c25 novels, short story collections and plays written between 1930 and 1980, I have only read a handful Jamaica Inn (1936), Rebecca (1938) and My Cousin Rachel (1951) so I will be particularly influenced by Jessica Tooze’s analysis of the books I have NOT read .

Ferryside, Fowey
bought by the du Maurier family in 1926

It is said about many authors that their ability to recreate a sense of place is an important part of their writing. Nowhere is that more meaningful than in Du Maurier’s writing where places were as important as people; her places could be considered characters in their own right.

Du Maurier was a young woman of 19 when she visited Cornwall for the first time and fell in love with the sea, boats, cliffs, harbours, inns and cottages. She learned to sail and fish with the best of them! And except for a few invol­un­t­ary moves (eg during war time), she never wanted to live anywhere else. She died in 1989, in Cornwall.

Set in an area of natural maritime beauty, Du Maurier settled in the town of Fowey (called Foy) which lies along the estuary fac­ing a deep water harbour. The old town has old Geor­gian and Victorian buildings, but it was a cliff side cottage that captured her attention. Promptly named Ferryside in 1926, the cottage was her centre of peace and magic as she wandered around the Cornish countryside.

I have seen Menabilly i.e Manderley from Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca. The grey stone Georgian mansion hidden behind trees was memorable, but it was the long track down to the sea through “tumbled woods, trailing ivy and tangled undergrowth” that captured her imag­ination! The track was indeed dark, but hardly menacing.

Boats on the River Fowey

Perhaps the menacing aspect came from Du Maurier’s knowledge about ship­wrecks along the coast. Or from her knowledge of smuggling. One day she was riding on Bodmin Moor near Fowey and lost in a thick fog, she came across the Jamaica Inn Temperance Hotel. This hotel had been a stop for stage and mail coaches en route to London. Her novel Jamaica Inn (1936) captured the forbidding bleakness of the moor, allegedly one of the most haunted places for smugglers and travellers in the entire country.

Du Maurier's novels were never really Romances since there were few happy endings. And critics have suggested that even her own brand of Romanticism sat incongruously with her books’ moodiness and sinister overtones.

In her short stor­ies, she wrote even less romantically! In fact she used horror as the main theme eg The Birds, Don't Look Now, The Apple Tree and The Blue Lenses.

Sometimes the stories were set in the same geographic area, but in different centuries. The King's General (1946), for example, was set in the two English Civil Wars. The novel Mary Anne (1954) was the story of her great-great-grandmother Mary Anne Clarke; from 1803-1808, Mary Anne had been the mistress of Frederick Aug­us­tus Duke of York, a son of King George III. The Glass-Blowers (1963) traced the du Maurier family’s very real French ancestry. The book gave a colourful description of the French Revolution, before the family moved from France to England.

My Cousin Rachel is full of recognisable Cornwall. Today visitors are invited to go on a My Cousin Rachel Walk that tours the Barton land near Fowey and explores the region, just as the characters in the book did. The long walk affords amazing coastal views, the farmyards, Tregaminion Chapel, Menabilly, Polridmouth and St Catherine's Castle.

the old coaching house, Jamaica Inn

Needless to say, Fowey has thanked its most famous resident at the town’s Literary Centre. Visitors can examine the small exhibition and the film about Daphne du Maurier’s life, and come to their own conclusions about how her novels were shaped by this part of Cornwall.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I have read a few of du Maurier's novels, and she was a master at evoking a sense of place, especially with Gothic overtones. Her characters and their interrelationships were also fraught with suspense and interest, but I always felt somehow that the actual writing was not of the first water. The adaptations by Hitchcock were masterful, and a great collaboration of their respective powers.

I do love writing that evokes special places, but thinking back, it is not just the unique features of a place that make great literature, but importantly the love and identity felt by the author for the place.

Andrew said...

I think I read Rebecca when I was younger. What a lovely place Fowey is and added to possible places to visit in the UK just below St Ives.

Joe said...

Have you heard of the annual Daphne Du Maurier Award?

Hels said...


Every good author has to love and identify strongly with a place, yes! And there were indeed darkish, Gothic overtones in du Maurier's writing. So I am assuming that the dark quality, which might have originally come from the landscape, was then used to describe marital relations, or jealousy or fear.

Hels said...


Me too. As an adult I have come to love Cornwall, especially St Ives. Now I wonder how much of that interest in a far flung corner of the earth (from Melbourne at least) derives in part from our reading du Maurier's novels in adolescence. I am thinking that good books that you read at 16 have an impact for many decades.

Or was that the film version of Rebecca that impinged itself on my young brain?

Hels said...


no I have not. But I found this:

The Daphne Du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense is open to those published in book-length fiction.

I am assuming the award for first given only in the last few years. And I am pleased to say that, although the award seems to be American, the name Daphne du Maurier is used with permission of the du Maurier estate.

Jim said...

I love the shot of the boats.

Hels said...


Totally agreed. Ans that is exactly what Daphne du Maurier said when she first saw the view as a 19 year old. She wanted to live facing the water, fish, sail and drink tea in harbour side inns.

I could live like that too, I believe.

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Hels said...


My pleasure. Hope you enjoyed the post.

Ham and High Property said...

An early owner of Cannon Hall in Hampstead Heath was Sir Noah Thomas, Physician-in-Ordinary to George III. Gerald bought furniture from the mid Georgian period because he entertained on a lavish scale. The substantial red brick home (from c1720) was named from the use of cannon as street bollards outside the front gates. These were introduced by Sir James Melville, secretary of the East India Company, who lived at the Hall from 1838.

In 1916, Sir Gerald du Maurier purchased the Hall – and it was here that daughter Daphne grew up. You can see contemporary photos of the stairs, lounge, garden etc.

Hels said...

Ham and High

timing is everything! Is this sentence correct - "The £32,000,000 price tag reflects the special nature of the six bedroom house, which covers 10,000 square feet and sits on half an acre of land in the half of Hampstead Village".

Daphne certainly grew up in a classy home!