Daphne du Maurier Country – Rebecca to the Macabre

Rebecca, 1st edition (1938)

Last year we decided to take a short holiday in Cornwall, which I have already written about here with regard to the works of Daphne du Maurier. We live in Bournemouth, almost exactly midway along the south coast of England. Mostly, whether for work or pleasure, we head along the Dorset coast, or east (towards London) or north (for almost everything else). Cornwall is out on a limb in the south west, and if it weren’t for that county’s stunning natural beauty few people from further east would ever venture there other than to visit family or for work. Fortunately for Cornwall the eastern half of the south coast of England, though it has its beauty spots, just can’t compete. Things begin to pick up west of Southampton, then bloom with the beginnings of the Jurassic Coast (a World Heritage Site) in Dorset. From there on things just get more beautiful as one heads west through Devon and into Cornwall.

If Dorset’s most celebrated writer is Thomas Hardy then Cornwall’s is surely Daphne du Maurier. So never having read it before, I decided to prepare for our holiday by reading her most famous novel, Rebecca. I was familiar with the Hitchcock film, and with the 1997 TV mini-series, but the only du Maurier I had previously read was the novella ‘Don’t Look Now’ and the short story, ‘The Birds’. The former, of course, provided the basis for the great Nic Roeg film starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. The latter, was the source for Hitchcock’s third du Maurier adaptation – Rebecca actually being the second, following Jamaica Inn (1938).

Given that if pushed I would probably cite Don’t Look Now as my favourite horror film, and The Birds as one of my favourite Hitchcock films, one might wonder why I hadn’t previously explored du Maurier’s work further. I think it was because neither of those stories especially impressed me. ‘Don’t Look Now’ in particular disappointed when compared to the film. The film is essentially faithful to the novella, though what felt flat for me on the page came terrifyingly alive on screen through the great performances of Sutherland and Christie, the superbly atmospheric cinematography by Anthony Richmond and the intensely moving score by Pino Donaggio (who would go on to score many more horror films, including Brian de Palma’s now classic version of Stephen King’s first published novel, Carrie). Where the film deviates from the novella, either to add incident, such as the fantastically suspenseful sequence in which Sutherland almost falls to his death in a church he is restoring, or in changing details such as making the couple’s daughter, Christine, die from drowning rather than meningitis, it has always seemed to me an improvement. Where more terrifying to go if your daughter has just drowned than to a city built on water?

As for ‘The Birds’, the key set-pieces of the night siege on the house and the visit to the farm are present, but otherwise when I first read it the story it seemed like little more than a sketch from which the Hitchcock film was extrapolated. I have since discovered that du Maurier herself was influenced by an almost unknown and long forgotten 1936 novel by Frank Baker, also titled The Birds. But that is another story.

So I read Rebecca and was delighted to discover a powerful, gripping thriller – much darker than the Hitchcock film – evidencing a fine talent for character and graced with beautifully observed descriptions of the natural world. Yes, there are a few overly wordy conversations about very little (the sort of social chatter du Maurier herself loathed), and if Rebecca is a little slower in developing than it would be today, then it reflects the time in which it was written.

I actually finished reading the novel while we were staying in Looe (where Mark Twain’s family lived before moving considerably further west) which happens to be the next town east of Fowey (pronounced Foy) where du Maurier spent much of her life. Menabilly, the house Rebecca’s Manderley was based on, is just two miles over a headland from Fowey. Daphne du Maurier lived there from 1943 – 69, leasing the house with her new found wealth from the success of Rebecca – book, play and Best Picture Oscar-winning film.

Unfortunately we were not able to visit as the house is private property and is not open to the public. However, the beaches featured in Rebecca are along a public coastal footpath and the remains of the ship which inspired the wreck in the novel can still be seen. The beach house which features so significantly in the book is available for holiday rental.

During our holiday we had dinner at Jamaica Inn, now world famous as a result of du Maurier’s book and Hitchcock’s film. Due to the fame of the novel and movie the Inn is much expanded from the day in 1936 when du Maurier and her friend Foy Quiller-Couch found their way to it while lost on Bodmin Moor and heard tales of its smuggling history. Today Jamaica Inn is a modern pub, restaurant and hotel which has its own du Maurier museum. It is no doubt a world away from how it was in 1936 – it has free wi-fi now – but without the book and film would it still be there at all?

On our last day in Cornwall we finally made it into Fowey, a beautiful harbour town built on an estuary. There is evidence that people were trading from there with the Mediterranean 2200 years ago.  I visited the Du Maurier Literary Centre and treated myself to a first edition of Echoes From The Macabre: Selected Stories in Bookends of Fowey, just across the street. This anthology contains both ‘Don’t Look Now’ and ‘The Birds’, as well as seven other stories which, for not having being made into great films, are far less famous. Acquiring the book was the perfect excuse to revisit those stories which had not previously impressed me. You can read my review here.