Du Maurier and Rebecca Revisited

FOR much of her professional life, British writer Daphne du Maurier was dogged by feelings of disappointment at not being considered a serious artist.

``Rebecca,'' du Maurier's most celebrated novel, published in 1938 and shortly thereafter made into a classic Hitchcock film, is still widely read today. But its fame overshadowed her subsequent work, including such novels as ``My Cousin Rachel'' (1951), ``The Scapegoat'' (1957), and ``The House on the Strand'' (1969), and her short stories, the best-known of which furnished further material for Hitchcock: ``The Birds.''

Ironically, some of the very qualities that once relegated du Maurier to second-class literary citizenship now excite the interest of feminist scholars engaged in reexamining women's lives and writings. Romantic myths of brooding, strong-willed aristocratic men, lovelorn Cinderellas, mysterious mansions, and cruel, beauteous rivals reveal something about the ways in which women have seen themselves.

Margaret Forster, author of 16 novels and four nonfiction books, including a life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, does not make extravagant claims for du Maurier's place in the literary pantheon. but her perceptive, revealing biography, ``Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller,'' is sure to rekindle interest in du Maurier and her works.

Daphne was born in 1907 into a family of actors and writers. Her grandfather, George du Maurier, was the author of ``Trilby,'' a novel that - like ``Rebecca'' - won few literary plaudits but maintained a powerful hold on the popular imagination.

Daphne was a middle child, lacking the self-assurance of her older sister, neglected by her mother, who lavished attention on her youngest ``baby.'' Offish and shy, Daphne was her father's favorite, but that had its costs: He was an old-fashioned philanderer whose cavalier treatment of women sent mixed messages to his impressionable daughter. For Daphne, becoming a writer was a way of establishing independence from her family as well as an avenue for exploring her internal conflicts.

Forster's account of Daphne's early life is somewhat tentative, lacking the force and power of her portrait of the writer's middle and later years, when du Maurier's marriage to career army officer Frederick ``Tommy'' Browning suffered and survived the strains of wartime separation, misunderstanding, boredom, and jealousy. With her husband overseas, Daphne all but succumbed to her attraction to a married, older man.

After the war it was Tommy who sought affection elsewhere. Forster's surprising discovery - the ``secret life'' of the subtitle - concerns another aspect of Daphne's life, kept secret from her family: what she referred to as ``Venetian'' love affairs with other women. Daphne discussed this side of her personality in a series of intensely personal letters to her American publisher's wife, Ellen Doubleday, who was herself the prime object of Daphne's devotion, but who had no interest in anything more than friendship.

Daphne's attempts at understanding her own feelings were frank, frantic, often confused. She repeated the mistakes her own mother had made, wildly favoring her youngest (in this case a boy) over her two older children (girls).

Her words on the importance of marriage, in a letter written at a time when her own was under great stress, show a hard-won wisdom: ``For richer, for poorer doesn't mean whether you can afford TV or buy a car, but whether the person you marry grows in personality and character or falls away; and for better or worse means whether you can measure up to happiness and joy, or suffering and failure; in sickness and in health means not just cherishing someone who may get pneumonia, but someone who gets sick with longing for someone else.''

Du Maurier was constantly bombarded by requests from people wanting to write sequels to ``Rebecca.'' One wonders if she might have looked more favorably on such an attempt if it were by a novelist already established in her own right, like Susan Hill.

In her novel ``Mrs. de Winter,'' Hill deftly captures the keynotes of du Maurier's style and the intense self-conscious, impressionable sensibility of the original narrator-heroine, wisely following du Maurier's lead in never mentioning this self-effacing lady's first name.

Ten years into the future, Hill's Mrs. de Winter is convincingly the same person, but a little older and wiser. ``I had gone from being a gauche, badly dressed girl to being an uninterestingly, dully dressed married woman...,'' she wryly remarks. She is still vulnerable to her own active imagination. This time, however, it is guilt rather than jealousy that threatens the de Winters' marital happiness.

Hill reintroduces characters, themes, and situations from du Maurier's original novel rather as a composer might rework motifs from a symphony's earlier movements in its final one. But in another way, she undercuts the thrust of du Maurier's original work by changing from a story about jealousy to a story about guilt.

Hill's most original contribution, thus, is also the most contrary to the spirit of du Maurier's book, where it is made abundantly clear that the evil Rebecca not only deserved to die, but connived at her own shooting because she knew she had a fatal disease. Hill has replaced du Maurier's fierce, slightly over-the-top romanticism with a severe, if rather heavy-handed, moralism, which ultimately makes this accomplished and skillfully written sequel a little duller and more predictable than the remarkable novel that inspired it.

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