Daphne du Maurier inspired some of Hollywood’s most iconic films and penned perhaps the finest suspense sequences in modern literature. Yet, unlike so many of her contemporaries—and the directors who adapted her work—she is not quite a household name.
So, what is it that makes du Maurier’s work so enticing? And why is its author so readily forgotten? We’re walking back through two of the so-called Master of Romantic Suspense’s most beloved titles to determine why she was underloved by contemporary critics—and remains so by modern readers. Where better to start than with:
Though not her first novel, Rebecca is certainly du Maurier’s most iconic. It tells the story of the second Mrs. de Winter, a nameless young woman who, after a whirlwind romance, marries the handsome and charismatic Maxim de Winter. Upon arriving at Manderley, his estate, she learns about his late wife, the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca. Life in Manderley is uneasy, as Rebecca’s unsettling shadow haunts the narrator.
Young, unassured, and painfully insecure, the new Mrs. de Winter finds herself increasingly manipulated, kept in the dark by her now-distant husband. For much of the novel, the unassuming young narrator shrinks. She loses herself—her agency and identity—to the shadow of a woman she can never know.
Yet, Rebecca ends triumphant. The narrator, born through waves of terror and wonder, finds herself released from Rebecca’s memory. She unravels the mystery of her predecessor’s life and, in doing so, exorcises it of its power. Once a damsel in distress, buoyed passively along by the whims of a cruel mistress and a not-quite-haunted mansion, she ultimately frees herself of her Gothic torment, empowered to escape that which haunts her, both literally and figuratively
Rebecca—the work most indicative of du Maurier’s romantic tendency—illustrates its author’s mastery of suspense and psychological horror. With lurid eroticism and thinly veiled grotesqueries, du Maurier crafts a narrative of terror and triumph, fear and feminism. To reduce her work to its romantic elements or correlate it with its 1940 and 2020 film adaptations loses sight of the care she put into her craft.
Critic Kate Kellaway aptly writes: “Daphne du Maurier was mistress of calculated irresolution…she did not want to put her readers’ minds at rest…She wanted the novels to continue to haunt us beyond their endings.” For Rebecca and the next title on our list, no sentiment should be truer: Even now, nearly 80 years after Rebecca’s publication, the specter of the first Mrs. de Winter lingers in the minds of du Maurier’s devoted readers.
Published in an eponymous collection of five short stories, “Don’t Look Now” follows a middle-aged British couple, John and Laura. On holiday in Venice, they are struggling to heal in the wake of their daughter’s tragic death. Yet, their misfortune is only beginning, as events both mundane and fantastic soon consume their lives. Following an encounter with a set of self-proclaimed psychic twins, they receive a devastating phone call: Their son has fallen ill. As the story progresses, their fate becomes intimately entangled with that of the sisters—and of a mysterious, child-like figure.
“Don’t Look Now” handily disproves all the accusations of romance and frivolity du Maurier faced in the early years of her career. Published on the heels of the sci-fi-themed The House on the Strand, the 1971 short story eschews romanticism, replacing it with a heady sense of psychological horror.
Du Maurier’s later works prove her fluid style and genre-defying storytelling. Even still, she was, as Nina Auerbach explains in British Writers, “dismissed by the cultural establishment as too readable to be literary.’’ Despite its dismissal as “commercial,” “Don’t Look Now” is disorienting to the last. Supernatural in tone and abrupt in ending, Don’t Look Now leaves readers in a state of what can only be termed literary whiplash.
Du Maurier communicates these elements of suspense and mystery with elegant efficiency. Yet, her stylistic process was deemed unworthy by a literary body unwilling to recognize her work’s value. Even today, more people remember the 1973 film adaptation of the story. It is yet another instance in which critics and directors undermined and overwrote du Maurier’s remarkable work.
At the time, the public loved Daphne du Maurier and her work. Each new release flew off shelves and enjoyed admirable sales. Perhaps her commercial success prevented her from achieving critical acclaim. Perhaps her work was too inventive, too genre-bending, and too emotionally involved to be deemed of value. That her writing leaned into genre work—melding elements of romance, horror, mystery, and science fiction—likely also worked to her detriment.
As Halloween draws ever closer, step out of your comfort zone and into one of du Maurier’s iconic works. Then, let us know: Did she deserve the critical dismissal she endured for the bulk of her life?
Unsure where to start? Check out the summaries linked above, or peruse our list of her most iconic works to find the one that’s right for you!