A Madder Caress, Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis
In 1918, writers Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis ran away to Cornwall together to begin one of the most sizzling affairs in literary history.
This passage from Daphne du Maurier’s first novel echoes the views of her fourteen-year-old self, who was convinced that the seeds of all great writing emanate from a sense of dissatisfaction and a desire to escape.
The child destined to be a writer is vulnerable to every wind that blows. Now warm, now chill, next joyous, then despairing, the essence of his nature is to escape the atmosphere about him, no matter how stable, even loving. No ties, no binding chains, save those he forges for himself.
- The Loving Spirit
Daphne du Maurier’s childhood was typical of the privileged upper classes of her time. Born on 13th May, 1907, she was the middle of three daughters to the famous actor Sir Gerald du Maurier and his actress wife Muriel Beaumont.
The family had grown prosperous; the previous year Gerald had played the lead in a long running play, and they were able to move to a larger, more distinguished home at 24 Cumberland Terrace, a Nash terrace overlooking Regent’s Park. Daphne was born there.
Towards the end of her life when she was starting to write Growing Pains: The Shaping of a Writer (later renamed Myself When Young), Daphne considered basing the book on the houses she had lived in and their influence on her development, beginning with her birthplace, which ‘I remember vividly’.
Despite the grandeur of this house, with its high ceilings, fluted columns, and large windows overlooking the park, it was the warmth and refuge of the nursery that Daphne remembered best. She and her sisters Angela and Jeanne spent their early lives in this room upstairs, overseen by a succession of nannies, who were mostly kind. In this room, Daphne’s imagination was first shaped. There was a doll’s house and a toy cupboard with a shelf for each sister, a cretonne-covered toy box, and an old armchair that doubled as a ship imperiled at sea. The girls would wake to the call of a bugle playing ‘Reveille’ at the Regent’s Park Barracks in Albany Street, and from the wide window in the day nursery they could watch the Life Guards, with breastplates gleaming and plumes waving from their helmets. There were trips to the theatre and the Tower of London, and daily walks in Regent’s Park along the Broad Walk, bordering the zoo.
Muriel and Gerald du Maurier were a glamorous couple. At weekends they would entertain the likes of Rudolph Valentino, Gary Cooper, Tallulah Bankhead and Lady Diana Cooper; Ivor Novello would amuse them on the piano. Muriel was the calm foil to her debonair husband, who was in constant need of an adoring audience. Gerald’s charm and high spirits masked a struggle with depression and a sense of meaninglessness that was to deepen with age.
But when his daughters were small, Gerald was their moon and sun and stars, swooping into their nursery to involve them in magical games. He talked with them in a language peppered with constantly evolving code words that excluded their mother and others. Being ‘menaced’ meant being attracted to someone; to ‘wain’, was to be embarrassed and if you were doing a ‘tell him’ you were being boring.
In the short film The Make-believe World of Daphne du Maurier, Daphne said:
I was born into a world of make-believe and imagination. I take after my father Gerald and my grandfather George. I was always pretending to be someone else – historical characters in books, or those I invented for myself. Gerald would say: ‘Don’t take any notice, she’s acting. She’s always acting.’
A precocious reader from the age of four, she preferred adventure stories with characters she could identify with and act out with her sisters: Kidnapped, Treasure Island, Pilgrim’s Progress. Later she played many of the meaty male Shakespearean roles while her obliging sisters took on the smaller roles or the girls’ parts. She enjoyed Bible stories too, noting it was men like Goliath who got to do all the brave and interesting things.
Already observant and deeply interested in other people, Daphne developed a rapport with the servants, particularly the sixteen-year-old maid Dorothy. She would quiz her about her family life and once Dorothy started going out with a boy, the questions became a barrage.
When Daphne was nine the family moved to Cannon Hall, a six-bedroom mansion in Hampstead, a short walk from Gerald’s childhood home. It stands on the corner of Cannon Place, its mellow garden walls winding down the adjacent street, Squire’s Mount, and curving back along Well Walk (where John Keats and his two brothers had lived). Set in a generous garden, it is a rambling house with a grand entrance, high ceilings, views of central London, and plenty of room for entertaining and family gatherings.
The family’s life there quickly took on a pattern. On Sundays Gerald took the girls for ‘Papa’s walk’, following the routes he used to take with his father George du Maurier, the celebrated Punch cartoonist and novelist, along the Spaniards Road to the tree at the end, or across the Heath from the White Stone Pond towards the Bull and Bush. Afterwards there would be lunches for family and their theatre friends (particularly Gladys Cooper and Viola Tree). There would be games of cricket on the lawn and later, when a court was added, tennis parties.
It was a fertile place for such an imaginative child. Daphne used to play a game with Angela called Mrs Snow and Mrs Sheldon, and they had about twenty children each. Teddy bears stood in for some of the children and Daphne added among them a piece of cork that she had found on a beach that she named Ruth. She was still reading avidly – at this stage, the novels of Walter Scott and The Three Musketeers.
Daphne was an uninhibited and chatty child with those she knew and loved. But she could withdraw under the scrutiny of her parent’s theatre friends. Shyness made her appear haughty and defiant; in response to some sycophantic acquaintance of Gerald’s, she would freeze in horror or behave like a clumsy boy. In fact she began to wish she was a boy, envying their freedoms and opportunities.
She had a further reason for wanting to switch gender. A strong empathy had developed between Daphne and her father, and although she did not resemble Gerald physically, relatives noticed that she walked and moved in the same way, and was just as quick thinking. A poem he wrote for her contained mixed messages, expressing a wish that she should have been a boy yet celebrating her femininity. Over time, Daphne began to believe she actually was a boy, and that her outer appearance was a mistake. She created an alter ego, Eric Avon, who was fearless, a great cricketer and attended Rugby school. She spurned anything feminine, opting for shorts or trousers and no-nonsense hair.
Those around Daphne were charmed by this preference, failing to realise it was a desire that went deep. It is unsurprising then that she found the onset of puberty devastating. In an awkward conversation just after she turned twelve, her mother told her about menstruation. For unexplained reasons, Muriel said that when her periods started she was not to tell anyone – especially not her little sister Jeanne. Yet when it did happen Daphne could see that the women around her all knew – with the exception of Jeanne, her usual buddy:
…deception, never practised before on her, must begin. Why, I asked myself, why? And must this continue, for ever and ever?…Nothing would ever be the same again. I no longer wanted to run around the garden, to kick a football, to play cricket…If this was what growing up meant, I wanted no part of it.
She realised there was no escape from being a girl, so she forced herself to lock away the boy and don a mask of femininity.
A new governess came along at just the right time. Maud Waddell, aged thirty-one to Daphne’s eleven years, was a strong, practical woman from Cumbria. Daphne called her Tod and she became a precious confidante. Together they read Browning, Keats and Shelley. They moved on to Donne, Dryden and Swinburne and worked their way through the classics of English literature. Tod also encouraged her to write.
Daphne’s letters to Tod while she was away on holiday reveal her as a conflicted, restless and often solitary soul.
I long for something so terribly and I don’t know what it is. The feeling is always there and I don’t think I shall ever find it. It is no good telling the others things like that, they would only laugh…everyone thinks I am moody and tiresome…
Daphne’s sisters had more friends and seemed to be relishing their lives. Angela was increasingly religious but, although Daphne never rejected religion outright, she did not feel it could comfort her. And she had nothing but scorn for the girlish fuss surrounding Angela’s debutante season.
She wrote to Tod:
The future is always such a complete blank. There is nothing ahead that lures me terribly…If only I was a man.
This desire was confusing for her in view of her innate preference for women over men. Despite her uncertainty and bouts of despair, she reached the conclusion: ‘I may as well run the race with the rest of the pack instead of being a damned solitary hound missing the game.’
The ‘game’, she realised, was all about sex.
Daphne was slower than her sisters to develop interest in the opposite sex. She had a brief crush on Ivor Novello and was later to screen-test with him for the female lead Tessa in the 1928 film The Constant Nymph.
Then during a family holiday at Thurlestone when she was fourteen, she became strongly attracted to her cousin, thirty-six-year-old Geoffrey Millar, who had joined them with his newly wedded second wife. Daphne was wading in the water when she glanced up and caught his eye. He gave her a special smile and in that instant, from being the amusing friend she had known all her life, he became her heartthrob.
Geoffrey declared that Daph, as he called her, was old enough to go dancing at the Links Hotel – and as the band struck up ‘Whispering’, the hit dance tune of the day, he smiled and held out his arms to her. And in the long summer afternoons, when the family was in the habit of sunbathing on the lawn with rugs over their knees,
Geoffrey would come and lie beside me, and feel for my hand under the rug and hold it. Nothing in a life of seventy years, has ever surpassed that first awakening of an instinct within myself. The touch of that hand on mine. And the instinctive knowledge that nobody must know.
On the morning of his departure Geoffrey invited her to share a last look at the sea. He said, ‘I’m going to miss you terribly Daph’, but Gerald was staring down at them from the clifftop and Geoffrey moved away. Based on his knowledge of his nephew’s dubious dealings with young women, Gerald had been right to be vigilant. But Daphne was now alive to the magic of sexual attraction. She was in on the ‘game’. And it was a game that she was noticing her father played rather too well.
Since childhood Gerald had been indulged, first by his mother and then by his wife, and he had achieved fame and success early. He was adorable and entertaining ‘when he chose’; a lover of practical jokes, easily moved to laughter and to tears. He could keep a party ‘to a high pitch of enjoyment and enthusiasm’ by the force of his personality. But there was a ‘seed of discontent’ in Gerald and inconsequential things – grey skies on holiday, or some overcooked beef – could switch his high spirits to gloom, changing the atmosphere for all around him. In Gerald: A Portrait, a book she wrote shortly after her father’s death, Daphne described the undercurrent of nervous anxiety experienced by his family, friends and children, in the anticipation that ‘Gerald was going to be bored.’ And she referred to the ‘unconscious tyrants who move in a world of their own moods and whims.’
Gerald continued to send Daphne mixed messages. The most important thing in the world, he told her, was love – but he ‘lunched at a restaurant every day of his life with a pretty woman if he could find one.’ He discussed his dalliances openly with Muriel and the children, poking fun at the women in question, and sparking a game that Daphne described in the third person:
‘The Stable’ was the children’s somewhat indelicate name for Gerald’s little gallery of favourites. ‘Who’s the latest in the stable?’ they would jeer, ‘and what’s the form this week?’
Daphne laughed along with her father when she was young, but when at fifteen she grasped that he was having affairs with many of these women, she was no longer amused. She wrote that it was hardly surprising the sisters grew up with ‘distorted values and a warped sense of humour, and that they startled him in later years with ideas whose foundation he had laid himself. For Gerald was inconsequent in fatherhood as he was in everything else.’
He would boast to his daughters about his exploits as a young man, such as creeping into the house after a wild night out in time to kiss his unwitting mother good morning; yet he was immeasurably shocked when Daphne, at a similar age, came home at three in the morning. He would wait up and question her ‘hysterically, like one demented’.
She began to watch him closely and as she became sexually awakened, Gerald watched her closely too.
As for her mother, Daphne was puzzled by Muriel’s apparent nonchalance in the face of her husband’s philandering . How could her parents’ love withstand Gerald’s behaviour? Was sex itself so unimportant? If this were the case, she thought, then surely marriage itself was a sham.
Her mother was an enigma to Daphne. She wrote that:
She was not an easy person to understand, and both as a child and as a growing adolescent I could never feel quite sure of her, sensing some sort of disapproval in her attitude towards me.
Muriel ‘petted and adored’ Daphne’s little sister Jeanne, lavishing on her the attention that Daphne craved for herself. Muriel and Gerald in turn, were concerned about their increasingly sullen, and solitary daughter. They decided to send her to a finishing school near Paris.
It did not start well. Daphne arrived in the spring of 1925, just before her eighteenth birthday. She complained in letters home that the place was freezing, the food awful, and she was expected to make her own bed. And she felt mortified to be placed in the B rather than A grade class for French. Most of the other girls had come from English boarding schools, and Daphne laughed at the way some went around in twos, ‘soppy, with their arms entwined’.
After one term Daphne could have come home but what kept her there was the regular trips to Paris, to the Comédie Française, the Opera or the Louvre. She wrote to Tod:
Don’t you love Paris with its cobbled streets, shrieking taxis and wonderful lights and chic little women and dago-like men…it’s all quite divine.
The other girls were unsure what to make of this strikingly attractive, slender young woman, with her jeering behaviour (a du Maurier trait). When a young curate came to provide religious instruction, Daphne flustered him with clever questions until, grabbing a wrought iron chair, she brandished it aloft and ran at him, shouting that she was going to kill him. When the curate cowered she laughed, saying that this proved he feared death like everyone else, and his promises of heaven and eternal life were rubbish. The girls howled with laughter, although they continued to maintain a wary distance.
A certain Mlle Yvon was the most powerful and charismatic teacher at the school: ‘thirty-ish, slanting green eyes, and a manner that seemed a blend of sarcasm and veiled amusement.’ After supper each night the girls in the ‘elite’ group would depart with Mlle Yvon to the salon du fond for a game of Truths.
Daphne resolved to keep away. ‘I know the type, she has favourites,’ she wrote to her mother. But she changed her mind when she realised that in order to gain any shred of prestige she needed to win Mlle’s approval. One evening, ‘with studied nonchalance’ (and terror beneath) she gatecrashed the salon du fond with a book under her arm and sat down to read. All conversation ceased. The elite looked on, astonished and hostile:
Then Mlle Yvon, a glint of laughter behind her eyes, motioned me forward. ‘Venez pres du feu, mon enfant,’ she said. And I knew myself accepted, even welcomed. The elite could do nothing. My triumph was complete.’
Soon Daphne reported back to Tod:
By the way, I’ve grown quite fallen for that woman I told you about, Mlle Yvon. She has a fatal attraction…she’s absolutely kind of lured me on and now I am coiled in the net…..Venetian, I should think.
‘Venetian’ was Daphne’s code for lesbian.
She pops up to the bedroom at odd moments…and is generally divine.
Daphne described to Tod the thrill she felt when Mlle put her arm around her shoulder and pressed against her body, adding that she hoped she was not ‘Venetian’ too. It was tricky. Wanting to be male was one thing, but the idea of being a lesbian repelled her, the prospect doubly frightening because Gerald so hated homosexuals.
Yet she grew to depend on ‘Ferdy’ as she nicknamed Mlle, whose first name was Fernande. At the end of her second term, Daphne’s parents permitted her to join Ferdy for a holiday in the Puy-de-Dome, in France’s Massif Central. While Ferdy took a ‘cure’, Daphne read books most of the day: the stories of Katherine Mansfield and her new favourite author Guy de Maupassant. Fernande had a devastating charm and Daphne confessed in a letter many years later that they had loved each other in every possible way. The boy came out of the box on that holiday, to Daphne’s enormous joy and relief; yet part of her remained watchful.
When Daphne’s next term at the school concluded with a bout of influenza, her parents deemed her ‘finished’ and brought her home.
Now Daphne was faced with the question of what to do with herself. University simply wasn’t an option for that family. Her parents introduced distractions: holidays, a car and a dog, but Daphne needed to work and writing was all she felt she could do. She returned to some unfinished stories she had started at fifteen but thought them ‘feeble’. She turned her hand to poetry, but it was not her thing. She was easily distracted.
In the summer of 1926 Gerald was producing a play by Edgar Wallace called The Ringer, a huge hit. Edgar had a string of successful novels behind him and Daphne was fascinated by his prolific output. He told her it was a matter of iron will and discipline. Wanting to try this approach, Daphne adopted a strict work schedule for herself. She went to Brittany to spend time with Ferdy, determined not to leave without at least one story she felt happy with.
She returned with not one story but three. These stories, and those she was to write over the next three years, are bleak tales about the relationships between men and women. The male characters are bullies who seduce and lie, while the women are their passive victims, pitiful creatures, endlessly used and betrayed. Daphne’s biographer, Margaret Forster believes the stories reflected her private feelings about her parent’s relationship, unleashing her unspoken anger towards her father. Although Gerald was not a bully, he was liar and a cheat. And while Muriel was too strong and independent to be a victim, she had certainly been betrayed.
A common thread to the stories is their strong sense of place. In ‘La Sainte-Vierge’ for instance, Daphne builds a powerful atmosphere:
The ditches smelt of dead ferns and long-dried mud, the grasses of the field were blistered and brown. The village seemed asleep. No one stirred among the far scattered cottages on the hillside, strange uneven cottages, huddled together for fear of loneliness, with white walls and no windows, and small gardens massed with orange flowers.
Not yet confident enough to attempt a novel, Daphne was working hard towards a collection of short stories. She felt irritated when her mother and sisters persuaded her to accompany them for a visit to Cornwall. They were on a mission to buy a holiday house, and grudgingly she agreed to go along for the sea air. It was a trip that was to change her life.
This is the tune Daphne danced to at the Links Hotel at Thurlestone with her dashing cousin Geoffrey when she was fourteen. It was one of the first pieces of music to usher in the Jazz Age and over two million copies sold. ‘Whispering’ spent 11 weeks at no. 1 on the US charts and was the first hit for Whiteman, who became known as the ‘King of Jazz’.
Tod introduced Daphne, in her teens, to the stories of Katherine Mansfield, whose work she knew from a brother living in New Zealand. Daphne told Tod she probably would never have written seriously, had she not read these stories. She wrote in her memoir Myself When I was Young:
I felt instinctively that if I could only one day in the distant future write some sketch that might compare, however humbly, to hers, then I need not despair.
Reading Bliss and Other Stories evoked a pity in her about the ‘dreariness of other people’s lives…a sort of feeling life is merely repetition and monotony’. She, too, felt that monotony. Although she appreciated her background of privilege, she could not figure out why such good fortune did not make her feel happier.
Much later, Daphne discovered that at the time she had been reading Katherine Mansfield’s stories, Katherine and her husband, John Middleton Murry, had been living just a few minutes away from Cannon Hall, on the edge of Hampstead Heath. From the bedroom she shared with her sister Jeanne, Daphne used to notice the light from one of their back windows and, without knowing the identity of its inhabitants, would wave to it each evening as she went to bed: ‘Coincidence? A strange one, nevertheless’, she wrote in her memoir.
Thinking of Daphne, I walked up the main tree-lined Broad Walk of Regent’s Park on a cool December morning. Until the age of nine, she came here daily, accompanied by one of a succession of nannies. Each time I stopped to take a picture, a squirrel would scuttle up to my feet, expecting food. It was still early on a Saturday morning and soccer games were being played out in the fields; children clattered down the Broad Walk in their spiked trainers. The vegetation lining the Broad Walk is quite dense in places, and I remembered Daphne writing about being freezing cold while her nanny was chatting to a friend. Being told to go and play, she wandered over to a scrubby bit, behind some trees, and was bullied by a boy.
Cumberland Terrace, where Daphne was born during a thunderstorm, lies on the Outer Circle road that skirts the Broad Walk side of the park. It is a grand, neoclassical cream affair of fluted ionic columns topped by classical sculptures, designed by the English architect John Nash. The former du Maurier apartment is in a block of mansions, linked by triumphal archways leading into small courtyards.
The door was open at the entrance to number 24, and I could not resist poking my head in. A young concierge came out and I explained my interest in the building. He had never heard of Daphne du Maurier (there is no blue plaque on the building) and he wondered aloud whether this was the reason so many tourists seemed kept turning up. He let me walk up the first flight of stairs and take a photo through the window on the landing (sorry it’s not in focus – whoops). I was so pleased to see the view of the Regent’s Park Barracks that Daphne could see from her nursery window. The man did not think they played the ‘Reveille’ any more. As I left he said he was going to Google the du Mauriers right away.
At Hampstead Heath station, people were choosing Christmas trees at the grocers by the station, while others were making the most of a rare sunny morning, heading in a steady stream for the Heath’s entrance nearby. In spite of the sun, there was a chill December wind, and I stopped for a breakfast of coffee and cinnamon apple porridge before setting out for Cannon Gate, heading up the hill on South End Road that turns into East Heath Road.
Along the way I passed an eclectic collection of grand Victorian, Georgian, and contemporary houses with lush, deep gardens until I reached the house where Katherine Mansfield once lived at 17 East Heath Road. Katherine and her new husband, the critic John Middleton Murry, moved here in 1918. She called the late Victorian house ‘The Elephant’, probably because of its height and the bricks that were pale grey at the time. Murry set up The Heron Press in its basement rooms, briefly emulating Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press. Here, he published limited editions of his poems and Katherine’s short story ‘Je ne parle pas français’.
Around the corner, at the end of Squire’s Mount, is the former du Maurier home, Cannon Gate Hall, which was Daphne’s second home. Built in 1730, the three-storey red brick house is one of London’s finest period homes. It takes its name from the pieces of cannon left by a former owner who worked for the East India Company. The garden apparently has a spectacular view of London’s skyline.
I could see that windows from the front and side of the house would afford a view to the back of Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Elephant’ house, that the young Daphne used to bid goodnight to. While getting my bearings I failed to notice the front gate had opened and a car had driven into the courtyard. I was busy with my camera by the now open front gate when the owner walked up. Embarrassed, I explained I was a ‘Daphne tragic’ and she was truly gracious, explaining that she had wanted to live there after having read Daphne’s description of the house in Gerald: A Portrait. She said the house has a lovely feeling – Gerald had let his girls run wild in it so perhaps a remnant of that gaiety remained.
I headed for Hampstead Heath, a stone’s throw away. Daphne was fond of the Heath, recalling hearing the first cuckoo of the year by the Leg O’ Mutton Pond with her dog Jock; spurring hired horses to a gallop with Jeanne, or racing bikes down to the Vale of Health where their grandparents lived. As I wandered and became lost, the soft winter light and high clouds made me feel I was walking through a John Constable painting. He lived nearby and painted this lovely part of London many times.
Here is Gerald du Maurier who starred in this 1917 film Everybody’s Business
The official website for Daphne du Maurier is a wonderful resource. Its contributors are still very active and are able to answer any queries you might have about Daphne and her work.
An article about the discovery of some early stories of Daphne du Maurier’s, uncovered by a bookseller from Cornwall.
A story about the relatively recent sale of Cannon Hall in Hampstead.
Cannon Hall was featured in Otto Preminger’s 1965 thriller Bunny Lake is Missing, starring Laurence Olivier.
Visitor information about The Regent’s Park.
The official site for Hampstead Heath.
This is a bit left of field, but the singing saw featured in ‘Whispering’ and a hint of sibling rivalry in Daphne’s story reminded me of Australia’s hilarious, creepy Kransky Sisters. Here is their version of ‘The Sound of Silence’.
Du Maurier, Daphne, Gerald: A Portrait, Virago, 2004
Du Maurier, Daphne, Myself When Young, Virago, 2007
Forster, Margaret, Daphne Du Maurier, Arrow, 1994
Macaskill, Hilary. Daphne du Maurier at Home, Frances Lincoln Ltd, 2013
Shallcross, Martyn. The Private World of Daphne du Maurier, St Martin’s Press, 1991
Tagholm, Roger. Walking Literary London: 25 Original Walks Through London’s Literary Heritage, New Holland, 2001