With tales of romance, smugglers and secrecy, author Daphne du Maurier wrote spellbinding novels inspired by the drama of the Cornish landscape.
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” writes Daphne du Maurier in the famous opening sentence of her novel Rebecca. She was known for channelling her feelings for cherished landscapes to inform her creativity, and in Rebecca this wistful line comes from the author’s homesickness for her beloved Cornwall.
Du Maurier was born in London in 1907 but it was the dramatic landscape of England’s most south-westerly county, which she first experienced at the age of 19 on a trip to Fowey, that excited her imagination and became the backdrop to her most memorable fiction. The initial drive to Fowey, along country lanes with clifftop views, was something du Maurier remembered for her whole life.
When she was nearly 60, she wrote about the impact of that moment: “The hired car swept round the curve of the hill and suddenly the full expanse of Fowey harbour was spread beneath us … like the gateway to another world. My spirits soared.”
Fowey (pronounced ‘Foy’) is now at the centre of what has been dubbed ‘du Maurier country’ and is a pretty port with an illustrious history – it sent ships to join the battle against the Spanish Armada in 1588. It is a picturesque place to visit, with its narrow tiers of pastel-coloured cottages winding down to the attractive harbour where small yachts with bright sails nip across the water.
The poet Robert Bridges described Fowey as “the most poetic-looking place in England” and it provided inspiration for Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows – he is said to have modelled Toad Hall on Fowey Hall, now the Fowey Hall Hotel.
Du Maurier would have taken the little vehicle ferry that journeys from Bodinnick on the eastern side of the Fowey estuary (it is still running today and there is a pedestrian ferry from the old fishing village of Polruan, slightly further down). She also frequented the 400-year-old Ferry Inn and it was on the way here on her first visit that du Maurier spotted a house perched between the cliffside and the river, named Swiss Cottage, which the family promptly bought and renamed Ferryside.
“Here was the freedom I desired,” she said. “Freedom to write, to walk, to wander, freedom to climb hills, to pull a boat, to be alone.”
For du Maurier this magical place did indeed provide a gateway into another world – it was here that her writing took off. She loved the coastal existence, learning to sail and fish and starting the long walks that were to become a habit throughout her life. She confided in her diary: “I think Fowey means more to me than anything now. The river, the harbour, the sea. It’s much more than love for a person.”
On her adventures she soaked up the atmosphere of Cornwall’s wild countryside so that its places, people and unique inspirations began to materialise in her work. Her first novel The Loving Spirit, for example, came from one of her excursions to a sheltered tidal creek off the Fowey River by Pont Pill. Here she found the wrecked schooner Jane Slade whose carved figurehead excited her imagination.
Du Maurier researched the family of the woman represented by the figurehead, and in the novel Jane Slade became Janet Coombe. The story chronicles the lives of four generations of a Cornish boat-building family living in the fictional town of Plyn, unmistakably the landscape of Polruan. A 14th-century block house, from which a chain could be pulled up across the river to prevent the entrance of unwanted vessels, can be seen today at the head of the estuary, towards the open sea of St Austell Bay – a reminder that this coast was once a popular haunt of pirates.
In a hopelessly romantic real-life story, it was this book that was to introduce du Maurier to her future husband. Major Tommy Browning was so affected by the novel that he sailed his yacht to Fowey in search of the author. They fell in love and in July 1932 were married at medieval St Wyllow’s Church in Lanteglos-by-Fowey – Jane Slade is buried in the graveyard.
Many of the landmarks that du Maurier loved around Fowey can be identified in The Loving Spirit and as she wrote more (by the time it was published in 1932, she had written another book and was halfway through a third) she ventured further afield. She travelled to the Lizard Peninsula, the southernmost point of Cornwall, and to Trelowarren Estate there, home to the Vyvyan family.
Du Maurier described the Gothic, atmospheric house and grounds at Trelowarren as “the most beautiful place imaginable” and was struck by its spooky long drive of holm oaks with dark, intertwining branches. The friend she made here, Clara Vyvyan, frequently visited a tributary of the Helford River nearby called Frenchman’s Creek, and it was to this remote spot that du Maurier and her new husband came for their honeymoon.
Du Maurier’s dashing tale of love and adventure of the same name was published in 1941. The heroine Dona St Columb vividly describes her first impressions of the secret spot: “Suddenly, before her for the first time, was the creek, still and soundless, shrouded by the trees, hidden from the eyes of men.”
The creek is still isolated and peaceful today. At low tide, the skeletons of dead trees are revealed, black and dripping in the water, and abandoned boats are beached, although you are unlikely to find a dashing foreign pirate. You can soak up the romance of the place, however, in dreamy Frenchman’s Creek Cottage, once rented by Clara Vyvyan and now owned by the Landmark Trust.
On another of her expeditions, in November 1930, du Maurier went riding on Bodmin Moor to the north of Fowey and, alarmingly lost in a thick fog, came across the Jamaica Inn Temperance Hotel. It had been a stop for stage and mail coaches travelling from Penzance or Falmouth to London, and it was easy for her to picture the “grim landmark” in a tempestuous past, when smuggling was rampant.
Her novel Jamaica Inn captures the forbidding bleakness of the moor that can still hold true today, especially in the grip of one of the sudden changes of weather to which it is prone. Her heroine Mary Yellan describes the sinister desolation of the place: “On either side of the road the country stretched interminably into space … mile upon mile of bleak moorland, dark and untraversed, rolling like a desert land to some unseen horizon.”
Jamaica Inn, to be found between Bodmin and Launceston, has gained notoriety for allegedly being one of the most haunted places in Britain. Hugely tourist focused now, it contains The Museum of Smuggling, recalling a time when the Cornwall coast was the most popular location for smuggling of silks, tea, tobacco and brandy into England.
For those on the trail of du Maurier, a more authentically atmospheric destination is nearby Dozmary Pool. The bottomless lake of legend, into which King Arthur’s sword Excalibur was thrown, was a place that the author certainly visited. In fact, she knew the moor well, from the pretty village of Altarnun, so at odds with the sinister connections in Jamaica Inn, to the highest tor, Brown Willy (whose name rather ruins its Cornish origins, Bron Wennyly, meaning ‘hill of swallows’).
Of course the building that du Maurier is most associated with, and that was more significant to her than any other, was waiting to be discovered. She wrote that she had glimpsed a roof deep in the “enchanted woods” below Gribbin Head to the west of Fowey and set out to find more about this “house of secrets”.
The ivy-covered grey stone manor was called Menabilly, and was hidden behind wrought-iron gates where an “eerie and most ghostlike atmosphere” awaited on the impassable drive. The local legend was that the house, part of the private estate of the Rashleigh family and passed down since Tudor times, was haunted. But du Maurier was fascinated with the place and returned often to trespass through the wild grounds of tangled holly and rhododendrons, once climbing in through an unlatched window to wander through dusty rooms.
She wrote about her feelings for the house in 1932, saying, “I’m here, I’m happy, I’m home.” However, Menabilly remained purely a preoccupation for du Maurier for many years, especially once her husband’s regiment was posted to Egypt in 1936. She detested Alexandria and longed to return to Cornwall. It was during this time though that the seeds of Rebecca were sown – her longing for Menabilly and Cornwall is manifested in the character of the second Mrs de Winter who forms a strong attachment with her new house: Manderley.
Published in 1938, Rebecca was a sensation and within the first few weeks 100,000 copies had been sold. Film adaptations and stage plays followed, which kept du Maurier busy, now in London. But in April 1942 she finally moved back to Fowey. She could not live at Ferryside, as the Royal Navy had requisitioned it, so she rented 8 Readymoney Cove, a pretty white house perched right on the water’s edge by a small bay between pretty Covington Woods and the grand mansion of Point Neptune.
Returning to Menabilly, she found the house even more derelict after years of neglect. Determined to save it, she contacted owner Dr Rashleigh who agreed to let it to her – dry rot, leaking roof and all. Her husband was far away in Tunis, occupied with the war, so du Maurier turned all her energies to restoring her dream home and by the end of the year, amazingly, it was ready for habitation. She and her children loved the grounds, which were full of azaleas in the spring, and the woods that blossomed with snowdrops, daffodils, bluebells and wild garlic. They swam in the sea, picnicked at Menabilly Beach and lived a quiet, idyllic countryside existence, quite cut off from the rest of the world.
Du Maurier wrote in 1946: “At midnight, when the children sleep, and all is hushed and still, I sit down at the piano and look at the panelled walls, and slowly, softly, with no one there to see, the house whispers her secrets, and the secrets turn to stories.”
With her happiness in her new home came more novels. In Cavalier romance The King’s General (1946) she blended fact and fiction to write about Menabilly during the English Civil War – the action ranges across Cornwall from Launceston Castle to Lanhydrock, now owned by the National Trust. Pendennis Castle, built by King Henry VIII in the 1540s just outside Falmouth, features strongly. My Cousin Rachel (1951) includes recognisable elements of du Maurier’s daily life: the rhododendrons, the mill cottage on the beach, the favoured spots for swimming; and Menabilly, though unnamed, is surely the mansion that Philip Ashley cherished. Her 13th novel, Castle Dor (1962) takes its name from the Iron Age fort on the west bank of the River Fowey, once home to the legendary King Mark and setting for the ultimate Cornish love story – Tristan and Iseult.
Walking in the footsteps of the author is not difficult, for her writing is suffused with recognisable elements of the Cornish countryside. Stroll up to Gribbin Head, for example, and follow the path down to Polridmouth Beach (pronounced Pridmouth). A notorious black spot for shipwrecks, the bay here still has some of the brooding atmosphere that permeates Rebecca. The pebble beach backs onto a freshwater lake, fed by a stream emerging from high above within the dark woods of the Menabilly estate, and the lonely former mill house can easily be imagined as the “cottage on the beach” where Rebecca met her lover.
Menabilly itself remains a mysterious presence on the landscape – du Maurier’s “house of secrets” has, perhaps fittingly, reverted to quiet seclusion. It was returned to the Rashleighs in 1969 when she moved to Kilmarth, the dower house of the Menabilly estate and her final home.
At Kilmarth she was inspired to write her penultimate novel The House on the Strand (1969), her interest piqued by the home’s cellars where she found the remains of experiments by the previous tenant. For this novel, which dips in and out of 14th-century Cornwall, she immersed herself in research to discover how the landscape had changed and began to “see the whole countryside in a 14th-century way”. Local landmarks again feature strongly, from Kilmarth to the almshouses at the base of Polmear Hill, to the nearby villages – all wonderful places to visit today.
In du Maurier’s stories, places become as vitally important as people and are characters in their own right. And throughout her work, there is no bigger character than Cornwall. In 1967 she produced a coffee-table book entitled Vanishing Cornwall. It was a chance for her to proclaim her love for her adopted county.
“A county known and loved in all its moods becomes woven into the pattern of life, something to be shared.
As one who sought to know it long ago … in a quest for freedom, and later put down roots and found content,
I have come a small way up the path. The beauty and the mystery beckon still.”
For more information on Daphne du Maurier’s life in Cornwall see Daphne du Maurier At Home by Hilary Macaskill, which explores the homes and landscapes of du Maurier’s life, illustrated with little-seen material from the family archive. Published by Frances Lincoln, £25, hardback.