If you'd never written a novel in your life, you'd be inspired to write one at Ferryside. The house, a former boatyard, is built into steep hillside on the sparking Fowey estuary. Rooks rise from the trees behind, cawing in counterpoint with gulls on the rocks below.
When Daphne du Maurier first came to stay here at the age of 19, it was the start of a passionate affair with Cornwall that would inspire her best-loved books. And it was here that she first set eyes on her husband, Major “Boy” Browning. A keen sailor, he’d so enjoyed The Loving Spirit, du Maurier’s debut novel about boat builders in nearby Polruan, that he spent his Army leave cruising up and down the Fowey looking for the author.
"Extraordinary!” says their son, Christian “Kits” Browning. “My father, kerb crawling!” Energetic and hospitable, with his mother’s blue eyes and chiselled features, Browning, 74, has lived at Ferryside since 1993. Portraits of his parents (Daphne as a girl with a Plantagenet bob; “Boy” looking like David Niven in his uniform) hang opposite each other in the sunny drawing room. “They never actually lived here – it was a holiday house back then. But they both adored the house, and of course, Jamaica Inn was partly written here.”
Du Maurier, born in London in 1907, was undoubtedly one of the most popular writers of the 20th century. The daughter of the actor-manager Gerald du Maurier and granddaughter of the novelist and Punch cartoonist George du Maurier, she soon eclipsed her celebrated forebears with a run of gripping bestsellers such as Rebecca, Frenchman’s Creek and My Cousin Rachel. The novels sold in their millions and were turned into equally popular films (Hitchcock directed adaptations of Rebecca, Jamaica Inn and The Birds). Following the chance meeting at Ferryside, and after a short, and rather unhappy, stint moving about as an officer’s wife, du Maurier leased the nearby Menabilly estate, and made Cornwall her permanent home.
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Browning, a film-maker and photographer who collaborated with his mother on a book and TV documentary Vanishing Cornwall, is delighted by BBC1’s three-part adaptation of Jamaica Inn starring Jessica Brown Findlay (Downton’s Lady Sybil) as Mary Yellan, the gallant heroine who falls among smugglers on Bodmin Moor. Production companies, Browning reveals, have been vying for film rights to the book for the past 15 years, but it was Emma Frost’s intelligent script, heavy with local atmosphere and authentic 19th-century grime, that swung it for the BBC.
“Emma loves the book and has stayed as faithful as you can to the original. The difficulty with adapting things for film and telly is that very often you have a writer who’s read the book once, years ago, and they basically go off and write their own thing. They don’t realise that once you start knocking characters out or chopping things about, you’re really just digging a hole you can’t get out of. So we were totally relieved to see the final cut of this film. I think Mum would be very pleased with it.”
Du Maurier, who died in 1989, famously loathed Hitchcock’s 1939 film version with its “Peter Pan pirates”. Her original vision had been more sinister, inspired, like much of her fiction, by a disturbing incident in real life. The author was out riding on Bodmin Moor with a friend when they were overtaken by one of Cornwall’s sudden mists. Lost in a treacherous bog, they trusted to the good sense and instinct of their horses who brought them safely to Jamaica Inn.
“They stayed overnight – it was a temperance inn at the time, so no booze or anything – and fell into conversation with the vicar of Altarnun, who told them all sorts of stories about smuggling in the old days,” says Browning. “Obviously it must have sunk in and Daphne thought, ‘Oh yes, there’s a story there...’ A few years later she put pen to paper [the novel was published in 1936] and it was really her first big success.”
The mist, the bog and the vicar all found their way into the story, but du Maurier would later deplore the effect of her book on the inn, which remains a kind of shrine for fans (“I pass by with some embarrassment, feeling myself to blame”).
However, that isn’t the way her son remembers it: “We didn’t go there as children – it was during the war and there was no petrol for trips – but later when my wife and I had our own kids, we used to come down and stay every summer and Mum loved it when we took her up to Jamaica Inn with the grandchildren.
“She’d insist on having her Dubonnet outside in the sun and very often she’d be recognised. She actually quite liked signing autographs, but she’d do it furtively, behind the ladies. Someone would say, ‘Please, Dame Daphne, would you mind?’ and she’d say, ‘Yes, yes, but don’t tell anyone I’m here.’”
While critics and biographers have traced elements of du Maurier’s rebellious character in Mary Yellan, Browning is unconvinced. “I’m not sure that she saw herself at all in Jamaica Inn, or in any of her female characters, really. She used to say she was rather bored with women and therefore found it more interesting, more challenging to write as a man. She absolutely hated all this bunk about her being a ‘romantic novelist’ and when you think about it, Frenchman’s Creek is probably the only truly romantic story that could be laid at her door.
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“Jamaica Inn, on the other hand, is full of the most extraordinary violence. It’s an aspect of her writing that tends to be overlooked. Nobody who only knows her early work can ever believe that she was also the author of The Birds and Don’t Look Now, but that sort of macabre side was definitely a very big part of Mum’s psyche.”
Nor does du Maurier’s reputation as an aloof and autocratic character chime with Browning’s memories of life at Menabilly, the rambling estate that was the prototype for Manderley in Rebecca. “She was a great mickey-taker, and of course, being a horrible little boy, one latched on to this because you knew it would get a laugh from Mum. She was a wonderful audience. When people say, ‘What do you most remember about your mother?’, it’s the laughter. That’s the thing that never comes across in biographies, but the house was always full of laughter.”
While Browning, du Maurier’s third child and only, longed-for son, was exceptionally close to his mother, he and his sisters, Tessa and Flavia, were always aware of “Mum’s need to work”. Nothing was allowed to interfere with the writer’s iron routine, or “routes” as they were known in the family. “She had a hut built at the end of the lawn, which was nearly a mile away from the house, so that she wouldn’t be interrupted. So she wasn’t a hands-on mother, in that sense, but great fun when she was there.”
Browning is neither offended nor awfully interested by long-running speculation about his mother’s lesbian relationships (notably with actress Gertrude Lawrence). “One never thought of them as being anything different from normal friends who’d come down and stay. I know it’s good for biographies, because it seems the media are obsessed with sexual orientation. But I don’t see what it is do with their career as a writer or a painter or actor. It must have been very difficult during the war when all the men were away. So many women were left down here, on their own, and I think they did become very close and had girlfriends and all that. But really, who cares?”
For her son, du Maurier’s success is measured neither in reputation nor critical acclaim but in the pleasure she gave her fans. And sales figures tell their own story: Rebecca, published two years after Jamaica Inn in 1938, still sells 4,000 copies monthly.
For the first time, there’s a flicker of defensiveness as Browning puts his mother’s case for posterity: “I think it was [author and poet] Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who said to her, ‘The critics will never forgive you for writing Rebecca.’ Because the Hampstead/Highgate literati of critics totally dismissed Mum just as they do with best-selling authors today – they hate Jeffrey Archer for the same reason.”
With a faithful version of Jamaica Inn set to bring du Maurier’s unique brand of suspense and beady social awareness to an even wider audience, her legacy is assured. “A great story will do it every time,” says Browning. “And that’s what Mum always wanted to be remembered as – a damn good storyteller.”
Jamaica Inn starts on Monday at 9:00pm on BBC1