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I Once Met... Daphne du Maurier. By Simon Courtauld

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In the summer of 1952, Simon Courtauld went to stay with his schoolfriend Kits in Cornwall – and Kits’s mother, Daphne, author of Rebecca

'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ That haunting first sentence, from Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, comes to mind when I recall the time that I went to stay at Menabilly, Daphne’s house in Cornwall, which was the inspiration for Manderley. I’m not sure if I have ever dreamed of going back to Manderley/Menabilly, but I do remember going there in the early Fifties when her son, Kits Browning, and I were friends at our Winchester prep school.

It was during the summer holidays that my parents drove this eleven- or twelve-year-old boy from the north coast at Polzeath, where we had a house above the beach, over to the rather grander Menabilly, on the south coast near Fowey. Daphne, who was married to Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Browning, never owned Menabilly. It was, and I think still is, the seat of the Rashleigh family, who seldom went there and agreed to rent the house to Daphne, where she lived for 25 years from 1943.

She had first seen Menabilly years before when, wandering through the woods on the Gribbin peninsula, she came upon this long, two-storied house, seemingly abandoned, with lawns and fields running down to a secluded bay. ‘The windows were shuttered fast, white and barred,’ she wrote. ‘No voices would sound within those darkened rooms. Menabilly would sleep on, like the sleeping beauty of the fairy tale, until someone should come to wake her.’ She called it the House of Secrets, and in 1938 it became the Manderley of Rebecca. (For the interiors of Manderley, Daphne drew also on her memories of Milton Hall in Cambridgeshire, which she visited as a young girl.)

My own memories of Menabilly, during the few days I was there in, I think, the summer of 1952, are of spacious rooms, some of them unused with dustsheets covering the furniture, long passages and places to hide. The skeleton of a Cavalier from the Civil War had been found in a bricked-up room after a fire in the 19th century, but the house did not have the feeling of being haunted. I didn’t see a great deal of Kits’ mother, who went off to write in a hut some way from the house, while we explored and bicycled through the woods, among Rackham-like trees, down a steep path to a cove where we picnicked and swam from the private beach. I particularly remember Daphne sunbathing topless on the beach – which was quite an eye-opener for an innocent schoolboy. We also spent time with ‘Tod’, a benign elderly woman who was the family governess and friend – nothing like the sinister Mrs Danvers.

I’m fairly sure that I had yet to read Rebecca in 1952, and so was unaware of the Manderley connection. Looking out to sea from the beach, I was unable to imagine where Rebecca’s scuttled boat and her body had been found, after her husband Maxim de Winter had killed her. But whenever I re-read Rebecca, references to Manderley, to the drive leading to the house, to the woods and the grounds surrounding it, revive distant memories of my visit to Menabilly. The stone gate piers by the entrance lodge gave way to a long, twisting drive so overhung with trees that the sun rarely shone through. The second, unnamed Mrs de Winter describes her nervousness as she approaches the house for the first time, until it comes into view, ‘built in its hollow of smooth grassland and mossy lawns, the terraces sloping to the gardens, and the gardens to the sea’.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, 1952 was a significant year in Daphne’s life. Her husband was appointed Treasurer to the Duke of Edinburgh when the Queen succeeded to the throne, and her close friend Gertrude Lawrence died. (According to Daphne’s biographer, Margaret Forster, the two women may have had an affair after Lawrence starred in Daphne’s play September Tide.) During this year Daphne published a collection of short stories; the most famous, thanks to the Hitchcock film, was ‘The Birds’.

I lost touch with Kits when we went to different public schools. When the lease on Menabilly ran out and her husband died, Daphne moved, in 1969, a mile away to Kilmarth, formerly the dower house to Menabilly. One day in the mid-Eighties I was driving through Fowey and decided to call on her, unannounced. Her West Highland terrier greeted me as I knocked at the front door. She was upstairs, and she leaned out of the window. I recalled to her my friendship with Kits all those years ago and we spoke of Menabilly and of Manderley. I think I did most of the talking, and I didn’t expect her to remember me. She seemed quite frail and had only another three years to live. But she was friendly, I was thrilled to meet her again, and I went happily on my way.

This story was from September 2014 issue. Subscribe Now