The book with the most famous first nine words in the history of literature turns 75 this month. Daphne du Maurier described the writing of Rebecca, in the early part of 1938: "Seeds began to drop. A beautiful home ... a first wife ... jealousy, a wreck, perhaps at sea, near to the house .... But something terrible would have to happen, I did not know what ...."
The novel begins: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me .... At first I was puzzled and did not understand, and it was only when I bent my head to avoid the low swinging branch of a tree that I realized what had happened. Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long, tenacious fingers ...."
Du Maurier struggled with the writing of Rebecca, and repeatedly warned her publisher that she was likely to miss her deadline. This was to be her fifth novel – her first four, including Jamaica Inn, had been relatively successful, and she accepted from the publisher, Gollancz, a three-book deal and a £1,000 advance – equivalent to 18 months' salary for her husband, a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Grenadier Guards. After gnashing her teeth and tearing up pages, du Maurier returned from Alexandria to Britain, palmed her children off on friends for Christmas ("I am not one of those mothers who live for having their brats with them all the time," she later wrote) and finished Rebecca in a four-month frenzy. Her editor declared it "everything that the public could want" and ordered a print run of 20,000 copies, which sold twice over within a month. The book has been in print ever since, and still sells about 4,000 copies each month.
The novel was sold by Victor Gollancz as "an exquisite love story". Poor Mrs Gollancz ....
The novel has inspired three works of fiction: Mrs de Winter, by Susan Hill; The Other Rebecca, by Maureen Freely; and Rebecca's Tale, by Sally Beauman. Margaret Forster's biography, Daphne du Maurier, is the authoritative account of the author's family life and marriage (Arrow, £9.99). Myself When Young: The Shaping of a Writer, by Daphne du Maurier, based on the author's own diaries, and The Rebecca Notebook: And Other Memories, by Daphne du Maurier, are both published by Virago (£9.99 each). Daphne du Maurier and her Sisters: The Hidden Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing by Jane Dunn was published by HarperPress earlier this year (£25).
Manderley is thought to be inspired by Menabilly House, where du Maurier stayed and which still stands near Fowey, in Cornwall. The Daphne du Maurier Festival of Arts & Literature, now somewhat controversially renamed the Fowey Festival of Words & Music, is held each May in Fowey. She was not the only writer to be inspired by the area. Robert Bridges called it "the most poetic-looking place in England" and J M Barrie thought that "of a moonlight night, it might pass for a scene in a theatre". Fowey Hall may be the inspiration for Toad Hall in The Wind in the Willows. When she first arrived in the town, du Maurier wrote: "The place has taken hold of me … ships anchored, looming up through blackness ... the splash of muffled oars ...."
Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca is published in paperback by Virago Modern Classics, £8.99.