Angela du Maurier

Wednesday 13 February 2002 01:00

Angela du Maurier, writer: born London 1 March 1904; died London 5 February 2002.

Angela du Maurier, the eldest of the actor-manager Gerald du Maurier's three daughters, might have seemed to have lived in the shadow of her famous sister Daphne but, such was her strength of character, nobody in the family ever thought so. She wasn't beautiful like Daphne, she wasn't as talented as Daphne (or as Jeanne, an artist) but she dominated them both.

Unlike her sisters, she was an extremely sociable child, adoring the endless parties her parents gave at their home in Hampstead, and loving the visits to the dressing rooms of the theatrical stars who were her father's friends. She herself first wanted to become an actress and was thrilled when Uncle Jim (J.M. Barrie) agreed one year that she could play Wendy in his Peter Pan. But she soon gave up acting aspirations and decided, as did Daphne, that she wanted to write, like their grandfather George du Maurier.

Her first novel, The Perplexed Heart (1939), was accepted by Michael Joseph soon after Daphne's fourth, Jamaica Inn (1936), had had a great success and just before the even greater impact made by Rebecca (1938). It was bad luck for Angela and she knew she could not hope to compete. She went on to write seven more novels, a volume of short stories and two autobiographies, It's Only the Sister (1951) and Old Maids Remember (1966). Here she did have a minor triumph over Daphne, whose own memoir, Growing Pains (1977), as Daphne herself acknowledged, was not nearly so witty or entertaining as Angela's.

By far the most interesting and significant of Angela's novels, and one which, if it had been published when it was written, might well have brought her a certain kind of attention, was The Little Less (1941). This was actually the first novel she had submitted but, because it had a lesbian theme, and because Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928) had just appeared, no one would take it. It was eventually published as her third novel. Daphne thought it not suitable for her children's nanny to read.

In spite of envying Daphne's success, Angela was not made bitter by it and the sisters remained devoted to each other. They both loved Cornwall, where their father had bought a house at Bodinnick-by-Fowey in 1926. Angela was with Daphne the day they explored and discovered Menabilly, the house which became the setting for Rebecca and in which Daphne lived for 25 years.

It was Angela, too, who was with Daphne when they first spotted the handsome "Boy" Browning as he sailed into the Fowey estuary. Angela pointed him out to her sister, who was instantly smitten and went on to marry him, in 1932. Angela herself never married. After her father's death in 1934, she lived with her mother just across the water from Menabilly, and was a great help and support to her sister. Sometimes, Angela was the only one Daphne saw socially and she became quite dependent on her in times of need. On one occasion, in a panic over a visit from the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, Daphne called upon Angela to be there and was relieved when Angela chatted away with aplomb, while Daphne herself felt paralysed with shyness.

Once their mother had died and Daphne in 1965 had been widowed, the sisters became even closer, with strictly established routines of telephoning and visiting. They were never intimate confidantes, but staunchly loyal to each other. Angela had several close women friends, among them Naomi Jacob, but was scathing about those who drew what she considered unwarranted inferences from these relationships, writing that

all sorts of exotic, vicious interpretations are levelled at the most innocuous friendships . . . if two people share a house . . . the whispering campaign starts . . . the men are "queers" and the women's abode is a lesbian ménage.

She was equally irritated by those who considered that spinsters such as herself must know nothing of love and sex. She recounted how from the age of six to 25 she had fallen repeatedly in love "without a trace of sex coming into it" but that later she had thought it foolish "to live in ignorance of one of life's pleasures . . . to be as white as the driven snow at 30 is just damn silly".

Angela, it must be assumed, was proud of not having been silly. Outspoken, direct and full of strong opinions, she was in personality quite the opposite of her sister Daphne.

By Margaret Forster

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