One of the earliest coded lesbian images in Hollywood is the character of Mrs. Danvers, the creepy housekeeper in Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s bestselling 1938 novel, Rebecca. Seemingly obsessed with her first mistress, the late Rebecca de Winter, Mrs. Danvers both frightens and repels the new Mrs. de Winter. It is a classic image of lesbian desire as unsettling and “other.”
In Daphne Du Maurier’s own life, however, a British television movie makes clear, lesbian desire may have been unsettling, but it was also important. The 90-minute drama Daphne, which recently aired on BBC2 in the U.K., was scripted by Amy Jenkins, creator of the acclaimed British TV series This Life.
Starring Geraldine Somerville (Harry Potter’s mother in the Harry Potter films) as Daphne Du Maurier, the drama explores the life of the writer, whose other famous works include The Birds and My Cousin Rachel. It charts her unrequited love for her American publisher’s wife, Ellen Doubleday (Elizabeth McGovern), as well as her alleged affair with actress Gertrude Lawrence (Janet McTeer, who in 1990 starred as Vita Sackville-West in Portrait of a Marriage).
The story begins in 1945, as Daphne’s husband, Tommy, returns from the war. Although they married for love — and they now have three children together — the couple finds it difficult to reconnect after the years of separation. On the work front, Daphne feels frustrated that Rebecca‘s success seems to eclipse all her other novels. To compound her troubles, an American author is suing her with the claim that she has plagiarized parts of Rebecca.
But while traveling via ship to New York to appear at the trial, Daphne’s life takes an unexpected upturn when Ellen Doubleday appears in her cabin. Dressed in incredibly glamorous and elegant outfits, with silky dark hair, white skin and bright red lipstick, Ellen — after the austerity of wartime Britain — seems to embody the warmth and pleasures of America. Daphne is instantly, wordlessly smitten.
A close friendship develops between the two women, and once Ellen realizes Daphne’s feelings for her, she tells Daphne earnestly that she believes everyone has the right to love “without censure.” Nevertheless, she is heterosexual and cannot return Daphne’s feelings. Daphne writes her frustration out in a play called September Tide about a forbidden love between a young man and his mother-in-law. She sees the mother-in-law as being based on Ellen.
But her feelings become confused when the part of the mother-in-law is taken by Gertrude Lawrence, an older, worldly and confidently bisexual actress who is friends with Noel Coward. Although initially contemptuous of Gertrude, whom she sees as brash and slutty, Daphne is increasingly drawn to her charisma, and eventually the two have an affair. Much of the rest of the drama is taken up with Daphne’s competing feelings for the two women. She idolizes and pines over the unavailable Ellen, while at times being cruelly dismissive to the more available Gertrude.
In some ways, her conflicted feelings for the two women can be seen as tied to her conflicted feelings about her sexuality.
She can be frank about her desires. On holiday in Florence with Ellen, who has again rejected her sexually, she tells her defiantly, “Perhaps I’ll go to the Ponte Vecchio and pick up a prostitute.”
She is also frank about her feelings of masculinity. When her children admire her in a party dress, she sighs that she wishes she could just wear “velvet trousers and a belt.” She refers to Ellen making her feel like a boy — a boy of 18 — and wanting to fight dragons for her.
But she also has some discomfort, particularly when it comes to labeling herself. In a voiceover about her feelings for Ellen, Daphne reflects, “Love is love. … If anyone should call [her love for Ellen] by that unattractive word that begins with L, I’d tear their guts out.”