I am often tempted to think, when I look at someone like Anne Lister or Radclyffe Hall, that the reason they were able to stand out, in difference, in the face of society, was due in no small part to their privileged position. I wonder how many hundreds of working-class people, over the centuries, felt things in themselves that they had no vocabulary to describe or question, no point of reference to navigate from – how many women, for example, married, bore children, and died simply because life had nothing more to offer. When we see a photograph, on the internet or in a book, of someone in a uniform or a dress, and read a bio of how they lived for x-number of years contrary to their observed sex at birth, we forget how exceptional they were, not necessarily in who they were but in their being able to be visible. We never wonder how many other people lived their lives in puzzlement, wondering what was “wrong” with them, and not having anyone to talk to about it. I know, I can remember life before the internet – most of my life has been before the internet – and how difficult it was to find answers to one’s questions about sexuality or gender, even to find anyone to ask.
But privilege is no guarantee of freedom to explore, to act, and whatever a person’s origins, we must grant them their experience. One twentieth-century writer who always fascinated me was Daphne du Maurier. By no means a modernist, she nevertheless managed to conjure up a kind of otherness in her fiction. Her most famous novel was Rebecca; often thought of as some kind of gothic romance, it is in fact a tense psychological story, the ‘action’ of which mostly takes place in the unnamed protagonist’s imagination. Her short stories Don’t Look Now, in which a husband, left behind in Venice when his wife has to dash back to England, imagines that she has returned to the city and is avoiding him – he doesn’t realise he is psychic and is glimpsing scenes that will not happen until after he is brutally murdered – and The Birds, in which flocks of birds terrorise a coastal village, were both made into films, as was Rebecca. She wrote other quirky stories, such as The Blue Lenses and The Chamois, that were full of dread and unease.
It occurred to me the other day, that I had seen countless photographs of her, but in very few was she smiling. Even photographed in the company of her husband Lt. General Sir Frederick “Boy” Browning, whom she supposedly adored, with whom she had three children, and with whom she enjoyed moving in court circles as Lady Browning, there wasn’t a flicker. She even seemed mournful in the company of her children.
It was in those photographs with her children, taken at Menabilly, the stately house in Cornwall of which she was the tenant from 1943 to 1969, I was struck by how masculine she looked despite her long hair. She seemed to dress habitually in a tweed suit, slightly too big for her as though it had been tailored for a male figure. I knew that she had come to prefer being there to accompanying Boy to London, to prefer spending long periods without him. That was an experience she drew on for her best-known stage play, The Years Between, in which someone who believes herself to be a war widow for many years, is shocked to find that her husband is alive, having spent those years as an agent in enemy territory. We may think we recognise dysphoria when we hear about it, but how it must have puzzled and distressed someone who had no reference point for it.
Author and journalist Lisa Hilton had this to say, when writing a preface to du Maurier’s novel Mary Anne:
The compatibility of writing and femininity was always a treacherous issue for du Maurier herself, who often said that she wished she had been born a boy, a wish her father Gerald confessed to sharing in a poem he wrote for her as a child. Daphne felt ambivalent about her roles as a woman and a writer, an ambivalence that was reinforced in later life by her sexual feelings for Ellen and Gertrude. The first time she met Ellen, Daphne confessed that she felt “a boy of eighteen again with her nervous hands and a beating heart.” “Again” is the telling word. As a child, Daphne had apparently convinced herself that she was a boy, and her biographer Margaret Forster comments on the devastating psychological consequences of puberty on this belief.
“Ellen” and “Gertrude” in the above passage are the wife of du Maurier’s American publisher Nelson Doubleday and the actress Gertrude Lawrence. The web site moviediva(dot)com, in a review of the movie version of the novel Frenchman’s Creek, in which the female protagonist dresses as a cabin boy on a pirate ship, says “Daphne was shy and imaginative and felt as a child that she was really a boy, a conviction dashed by puberty. Attracted to both boys and girls she loathed the idea of being ‘Venetian’ family code for lesbian. But, she wouldn’t be Venetian, if she were really a boy.” She referred to herself as “the boy in a box,” creating an alter ego for herself with the name Eric Avon. But later “she ‘put the boy in a box’ as she would say, and decided to do the conventional thing and get married. Unsurprisingly marriage and motherhood did not suit her.”
One of the few photographs I have seen of Daphne du Maurier smiling, is the one that accompanies this article. She is sitting back in a chair with a book on her lap; she is not reading, but rather her gaze is distant. She is dressed in what appears to be an officer’s tunic from the Napoleonic Wars, a gesture of flamboyant transmasculinity. After her death in 1989, some early poems of hers were found behind a framed photograph of herself in a swimming costume, posing like the “Spirit of Ecstasy” on the bonnet of a Rolls Royce. Her willingness to find some way – in her writing if nowhere else – to confront convention, can be seen in the one titled “The Happy Prostitute,” in which she challenged the idea of a sex worker as “tired and old, selling myself with sorrow, just to gain a few dull pence to shield me from the rain,” and spoke instead of her happiness. The other, an untitled poem, expressed loneliness, and a longing for the carefree days of her youth, which were “bliss.” Despite everything, she did have a sense of what it was to be happy, or to have been happy.
Daphne du Maurier, like the countless unknowns, survived only by making compromises to live in gender-normative society. Sometimes I find my mind drawn to seeing her as the protagonist of The Blue Lenses, who looks in the mirror only to see herself as a frightened doe; at other times I see the would-be dashing soldier at Salamanca or Waterloo, and I honour the vigour and variety of her writing. Beyond the cabin-boy episode in Frenchman’s Creek, there is little in her writing to tell of transmasculinity. In the frightened doe in The Blue Lenses, or the unnamed girl thrust into decaying aristocracy in Rebecca, or the self-haunted husband in Don’t Look Now there is however a wonderful sense of being the “other,” the exception. The boy might have stayed hidden in his box, but that offspring of genius did not.
 Lisa Hilton, Introduction to: Daphne du Maurier, Mary Anne (Virago, 2004). vii-viii.
 Wikipedia reports that the children of both du Maurier and Gertrude Lawrence objected to the suggestion that there was anything but friendship between the two women. Lawrence’s biographer, Richard Aldrich, went into detail about their friendship but made no mention of anything more intimate. However, Lisa Hilton is not alone in referring to du Maurier’s attraction to Lawrence being, at least, a catalyst for her feelings about her gender, quoting above from Margaret Forster. The issue being openly discussed, and its being referred to in du Maurier’s own words, this hardly counts as an “outing.”
 “Frenchman’s Creek,” moviediva, 2015, tinyurl(dot)com/MaurierMoviediva
 Picture credit: The British Library. I am reminded of the young Stephen Gordon, in Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, who enjoyed dressing as Admiral Nelson.
 Sebastian Murphy-Bates. “Two Never-before-seen Poems by Novelist Daphne du Maurier…” The Mail Online(2019). tinyurl(dot)com/MaurierMail.