Thursday, June 28, 2012

Authors Behaving Badly: Daphne du Maurier

I know, I know... you're saying "du Maurier? Isn't she dead? How can she be acting badly?" This blog entry is less about anything she's doing now as much as it had to do with things that she'd done years ago, with her most famous book: Rebecca.

Would you believe me if I said that there's evidence to show that she'd pretty much stole the entire book from a Brazilian author's novel?

Imagine a story where a woman marries a wealthy man whose dead wife still holds a grip on everyone in the house, with a housekeeper that's passionately devoted to the deceased mistress of the house. Sounds like Rebecca, right? Well, this is also the plot of A Sucessora by Carolina Nabuco.

Which was written in 1934. Four years before du Maurier published Rebecca.

Because this was the early 1900s, news didn't travel as quickly as it does now and the similarities between the two books stayed relatively unknown until critic Álvaro Lins picked up on this around 1941. According to the info on Wikipedia's article on Rebecca, du Maurier had read a translation of A Sucessora that had been sent du Maurier's publisher to be printed in England and based her book on what she'd read. The article also has claims that Nabuco had been pressured to sign a contract that said that the similarities were all a coincidence and that du Maurier didn't plagiarize her work. (By plagiarize I mean that the two books are so identical in how they play out that it would be seen as outright plagiarism rather than idea theft, which is where someone takes the basics of an idea and adapts it to a storyline that's just different enough to where it isn't plagiarism.)

Of course du Maurier denied all of the claims, but from what I've been able to find it looks like the odds are stacked against her. I mean, what are the odds that you came up with a book idea that's identical to a book that had been released four years earlier? That just so happened to have been submitted to my publisher for review? It's like me writing a book about a boy wizard with a scar and a pet owl that goes off to wizarding school and trying to claim that I'm not ripping off Harry Potter. If this was plagiarized (which let's face it, it looks pretty bad for du Maurier) then it's pretty much one of the worst crimes you can do in literature. Odds are that assuming this is all true, du Maurier was relying on the whole "news doesn't really travel as much during these times" bit to keep this from getting discovered. After all, the publishing world wasn't like it is today, where it's easier for foreign novels to get published and where news of author badness can be discovered almost instantly. (When this was discovered the fiasco was rather well publicized when you consider the time period.)

This isn't the only time du Maurier faced plagiarism accusations, mind you. Frank Baker also claimed that du Maurier ripped him off, with her basing her 1952 short story The Birds on his 1936 novel The Birds. When the Hitchcock adaptation came out Baker was heavily encouraged to not seek any legal action against du Maurier.

I'd come across this in my nightly "I'm bored" trawls through the 'net and this just fascinated me. Rebecca is considered to be a literary classic and it's very likely plagiarized? And that she's had another person claim she'd done the same to them? It really makes me wonder if there's more authors she's ripped off that just never came forward or never discovered the similarities, with their works either not getting published and/or having such a limited printing that they are almost unknown to all but a small few readers.

If this had happened today, du Maurier would be crucified in a manner similar to how Kaavya Viswanathan was when her book How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life was discovered to be ripped off from several other books. Since this all happened in the 40s, this is pretty much unknown to most readers (including myself until just earlier tonight). So I decided that I'd share this scandalous little bit of knowledge with you, dear readers. Enjoy!


  1. I do not think so. Du Maurier wrote a novel based on relationships with her father, Gerald; James Barrie, (author of Peter Pan); and other people in her family and family circle. It follows the pattern of earlier works, incl. short stories which she had already written. Read 'Neverland' by Peter Dudegon who has done a great deal of research on the DuMauriers, James Barrie and his influence on them, and Daphne herself.

    Reoccurring themes happen all the time in literature, and one cannot plagiarize a plot or an idea, only the words a writer uses. Basic ideas and themes are used over and over. If this were not true, then no one could ever write a story or book about children at a boarding school.

    Look up TV tropes to see examples. (It's called TV tropes, but it applies to literature as well.)

  2. Theoretically, it could be that this is all coincidence. However, it's a little too coincidental that du Maurier repeatedly wrote books that were incredibly close to pre-existing works. Even if the books are somewhat different enough to where it's not plagiarism, it's still entirely possible that she was merely doing idea theft, where she knowingly took the plot basics from other authors.

    Does this make her books less well written? Not really. You can take a plot idea from another author but that doesn't guarantee that you can write well. Does this make her a little less creative? Probably.

    But as far as her claims that it was based on her relationships with other people, you have to take that with a grain of salt. Assuming that she did take the basic plot ideas from the various authors, it's highly unlikely that she's going to admit to it. Admitting that you pulled your ideas from someone else will usually backfire, so of course you're going to say that you pulled from sources other than the ones you took from.

    As far as plagiarism goes, you can actually plagiarize plots. It's not true that plagiarism can only happen if you copy someone's work word for word. That's just how it's most commonly defined, especially since it's so hard to easily separate plagiarism from idea theft. In order for the courts to see it as plagiarism you have to pretty much have an identical plot to the source material.

  3. A good example of idea theft is the movie Repo Men with Jude Law & the book "Repossession Mambo/Repo Men" that the movie was based off of. The book/movie came out in 2010, with many remarking on how incredibly close the plot was to the movie/musical Repo! The Genetic Opera. The basic idea was pretty much the same. The creators of Repo! were unable to sue for plagiarism because the two plots were different enough to where the courts wouldn't be able to see it as plagiarism. They'd call it "idea theft". While it's kind of sleazy, idea theft is not illegal. It's just kind of a dick move.

    Now if Repo Men had been about a drug dealer who robs graves to make his drugs, about a girl holed up in her home by an overprotective father with a homicidal split personality, well... then it'd be seen as plagiarism because the other guy would have literally taken the entire story. It wouldn't matter if it was re-written to have new words, it'd still be seen as plagiarism and theft.

    The thing is, there's a difference between re-using an often used plot trope or device and copying someone else's ideas. That's what I'm trying to get at. For example, if I were to write a book where I literally took the entire plot from Hunger Games and had it unfold in a manner identical to the plot in Suzanne Collins's trilogy, then that would be plagiarism. It wouldn't matter if I wrote different dialogue from Collins or renamed the characters- it would be open and blatant plagiarism from her ideas.

    That's where the allegations of plagiarism towards du Maurier get sticky. If the works are identical enough to where it could be proven without a doubt that du Maurier was just re-writing the plot from the other authors, then that would be plagiarism. (In other words, the plots from the books are identical in pretty much every way.)

    However if du Maurier's books are *just* different enough to where the books aren't identical, then it's not plagiarism. It's just idea theft, which is a lot harder to prove unless the author confesses to it. It's hard to prove, especially if it's allegations from a time when there weren't cameras in every office, facebook and computers on every desk, and so on. But like I said above, people who commit plagiarism and idea theft are not going to openly confess to it unless they're forced to. Du Maurier had too much to lose by saying that she potentially pulled a story line from another author. It would've been potentially tragic for her career.

    I'm going to finish this by saying that there's only one exception to plagiarism: parody. You can openly copy someone else's ideas as long as you openly state that this is a parody of the work. This is how so many comedy books, movies, columns, and the like can actually get made and printed. Of course very few of the comedians will stay entirely strict to the source matter, mostly because otherwise the jokes wouldn't be very funny. However, there have been cases where authors, filmmakers, and the like have tried to take people to court over parodies and lost because plagiarism doesn't really apply to parodies. (Unless they copy the entire work word for word and don't really do anything to the piece, but even then it's a gray area.)

  4. The reason you so rarely see people going after plagiarism of this sort in the legal system is that it's almost never as cut and dry as it would need to be in order to make an easy judgement. Plagiarism of this sort is always a murky grey thing, partially because the person doing the plagiarism is usually not a stupid individual. Most of the time the person is clever enough to know that they need to change the plot enough to where it's not a carbon copy.

    The other reason you don't see stuff like this go to court is because it's heavily discouraged due to financial reasons. Part of proving the plagiarism is proving that your work came first and that the other person read your work. You'd have to go through countless legal batters and unless you're the richer person or as insanely wealthy as the person you're battling, it's going to be so costly that you're better off not pursuing the case. Even then it all depends on the judge because plagiarism cases of this type are pretty hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, which is what the court system requires.

    For example, let's say I wrote the plot for the Twilight books and Meyer plagiarized my plot scene for scene. Unless they were exactly identical, or unless I could prove that she had read my books and they were close enough to be seen as this form of plagiarism, I wouldn't be able to prove my case. Even then I'd probably still lose in the bigger picture because then I'd have to deal with the stigma of being the person who sued Stephenie Meyer. Odds are the public wouldn't want to buy my work after that, which is something the average creative person would have to worry about.

    But yeah, there's no way of proving or disproving the plagiarism claims nowadays as far as du Maurier goes unless she wrote a confession somewhere.

  5. Du Maurier was a shrewd women who made a lot of money. My grandfather, Frank Baker wrote the The Birds in 1936 and failed to get an honest answer in letters from her as to her pinching his idea. He did write to his own publisher who told him his loyalties were jumbled as Daphne was his first cousin and he doubted that Frank would get a truthful reply from her. Says it all to me.

  6. Hello,

    My name is Ron Dwyer and I'm a big fan of the macabre fiction of Daphne du Maurier. I've read with great interest your blog post about Daphne du Maurier's alleged plagiarism. I've read other stuff on the internet about her alleged plagiarism.

    Recently, I read a novelette titled "Passion" by a Polish writer named Stefan Grabinski which was first published in Polish in the 1920s. I found similarities between "Passion" and du Maurier's story "Don't Look Now". The similarities:

    1. Both stories take place in Venice.
    2. A couple is visiting Venice -- however in "Don't Look Now" the couple is married, while in "Passion" two tourists in Venice fall in love.
    3. Both stories have a character with precognition. However, in "Passion" the precognitive is an artist who expresses his visions of the future in paintings.
    4. A shadowy character roams the area. In "Don't Look Now" its a serial killer. In "Passion" its a disheveled woman.
    5. The shadowy character stabs to death one of the main characters at the end of each story.

    Grabinski's work was not translated into English until the early 1990s. Lovecraft, in his essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature" makes no mention of Grabinski. I had thought that this was a decisive point in du Maurier's favor.

    However, Grabinski was translated into German and Italian. "Passion" was translated into Italian. Maybe Daphne du Maurier came across, or heard about the story, on one of her visits to Italy? Also, this has a similar pattern to the Rebecca controversy: idea theft from an obscure, non-English work of fiction. Another factor that would decrease her chances of getting caught is that Grabinski died in 1936.

    As to "Passion", I gave it a 5 star review at Feel free to respond.


    Ron Dwyer

  7. Shakespeare allegedly mined his plots from Holinshed's Chronicles, and rewrote the unpublished manuscripts of Christopher Marlowe (following Marlowe's death and the immediate 'disappearance' of said manuscripts and wip-notes, et al). Notwithstanding, we all pay homage to the Stratford Bard - even though we know the work produced in his name belonged to Marlowe and a select list of educated men of the day. Reasoning: In Elizabethan times playwrights were listed alongside doxies (prostitutes), ergo no respectable person would wish their name to be associated with work of a (what was then considered) lowly nature.
    Daphne du Maurier may, or may not, have 'lifted' copy from other works, but then tell me when this was ever an 'original crime'? Writers' borrow from other writers on a daily basis.
    In parting I would add one of my early novels was optioned by a certain major US film studio. After 2-years the option was dropped. Two years after that I happened to see a TV film (made by the same studio) wherein passages of my own novel had been copied verbatim. The point quite simply is ... nothing changes.