When writers such as Daphne du Maurier and the Brontes have meant as much to me as they have for so many years, a book like Daphne by Justine Picardie is both compelling and irresistible and also vaguely worrying.
What if someone has taken my spell and messed with it?
Mixed it all up and spoilt my magic?
The path on both sides, author's and reader's, is fraught with peril and there are mixed reviews out there on Daphne so I wasn't sure what to expect.
Then you read that the film rights have been optioned and the only thing left to do is read the book for yourself. Justine has kindly visited here this week but it's still no guarantee I'll like the book, it could all have been horribly embarrasing.
Factual accounts seem easy in comparison to what Justine Picardie has achieved with Daphne. Surely it's a couple of years in the British Library (all right, perhaps a bit more) and you're done. To weave together the disparate strands of fact, fiction, biography, autobiograpy, the known, the unknown, the supposed, the newly discovered, the letters, the lives, the literary connections, ( Brontes, J.M. Barrie, the Llewelyn Davies family ) add in a completely new piece of fiction and place existing fiction ( Rebecca ) firmly at the hub, well that all might take a bit more application. Blurring literary boundaries in this way, and on such hallowed ground takes real nerve and courage, to write it as well as this, consummate skill.
I'm delighted to report that reading Daphne didn't mess with my spell at all, in fact it's added plenty more elements to my magic and reopened umpteen reading trails. Just look at the scribbles.
There are three lives to follow, Daphne's, then Alex Symington's - the disgraced curator of the Bronte Parsonage Museum and to whom Daphne dedicated her book on Branwell, both in third person narratives and then the much more intimate first-person narrative of a latter-day PhD student. I sensed this could have been partly a fictional vehicle for Justine to explore what she has done in researching this book as well as an exploration of some of the themes from Rebecca.
It is Rebecca who, in keeping with her spectral tradition, is encoded and woven into the book at every turn. For me the first Mrs de Winter's presence became a representation of all that is secret and concealed, glimpsed at each receding tide, quickly concealed again especially as everyone struggles with their demons.
Menabilly, Daphne's beloved home then became another vital component of the book and for this reader, a brilliant representation of Daphne's fractured soul; her retreat from life, the lived-in warm, comfortable, homely part versus the rarely and reluctantly visited derelict, locked-up wing; ghostly and terrifying when confronted.
There is much in Daphne's life to be unlocked and Justine Picardie has done it with great empathy, there is a fondness for her subject which I share and lesser-known elements of Daphne's character shine through. Her sense of inferiority, low self-esteem, her shaky confidence in her own ability and the torture of rivalry which Daphne felt so keenly. Rivalry with family, friends, her husband Tommy Browning's lovers and with her literary rivals, the race with fellow biographer Winifred Gerin to produce the work on Branwell Bronte was unknown to me as was the complete saga of Alex Symington.
The theme of women possessed by men in Daphne is powerful and pervasive at every level. Anyone who knows the subject will be familiar with some of the detail, others with no prior knowledge are likely to be fascinated by the scope of this book and there are some new connections here too of which I knew nothing. I have come away with a new and deepened sense of Daphne du Maurier as a person and a much clearer view of what lay beneath the veneer of the glittering and successful du Maurier family. Like many devotees I read the Margaret Forster biography the week it was published, but this book, swaddled in its pitch-perfect cover, with its Gwen Raverat-like picture, has added another side to Daphne du Maurier which I had always sensed was there. It's difficult to impart it all in a single post.
So what now?
Fortunately we live near enough to Fowey and du Maurier homeland to nip down on a whim, and so my whim is to be indulged this week, anyone else living within a whim's distance of Oxford could do no better than nip along to hear Justine speak at The Sunday Times Literary Festival this Thursday April 3rd at 8pm.
Look it's only £7.50, dinner with Mark Tully is £99, failing that you can chat to Justine in comments here today.
My starter for ten post-Daphne reading pile tomorrow.