I always knew a book entitled Forever England, Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars, published by Routledge in 1991, would come in useful, which is obviously why I bought Alison Light's book years ago.
I was probably attracted by the cover as much as the content because Dame Laura Knight is one of my favourite Newlyn artists and this picture, Two Girls on a Cliff, is a very special one. I have a copy of it in a frame hovering around my desk at work. I'm frightened to bang a nail in the wall, be my luck to find an electric cable and the surgery would grind to a darkened halt. But I can still sit and gaze at the cliffs and the sea when I need a reflecting moment and some distance during my day.
Then I read this,
'As someone who once played on bombsites and listened avidly to stories of the Blitz and 'our finest hour', maybe my own sadness has seeped into the writing: a sort of melancholy recognition that those ways of being English, foolish and even vicious as they often were, were a form of identity and community in which I too was brought up, and whose disappearance, however welcome is also bound to hurt...'
Alison Light is no casualty to a wallowing self-indulgent bout of nostalgia, this is her doctoral thesis after all, but when I read these thoughts, written by her in the preface to her book, I knew I could identify 110% with the emotions she was expressing and which have somehow lain undisturbed and unformed within until my recent foray into the life and writing of Daphne du Maurier. The warning and the caveat comes much later in the book and provided me with a good check and balance to any over-indulgence or loss of perspective,
'Personal memory, far from being a consoling and comfortable thing, is a creature which will not do the bidding of the rememberer, and for du Maurier memory can as easily destroy as enhance the present, shatter a fragile peace of mind rather than create safe places in fantasy.'
Taking as her remit the interwar years so often defined in studies as an examination of literature by men, Alison Light suggests we cannot make sense of Englishness without exploring the extent to which ideas of national identity were bound up with notions of femininity and private life. Broad territory is traversed with studies of the writing of Ivy Compton-Burnett, Agatha Christie, Mrs Miniver / Jan Struther and most relevant of all for my reading at the moment a long chapter 'Daphne du Maurier's romance with the past', Daphne's writing life placed in the context of its time.
Firstly the idea that Daphne's writing is so tricky to pin down to one genre as it spans so many, from gothic, to romance, to family saga, mysteries, science-fiction and ghost stories finds me making favourable latter-day comparisons with the writing of Susan Hill, who has something to say on the subject and I sense may agree with Alison Light's suggestion,
'Rather than seeing du Maurier as a writer who crosses genres, we might see her as one who resists them and their modern cultural connotations, whilst nimbly making the most of the reader's expectations and generic pleasures.'
In other words, I hopefully sense the inference that we as readers are intelligent enough to cope with it all.
There is a fascinating exposition of Daphne's 'lifelong debt to the Brontes and her self-conscious re-shaping of their imaginative terrain and there they are again, and with Alison Light's assistance the debt becomes clear.
Jamaica Inn as a reworking of Wuthering Heights, echoes of Jane Eyre in Rebecca, the fascination with those on the margins of society so evident in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and the themes of 'drunkenness, theft, murder and madness and marital abuse' all surfacing in Jamaica Inn. The greatest debt of course taking the form of The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte and an entire chapter in Vanishing Cornwall devoted to tracing the Branwell family roots in Penzance.
I'm enlightened (no pun intended but it's true) by the suggestion that Daphne was
'the first generation of girls for whom the prescriptions for a suitably feminine reading were relaxed, allowing them to read the works of Alexandre Dumas, R.M.Ballantyne and Captain Marryat, as well as the boy's school stories.'
But beyond all this Alison Light's readable, lucid and carefully thought out progression through Daphne's life and writing has illuminated a pathway for my thoughts as I revisit books I first read as a teenager and many that I have never read at all. Daphne du Maurier's unique position within the twentieth century is well defined and alongside that it dawns on me that I was around for almost the whole second half of that century too, and suddenly I have a new perspective on what went before,
'the generation who grew up just too young to fight and who lived to some extent in the shadow of that prematurely aged group, only eight of nine years older, who had 'seen it all...this generation of women, many of who were the bright young things of the late 1920's...in some ways taking the place of those lost boys who in a strange way like Peter Pan, remained immortal in the mind, because they never lived to grow up...sustaining too that romantic image of boyish adventurism which had gone to its grave in the trenches.'
Daphne's all-important family background and history and her love of Cornwall, that 'land on the border of Englishness, the last outpost of the nineteenth-century', everything that made her tick all presented beneath the arc and glow of this new and different spotlight and all now informing my reading in fresh and exciting ways.
So much that I had never really considered before and now can.