It's Sunday and we're back again after the excitement of Saturday for three events and more unusually hot and relentless May sunshine down in Fowey.
Du Maurier's Cornwall at 10am and again Helen Taylor in the chair. Alongside Helen are Cornish experts Helen Doe and Ann Willmore. Helen Doe is a maritime historian whose book Jane Slade of Polruan charts the life of a family of Cornish shipbuilders and it was from Jane Slade that Daphne took her inspiration for Janet Coombe in The Loving Spirit. The lovely Ann Willmore is the owner of Bookendst that most delightful Fowey bookshop and in her own right a complete expert on all things Daphne. Anyone researching Daphne du Maurier first beats a path to Ann's door where Ann generously shares the fantastic archive of information she has gathered. I learnt more about Daphne in a thirty minute conversation with Ann on my last trip to Fowey than I had known in my entire life and came away fired with enthusiasm to get reading.
Amazingly this was Ann's festival debut so here it is, Ann sitting in a Helen sandwich against a Daphne backdrop, recorded for posterity.
Helen Taylor opened with a reading of the opening paragraphs from three of Daphne's books,Jamaica Inn, The King's General and My Cousin Rachel and also an extract from Vanishing Cornwall about Rocky Valley and St. Nectan's Glen. We used to walk this trail as children on holiday in Tintagel back in the early 1960's (when there was one gift shop) and somehow I was back there as the language merged into the spirit of place as Helen read.
I wonder if having Cornwall embedded in your psyche as a child helps all this?
Then a special moment as we watched brief extracts from Cliff Michelmore's BBC interview with Daphne to celebrate her 70th birthday. Footage of Daphne playing with the children at Menabilly, and the older Daphne commenting on those shots and some wonderful views of her rapidly vanishing Cornwall.
Daphne was a great walker and walkers look and see with meticulous
observation, Daphne understood what she saw and could translate that
into language and it is all so evident in the fiction.
Ann evoked more sense of place as she described an experiment to look at the last lines of Daphne's novels (don't do this if you haven't read them was the warning) and shared her local knowledge of locations.Use of the elements, sky,sea, clouds, granite and slate all proliferate as do frequent references to birds. It is a lesser know fact that Daphne's father Gerald was a keen ornithologist and Ann felt sure this had been a strong influence.
Helen Doe used the background picture in the first photo to emphasise the life intended for Daphne by her family (right) in stark contrast to the life she chose (left).We laughed at how horrified her mother must have been to see her daughter in the trophy photograph dressed in the seaboots and the sou'wester with a thirty pound, five foot plus deceased conger eel, which she had just landed, as a backdrop.
Life at Ferryside (Daphnes' first Fowey home) provided a unique proximity to the sea and its smells ; the tidal water, tar, rope, rusting chains and a perfect view of the busy working port of Fowey across the river. These were the dying days of the sailing ships and much of this is reflected in Daphne's books and who can tell how much she dreamt of sailing aboard one? Frenchman's Creek probably says it all.
The discussion was relaxed and highly informative, I could rattle on about it all for hours and as is often the case it stimulated a fine range of audience questions which I've summarized below including the occasional googlie, well fielded.
Q - If Daphne returned to Cornwall what would she make of it now? Eden? Heligan? What would she think?
A - She would have loved Eden and The Lost Gardens of Heligan but would possibly have been worried about the encroaching concrete and the vast numbers of tourists. She cared passionately about the county and frequently supported local initiatives financially to preserve the environment.
Q - How did she feel about the local population? It is known that she didn't like her children to play with local children
A - Helen Doe to the rescue because she comes from a local family and her grandfather, Harry Adams was amongst Daphne's best friends. Daphne was very close to local people but not a socialite and she also tended to compartmentalize her friends, but once a friend always a friend. It is a myth that she was unfriendly and reclusive but all this needs to be considered within the social context of the time where class distinction was a way of life and the upper class background that Daphne had been born into. There was inevitably an element of snobbery, Daphne's husband worked for the Royal Family who were revered and respected, Daphne herself was a distinguished and wealthy writer who though she could have readily accessed the London literary establishment chose not to but still needed to protect herself and her family from intrusion.
Q - Daphne had a great sense of humour, why is it frequently ignored?
A- As the film clips revealed her humour was very self-deprecating with a real sense of irony ' good heavens, just look at me there, everyone said I looked like Marlene Dietrich in that suit...'
Q - Did living in Cornwall free Daphne from the conventions of the feminine?
A - Absolutely unanimous 'yes', on her twenty-first birthday when she could have been expected to hold a glittering coming of age party in London, Daphne, whose family had bought her a rowing boat, took hersef off fishing. She hated society life, in Cornwall she could be herself.
Much well-deserved applause and now we'd better dash off for coffee and a pastry before we head to the Virago 30th Anniversary event.