Doesn't Polruan look perfect? Up and out early on a simmeringly hot Devon morning which, just two miles from home, becomes a Cornish morning as I cross the ancient little fifteenth century bridge over the Tamar. There's something innately right about entering Cornwall via Horsebridge. I was
parking in Fowey in record time to meet up with Justine Picardie before her event on Daphne and it goes without saying this
was all a great pleasure and also to be introduced to Henri Llewellyn Davies, the great grand-daughter of Sylvia,
mother of the Lost Boys. Henri is a psychic astrologer and along with
Rupert Tower who is a psychotherapist, made up the panel to discuss
Justine's book in the very capable chairing hands of Helen Taylor.
Helen Taylor, currently Professor of English and American Literature at the University of Exeter , has herself written a book recently, Scarlett's Women : Gone With the Wind and its Female Fans.
The list of books I want to read and writers I want to explore gets longer by a mile a day at the moment.
Justine launched proceedings by reading the epigrams and then the opening few paragraphs of her book.and there was immediately a tangible and haunting atmosphere as the words echoed around and we all sensed Daphne's anxieties,
'Menabilly was never silent, there were voices that whispered from its walls.'
Asked by Helen where the book had come from, Justine explained how
her lifelong love of Daphne's writing had been fired anew whilst
writing the introductions to two books for the Virago series; noticing
that Daphne's biography of Branwell had been dedicated to Alex
Symington, curiosity won the day and the long shadow of the Brontes
entered the melting pot of ideas.
In many ways, Justine explained, Daphne went into the territory first with her biographies of Branwell and her father Gerald, both of which read like novels and there was much debate about blurred boundaries and biographies as a form of fiction, one person's interpretation of another person's life and the truth being not quite what we think.
At this point I was reminded of Alison Light's chapter on Daphne in Forever England where she elaborates on the
'untrustworthiness of biography...its pitfalls and pleasures lie in offering us a romance, as though a life were one story with a united self at its centre, instead of several unfinished subjects, ill-matching and ill-fitting parts...these are not 'selves' like theatrical roles, put on at will at different times in our lives, but closer to the shadowy figures we are divided between in our dreams were we think we are playing only one part and yet there is no one else in the cast...'
and then this,
'Biographers must tread carefully amongst these dreams, since we all make fictions of ourselves in order to live..'
Rupert Tower, Daphne's grandson, recounted some fine childhood
memories of life at Menabilly and shed more light on the increasingly
complex woman that I now see Daphne to have been. He remarked on the
dangerous territory of fact and fiction and had concerns about certain aspects of Justine's book, but Justine responded with two marvellously apposite quotes from Nina Auerbach's book Daphne du Maurier, The Haunted Heiress.
'I was born into a world of fantasy and make-believe, my whole life has been a pretence' was one but I was so involved I didn't take note of the other one. Sorry.
Rupert certainly felt that Daphne never quite played the game in the ordinary way, she had wit and irreverance in spades and a wicked sense of humour, often looking at life in a wayward and tricksterish way. He felt, with an adult understanding now of his childhood experiences, that Daphne was acutely aware of both sides of her personality, displaying great moral courage to cross the boundaries in her writing. The frequency of doubles in many of her books was immediately apparent as we all considered that possibility.
Henri Llewelyn Davies gave a fascinating account of her own family. Henri is now in possession of the archive fondly known as the Family Morgue which Peter (one of the Lost Boys) had started work on before his death. Moving for me was her description of the impact of the First World War on the family, Peter, Daphne's first cousin, so traumatised he didn't speak to other family members for years afterwards.
The burden of the inheritance for the subsequent generations of literary families made for fascinating discussion and the potential for the name to feel slightly defiled by the inevitable intrusion was apparent. Yet it is equally obvious at a festival such as this that it often remains the hand that feeds subsequent generations too, and so the balance is a fine and delicate one that must be approached with respect and sensitivity by all sides. Daphne du Maurier's books are all back in print and selling again in huge quantities, as the Virago editor made clear at another session, and Daphne was increasingly aware as she wrote in a letter to Oriel Malet from Kilmarth in 1972, that she knew she was leaving future generations of her family very well-provided for,
'I've just been listening to the news, and they say we have a 'floating pound'! Doesn't it sound like a floating kidney in some poor patient?...But I was rather shocked and horrified when my accountants told me the other day that if I died my actual copyrights would be worth a tremendous lot.'
The summing up of the session left me with one very startling
thought as Justine pointed out that we are witnessing the myth of a
literary figure starting to emerge as Daphne's life takes on a
semi-fictional quality. We are indeed.
This myth steeped, much like the Brontes, in its own geographical and emotional terrain becomes increasingly potent and powerful and we are likely to see it continue to grow and flourish.
A great and informative session and my lasting impression is that Justine has indeed trodden very carefully and sensitively amongst those dreams. Justine's thoughts on her event here and time for lunch at one of those benches I think.