My Daphne du Maurier readathon has been long overdue but felt essential before I take us all off to the du Maurier Literary Festival in Fowey next weekend. It seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up, the chance to reread some favourites and tuck in a few I've missed, but time has ticked on and not a lot to show for it.
The arrival of Letters From Menabilly, Portrait of a Friendship edited by Oriel Malet and published in 1993, added to my new window ledge conglomeration and kick-started the reading as I was quickly steeped in Daphne's life. I have temporarily suspended all other reading to focus my thoughts on Daphne and nought else this coming week.
These are the letters spanning a friendship of some forty years and I was advised by 'them as know' that this book would give me the truest overview of Daphne's later life.
Intriguingly I see that Margaret Forster's biography of Daphne du Maurier, also published in 1993, ( which means I read it fifteen years ago) makes scant reference to Oriel Malet and no reference to these letters.The collection presumably being simultaneously collated by Oriel Malet for this biography of her own and hardly surprising that she didn't want to share this treasure trove of delights with anyone else, because it is Oriel who has shone the light into the darkest recesses of Daphne's life most effectively for me. By using Daphne's own words and then adding her own perceptions, Oriel Malet has unwittingly revealed to me the Daphne du Maurier I felt sure I knew and have often defended from that very first day I read Rebecca and knew I was a grown-up.
Letters can justifiably be criticised on many counts.
Perhaps never written with publication in mind, or perhaps they were?
It could be argued that there may have been great swathes of her life which Daphne failed to reveal in these letters, but that is difficult to believe when you read the frequently unguarded and candid nature of the thoughts and events in her life which Daphne shares with this most trusted of friends. To keep up any pretence consistently for forty years surely nigh on impossible?
Could publication of letters in this way therefore be considered unseemly? The ultimate betrayal?
Somehow I sense not in this unique set of circumstances because this book offers checks and balances to the biographies out there. The Daphne portrayed here in her own words comes across as a caring and forthright correspondent, as human as you and I and acutely aware of her own frailties, beset by an inborn shyness which frequently resembled diffidence and often hid behind mockery, blessed with a gloriously vivid imagination yet a constant sense of inadequacy and low-self esteem prevailed, never very strong or robust but not a scrap of arrogance or self-importance to be found. Humility declares itself at every turn alongside the pressures of life lived with a depressive husband which involved much personal sacrifice. You sense that underneath it all Daphne was indeed a repressed fun-loving person who subjugated it all to continue writing often under the most trying of circumstances, not only because she loved to write but also to keep the home fires burning.
'That's the awful bitter thing, I have provided for all of them, and have no capital myself.'
As Oriel Malet elaborates,
'...Daphne was the chief breadwinner of a family with expensive tastes...her peaceful life at Mena was a necessity for her if she was to continue to lay the golden eggs with which to satisfy her family's demands, and with her generous nature she could deny them nothing.'
It's difficult to begin to imagine the impact on Daphne's writing heart when she chooses to live with husband Tommy for a while in London to support him through his depressive episodes, while her soul yearned for the peace and solitude of Cornwall (this picture is of the North coast) and Menabilly which so enabled and empowered her writing self. Thankfully we don't have to imagine because Daphne tells it like it was to Oriel but never descending into vitriol or nastiness.
Life is one long interruption, The Flat becomes The Rat Trap and the 'clash of mutual guilts' evident as Tommy when not depressed becomes prone to nursing his liver from the comfort of his bed. Daphne often portrayed as a recluse when in fact she guarded her privacy and needed solitude to write and found it hard to surrender this when mid-book, even to go by Royal invite to Balmoral, though she found the Queen Mother great company.
To Oriel Malet Daphne was not only a dear friend but also an encouraging mentor and helpfully constructive critic of Oriel's own writing and over forty years they developed a friendship which is remarkable both for its longevity, its depth and sincerity and the scope of its reach.
Daphne the first to admit she lacked an outward elegance and poise and liked her country clothes above all else, but what radiates from the pages of these letters is that she took on huge responsibility for her family whilst possessing a clear insight into her own failings and more,
'It's the things we don't know about ourselves that are the nuisance.'