I must begin this review with a few embarrassing confessions: (1) The only works by Daphne du Maurier that I’ve ever read are Rebecca (about a half dozen times) and “The Birds.” (2) The only works by any of the Brontes that I’ve read are Jane Eyre (about a dozen times), Villette, Wuthering Heights, and a few of Emily’s poems. I want to read more, but their other books keep getting pushed down on my TBR list, and when I get a craving, I just return to the reliable favorites that I know I love.
So, that said, I wasn’t sure I had any business reading Justine Picardie’s Daphne, but so many bloggers with impeccable taste have been raving about it that I couldn’t resist when I saw it at the library. And I’m so glad I gave in to temptation. This is a wonderful book about books, what draws us into books, and how we feel about the people behind the pen.
The three central characters in Daphne are (1) Daphne du Maurier, who is doing research for her biography of Branwell Bronte, coping with her husband’s poor heath and the revelation that he has been having an affair, and questioning her own mental health; (2) J. A. Symington, who has been studying Branwell for years but who has also been suspected of stealing manuscripts and falsifying signatures; and (3) an unnamed first-person narrator who is a young grad student, newly married and researching Branwell Bronte for her PhD, even though she’d rather study du Maurier, a subject her husband, a Henry James scholar, treats with scorn. Also significant to the story is Peter Llewelyn Davies, du Maurier’s cousin, perhaps best known as one of the boys who inspired J. M. Barrie to write Peter Pan.
Yes, this book is a literary feast, and Picardie’s acknowledgements show that she did her homework, talking to members of the du Maurier, Llewelyn Davies, and Symington families. The book includes the text of several of the actual letters exchanged by du Maurier and Symington. Even without a strong prior interest in du Maurier (or Branwell Bronte), I found the entire story fascinating.
But for me, the most interesting thing about this book was what it says about readers and about our relationships with the authors whose works we love. All three of the central characters have ideas about the writers they are studying. These ideas are based on their works, but do they have any basis in reality? The unnamed narrator finds that when she tries to connect du Maurier’s life and work into a coherent theory she could use in her dissertation, it all comes apart:
But also, what right do I have to try to make connections between her books and her life? It’s dangerous territory—like all those dated, sentimental Bronte biographies, spinning the myth about saintly Charlotte and spiritual Emily and gentle Anne. Those kinds of books make me uncomfortable; it’s the literary equivalent of catching butterflies, and then killing them, in order to pin them down and display them in a box.
A few recent biopics seem to assume that Jane Austen must have some great lost love, since she writes so incisively about relationships. I think that’s a pretty great leap. Writers are, after all, not their subjects, and keen observation and a vivid imagination can go a long way. Picardie’s exploration of the author/subject/reader relationship shows that it isn’t all neat and tidy and that, in many cases, the real story of the author may never be told. For us readers, perhaps the best thing is to take the comfort and joy that we can in the works, recognizing that the authors may have their own agenda and obsessions that are not our own.