Daphne and Rebecca

Yes, I’m back again. After missing a post or two last week I’m falling behind in my reviews and I hate that, because I write better about a book when I’ve just read it, than ten days later when I’ve forgotten the names of the characters. And the book in question was a very good one: Justine Picardie’s Daphne, which was a cunning interweaving of fact and fiction around a period in the life of novelist Daphne du Maurier. The era Picardie chooses is the late 1950s, when du Maurier was struggling with both personal and professional crises. Her husband had just had a nervous breakdown, brought on by overwork and the strain of having a serious love affair with a woman Daphne privately refers to as the ‘Snow Queen’. Always a trooper, Daphne rises to the occasion, accepting that her precious solitude in Menabilly is disrupted by a resentful, depressed, impossible Tommy, whilst strenuously repressing her own devastation at his infidelity. But it hasn’t been an easy marriage; Daphne herself has known infatuation, in the form of another man, many years ago, and her father’s former lover, Gertrude Lawrence, in the not-so-distant past. As she clings on to the shreds of her relationship with her husband, the ghosts of past loves rise relentlessly to the surface of her mind.

Then there’s work, which isn’t going so well either. Determined to be taken seriously as a writer, Daphne envisages a long-cherished project: a proper, scholarly biography of Bramwell Bronte, whom she believes has been wrongfully neglected and overlooked. To aid her in her researches, she enters into correspondence with bibliophile and ex-curator, J. Alex Symington, a man who has devoted his life to sourcing and protecting the manuscripts of the Bronte family. Symington lends her his qualified support; initially he is jealous of her project, wanting the revelation of Bramwell’s genius to be all his. But he needs Daphne too. Unbeknownst to her, his career collapsed in scandal when he was asked to resign as curator and librarian at the Bronte Parsonage, having taken various books and documents into his possession and not returned them. For Symington, this was an act of loving salvage on his part, as well as an obsessive need to possess, but he is not the kind of character to acknowledge wrong-doing on his own part. His whole sorry ageing life is dedicated to the internal pursuit of recognition and absolution and the fact that a famous lady novelist, even if a popular one, should turn to him for help, represents a vestige of glory that he cannot forgo, and that must be balanced with his desires to hoard his collection and his knowledge to himself.

The narrative splits into three voices, then: Daphne’s, as she tries to put her biography together, despite Tommy, despite the ambivalent help of Symington, and despite the ghost of Rebecca, who haunts her still as her most successful creation; secondly, Symington, engaged in his own internal warfare still, with the ghosts of authority who dismissed and humiliated him; and thirdly, a young nameless girl who is researching Daphne du Maurier and her connection to the Brontes in the present day. This final thread of the narrative appeals to the legend of Rebecca herself, as she is married to a much older lecturer whose first wife, Rachel, exerts a powerful hold over the couple. Left on her own too much, scorned by her distant husband for her interest in such a critically unexciting figure as du Maurier, she starts to feel her personality dissolve in her fascination with the life of du Maurier and her fantasies about the enigmatic Rachel. As you can tell this is a narrative structured by multiple hauntings and full of porous, uncertain states of mind. I felt this was the strongest part of the novel – Picardie is particularly good at showing people on the crumbling edge of madness, and the scenes where Daphne, overwrought with the strain of pretence and stoicism, starts to collapse into paranoia are especially striking.

Before I read this book, it just so happened that I had reread du Maurier’s Rebecca, the first time I had done so since reading it and being completely swept away by it in my early teens. It felt very odd indeed to read it with my 40-year-old critic’s mind. What struck me was the brilliant balance that du Maurier manages to strike between her characters. The book would be all wrong if Mrs Danvers’ chillingly obsessive love for Rebecca, her machiavellian darkness, weren’t balanced out by Frank Crawley’s honest, awkward goodness. And Maxim, suffocating as a character in the binds of his impenetrable masculinity, needs his tweedy, careless-tongued sister, Beatrice to demonstrate a female version of that particular, emotionally constipated upper-classness. The novel’s mad people, the hints of horror that lurk beneath the beautiful surfaces of Manderlay, are equally well chosen; the inarticulate idiot, Ben, who guards Rebecca’s boathouse, and the vulgar and louche Jack Favell, who stands as a clue to Rebecca’s ugly side. I hadn’t remembered them all, had thought of the book as a kind of three-hander, between the narrator, the housekeeper and the ghost of Rebecca herself, but of course it isn’t. It’s the mosaic of those characters, the different sides to the story that they suggest, that makes the narrative so very satisfying. But the other story they have to tell is one that the narrator cannot at first see, blinded as she is by her imaginings.

And here’s the interesting thing: in du Maurier’s novel, the narrator loses her self, loses her confidence and her self-esteem because of her idealization of a ghost, and what the story works to do is give them back to her again by gradually but relentless destroying that perfect image. Rebecca is a kind of manifestation of the narrator’s harsh inner critic; she represents the perfect woman that the narrator thinks she can’t be – dramatic, beautiful, sociable, lovable, all in excessive ways. The destruction of Rebecca is in fact the destruction of the images that haunt most women’s heads, the ones that suggest we are never good enough as we are. The process of watching that ideal image being torn to pieces is one that thrills and terrifies women and it’s no wonder that a fierce price is exacted, in the form of the narrator’s exile from England. We tamper with the bullies in our minds at severe, personal risk. I’ve read critics sneering at the novel for having a dubious morality, but they just don’t see that Maxim is far more lovable once it turns out he’s a murderer, than when he was a man in thrall to a dead woman. He’s avenged the narrator by despising that perfection we’re all supposed to emulate, he’s destroyed it and all it represents. Who wouldn’t love that?

So, in Rebecca, the narrative works to undo those unhealthy attachments to fantasy images. The image of Rebecca in the narrator’s head needs to be expunged, as it’s doing her damage. By contrast, the fantasies and the hauntings in Justine Picardie’s novel are used to shore up uncertain states of mind. Daphne du Maurier, for instance, isn’t whole unless she is creating some fictional life. Her appropriation of characters from the past and her creative imaginings are what hold her in a state of relative sanity. Symington’s projections, too, keep his fragile sense of self alive. It’s only the young girl who, at the very end, frees herself from her literary entanglements with others, and finds a better, brighter future for herself by doing so. Picardie’s novel is extremely easy to read, stylish, clever and compelling, but it does keep to a one-note tone throughout. It isn’t the thriller that du Maurier’s Rebecca was, because the demons her characters want to vanquish are equally the props that keep them going. But that’s an observation, not a criticism. There aren’t enough novels out there about the perils and triumphs of literary creativity and the strange business of criticism, both reverential and destructive, that rises up around it. This is a very good one.

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17 thoughts on “Daphne and Rebecca

  1. Sounds fascinating! Daphne does, I mean – I’ve already read Rebecca. :) I’ve been wanting to read Daphne du Maurier’s Myself When Young, and I bet it would be fascinating to read it alongside Picardie’s novelization of (parts of) her life. I don’t know anything about Daphne du Maurier personally, so that would be a fun set of books to read together.

  2. Rebecca is one of my favorite novels, and like you I reread it last year after a good fifteen or so year interval. I don’t think I got what du Maurier was trying to do the first time around and appreciated the subtleties far more this time around. I’ve been wanting to read Justine Picardie’s Daphne–nothing stopping me really (you know how it goes), but I wanted to read it along with something about the Brontes–better to just jump into the novel I think than trying to plan out some complicated project. DDM was such a complex person–I think Rebecca is amazing and am disappointed when critics pooh pooh it!

  3. Great review. I enjoyed Daphne very much. I was especially intrigued by the whole idea that our beliefs about others say as much about us as they do about the others. In one way or another, all of the main characters use their literary obsessions to better understand their own lives, and the effort isn’t entirely successful.

    And I really need to read more Du Maurier.

  4. Whoa. There is a lot going on here. I confess that I know Rebecca only through the movie version, in which Judith Anderson’s (I believe it’s Judith Anderson–am probably wrong) Mrs. Danvers is so completely menacing. Would never, ever have made a connection between DDM and the Brontes (Rebecca and Jane Eyre, of course!With a few twists.) Two more for the neverending list. Now if someone could only recommend a nice burrow or a bunker (with good lighting, preferably)so that I could hide away and complete all of this reading….

    Am still giving much thought to your last post. Very interesting stuff.

  5. I’m surrounded by so many du Maurier fans it really is ridiculous I’ve never read her. Your description of Rebecca and of Picardie’s book makes me want to learn more about the worlds you’re describing — it sounds fascinating!

  6. Rebecca is a book that continues to fascinate and amaze me as one of the most perfect literary thrillers ever written … and the du Mauriers, as people, are just as interesting. I’m sure you’ve seen George du Maurier’s stunning Punch cartoons, but if you haven’t, they’re well worth a look … it’s hard to believe that the same dazzlingly satiric mind produced Trilby .

    I also recommend The House in the Strand , one of Daphne’s lesser-known works, about a drug that may or may not allow people to experience parallel worlds. Really ahead of its time, conceptually.

  7. What fun! I am currently reading Rebecca for the first time and so far and loving it. I will have to add Daphne to the TBR list. It sounds like it has its faults but that the good outweighs the not so good.

  8. I, too, re-read Rebecca a few years back after not having read it since I was a teenager, and I was blown away by its depth. I have other du Maurier’s I want to read/re-read, but you’re making me think about returning to Rebecca. No, I won’t do that. I will try Picardie instead, which will then probably lead me to some sort of biography of the Brontes. Sigh! One book always leads to at least two others, doesn’t it?

  9. When I was a teenager I read Rebecca, and du Maurier instantly became one of my favorite authors. I gobbled her books up, and still have my old copies of My Cousin Rachel, Jamaica Inn, Flight of the Falcon, and The Glass Blowers sitting next to Rebecca on my shelves. I haven’t read The House in the Strand that Davidrochester suggests. I can’t imagine how I missed it, and now have to get it. Litlove, this was a wonderful post. I’ve never thought of looking into du Maurier’s personal story, but now I really must. You’ve re-sparked my desire to go back and read some of these old favorites as well.

  10. My only knowledge of DDM is Jamaica Inn, which we read at school and which was exciting and makes me associate Cornwall with smuggler’s coves. I’ll have to give Rebecca a try on the strength of this review. Thought you might be interested in this quote from Wikipedia: “… du Maurier explained to a trusted few her own unique slant on her sexuality: her personality, she explained, comprised two distinct people – the loving wife and mother (the side she shows to the world) and the lover (a decidedly male energy) hidden to virtually everyone and the power behind her artistic creativity. According to the biography Du Maurier believed the male energy was the demon which fueled her creative life as a writer.”

  11. When I got to the end of your essay here, I realized I wasn’t sure whether Daphne was fiction or non-fiction, but I see now (by going back up to where you tell us quite succinctly!) that it is a combination of both. I’m always interested in this type of writing since I think it asks the reader to work hard (in an enjoyable way) to sort the reality from the invented. It sounds like Daphne provided a lot of food-for-thought with respect to Rebecca, which is a story I know only from the movie, so perhaps I’ll try these two books as a paired read later on in the summer.

  12. Jenny – ooh I read Myself When Young absolutely years ago, when I was in my du Maurier kick and I loved it. This is the kind of book that makes you want to read around. I headed straight over to Margaret Forster’s biography of Daphne du Maurier after reading it to check up on a non-fiction version of the same events. Picardie keeps very true to life, by this account. She had a fascinating life, one well worth reading about. I’d love to know what you make of it.

    Danielle – After reading Rebecca I read one of the Grumpy Old Bookman’s posts about it (he’d seen it at the theatre) and whilst his name gives him away, I felt it was a real cheap shot sort of review. But I’ll put it down, most generously, to gender blindness. I think you are quite right to want to read something alongside this, and a book on the Brontes would be brilliant. I know very little about them myself, so would be interested to know what you chose!

    Teresa – this comment: ‘all of the main characters use their literary obsessions to better understand their own lives, and the effort isn’t entirely successful’ really hits the nail on the head, I think. I felt like reading more du Maurier after I’d finished the novel, but I wonder whether I’ve got through most of the really good ones.

    ds – You’re quite right that there’s a lot going on in this book! But it’s worth reading Rebecca first, as it makes all the references to that novel more vibrantly alive. Rebecca is a wonderful novel, and I wish I could read it for the first time again. If you ever find that bunker, let me know. I could use a few weeks in it! ;)

    Dorothy – yes, you might well appreciate her as she has quite a melancholy view and does menacing really well. Rebecca is great, but My Cousin Rachel usually runs a close second for a lot of readers. I’d love to know what you think of her, in any case!

    David – I quite agree that, structurally, Rebecca is outstanding. And she could give a masterclass in character and atmosphere, too. I’ve read Forster’s fantastic biography of her, and David Lodge’s Author, Author, which is particularly good as a portrait of du Maurier’s friendship with Henry James (and entertainingly scathing about Trilby, too). But they are indeed a fascinating lot, and I’d happily read more. As for DDM, I have not read The House on the Strand, but will search it out now. I do believe I have it in a compilation volume somewhere…

    Stefanie – it’s great that you’re reading Rebecca first, that’s the place to start, and ooh lucky you to have that experience for the first time. It’s such an impactful novel. Picardie’s Daphne is definitely worth a read. It’s not as good as Rebecca, but that’s a high hurdle by anyone’s standards!

  13. Emily – ain’t that the truth! If only every book wouldn’t lead to a whole host of others, I might – just might – be able to keep my TBR pile under control. As it is, you should know that you have lured me astray again, and into buying a novel by Margaret Millar. It was only 1p plus postage and packing – how could I refuse??

    Grad – I am delighted if you’ve felt the urge to go back to books you once loved. I think that’s one of the nicest nostalgias you can have. Jenny’s comment has made me want to dig out Myself When Young, and David has sent me looking for The House on the Strand, so I will probably be joining you! If you feel like a du Maurier biography, I do recommend the one by Margaret Forster. It really does read just like a novel.

    Pete – thank you so much for the quote – that’s so thoughtful of you! If you ever feel like it, Margaret Forster’s biography of Daphne contains quite a lot about that dual personality issue, with its shadings into false selves and homosexuality, as well as its link to her writing life. You are up on me, though, as I’ve never read Jamaica Inn. Oh dear, one more I somehow want to fit in to the reading life!

    Lilian – you are very welcome. You know how one thing leads to another! :)

    Doctordi – oh if only! You have no idea of the size of my tbr pile – well, piles to be accurate about it. And they don’t contain all the books I want to read this summer. If you haven’t ever read Rebecca, it’s worth a try. It might not be your thing, but it is a good writers’ book in the way that it creates atmosphere and organises its structure. I’d be very interested to know what you made of it!

    Verbivore – Rebecca is wonderful, the kind of book everyone should try once in their lives. Picardie does write an afterword in which she names her sources, delineates between fact and fiction and does that satisfying thing of showing you where she inserted her own desires into the factual framework. She’s very faithful to DDM’s life, but more imaginative when it comes to the other strands. She’s also very kind to DDM, who had quite a dark side to her personality. I’m looking forward to reading Loving Frank later this summer, which I remember from your review has a similar relationship to biography!

  14. I’ve stayed away from the Grumpy Old Bookman’s blog (pretty much because the name sort of scares me), but now I do think I will stay away and not read his post about Rebecca! I wonder did he read the book or just base his opinion on the play? In any case, perhaps he was simply predispositioned not to like it–and what can you do about that? I still love the book and look forward to reading Justine Picardie’s novel!

  15. Pingback: Best Book Club Books 2 | Tales from the Reading Room

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