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.