Daphne by Justine Picardie Bloomsbury Publishing 2008 ISBN 9780747587026 Format Hardback 416 pages. 216x135 mm.
We found out that Daphne was in the making over two years ago. The plot at once seemed innovative and interesting. From that moment onwards, we looked forward to the day Daphne would be in our hands.
That day came last week courtesy of the people at Bloomsbury who kindly sent us a review copy, and we plunged into the book at once. Justine Picardie immediately landed us in 1957, in a critical point in Daphne du Maurier's life, when her husband is in a nursing home after a breakdown and she herself is drowning in a sea of doubts. In that moment of desperation she turns to the Brontës, and when Branwell Brontë looks like her lifeline, she tightly holds onto him, as if by helping Branwell become a literary figure in his own right she will also be making right everything that is at odds in her own life. Thus she gets in touch with A. J. Symington, a Brontë scholar whose reputation - unbeknownst to Daphne - suffered from both his association with the notorious forger T. J. Wise and his own liberal management of Brontë manuscripts at the Brontë Parsonage Museum and the Brotherton Collection, where he was a librarian. Decades after his glorious days, Daphne's first letter finds an old Symington struggling to save his marriage, Branwell Brontë and his precious (albeit of dubious origins) manuscript collection and trying to come to terms with the sad reality of his situation.
The third story in the book takes place in our day and age, when a young du Maurier enthusiast finds herself in a situation not unlike Daphne's nameless heroine's in Rebecca - by her own admission even -, stuck in a marriage in which she feels her husband drifting away from her. Her route of escape is by way of tracking down and immersing herself in Daphne's and Symington's correspondence. She's also leading a battle similar to Daphne's own in trying to prove that just because Daphne's books are best-sellers, that does not make them bad and of poor literary quality. Critics didn't treat Daphne well in her lifetime and usually dismissed her as a popular writer, in the worst sense of the word. This somehow reminded us of the critics (?) who nowadays state belittingly that the Brontës are the grandmothers of chicklit or the Mills & Boon romances. Yet we find that this young woman incoherently makes the same mistake when in a passing comment she complains about Charlotte Brontë getting 'too priggish about religion' in Jane Eyre and affirms that, 'everyone [...] ignore[s] the preachy Christianity in the final pages, with St John Rivers leaving England to be a missionary in India, as if anyone cares about him by then; all they want to know is that Jane has married Rochester, and they've had a baby, and look set to live happily ever after, for ever and ever, amen.'
These three (or four, if we choose to count Branwell, whose shadow is very long) characters in these three overlapping, interwoven stories have more traits in common that meet the eye. For one thing, they are all eyeing literature as a means of escaping reality. All three - Daphne, Symington, the young woman - place their belief in the power of the written word as, one character describes when discussing the poems of Emily Brontë, 'if the act of reading her handwriting is an unintenional way of summoning up her spirit.' They are also fighting for their marriages (some more than others) and against third persons. The three of them show just how easy it is to lose one's grip on reality in the face of literature and the literary world.
Anyone who likes a good mystery, and even more if it is a literary mystery, will instantly appreciate the premise of the book. The tree characters take us on a stroll around the first decades of Brontëmania and the collectors' race to get first to manuscripts by the sisters, which led T.J. Wise to (in)famously pass Branwell's writings as Emily's or Charlotte's and which subsequently caused years of confusion.
Thus follow Daphne's efforts to champion Branwell - something Symington has been trying to do for years - to save him from himself so to speak and in the meantime saving herself as well from breaking down. She hopes to find Branwell's unpublished masterpiece and she finds herself grasping at straws in the form of 'And the Weary Are at Rest' or 'Morley Hall'. Daphne's exasperation at not finding any masterpiece, only juvenile writings and a few poems, are clearly seen in The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë.
She not only has Branwell to wrestle with but also Symington's elusive help and the fact that Winifred Gérin is writing a biography of Branwell at the same time (a rivalry we were expecting to see mirrored in the modern story). Not to mention Daphne's mental landscape as depicted by Justine Picardie, who seems to have effortlessly ingrained in the narrative the inner workings of the du Mauriers' family life, including those relating to the Llewellyn Davies boys (and 'Uncle Jim', J.M. Barrie himself) and Daphne's marriage, all easily navigated thanks to the family tree included at the end of the book.
The depictions of Daphne and Symington are particularly vivid and - as far as we can possibly judge - true to life, at least within the context of the book. Their anguish, sadness or frustration seep into the reader. As for the modern young woman, she seems enveloped by a mist, probably because however clearly she might see into the minds of Daphne or Symington, she is unable to see herself clearly, thus - as the only first-person narrator - she never totally reaches the reader.
From what we can tell and Justine Picardie - who like her modern-day character, visited several archives and second-hand bookshops to try and get to the bottom of the matter - explains, Daphne's and Symington's stories and correspondence are very much based on reality although slightly fictionalised to obtain a more fluent narrative(1).
It is not that we want the magician to reveal how the trick works, but sticklers for reality that we are, we would have appreciated an epilogue stating clearly what is fact and what is fiction, and what is new and what was previously known, where the correspondence can be read, etc. On a similar note we find the book to lack a final correction before going to the press. There are typos, spelling mistakes (Luddendon Foot instead of Luddenden Foot in some instances) and errors (a letter dated 1957 when it should be 1959) which we hope to see corrected in future editions.
These few drawbacks do not prevent Justine Picardie from piquing one's curiosity in each and every topic she touches on. Thus while reading the book we have found ourselves immersed in the Llewellyn Davis boys' stories, the du Mauriers' family relationships, Daphne's biography, Daphne's novels, Branwell's poetry, the afterlife of the Brontë manuscripts (such as the intriguing Honresfeld manuscript (Emily Brontë's notebook of non-Gondal poems), whose facsimile appeared in the Shakespeare Head edition of the Brontë works, and which vanished after that and remains unlocated to this day. The theory Justine Picardie raises in the novel concerning this manuscript is absolutely hair-curling for a Brontëite), etc.
This seems to be a characteristic trait of Justine Picardie's style, for she had the same effect on us while we were reading My Mother's Wedding Dress. Indeed, she is second to none when it comes to juggling a good many topics. She never takes a false step or loses sight of any of them and manages to turn them into a beautiful, self-sufficient global image, never chaotic at all, where even the tiniest detail ends up being absolutely relevant to her story. But that's not the only similarity with that book. As she did in My Mother's Wedding Dress, Justine Picardie manages to slip into the pages - on what seems like tiptoe - a few (Brontë-related) theories - each one like a breeze of fresh air - which you find yourself ruminating a long time after reading that short cue she has placed.
In short, Daphne - with its beautiful cover by Alison Lang - is, in spite of its fictionalised take on real events, a substantial addition to the shelves of any self-respecting plain reader, du Maurier aficionado or Brontë enthusiast, more, if anything, for the questions it poses than for the answers it gives.
(1) This fictionalisation, however, has Daphne awkwardly mixing the writing process of Villette with that of Jane Eyre, given that Charlotte had to nurse her father on both occasions: Jane Eyre was born in Manchester when Patrick Brontë was being operated on his eye and Patrick suffered a stroke - with inflammation of the eye - while Charlotte was trying to get on with Villette. In the actual letter Daphne had the timeline correctly when she just wrote, 'I feel rather like Charlotte Brontë when nursing the Rev. Brontë and finding it difficult to get on with Villette' while in the fictionalised one Daphne has 'Charlotte Brontë [...] nursing her father, during his convalescence from an eye operation, and she was finding it difficult to get on with 'Villette'.'