Daphne du Maurier: Fact and Fiction

Recently I’ve had a bit of a run on books by and about Daphne du Maurier. First of all I read The Parasites, which reminded me that I’d had Justine Picardie’s novel, Daphne sitting on my bookshelves unread, so I immediately got it down. Then I just had to read My Cousin Rachel, a book I’ve had for years and never got round to reading before now. After that I read Daphne du Maurier: a Daughter’s Memoir by Flavia Leng, just because it was one of the books Justine Picardie consulted in writing her novel. I’ve previously read Margaret Forster’s biography Daphne du Maurier and Daphne du Maurier’s The ‘Rebecca’ Notebook and Other Memories, which is mainly autobiographical.

Daphne by Justine Picardie (2008) – synopsis (from the back cover):

It is 1957. As Daphne du Maurier wanders alone through her remote mansion on the Cornish coast, she is haunted by thoughts of her failing marriage and the legendary heroine of her most famous novel, Rebecca, who now seems close at hand. Seeking distraction, she becomes fascinated by Branwell, the reprobate brother of the Bronte sisters, and begins a correspondence with the enigmatic scholar Alex Symington in which truth and fiction combine. Meanwhile, in present day London, a lonely young woman struggles with her thesis on du Maurier and the Brontes and finds herself retreating from her distant husband into a fifty-year-old literary mystery.

My view: 4/5

This book merges fact and fiction so well that it’s hard to differentiate between the two. I much preferred the story of Daphne herself and her search for information about Branwell. I had to go back to Forster’s biography of Daphne to compare the accounts of her life, which matched up pretty well. I was less keen on the modern day story of a young woman, the second wife of an older man. It had too many obvious parallels with Rebecca for my liking. And if you haven’t read Rebecca, this book gives away the plot. There are also references to My Cousin Rachel, which I glossed over in case there were any spoilers there too (I don’t think there were). All in all, a very satisfying mystery about Daphne and the missing Bronte documents.

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier (1951) – synopsis (Amazon):

Orphaned at an early age, Philip Ashley is raised by his benevolent older cousin, Ambrose. Resolutely single, Ambrose delights in Philip as his heir, a man who will love his grand home as much as he does himself. But the cosy world the two construct is shattered when Ambrose sets off on a trip to Florence. There he falls in love and marries – and there he dies suddenly. In almost no time at all, the new widow – Philip’s cousin Rachel – turns up in England. Despite himself, Philip is drawn to this beautiful, sophisticated, mysterious woman like a moth to the flame. And yet …might she have had a hand in Ambrose’s death?

My view: 4/5

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, completely taken in by the characters and loving the setting in an old mansion in Cornwall. The story is narrated by Philip, so the other characters are seen through his eyes. The tension mounts as Philip becomes obsessed with Rachel and I was never quite sure what was real and what to believe. He is not a stable character and as Rachel’s own thoughts are not revealed it’s not clear if she can be believed either, whether she is sincere or evil and manipulative.

Daphne du Maurier: a Daughter’s Memoir (1994) – synopsis (from the back cover):

In this moving and revealing memoir, Flavia Leng paints a powerful portrait of her mother, Daphne du Maurier. She presents an account of an unusual and often lonely childhood spent in London and especially Cornwall, at her mother’s beloved home, Menabilly. Family friends included Nelson and Ellen Doubleday, Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward. However, at the centre of this story is Daphne du Maurier herself. The book reveals a writer with a deep attachment to Cornwall, where she put down her roots and found inspiration for her novels, and who spent much of her life as a recluse, withdrawn not only from the outside world but also from members of her own family. A picture emerges of a woman who lived in a world of her own creation that was beyond the comprehension of those around her.

My view: 3.5/5

In the epilogue Flavia Leng, Daphne du Maurier younger daughter, explained that she began to write this memoir of her childhood two years before her mother died in 1989 and it was never meant for publication – it was just for the family. And that to me epitomises this memoir – it’s an account of her childhood and of her family as seen through a child’s eyes. It seems a lonely childhood, despite being the middle child. As children Flavia and her older sister Tessa didn’t get on and both she and Tessa saw that their mother lavished more affection on her beloved son, Christopher who they called Kits. But a picture emerges of Daphne, who they called Bing, as a solitary person, closeted away with her typewriter or lost in her world of ‘never, never land’, peopled by the characters she invented, with little time for her children, who were looked after by Nanny and then ‘Tod’, their governess.

Like her mother Flavia has a great love of Cornwall which shines through the book – she was never happier than when alone in Menabilly and the surrounding woodlands. It’s a sad memoir ending with Flavia feeling she had no roots left after her parents died:

I have heard it said that a person only really grows up when both parents have gone; what I do know is that life will never be quite the same again. Cornwall no longer holds the enchantment it once did. Gone is the excitement of driving down those leafy, winding roads to the lovely old houses, my beloved Menabilly, and then later Kilmarth where Bing lived out her years.

Recent Reading

I’ve read some books recently and haven’t written about them – ‘real life’ keeps getting in the way! So here are a few brief notes on three of the books I’ve read this month:

  • The Messenger of Athens by Anne Zouroudi 4/5 – the first in the Hermes Diaktoros, Greek detective series, set on a remote Greek island. Hermes investigates the death of a young woman. It’s great on location and characters, but a bit slow in parts. Each of the books in the series features one of the Seven Deadly Sins – in this one it is the sin of lust. I’ve read the third book in the series – The Doctor of Thessaly – and have the fifth one, The Whispers of Nemesis. I just need to find the second and fourth books to complete the series.
  • Before the Poison by Peter Robinson 4/5. This is a stand-alone book, about Chris Lowndes, a widower who has bought a house in the Yorkshire Dales. Sixty years earlier a man had died there and his wife Grace was convicted of his murder and hanged. Chris wants to discover whether she really was guilty. This is a convincing mystery, told alternating between the present day and the past. Another book well grounded in its locality and with great characterisation.
  • The Inspector’s Daughter by Alanna Knight 3.5/5 – the first in the Rose McQuinn Mystery series. Set in Edinburgh in 1895, Rose, recently returned from America’s Wild West, steps into the shoes of her father, DI Faro (another series of books features this detective). Her friend Alice ask her to investigate her husband’s strange behaviour as she is convinced he’s having an affair. Meanwhile there is also the mystery of the brutal murder of a servant girl to solve. Rose lives in an isolated house at the foot of Arthur’s Seat and is helped by a wild deerhound who appears just when she needs him. An interesting historical murder mystery, convincingly set in the late 19th century, when Edinburgh was developing and the Forth Railway Bridge had just been opened.

Books, Books and yet more Books

When I started this blog I thought I’d write about the books I’d read as a reminder. So often, I’ve stood in a bookshop or library looking at books and thinking, ‘have I read that book, or have I got it already -it looks very familiar’? Sometimes, I’ve borrowed (or even bought) a book and got it home only to find another unread copy sitting in a pile, or on a shelf, or even worse find out I’ve already read it. So I also keep a notebook where I write titles of books I’d like to read and a note of where I heard about the book. But it’s not foolproof.


Today, I went to the library and saw Author, Author by David Lodge on the books for sale trolley. That’s a book I know someone on one of the blogs I read wrote about some time ago and I thought sounded worth reading. I remember looking for a copy, but I’m sorry whoever you were I didn’t write it down in my notebook. Anyway, I bought it for the grand sum of 10p – a bargain, indeed and thank you fellow blogger, it promises to be an interesting novel. It’s set in London in the 1880s and is a fictionalised story of Henry James. In the preface David Lodge writes:

Nearly everything in this story is based on factual sources. With one insignificant exception, all the named characters were real people. Quotations from their books, plays, articles, letters, journals, etc., are their own words. But I have used a novelist’s licence in representing what they thought, felt and said to each other; and I have imagined some events and personal details which history omitted to record. So this book is a novel, and structured like a novel.

I know what to expect and I think some biographers could benefit from making such a statement, as sometimes I’ve read in a supposedly factual accounts phrases like ‘must have thought’ ‘possibly’, and ‘would have’, making sweeping assumptions about a person’s state of mind, or knowledge.

I also intended to write about each book I read, if not in detail at least a short note on what I thought about it. In December I read a number of books very quickly in the run up to Christmas and New Year and never made any notes as I read. Now when I look back I realise I can not actually write very much about them without re-reading them and much as I enjoyed reading them the first time it’s too soon for re-reads and two of them are library books that have to go back soon (I can’t keep on renewing them).

So, here are the books I read in December that I’ve not written about:

Four Stories by Alan Bennett

I do like Alan Bennett’s books. I can hear him speak as I read. These are long short stories, which I think I prefer to the really short short stories. In the first story The Laying on of Hands, about the funeral service of Clive, a masseur to the famous, the congregation is made up of numerous celebrities and others who had known Clive. The service didn’t go as Father Jolliffe had planned, although he hadn’t decided what exactly he was going say about Clive, until he started to speak. Then he found himself throwing it open to the floor and the true circumstances of Clive’s death emerged.

My favourite story is The Lady in the Van, the true story of Miss Shepherd who lived in her van in Alan Bennett’s front garden. A sympathetic and amusing account of an eccentric old lady.

Solstice by Joyce Carol Oates

I didn’t enjoy this as much as some of the other books by Joyce Carol Oates that I’ve read. I think it’s because I didn’t really like either of the two main characters and got rather irritated by them. It’s beautifully written, so I did finish it. It’s about Monica who arrives to teach at a boys’ school in Pennsylvania after the break-up of her marriage and Sheila, an artist who is rather a recluse, eccentric, and unpredictable. Sheila just breezes into Monica’s life, with disastrous effect.

My Cleaner by Maggie Gee

Again, I didn’t get on with the two main characters in this book, but this didn’t prevent me from enjoying this book. Vanessa, white, middle-class and totally self-absorbed asks Mary, black, and equally selfish, to return from Uganda to help look after Justin, Vanessa’s 22 year old son. Mary had worked as Vanessa’s cleaner 10 years earlier, but their relationship has changed and the balance of power between the two women shifts as the story reaches its climax. This is the first book by Maggie Gee that I’ve read and I would like to read more.

Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve

I’ll write about this in more detail. For now I’ll just say that this is one of the best books I’ve read recently. I always like books about Arthur and Merlin and this more than lived up to my expectations. Thanks Table Talk for introducing me to this book. It has most of the things I look for – believable characters, a riveting plot and well written.

Old Filth by Jane Gardam

This was a good find from the library. It’s funny, warm and tells the story of a retired QC. I became very fond of him. I think I will re-read this before returning it to the library and write about it properly.