Sunday, May 18, 2008

Daphne and George and Henry and Constance and Jim, oh my. . .

Readers tend to get obsessive about their favourite books and authors and if those readers are also writers, they often channel their enthusiasm into their own writing, through biographies or literary criticism. But in the last ten years or so, there has been a boom in novels that fictionalize the lives of famous authors; Michael Cunningham's best-selling The Hours, is just one well-known example. I personally love this trend which celebrates, if sometimes in eerie, haunting ways, the lasting influences of these inexplicable literary and imaginative forces.

I've just finished reading a wonderful novel in this same vein: Daphne by Justine Picardie (I got my copy from the U.K. - it's not clear when it'll be out in Canada - it's published by Bloomsbury which is changing Canadian distributors shortly. Still, keep an eye out for it).
The novel combines a modern story with a fictionalized account of the period of Daphne du Maurier's life when she was writing The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte, her biography of the tormented, alcoholic brother of Charlotte, Emily and Anne (being Bronte obsessed myself, this was a book I HAD to read). Daphne is going through a rough patch in her personal life. Her husband is having a mental breakdown and she's just discovered he's also been having an affair. She is being haunted by the presence of her own famous literary creation, Rebecca, and also thinks she's being watched by sinister men in trilby hats (her grandfather was George du Maurier who wrote the bestselling novel Trilby, after which the hats were named). She is also engaged in a strange and strained correspondence with J. A. Symington, the former librarian and curator at the Bronte Parsonage who was dismissed in disgrace after several important manuscripts went missing. Now a bitter, failed scholar who believes that Branwell was a neglected genius, Symington warily sees Daphne as a possible ally in the rehabilitation of Branwell's literary legacy. Part of the story involves a mystery surrounding a missing notebook of Emily's poems. There is also a modern component; the novel is partly narrated by a young woman trying to write her PhD dissertation on the Brontes' juvenilia but becoming increasingly fascinated by the influence of the Brontes on Daphne Du Maurier's own work, and her correspondence with Symington. She is married to a much older professor whose research interests center on Henry James, and who sneers at du Maurier's work as too popular and lowbrow for serious academic attention. To complicate matters, he's not yet over his ex-wife Rachel, an academic and poet who is also a fan of the Brontes and Daphne du Maurier, and whose presence in the couple's house is palpable and causing tension in the marriage. Our modern narrator has to decide whether to continue living in this uncanny pastiche of a du Maurier novel or to find her own reality and come to terms with her literary demons.
There is so much to cut your teeth on in Daphne (librarians and archivists in particular will love it), and at its core the novel is really about the relationships and inevitable influences - obsessive, spooky, unconscious and yet necessary - between readers, writers and the written word. It certainly makes one want to go back and reread all of du Maurier's novels. Like the members of the Bloomsbury Group, the connections - personal and literary - between du Maurier's family and other writers is widespread and fascinating and has been explored extensively in contemporary fiction. So if you are intrigued by this literary period, which among other things, examined sexuality in all its permutations and the ever present and lasting impact of the First World War (which may be a clue to a continued contemporary interest), here are some suggestions for further reading (with less than six degrees of separation between them):

A fictionalized account of Henry James' friendship with George du Maurier, particularly at the time du Maurier was writing Trilby and James was failing as a playwright, is wonderfully told in David Lodge's novel Author, Author.

Parts of the same story but with a different focus are recounted in Colm Toibin's terrific and award-winning novel, The Master.

Both the Lodge and Toibin novels cover James' friendship with the bestselling commercial American writer Constance Fenimore Woolson. But for a very different take on this relationship, you must read Elizabeth Maguire's moving novel The Open Door which will be published in June. This is Constance's story and is very much the tale of a woman writer trying to survive in a man's world and also about finding herself in Europe after years of looking after an elderly mother. It would make a terrific bookclub pick alongside The Master.

Daphne du Maurier was the cousin of the five Llewelyn Davies boys, orphaned at an early age and taken under the guardianship of J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, which was inspired by one of the boys and named after another. Daphne was particularly close to Peter Llewelyn Davies who also appears as a character in Picardie's novel. The story of "The Lost Boys" is quite tragic - one died in the First World War, another drowned while an undergraduate, Peter committed suicide - and yet irresistably interesting as an example of haunting literary influences through the generations. I got chills down my spine reading Daphne as the story of the boys having nightmares of Peter Pan hovering outside their nursery window threatening to take them away, is juxtaposed with the haunting of Lockwood by Cathy's ghost in Wuthering Heights - a scene that in turn disturbs Daphne. And how eerie is it that the day that she sent her cousin the finished manuscript of her Branwell biography was the day he committed suicide; he had been working on a biography of his family sorting out the papers he continually referred to as the "Family Morgue". The novel has definately piqued my interest in reading du Maurier's short stories, some of which tackle these familial ghosts.

The possibly creepy relationship between J. M Barrie and the Lost Boys continues to be examined in books. An interesting fictional take is Canadian Sky Gilbert's novel The English Gentleman, again a mixture of modern story with the past, as an academic finds a stash of letters between Barrie and Michael Llewelyn Davies, written before Michael drowned (or committed suicide) near Oxford. For non-fiction readers, Andrew Birkin's J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys is an indepth and wonderfully written biography. And this August, to tie everything together, we'll be publishing a book I'm itching to read: Captivated: J.M. Barrie, The Du Mauriers and the Dark Side of Never Never Land by Piers Dudgeon. This promises to reveal in all the literary connections between Trilby, Rebecca and Peter Pan.
In the meantime, I've just purchased two DVDs that I'll be watching this weekend. Andrew Birkin was also the writer for a four part BBC series than ran in the 1970s called The Lost Boys, with Ian Holm playing Barrie. And then I've just found an import copy of David Lean's movie of Blithe Spirit starring Rex Harrison and Margaret Rutherford. What does Noel Coward's play have to do with everything I've posted so far? Not a lot, except that Coward was great friends with Gertrude Lawrence (he wrote Private Lives for her), and as I discovered from reading Daphne, Gertie (as she was known) had a love affair, not only with Daphne du Maurier, but also with her father, the actor Gerald du Maurier (who played Captain Hook and Mr. Darling in the first production of Peter Pan).


dovegreyreader said...

Maylin, I've just come across from Justine's blog to read your thoughts on Daphne and am delighted to have found your blog home.This could be the answer to my CanLit addiction! The Gilbert and the Dudgeon books you mention sound like must-reads, I agree Justine's book has opened up so many fascinating reading trails I can hardly keep pace.

Justine Picardie said...

Thanks for the intelligent and perceptive review. I'm so pleased you liked 'Daphne'.

Gondal-girl said...

all these exciting connections, can't wait to read CAPTIVATED and the one on Fennimore Cooper, don't think she was portrayed in a great light ( a bit to love lorn) in Author Author....

Maylin said...

She definately isn't lovelorn in The Open Door - in fact it's a very clever and very different interpretation from both the Lodge novel and Toibin's too - especially as to the real nature of her relationship with Henry James and the circumstances surrounding her death.