Monday, 31 March 2008

Daphne: the truth behind the story

I've been thinking about some of the responses and comments on 'Daphne', after Dovegreyreader's review of the novel -- for which many thanks -- and I thought I'd pick up on the discussion about the blurring of fact and fiction in my book. It's based on a true story about an episode in Daphne du Maurier's life, and I've spent several years researching it, but I always knew that I wanted to write it as a novel. This is because Daphne herself was a consummate master (mistress?) of blurring these boundaries, and I was inspired to follow her example, given that she is a literary heroine of mine, as well as being the heroine of my novel. Her first novel, "The Loving Spirit" (the title is taken from a line of Emily Bronte's poetry) was based on her research into the history of a real family in Fowey; a subsequent novel, "Julius", appears to be, at least in part, a veiled portrait of her father, the actor Gerald du Maurier. Julius is a charming, charismatic yet ruthless man who drowns his 25 year old daughter, because he cannot bear the thought of her being with another man. Daphne was 25 when she wrote this novel, and it seems likely she was drawing on her own experience of her father's intense jealousy and inappropriately possessive feelings towards her (when she announced her engagement. for example, her father burst into tears and said, "That's not fair!"). Gerald read the novel, though died shortly afterwards (and it's interesting how often sexual desire is linked with death in Du Maurier's writing). In the wake of his death, Daphne wrote a non fiction biography of her father, "Gerald", which reads more like a novel -- she refers to herself in the third person within it, as "Daphne" -- and some of her family were shocked that she revealed so much about him, including his dark streak of melancholy and depression.
Most intriguing of all is the autobiographical element within "Rebecca". She was inspired to create the fictional Manderley by a real house, Menabilly, which she had discovered whilst holidaying at her parents' house in Fowey, on the coast of Cornwall. At this point -- the late 1920s -- Menabilly was falling into ruin, but Daphne was enchanted by it -- this "house of secrets", in her words, hidden by dense forest from the road and the sea. When she started writing "Rebecca" in 1937, she was terribly homesick for England -- Cornwall in particular -- having traveled to Alexandria to be with her husband, Tommy Browning, during his army posting abroad. Menabilly was summoned up in her imagination as Manderley -- and after the enormous success of the novel (and its film version by Hitchcock), she was able to afford to lease the real house that had been such a dominant presence in her novel. Thus she was living in Rebecca's house in the postwar period that my novel is set...
She had also drawn on her own experience in several other ways, whilst writing "Rebecca". For example, early in her marriage, she had discovered a cache of love letters in the back of Tommy's desk, from a beautiful dark haired girl named Jan Ricardo that Tommy had been engaged to, before he met Daphne. She found herself feeling haunted by this previous lover -- who she imagined as far more glamorous and sophisticated, an insecurity that she made manifest in the narrator of "Rebecca", the shy, nameless second Mrs de Winter.
But after Rebecca was published, Jan killed herself, and Daphne became increasingly preoccupied by the idea that she, in killing off Rebecca in the novel, might have somehow contributed to Jan's death.
I could go on and on with more of this -- and I've written more in an essay for the Telegraph, which appeared alongside an extract from Daphne (and you'll find the link in the list on this page) -- but perhaps I should stop here, before giving away the entire plot of my novel. Even so, do let me know if you'd like to me to answer your questions...

11 comments:

Rob Hardy said...

I can't wait until your novel is available here in the United States! I read Rebecca for the first time during the first months of our year in England (August 2006-August 2007). I was somewhat homesick, and my twelve-year old son was desperately homesick, and I was struck by the homesickness in Du Maurier's novel. The whole novel, for me, became such a powerful statement about the pull of the absent: absent people and absent places. I read in the introduction that Du Maurier wrote the novel while living overseas with her husband, and desperately homesick herself. As I read, I was moved to copy out my favorite passage: "Sometimes old copies of the Field come my way, and I am transported from this indifferent island to the realities of an English spring. I read of chalk streams, of the mayfly, of sorrel growing in green meadows, of rooks circling above the woods as they used to do at Manderley. The smell of wet earth comes to me from those thumbed and tattered pages, the sour tang of moorland peat, the feel of soggy moss spattered white in places by a heron’s droppings." Now that I'm home in America, reading that makes me homesick for England!

HelenMH said...

Wow, there are some heart-stopping facts there. I love the idea of Daphne living in Rebecca's house. And I love it when writers turn out to have such interesting lives - like Agatha Christie and her 'disappearance' which has always fascinated me. In the novel I'm trying to write at the moment, the main character has a loose grip on reality and the plot is driven by the stories she tells in her head and conversations with writers (living and dead) and their characters. I'm going to see how far I can take this idea.
This is such an interesting subject and I'm so glad I found your blog. I will definitely read Daphne as soon as I can get hold of a copy.

Justine Picardie said...

Rob -- thanks for your comment. The interesting thing about Du Maurier when she was writing Rebecca in Alexandria is that she was literally homesick -- sick with longing for a house (which at that point wasn't even hers). I think she was possessed by Menabilly -- she loved it like a person. And I love that passage you quote from Rebecca -- it makes me long to be back in Cornwall (where much of the final draft of Daphne was written, very close to Menabilly itself). Sometimes, you can feel as faraway from Cornwall -- the western tip of England -- when you're in London as in America!

Justine Picardie said...

Helen - your novel sounds fascinating. And you might be interested to know that Agatha Christie was a fan of Rebecca -- she wrote to Du Maurier, asking her about why the narrator remains nameless. Like you, I'm interested in that mysterious absence in the narrative of Christie's life.

Bront√ęBlog Adm. said...

I was particularly moved and intrigued - both in the book and now in your post - by Jan Ricardo's death and its (possible) meaning. So sad.

Justine Picardie said...

Jan Ricardo's death is very sad, isn't it? But also so mysterious, and its place in the patterning of Du Maurier's life -- and the reflections of Rebecca -- was very disturbing.

lyn said...

Justine, I'm halfway through Daphne & loving it. I will have to reread Daphne's biography of Branwell & I also have her biography of Gerald, which I haven't read yet. I love all the literary intertwinings in the novel. I've long loved Du Maurier & the Brontes & feel, like Lynne, that I will need to do a lot of rereading when I've finished. I've just ordered Margaret Forster's biography of Daphne. I read it when it was first published but want to read it again in the light of all this. I'm finding Symington a wonderful character too. I'd only heard of him in relation to the Bronte forgeries so he's intriguing.

Justine Picardie said...

Lyn -- thanks for your message, and I'm glad you're enjoying Daphne. Her books about Branwell and her father are both intriguing, in that they read like novels, but also that they reveal so much between the lines. Both Branwell and Gerald drank too much, both suffered from depression, both were immensely charming. Gerald, of course, was a great success, unlike Branwell -- but probably felt himself to be a terrible failure in his darkest hours. He referred to his depression as "the horrors", which is wonderfully expressive, don't you think?

brooksideelaine said...

Justine - I have just started Daphne and am already being drawn in. Anything to do with the Brontes I will find fascinating.

the madwoman said...

Dear Ms. Picardie,

Hello. I am a PhD student in America in the process of writing an essay on your book for a course entitled "Twice-Told Tales." We didn't actually read Daphne in the course, though we did read Jane Eyre and Rebecca... Then, when I visited London over spring break, I came across your book and got the idea to incorporate it into my final paper on "historiographical metafiction." The professor loved the idea and said she is planning to include Daphne on the syllabus next year!!

Anyway, I'm in the process of finishing up the paper and just had a few questions about "the truth behind the story," as this blog post is called. (I'm so happy to have come across your blog, by the way!!). I have two questions based on some of my additional research:

1.) Regarding the Symington letters that appear in Daphne, did you actually discover these manuscripts or transcripts of them, or are they the workings of your imagination (based, of course, on the contents of du Maurier's own letters to J.A.S., which I see you have reproduced verbatim in your work)?? I am just wondering because, in the Symington biography you cite by John Smurthwaite, Margaret Forester is quoted as saying that "Symington's letters to du Maurier have not survived" (this was in 1991, however). I am very curious to know if the real letters have been hidden away somewhere all of this time!!

2.) Additionally, Smurthwaite's book has no mention of the Honresfeld manuscript or the Alfred Law collection, and I wondered, specifically, what evidence you found at the Bronte Parsonage Museum to suggest that Symington was the last person to see this precious document??

I very much enjoyed reading your novel and still cannot get it out of my head!! I would greatly appreciate your answers to these questions as well as any other insight you might have to offer into your research process, at your earliest convenience (my essay, as it happens, is due on Monday, 2 June.) I do apologize if these sort of matters have been addressed elsewhere, but I did not find them on your blog or in any of the other articles or interviews about Daphne that I have come across in my own research. I understand if you are reluctant to divulge what is "truth" and what is "fiction" within your story, whose objective, after all, is to blur this boundary. Still, for the purposes of scholarship I would be very grateful for any information you would be willing to offer.

Thanks very much for your time.

J.K., graduate student, U.S.A.

zzyzx said...

Have you ever read Dragonwyck by Anya seton? It has a few similarities to both Jane Eyre and Rebecca. I was wondering what you thought..