Monday 12 May 2008
A day with the du Mauriers
Ever since my book has been published, various people have asked, 'What do the family think about it?' And of course, I know immediately that they don't mean my family, but the du Mauriers. The answer isn't a straightforward one -- because families aren't necessarily single entities, with one point of view; and views have a habit of changing, anyway.
But my day at the du Maurier festival on Saturday gave some indication of their varying responses. First off was the event chaired by Professor Helen Taylor, in which I discussed the book with Rupert Tower, Daphne's grandson, and Henrietta Llewelyn Davies, who is from another branch of the family -- though closely related to a character in my novel, Daphne's cousin, Peter Llewelyn Davies. Henri said she thought that my portrayal of her family was 'sensitive and sympathetic', having acknowledged that she had been unhappy about previous depictions (on film, television, and in earlier books).
Rupert was less convinced, though I think this had more to do with his feeling that the ending of my book was too unresolved for him. I pointed out that Daphne's endings are famously ambiguous -- just think of "My Cousin Rachel" -- and we also talked about the fact that she had blurred the boundaries between fact and fiction in her writing long before I came along, for example in her first novel, "The Loving Spirit", and in her controversial biography of her father, "Gerald", which reads like fiction, and where she refers to herself in the third person, as if she is a character in someone else's story. I happen to think it's a brilliant, intriguing book, but many of her father's friends and family were outraged when it was published, because they felt her portrayal of Gerald was a betrayal, in its revelations of his affairs and drinking and bouts of black depression.
But the important thing, I think, is that there are any number of interpretations that have already appeared -- and will continue to emerge -- about Daphne's life. Like the Brontes, or Sylvia Plath, or Virginia Woolf, her life is taking on the mythic, semi-fictional qualities that made her writing so potent, and will bring her new readers, in subsequent generations.
And that's what I talked about with other members of her family, who are more sympathetic to my novel. On Saturday evening, her son, Kits Browning, had a group of us to dinner at Ferryside, the house first bought by Gerald in the 1920s, where Daphne discovered her abiding love of Cornwall. And I don't want to betray any confidences, but suffice to say, the conversations I had over the dinner table -- a handsome wooden table that happened to have belonged to George duMaurier, Daphne's grandfather and the author of 'Trilby' -- reassured me that I hadn't committed some terrible sacriligeous act in turning my literary heroine into the heroine of my novel.
As for what Daphne herself would have thought about it: well, Henri told a story about going to see a medium, and hoping for a message from her dead mother or grandmother, but instead being given messages about Jamaica, and a whistled tune of "The Road to Manderley". Make of that what you will...
Kits himself said he would love to be able to ask his parents and grandparents some questions about their lives. "Can you imagine what they would make of us?" he said. "Would they even understand what we were saying?"
George du Maurier felt exactly the same way about his own past, and wrote longingly of what he called "dreaming true" -- the ability to go back into the past, and bring one's memories to life again. Which is, perhaps, what all writers try to do -- for in Margaret Atwood's marvelous phrase, we are "negotiating with the dead".