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".

18 comments:

mistressdickens said...

Being true to your characters who have actually lived, will always be hard, not just because of what their relatives precieve to be misconstrued characteristics, but also because so many of your 'lay' readers will treat what you write as gospel. That's why it's so good to hear that at least most of the family likes and respects what you've written.

I love the expression 'dreaming true' - it expresses so much in respect of writing fiction based on reality!

It sounds like you had a wonderful time, and what a strange answer Henri got to her question on what Daphne thought!

Justine Picardie said...

The other important point is that my book is an attempt to explore the fact that every version of a writer's life -- whether a novel or biography -- is inherently fictional. That's why I use the quote from du Maurier herself on the opening page, from her essay "Second Thoughts on Branwell", written after the publication of her biography of him:
"It is impossible, with the Brontes, as with many other writers, to say when fiction ends and fact begins, or how often the imagination will project an imaginary image upon a living personality."

Bront√ęBlog Adm. said...

I thought your book was really respectful to Daphne and draws a lot of attention to her works. I'm sure Daphne would have thanked you for that.

I don't think I had seen a picture of Ferryside before (except just now at dovegreyreader's!) and the house is lovely. The inside must be nice too judging from what you said.

Cristina.

mistressdickens said...

I think that you book weaves the fiction and fact very well - there so much a biographer can't know (which is proved in Daphne's biography of Branwell) that sometimes fiction is the only medium to express a person's life. I always remember a biography of Katey Dickens, daughter of Charles, where the writer kept saying 'she 'must' have felt this or that'. It annoyed me, because I don't think biography (in it's straight form) should be used like that.

I love the epigraphs you use at the beginning - especially the first and third. The quote from 'Rebecca' is so apposite, because we never can go back to what it has been like, we can only hope to make some sense in terms of how we see things now.

Also having reread the ending before bed last night, I don't think the ending is unresolved. I think it ties off the ends neatly, but in a way that leaves the reader pausing for thought. Daphne's life didn't end when she finished the book, so how could any novel focussing on one portion of her life actually resolve all the question we have?

And now I shall stop talking like a second year student (which I've not been for a few years) and instead wish you a happy Daphne's birthday day!

Justine Picardie said...

Cristina -- the inside of Ferryside is lovely; just as beautiful as the outside, and with those stunning views of the water, so that the house is filled with silvery light.
Rebecca -- I'm glad you like the epigraphs to "Daphne". I think it's so interesting that the narrator's stated intent -- that we can never go back -- is then subtly turned inside out, in that the entire narrative is an acting of remembering, of going back to Manderley.

dovegreyreader said...

I've just written my thoughts on the event for the blog tomorrow Justine and nipped across to link to yours which I guessed would be here. Such a good event and on reflection many more thoughts have come to mind.I'm going to find it hard to get off the Daphne merry-go-round I'm having such a good time!

Henri Llewelyn Davies said...

As an 'obscure relative' of Daphne du Maurier I had a great time in Cornwall this weekend, at Justine's talk and at the dinner at Daphne's son Kits' house that Justine talks about here.

I think Justine's 'Daphne' is a great book - really really intelligent and subtle in the way it depicts the people and situations.

I'm a big fan of Justine's book 'If the Spirit Moves You' - a really sensitive rendition of her visits to mediums (and much more) in search of her so much loved sister.

On the subject of mediums, Justine has mentioned my visit to one who I found startlingly unusually accurate - I certainly wasn't expecting anything about Daphne, as I'd only met her twice, as a teenager.

If anyone wants to read my full report about the session (or 'sitting' as mediums call it), it's on a site called Access Interviews - if you type Henri Llewelyn Davies into their search box the extensive section about Daphne is about three paragraphs down in the interview - which generally describes my work as a psychic astrologer (yes! but I normally give mediums a tough time as I can be as sceptical as the next person about such things and so often one can't recognise what they come up with. They're usually very sincere well-meaning people, but this one was special).

Justine Picardie said...

Henri -- thanks so much, I really appreciate your comments. And I'm glad you've let us know where to read more about your sitting.

HelenMH said...

I loved the way that the ending of Daphne was slightly unresolved. It was totally appropriate for a story that has so much of real life in it. What else is real life but unresolved?

Justine Picardie said...

Thank you! I always love novels that allow a sense of open-endedness -- almost freedom -- for the characters. As if their lives might continue beyond the page, and out of the reach of authorial control.

oxford-reader said...

'Brideshead Revisited' is one of my favourite novels, where the end is seemingly tied off to the extreme, and yet, I still find myself wondering if Charles and Julia ever got back together. Somewhere, in some other Oxford, they are punting and having a wonderful time!

Justine Picardie said...

Exactly. And I hope that Tony Last manages to escape from the awfulness of his fate in A Handful of Dust.

Juxtabook said...

I find it odd Justine, that you seem to have suffered more from the biography versus fiction as a treatment of a writer's life debate, than Julian Barnes did with Arthur & George. I wondered if it was because it was Daphne you were meddling with (too popular), but Conan Doyle is more pop than literary too. Very odd. Maybe because crime and Conan Doyle are more respectableable topics than Daphne and gothic romance? How the writer's family feel is of course a different matter because it is personal, but I agree with others who say you have been resepctful. Do you have any thoughts on why people have been more hot under the collar about your book than Arthur and George?

oxford-reader said...

Could it also be the point of people still not taking Daphne or the Brontes that seriously (like you found at University Justine)? Perhaps critics don't think either author worthy to be fictionalised; unlike Henry James or Arthur Conan Doyle who had such vast and fantastic (in the sense of strange) lives.
The myth of Daphne is evolving, but those used to shunting her to one side seem to be finding it hard to welcome its existence

Maylin said...

Justine, I just finished Daphne this morning and really loved it. My mind is still reeling from all the literary connections and hauntings that you explore. I've reviewed it on my blog at www.deweydivas.blogspot.com - a blog aimed primarily at Canadian librarians who of course will be especially interested in your novel. I've also suggested some further reading. You may not be familiar with a novel by a Canadian writer called Sky Gilbert, but I think you'd enjoy it. The English Gentleman is a modern day story that also goes into the past, as an academic comes across a stash of "lost" letters between Barrie and Michael Llewelyn Davies.

Justine Picardie said...

Thanks for all these comments, which have inspired me to get on with a new post right now!

Justine Picardie said...

Maylin -- thanks for the book recommendation -- I'm intrigued by the sound of Sky Gilbert's book. It doesn't seem to be published in the UK, which is a shame. If anyone comes across an affordable copy, please tell me!
And Mistress Dickens -- thank you SO MUCH for the book you gave me on Thursday. I'm saving it for a long train journey later this month, down to Cornwall. It was really nice to see you again.

oxford-reader said...

A train ride is the perfect place to read that book! I hope you enjoy it! (And if it's the Port Eliot event you're going to, I hope you have a fantastic time!)