Monday, 7 July 2008

Getting ahead of the plot...


Here's a piece I wrote for the Sunday Telegraph yesterday. It doesn't seem to be online yet, but I thought some of you might be interested:

These are difficult times in publishing – the credit crunch has been squeezing the life out of books, along with everything else – but there are those in the industry who are turning to an alternative form of help, rather than the more traditional comfort of the whisky bottle. Step forward Henrietta Llewelyn Davies, a psychic astrologer with a literary client list, and an Oxford degree in English literature; except stepping forward isn’t her style. Thus is it was that it took me several weeks to track down Llewelyn Davies (or Henri as she is known to her friends); and as it happens, I wasn’t in search of an astrological consultation, but information for my book, ‘Daphne’.

Because Llewelyn Davies comes from an extraordinary family: she is related to Daphne du Maurier (hence my desire to speak to her), who was the first cousin of her grandfather, Jack Llewelyn Davies, one of the legendary five Lost Boys who inspired J.M Barrie to write Peter Pan. Her great-grandmother, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, was played by Kate Winslet in “Finding Neverland”, and Sylvia’s father, George du Maurier, was the author of “Trilby”, the best-selling novel that introduced the sinister Svengali into popular culture.

Not that Llewelyn Davies takes after her great-great-grandfather’s fictional creation as a menacing practitioner of the black arts; when we first met, several years ago, to discuss my then as yet unwritten novel, she came across as being entirely straightforward, and also generous-spirited, given that I was proposing to turn several members of her family into fictional characters in my book. I didn’t ask her any questions about the future – we stuck entirely to a factual discussion of the past, for the purposes of my research – but in hindsight, I can see that she made an accurate prediction. When I mentioned to her that Bloomsbury would be publishing my book in May 2007, to coincide with the centenary of Daphne du Maurier’s birth, she shook her head. “I don’t think so,” she said, and though I very much wanted her to be wrong, she turned out to be right: ‘Daphne’ took me far longer to finish than I had envisaged, and wasn’t published until March this year.

Since then, she has maintained her characteristic discretion about the identity of her clients in the publishing industry, but I must say, when I invited her to the launch of ‘Daphne’, she seemed to know half the people at the party (and the other half were to be discovered huddled in a corner with her, as the evening progressed, seeking impromptu consultations). Most refuse to be publicly identified as clients, but Jeanette Winterson is an openly enthusiastic advocate of her skills. “I met Henri in 1987,” she says, “when she was recommended to me by a friend, because I wanted to learn how to draw up an astrological birth chart for a novel I was planning at the time. Henri said I wouldn’t write the novel, and she was right, but she did teach me about astrology, and a lot else besides. I didn’t want to be taught by a psychic called Doris who’d chat about ectoplasm and call me dearie. I needed someone with a good brain, who talked to me in a language I could respect. And she’s proved to be very accurate.”

She cites several examples: “Not long after we’d met, Henri said to me, ‘you really should give up karate’. I hadn’t even told her I went to karate classes, but I took no notice, and promptly dislocated my shoulder that night. Then there was the time Miramax gave me a lot of money for the film rights to one of my novels, and Henri said, rather disparagingly, ‘it will never be a Miramax film’. Which turned out to be true, unfortunately. Of course, she’s not a hundred per cent accurate – she’s not a mainframe computer – but she’s often uncannily and annoyingly right. Which is why, although she’s utterly unworldly, she has an impressive client list – I know for a fact that she sees a lot of other writers and plenty of publishing executives, as well.”

Llewelyn Davies herself admits to having advised ‘certain writers’ on their careers – even down to the nuts and bolts of plots – but the more I learn about her life, the more it seems to me to be the material for an intriguing book of her own. Her mother – also named Sylvia, after her grandmother – was a single parent; unusual in 1954, when Henrietta was born, but unavoidable, given that her father was Lionel Birch, an acclaimed editor at Picture Post, with a remarkable marital record. “He had seven wives and six children,” she says, “though he never married my mother.” Sylvia supported herself and her daughter with a career in advertising (“she came up with the slogan ‘Cheese Please Louise’”). But at 15, Henri’s London childhood came to an abrupt end when her mother died of breast cancer, and she was sent to boarding school, spending holidays at her grandmother’s house in Cornwall, where she met Daphne du Maurier.

After graduating from Oxford, she went to work for a publishing company, Hamish Hamilton, and having studied astrology as a hobby, started giving her colleagues and friends astrological readings. It was then that ‘the psychic stuff started popping out of my mouth.’ She is matter of fact about it – ‘it’s like seeing around corners’ – but such has been the demand for her advice, she gave up her job in publishing; though some might say that she still works in the industry, albeit in a rather esoteric, freelance role.

I like to think that Daphne du Maurier – whose famously terrifying short story, “Don’t Look Now”, revolves around the role of a psychic – might have appreciated this, had she lived to see her young relative into adulthood. “It was fraudulent, unhealthy,” declares the narrator of that story, after an initial encounter with the psychic, but as readers of “Don’t Look Now” will recall, such scepticism leads not to enlightenment, but a dark and dreadful end.

For appointments with Henri Llewelyn Davies, telephone 0207 371 6473.

17 comments:

Gondal-girl said...

thanks for posting Justine, have missed your posts and Henri's so nice to have a 'double bunger' ( a type of double firework her in Australia just in case the vernacular doesn't translate) in this facinating post. I know there is a book in Henri...maybe she has been busy writing away in the English sunshine ( or having writers and the like seek her council...

Justine Picardie said...

Sadly, there is little sign of English sunshine -- we have had torrential rain, and the weather forecast is gloomy. Ho hum.

oxford-reader said...

Thank you for that really interesting article, Justine. It's really interesting to hear more about Henri's work, and her ties with your book.
Hope you're feeling better, and also want to say that I love that mirror!

oxford-reader said...

Also re your comment on rain, I think it's linked to me... The moment I stepped out of a building yesterday it chucked it down. Looking at the weather forecast for Dartington, I'm wondering if I should just stay away, because clearly, where I go the rain follows (you need only look at the track record of your events where I showed up to see the truth Justine!!!)

Gondal-girl said...

well, it is sunny galore here ( though further inland could do with the rain that is for sure, the drought makes every thing dust coloured) here by the coast, it is sunny and dazzling, as most winters are - though I think I shall have to crack out a jumper with the winter temperature expected at 14 degrees - there was a full page about how chilly that is in the newspaper...best winters in the world here in Australia ( the worst I would have to say Prague...was there one Winter and at minus 15 some of the locals were saying how unseasonably warm it was, it should have been at least -30 one of them told me ( unless the were pulling my leg)...

Justine Picardie said...

Time to plan that emigration to Australia. Perhaps Oxford Reader could end the drought there with a quick trip over?

oxford-reader said...

I'm up for it - as long as I can come back by boat!

Gondal-girl said...

Do come by all means ( though boat apparently is the worst way to come I have heard) though you may want to prepare your palate by eating vegemite ( superior to marmite!), stock up on SPF 30 and practice your 'strine' ( affection term used to describe Aussie vernacular) by re-watching Steve Irwin video's, it is only then we let visitors through the border :)

Justine Picardie said...

I was always very impressed by the fact that P.L Travers came from Australia.

oxford-reader said...

I hate marmite - so perhaps I wouldn't be able to bring my rain giving powers to the land of Aus.
Also - no, people in Prague weren't pulling your leg. I was there one christmas, and when it rained it turned to ice on the ground. Wasn't fun getting home that night.
- Justine, did she really? Well, that's two interesting things I've learned this morning. (The other coming from DGR's blog is that horses cant vomit or belch ....)

Gondal-girl said...

Yes, PL Travers from Australia, one of those ladies that re-invented herself as she went, though I think she died in England...anyway, her story well told in the bio - Out of the Sky She fell

Jan said...

I read your juicy "My mother's wedding dress" a bit ago; I enjoyed it hugely.
I love " dip in" books... ones which are also supremely satisfying and also with much to recognise..
As yet, I haven't read "Daphne" but look forward to it.

HelenMH said...

What a fascinating post! A psychic astrologer sounds like a fab idea.

Justine Picardie said...

Jan -- I'm really glad you liked "My Mother's Wedding Dress". I don't think Daphne is a dip-in book in the same way, but I hope you enjoy it. (It's more of a full-on submersion!)
Helen -- thanks for your comment. And thank you everyone, in fact, for dragging me back to the surface.

Anil P said...

Intriguing indeed.

Primrose said...

Terrific post, Justine. I wish I lived in the UK I would phone Henri. Are you considering doing a book on her? That would be brilliant! Hope you are feeling a bit lighter.

Seaside Book worm said...

Hi Justine from America,
Let me introduce my self. My name is Susan from Myrtle Beach, SC.
I run 2 book club and I have 2 reading blogs. I stumbled across your book Daphne a couple days ago. Some authors and publcists have stumbled across my blog and asked me to review and post reviews on their books. Well I could not wait so I am contacted you instead. This is another (blogging) to get the word out about books. Bloggers link up with other bloggers. If you would like to visit my blog it is 38thavedivareaders.blogspot.com and my email is bookmark60@hotmail.com.
If you are interested please reply.

Thanks for your attention,
Good luck with your book, which I alway like gothic type books especially when it deals with Rebecca.
Hope to hear from you soon.

Susan Curtis
520 32nd Ave, N Unit F
Myrtle Beach, SC 29577