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...

Sunday, 30 March 2008

Nigella Lawson's Lavender Trust cupcakes

There has been some talk over at Dovegreyreader's about my sister, Ruth, who died of breast cancer, and in whose memory the Lavender Trust was founded. Anyway, given that today is a good day to make cakes, I'm going to post the link to Nigella Lawson's recipe for Lavender Trust cupcakes. They're completely delicious!


I'm going to be over at dovegreyreader's today -- and the next couple of days -- while she is at the Oxford Literary Festival. So I'll be dipping in and out of here, and at her place. Please visit me at both blogs, if you have time. I'm also baking today -- lemon cake and flapjacks -- but the computer is in the kitchen with me, so I will be checking in regularly.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

What to read after a funeral?

This has been a long, long week. A good friend died last Friday (Good Friday), and his funeral was yesterday. And now it's Saturday night, and my husband is away (he's a musician, and has been touring for what feels like forever) and my two teenage sons are out, and I'm eating grapes. Before the grapes, I ate two packets of Maltesers and a Vietnamese takeaway , though not in that order (and I shared the takeaway and the chocolate with my 13 year old son).
Anyway, I feel the need to read, but it's got to be the right thing. Grieving makes me a) hungry; b) sleepless; c) restless; d) in need of a good book.
I can't quite settle to anything (too little sleep, too much anxiety coursing through the veins, along with the sugar) but I've been dipping in and out of The Selected Letters of Charlotte Bronte (OUP), meticulously edited by Margaret Smith. And I've just re-read Charlotte's letter to William Smith Williams, who worked for her publisher; it is dated 2nd October 1848, and was therefore written soon after the death of her brother Branwell (he had died on 24th September). I've read this letter several times before, but it struck me again how angry she seems with her brother; her acute sense of disappointment in him:
"It is not permitted us to grieve for him who is gone as others grieve for those they lose; the removal of our only brother must necessarily be regarded by us rather in the light of a mercy than a chastisement. Branwell was his Father's and his sisters' pride and hope in boyhood, but since Manhood, the case has been otherwise. It has been our lot to see him take a wrong bent; to hope, expect, wait his return to the right path; to know the sickness of hope deferred, the dismay of prayer baffled, to experience despair at last; and now to behold the sudden early obscure close of what might have been a noble career."
Poor Charlotte, though I can't help but feel sorry for Branwell. And no wonder Daphne du Maurier chose to write a biography of Branwell when she was feeling her own, acute sense of failure; and yet also when she was suppressing her rage about her husband's failings, after he had betrayed her by having an affair, then drinking himself to the point of collapse. As for Branwell: well, he drowned his sorrows in alcohol and laudanum, but did he actually have an affair with his employer's wife? That's the story -- the reason given by everyone from Mrs Gaskell onwards as to why Branwell fell apart -- but Du Maurier thought otherwise. She believed it was just another one of his fantasies -- part of the "infernal world" of Angria, the imaginary landscape conjured up by Charlotte and Branwell in childhood, and thereafter, where truth and fiction became indistinguishable. I think that possibly says as much about Du Maurier's own state of mind at the time she was writing her Branwell biography, when her emotional landscape seems to have been as vividly populated by characters from her novels as from her family.
And there's a similar sense of the threading together of a fictional world with the 'real' one in another of Charlotte Bronte's letters, written to Mr Williams the following year, on 1st November 1849, after the death of her sisters, Emily and Anne. Her novel, "Shirley", had just been reviewed in the Daily News, by a critic who was scathing about the depiction of the male characters in the novel ("Not one of its men are genuine. There are no such men") and who then took a swipe at the opening of "Jane Eyre" as 'vulgar' and 'disgusting'. Charlotte wrote in her letter:
"I have just received the 'Daily News'. Let me speak the truth -- when I read it my heart sickened over it. It is not a good review -- it is unutterably false. If 'Shirley' strikes all readers as it has struck that one -- but -- I shall not say what follows.
On the whole I am glad a decidedly bad notice has come first -- a notice whose inexpressible ignorance first stuns and then stirs me. Are there no such men as the Helstones and the Yorkes?
Yes there are.
Is the first chapter disgusting or vulgar?
It is not: it is real.
... Were my Sisters now alive they and I would laugh over this notice -- but they sleep -- they will wake no more for me -- and I am a fool to be so moved by what is not worth a sigh --
Believe me
Yours sincerely
It's such a sad letter; and her grief and her rage still ring out from the page...

Apologies for the rambling content of tonight's post. All the chocolate in the house is now eaten, so I'm off to make myself a cup of camomile tea.

Carmen Callil joins the blog...

Have you seen Carmen's comment on the previous post? She is the founder of Virago, and has been thrilled to read everyone's comments. She'd also welcome hearing from you all -- you can do it here, and she is waiting for your responses.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Comment from Donna Coonan, current editor of Virago Modern Classics

Donna has just posted at the end of our original thread on Virago Modern Classics, having read all of your comments. So, it just goes to show that it's worth commenting, and she is taking notice of your views and recommendations on what to bring back into print, and your thoughts on the covers. That thread is getting very long -- 45 comments, so far -- so you could respond to her here?
Thanks so much everyone...

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Comment from the Virago oracle

Just in case you haven't seen it as a response to my earlier post, here is Alexandra Pringle's comment on all your thoughts and ideas about VMC. She worked at Virago in the early days.

"I am Justine's editor and I worked for about ten years on the Virago Modern Classics series with Carmen Callil, who created it. The covers began as olive and transmuted into that more bottle shade. I can't for the life of me remember why. Perhaps we just got a bit sick of olive.
We ransacked the reserve collections of provincial art galleries and museums for covers and scoured the Sotheby's catalogues. I also used to spend hours in the Witt Library at the Courtault Institute of Art.
It is wonderful reading all your comments on the series. It was so exciting working on those books and lovely to think they are still cherished. A particular hidden favourite of mine is The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins, and The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy. There was also another great book with Woolworths in the title: Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns. My mother said the novel reminded her of her post-war art-school days.
One of the joys of working on Justine's book was that it took me back to those years of the VMCs."

Virago Modern Classics: the response...

Well, it's been overwhelming, and incredibly interesting and thought-provoking. Thank you all for taking the time and trouble to respond. I've now been pointed in the direction of the following site, entirely devoted to VMC (, which is definitely worth looking at, in case you haven't already discovered it. I've also asked the current editor of VMC to look at your comments, and hopefully she will take note of the following: that the dark green covers are missed, and that a number of much-loved books have been allowed to go out of print. Certainly, it seems a shame that May Sinclair's novels have lapsed into the void, though I am hoping to track down some second hand copies. And I'm determined to find a copy of "The Brontes Went To Woolworths".
I'm not sure quite why, but this subject has also sent me off in another direction -- back to one of my favourite childhood authors, E. Nesbit. I've still got my Puffin editions of "Five Children and It", "The Wouldbegoods" and "The Story of the Amulet". But I hadn't realised that she also wrote ghost stories. Has anyone read them?

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Virago Modern Classics: your thoughts, please!

It's the 30th anniversary of Virago Modern Classics in May, and as a fan of the imprint from the start, I'm writing a piece for Stella (the Sunday Telegraph magazine) about its legacy and influence. So I'd love to include your views, too -- as I'm sure there are readers out there who have a shelf with those trademark olive green spines.
I have an early copy of the first VMC -- Antonia White's "Frost In May" -- and I was introduced to the rest of her writing through Virago. Similarly, Rosamond Lehmann, who became one of my favourite writers, thanks to VMC. As a teenager, I was given a secondhand copy of "Dusty Answer" by my then-boyfriend's mother. I loved it, but couldn't find any other of Lehmann's novels, which were then out of print, until they were rescued from oblivion by Virago. More recently, Daphne du Maurier has been brought back into widespread circulation by VMC (obviously, 'Rebecca' hadn't gone out of print, but many of the less well known -- though equally interesting -- of her books had vanished from circulation, including her fascinating memoir about her father, "Gerald", which I found intriguing when I was writing "Daphne", as it gives an insight into their complicated relationship, and his dark streak of melancholy). In fact, "Daphne" was partly prompted into being when Virago asked me to write an introduction to its new VMC edition of Du Maurier's biography of Branwell Bronte, "The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte". I hadn't read it since I was a teenager, and had forgotten how powerful it is -- closer in feel to a gothic novel, really, than non-fiction -- and I was intrigued by its mysterious and tantalising dedication to a reclusive Bronte scholar and collector, J.A Symington (a dedication which set me off on several years of research, which finally culminated in the beginnings of "Daphne".)
My other all-time favourite VMC is Dodie Smith's "I Capture The Castle" -- the perfect coming of age novel, but also a book about reading and writing, and how these activities shape, and make sense of, our messy lives.
Anyway, here I am, eagerly waiting to hear from you...

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Thank you, Thandie Newton!

News just in from my friends at the Bronte Blog -- for which many thanks:

The Black Star News asks actress Thandie Newton about the last book she read and her reply was, to say the least, unexpected (for us, anyway):
Bookworm Troy Johnson was wondering what’s the last book you read?
TN: Oh my Lord! What was the last book I read? Oh, it was a book by my friend, Justine Picardie, called Daphne. It’s about Daphne du Maurier and the Bronte family. (Kam Williams

Oxford Literary Festival

I'm going to be doing an event at the Oxford Literary Festival next week, on Thursday April 3rd at 8pm. I really hope that blog-readers (and writers) will come along, so that we can all meet and have a conversation. Let me know if any of you can come -- that way, I can put faces to names!
I'll be talking about "Daphne" -- the true story behind the novel. Please come!

Monday, 24 March 2008

The cover of Daphne

I've been getting some lovely responses to the jacket of "Daphne" -- thanks to its championing by dovegreyreader (to whom I am hugely grateful). So I thought I'd write a bit more about it here. I knew that I wanted the book to look like an old one -- from the time when novels had cloth jackets. Originally, my publisher, Bloomsbury, thought about actually doing that -- but apparently it was too difficult (nowhere to put the jacket information that is crucial in selling books nowadays). Instead, I talked to the designer at Bloomsbury, Sarah Morris, about giving the book a period feel with a woodcut illustration. And then she found the illustrator, Alison Lang, and Alison and I had a long talk on the phone about the mood of the book. I sent her the first three chapters to read, and also gave her some photographs of Menabilly, the house where Daphne du Maurier lived, which was the inspiration for Manderley in Rebecca, and I described to her the woods that surround Menabilly (which I have been fortunate enough to visit). Like the overgrown, tangled grounds of Manderley, they feel like an enchanted forest.
We also talked about the links between "Rebecca" and "Jane Eyre" -- the flames that flicker through both novels -- and out of all these conversations, she came up with the perfect illustration. It also felt very appropriate that it has the feel of a woodcut -- a tactile reminder of the Menabilly/Manderley forest...
Anyway, I think Bloomsbury has done a brilliant job with the cover, and I'm so pleased that readers are responding to something that looks, and feels, entirely different to most other contemporary books, but neither is it a period pastiche (there is a definite modernity to the watchful figure of the girl in front of Menabilly -- a reference to the nameless modern narrator in the novel).

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Lemon cake, chocolate eggs, and grieving...

I've been baking all afternoon, and most of yesterday, too: lemon cake, banana bread, and flapjacks My oldest son -- who is 18, and towers above me -- just asked, "why have you been cooking so much, mum?" The answer is that a very dear friend of mine died on Friday, and my response to grief is to make cakes. I suppose it's partly practical -- bereavement is exhausting, and people need sweet tea and cake to keep going, so I've been cooking for my friend's family, who live a few houses along the street from me. But on Friday night, I was talking to my friend's mother -- who had just lost her only son that morning, and yet had found the time to buy chocolate for her bereaved grandchildren -- and she told me about a Jewish saying, which is that when someone dies, you should bring round something sweet to feed the family, to take the sour taste of death away.

My father is Jewish, my mother isn't (and they're divorced), and I didn't have a religious upbringing, but perhaps some trace of my Jewish grandmother remains in me, to surface in these circumstances. Or maybe it's something we all do, instinctively: as if in the stirring and tasting of a cake, there is a reminder of the precious sweetness of everyday life.

When my sister was dying of breast cancer -- reluctantly, furiously, unbearably, though she bore her suffering with courage -- she did not lose her taste for lemon cake and chocolate. In fact, she said she needed more of it than before -- that these small things gave her solace, and weere to be treasured, along with the big things in her life (her love for her children and her friends and family).

Usually, I never re-read books that I have written, once they are out in the world -- I feel that they are no longer mine, and instead I entrust them to others, in the hope that they will find kind homes. But today, I have just reached up to the top shelf in my study, and pulled down two of them. Firstly, "Before I Say Goodbye", which is the book that my sister asked me to put together, published a few months after her death, which contains her astonishingly moving writing about her experience of breast cancer, including the columns she wrote for the Observer magazine, which I was editing at the time, and it was just as I remembered -- scattered with references to chocolate cake (including a giant one delivered to the hospice from one of her best friends). And the second book I've looked at is "If The Spirit Moves You", in which I wrote about grieving, and our relationship with the dead.

As it happens, this book begins, "Good Friday in the year 2000. Jesus is dead and so is my sister, and I'm running on a treadmill at the gym, watching MTV with no sound on." It ends a year later, the following Easter, in 2001, when I visited Ruth's grave in Sussex with my husband and two sons.
This is what I wrote at the time -- well, bits of it...
"Easter Eve:
I go to a flower shop and buy pots of white roses and hyacinths -- still living, still sweet scented, not the kind that might wilt the moment you turn and walk away -- to take to Ruth's grave. I also buy a large packet of Easter eggs; the ones that look like speckled birds' eggs, with solid chocolate inside. Her grave is close to the coast, beside an ancient flint church (though to get there, you must first pass a tangle of flyovers and a dual carriageway that leads to a small airport, where light aircraft lift off into the pale grey sky). My sister's headstone is on the far side of the graveyard, sheltered by a hedgerow, where wild flowers grow. She wanted her tumour-ridden body to be burnt first, at a crematorium near here, in the foothills of the South Downs, but to have a headstone in this quiet place -- "Somewhere for you to visit," she said, not long before she died....
On one side of her headstone is a Jewish prayer -- I don't understand the Hebrew -- and on the other side is her name, and her children's, and the dates of her birth and her death. What more can you say in stone? Wisteria is carved onto that side, lavender on the other. She grew wisteria up the front of her house (as I do, too), and lavender in the back garden, like me, like our mother.
The children help me scatter the Easter eggs between the flowers and the headstone. Tom traces his finger around the stone words. It is so cold -- whipped by a sea breeze, almost sleeting. The churchyard is empty apart from the four of us. I'm crying, I can't help it, even though I want to be happy, but no one can see, because the tears are dried on my face by the wind as fast as I can weep them..."

So, there it is again... the reminder that in death, there is still life. And Easter eggs are a symbol of what is born, as well as what is consumed. Or something like that, anyway...

23rd March 2008

So, here I go, a virgin blogger, beginning on Easter Sunday, which may or may not seem sacrilegious. Anyway, I've been inspired by dovegreyreader -- a book blog to which I've become addicted -- to have a go on my own. The last month has been consumed by an endless, spooling monologue in my head about the publication of my most recent book, a novel called "Daphne". I don't want to keep thinking about it -- or the sales, or the reviews -- because I think it's important to let go of a book, once it's published. Well, that's the theory, anyway, but for some reason, I've found it hard to put this into practise. I spent such a long time researching this book -- which is based on a real episode in the life of Daphne du Maurier -- and there's something about the subject matter (madness, failure, hauntings, ghosts, both literary and otherwise) that has really got under my skin. At its best, while I was writing and researching "Daphne", I felt that prickling at the back of my neck, which is always a signal (to me, at least), that the book has somehow taken on a life of its own. At its worst, I've felt more depressed and anxious about this book than any other I've written, and more possessed by it, as well.
The odd thing about publication is that you get a sudden spate of public responses -- from the critics -- and readers have talked to me after I've done a couple of events. But I'd like the chance to have quieter conversations, via this blog. If anyone reads it, that is...