Thursday, 29 May 2008

Mackintoshs and satin gowns, on the eve of Port Eliot...

I'm leaving very early tomorrow morning for Port Eliot, and will report back on Sunday. Right now, I'm in a state of confusion about what to pack, because I'll be doing three different events, and who knows whether it will rain or not? My favourite rose-print frock, which I had wanted to wear for the garden party, appears to have developed a mysterious rip in it; but even if I manage some invisible mending this evening, will a tea-dress go with wellies, if need be?
And obviously, I must take a mackintosh, in honour of both the first and second Mrs de Winter...
I'm sure you all know these scenes from 'Rebecca', but here they are again: the second Mrs de Winter arrives at Manderley as a nervous young bride, knowing herself to be badly dressed 'in a tan-coloured stockinette frock, a small fur known as a stone-marten round my neck, and over all a shapeless mackintosh, far too big for me and dragging to my ankles.' But it is Rebecca's mackintosh that she wears on her first walk to the sea -- to the place where Rebecca died -- and Rebecca's lace-trimmed handkerchief that she finds in the coat pocket. 'She who had worn the coat then was tall, slim, broader than me about the shoulders, for I had found it big and overlong, and the sleeves had come below my wrist. Some of the buttons were missing. She had not bothered then to do it up. She had thrown it over her shoulders like a cape, or worn it loose, hanging open, her hands deep in the pockets.'
Rebecca's lipstick is still on the handkerchief, as is her scent, 'like the crushed white petals of the azaleas' in the Manderley gardens. 'I don't think much of people who just judge one by one's clothes,' says the nameless second Mrs de Winter soon afterwards; but clothes take a central part in the ensuing drama, as the means by which Rebecca's presence is felt. Just remember the episode in which the new wife finds her way to Rebecca's bedroom, still kept as if in readiness for the dead woman's return, satin dressing gown on a chair and slippers beneath, and a silver evening gown and train of white satin, slithering out of the wardrobe, almost as if they were alive...

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

On this day, in another May...

I can never walk along Church Row in Hampstead -- which is just around the corner from where I was born -- without thinking of the Llewelyn Davies brothers, who are buried alongside their du Maurier relatives in the graveyard. It's a beautiful place, whether in May sunshine or showers, but melancholy, also, and today I found myself thinking of Michael Llewelyn Davies in particular, who was born on June 16th 1900, and died on May 19th 1921. A contemporary account of his death appeared (see above) in the Oxford Chronicle, eight days later, on May 27th.
Michael drowned in Sandford Pool, in the arms of another Oxford undergraduate, Rupert Buxton. There has always been speculation that it was suicide, though the circumstances of their deaths remains uncertain. One of the witnesses told the coroner's court: "Their heads were close together; they were sort of standing in the water and not struggling..."
When I was researching 'Daphne', I found myself returning over and over again to the story of her cousin Michael -- one of the five 'Lost Boys' adopted by J.M Barrie, the celebrated inspirations for 'Peter Pan' -- without ever being able to come to a definite conclusion. Perhaps that is one of the reasons his life remains so compelling, because its outline eludes us. He remains a lost boy; forever young, forever mysterious, forever just out of reach.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Port Eliot

I've just been out in the garden, enjoying the last of this weekend's sunshine, and I wish I knew a prayer to the god of good weather, so that there might be blue skies for next Saturday, when I am doing an event at Port Eliot. They've got some lovely things planned there -- a tea party in a secret garden, and delicious champagne cocktails, and what might be an unusually haunting evening. (More details are here.)
Port Eliot is the most magical place -- it actually looks more like Manderley than Menabilly -- and there are du Maurier associations. (Last Saturday's Western Morning News gives an account of these; annoyingly, I can't post a direct link to the page, but once you open the main site, just put Justine Picardie into its search bit, and the story should come up.)
Anyway, I'll be there on May 31st, talking about Daphne and 'Daphne', and hopefully I'll get to meet some of you, as well. I know Dovegreyreader is coming, so we'll be eating some cake together, in between talking about all things du Maurier. The rhododendrons will be in full flower, and the candles will be softly burning in the library, and you never know, as twilight turns to darkness in Port Eliot, you might just hear the swish of a skirt rounding the corner ahead of you, and a soft, low laugh.
Or to quote Mrs Danvers, as she follows the second Mrs de Winter into Rebecca's bedroom at Manderley, "I feel her everywhere... You do too, don't you?... It's almost as though I catch the sound of her dress sweeping the stairs as she comes down to dinner... Do you think she can see us, talking to one another now?... Do you think the dead come back to watch the living?"

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Hurrah for libraries and librarians

I couldn't have written 'Daphne' without the advice and support of several librarians, and access to library archives -- Dr Jessica Gardner at Exeter University was incredibly helpful, as were Chris Sheppard and John Smuthwaite at Leeds University -- and anyone who has read the book will know that several episodes take place in libraries or reading rooms, and that the narrator's parents were librarians in the Reading Room of the British Museum (where du Maurier herself spent time researching her biography of Branwell Bronte). It's never made explicit in my novel, but I always had an idea that the narrator's father, as a young man, might have been the librarian who appears, very briefly, in the scene where Daphne is struggling against the onset of paranoid delusions, having met her husband's lover in the forecourt of the British Museum (a meeting which actually happened, at du Maurier's suggestion, after Tommy's breakdown, with the woman she named the Snow Queen).
As you might have guessed, I loved libraries as a child (still do), because they seemed to me to be places of escape and also sanctuary. I had quite a stormy childhood -- my father suffered from manic depression (poor man, he really suffered, as did we, alongside him) -- and we moved to new schools more often than I found easy. But I always found refuge in a library, though their contents seemed also to offer secret doors to unseen places.
I don't usually post reviews on the blog, but the publisher for the American edition of 'Daphne' has just emailed me this one from the Library Journal, and I'm so pleased about it -- for obvious reasons -- that I'm pasting it here. Forgive me, but this is the Library Journal, after all, so it feels relevant... I'm expecting the novel to sink without trace in America -- it's a big country, and I'm a little unknown writer, amidst thousands of others -- but at least it's got this far.

Picardie, Justine. Daphne. Bloomsbury, dist. by Macmillan. Aug. 2008. c.416p. ISBN 978-1-59691-341-7. $24.95. F
Picardie's well-researched novel about Daphne du Maurier is sure to send readers scurrying back to all those books they should have read in college. Du Maurier's works are referenced, as is her fascination with the Brontë family. Toss in Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie and various members of the rare book and manuscript community, and you have an intriguing fictionalization of many intertwining literary lives. The novel is written from the perspectives of du Maurier, manuscript curator J.A. Symington, and a nameless researcher, with each of their stories spiraling upon the other to create a century-spanning novel hidden in lucky coincidences and missing papers (including those of the Brontës). The result is an absolute gem of a novel that will be a hit with fans of du Maurier, the Brontës, and British fiction generally as well as the avid bibliophile. It should serve as an excellent book club selection that may prompt an interest in these literary figures. Highly recommended.—Leann Restaino, Girard, OH

Sunday, 18 May 2008

What lies between the lines...

Forgive me for my slowness this week -- I've got behind with the blog, as well as everything else. But reading your comments tonight have inspired me to catch up, and report back from Oxford, where I went on Thursday evening, to do a talk at St Anne's College. I was invited there by Kathryn Sutherland, the Professor of English, who reviewed 'Daphne' for the Times Literary Supplement, and she asked me a number of interesting questions about the book, as did the (terrifyingly intelligent) audience of undergraduates, postgraduates and Oxford academics.
The conversation ranged from the significance of ink blots and crossing-outs -- in Symington's letters and the Bronte manuscripts -- to the blurring of biography and fiction, which has also been discussed by several of you in the comments to my last post. Juxtabook, for example, has just asked 'why people have been more hot under the collar about [Daphne] than [Julian Barnes'] Arthur and George?' -- and it's a very good question, though I'm not sure of the answer. Certainly, what I've done in 'Daphne' has several precedents, which I mentioned on Thursday evening -- Colm Toibin's novel about Henry James, 'The Master', for example, as well as 'Arthur and George'. If I was feeling in a scratchily feminist mood, I might have answered Juxtabook's question by speculating that Julian Barnes and Colm Toibin are male novelists, writing about male authors, and that the hotness under the collars might have something to do with me being a woman, writing about Daphne du Maurier, who has often been (quite wrongly) dismissed as an insignificant writer of female romantic fiction.
But... I'm not sure if that would get me very far. And to be honest, the encouraging responses from readers who like my book -- and clearly understand what I'm trying to do -- are more than enough for me to not really mind about the people who don't approve. Sorry -- double negative -- but what I mean to say is that the positives outweigh the negatives. (It's unseemly to boast about good reviews, but suffice to say, they are very heartening. Kathryn Sutherland, for example, wrote in the TLS: "Discovering du Maurier where she set herself, at the insecure and fertile boundary between reality and fantasy, Justine Picardie has produced from these years and events her own remarkable mixture of biography, fiction and critical speculation. 'Daphne' is a literary mystery which borrows from and sheds light on the attested manipulation and dishonest treatment of the Bronte manuscripts by their curators and editors, Wise and Symington. It is also a study of loneliness, obsession and delusion that stretches from Haworth Parsonage in the 1830s to Hampstead in the present day, by way of the private madness and professional dealings of du Maurier and Symington in the late 1950s... ")
Of course, books elicit different responses from different readers, and I can't imagine writing a novel that would please everyone. Especially given the subject of 'Daphne' -- for it is, amongst other things, an exploration of the intensely powerful experience of reading, and also of misreadings; of how we can be haunted by fictional characters; and why a writer's version of 'the truth' isn't always the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
I've just read Maylin's review of my book, and she summed it up far more succinctly than I've just done, with her comment that, "at its core the novel is really about the relationships and inevitable influences - obsessive, spooky, unconscious and yet necessary - between readers, writers and the written word."
I couldn't have put it better myself. Which just goes to prove the final point that I tried to make at Oxford: that as a writer, I hope that my book might be a beginning for someone else, rather than an ending in itself.

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".

Sunday, 11 May 2008

In the footsteps of Daphne...

I've just got back from the Du Maurier Festival in Cornwall, after a weekend of sunshine and blue skies (the first time it hasn't rained in the three years I've being going there, so this must have been third time lucky). I got there on Friday evening, and it was still light enough to go for my favourite walk -- along the Esplanade, past the big house, Point Neptune (complete with its grand iron gates, transplanted there by previous inhabitants, the Rashleigh family, from Menabilly, and now keeping the world at bay from its current owners, Dawn French and Lenny Henry), down to Readymoney Cove, and then up the steps from the beach to St Catherine's Castle, pausing for breath to gaze at the view out to sea, before going along the cliffs to the lovely, hidden cove at Coombe.
It's a walk I did many times over when I was researching and writing my book, and this is also the way that the narrator of my novel walked from Fowey to Menabilly, following in the footsteps of Daphne du Maurier. So it seemed fitting to be back here again, on the same path, the night before I was due to talk about 'Daphne' at the Du Maurier Festival.
It can be very conducive to meditative thought, walking at the close of a long day -- the sun slipping at the horizon, where the sky meets the sea -- and on Friday evening, I found myself wandering around and about the path that led me to Daphne; both literally and otherwise. It's been a long journey -- and there were times when I thought I was entirely lost, and would never find my way out again. But as I looked out across the water, in the strange, magical silvery light that often seems to gleam along this stretch of Cornish coastline, I was glad that I had followed this path, with all its twists and turns.
As for what was to come... well, it's getting late now, so I will write more tomorrow about my conversations with the du Maurier family.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

A psychic reading

So, the Du Maurier festival is about to start in Cornwall, and I'm going to be there on Saturday, for an event which I think will be very unusual, and definitely worth coming to. (If any of you can get to Fowey for the event -- 11.45 on Saturday morning -- I'm offering four free tickets. Just let me know...) The talk will be chaired by Professor Helen Taylor from Exeter University -- she's the editor of the excellent 'Du Maurier Companion' -- and I'll be in conversation with Daphne du Maurier's grandson, Rupert Tower, who is a psychoanalyst, and Henrietta Llewelyn Davies, who is the great-grand-daughter of Daphne's aunt, Sylvia (the mother of the five Lost Boys who inspired 'Peter Pan'). I talked to both Rupert and Henrietta when I was researching 'Daphne', but what I haven't mentioned before is that Henri (as she is known to her friends) is a psychic. She's very low-key about it, but nevertheless I happen to know she counts some Very Famous Authors amongst her clients -- as you might expect of a psychic with such a literary family tree, not to mention a degree in English Literature from Oxford -- and whether or not you're a believer in a sixth sense, Henri has a knack of coming up with apposite remarks and insights. Have a look at her website here.
Whatever happens on Saturday, it won't be boring... and you never know, it might give new meaning to the phrase 'psychic reading'. Hope to see you there.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Bluebells and bank holidays

I've just had the loveliest of bank holidays -- doing nothing out of the ordinary, yet all of it felt like a gift, because of the sunshine (walking the dog in the woods, eating ice-cream, seeing my husband, who has been away for weeks...) Anyway, as I was walking home with the dog, I realised that bluebells had flowered on our road -- not just in some of my neighbours' front gardens (where they grow year after year), but for the first time in the small patches of grass around the plane trees that line the street. There is something so unexpected -- and cheering -- about seeing wild flowers in the city; especially when seedlings take root, as if by magic, in cracks along the pavements or the crevices in brick walls.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Coincidences; ghost dresses; and comfort blankets...

I've just been catching up on this blog, and others, and I was struck by the strange coincidence of dovegreyreader writing about my book, "My Mother's Wedding Dress", on my sister's birthday. There's no mention in the book that Ruth was born on Mayday, so it seems all the more serendipitous that dovegreyreader should choose May 1st, of all days, to write. Ruth loved clothes -- they were a reflection of her intensely joyous response to life -- and that's one of the reasons that the Lavender Trust has had such longstanding relationships with fashion companies (everyone from Chanel to Miss Selfridge has supported our fundraising for women with breast cancer).
Anyway, in celebration of serendipity, here's a little bit from "My Mother's Wedding Dress", from a chapter called "Ghost Dresses". (As it happens, this chapter also includes passages on Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca", reflecting on the profoundly disturbing scenes where the second Mrs de Winter is haunted by her predecessor's clothes; but no room for that here). In case it seems confusing taken out of context, in the following extract, I'm writing about Ghost the fashion label, rather than du Maurier's more spectral creations:
"One might question why it is that women want to look, if not like ghosts, exactly, then somehow wraithlike (it's a question of fragility, I suppose, of choosing to give an impression of otherworldliness; half Titania, half Ophelia; something like that, perhaps). Except it didn't seem that way when my sister started buying lots of Ghost clothes after she was diagnosed with breast cancer; and it didn't feel that way when I bought some for her, as well, on shopping expeditions that took place after we'd met for tea and cakes in Sagne's Patisserie, a cafe just a few yards away from the block of flats where we'd lived, all those years previously, on Marylebone High Street... Of course, if you were being objective -- which I am not -- you might also ask why a woman with terminal cancer should want to wear the Ghost label; but it didn't seem possible that she would die, even though she was spending money like there was no tomorrow...

"When Ruth died, in the night, towards the end of an Indian summer, she was not wearing any of her Ghost clothes. Her dress was dark charcoal-grey jersey wool; the colour of ashes, I could say, except she was fond of that dress, it was not quite as sombre as it sounds. It was long, though not down to her ankles; and when she had come back to the hospice on a Sunday afternoon -- having made her escape for the weekend, as she often tried to do -- she had on black opaque tights beneath her dress, covering her frail wasting legs. Her husband, Matt, had taken their children home (they were tired, only two years old) and I stayed with her, though she was leaving, it seemed to me; too sick to want me to read to her, as I'd done in the weeks before, sitting beside her hospital bed; too far away to be comforted by her favourite story of brave-hearted Pippi Longstocking. First, she'd clawed at her tights, in pain, crying out loud, and I'd helped the nurses take them off; but then they gave her morphine, and she was peaceful, in her long dress, drifting, dreaming. My mother was there, too, as day turned to night, and she placed a soft filigree cashmere scarf at my sister's cheek; pale cobwebby grey, like the worn baby blanket Ruth had loved as a little girl; her comfort blanket, the one she'd never wanted to throw away."