Sunday, 22 June 2008

Birthday books

Oh dear, I've been so slow this week in keeping the blog up to date, but the real world overtook the virtual one (sickness in the family, etc etc).
Anyway, it was my birthday on Friday, and my older son has just finished his A-levels and left school, so rites of passage and empty nests are looming. Meanwhile, in between eating homemade carrot cake, I've been re-reading "Cannonball Simp", by John Burningham, which I've had for over four decades, since it was given to me as a birthday present when I was about four years old. It's one of my favourite ever books -- about a little black dog who is abandoned by its owner at a rubbish dump, and then finds a home with a clown at the circus. I knew it off by heart as a child, and then read it to my sons when they were little, and it has survived endless moves of house, not to mention countless sticky fingers. Needless to say, I now have a dog of my own, who isn't black, but nevertheless bears more than a passing resemblance to Simp, being a somewhat barrel-shaped mutt (mainly Jack Russell, but with ears like a Corgi). She's ten, and therefore past her youthful self (like me, though actually, in dog years, she's overtaken me), and is snoozing in the sunshine outside. In fact, she looks so peacefully comfortable, I think I might go and join her for a little while...

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Burgh House and Althorp

Tomorrow is Friday 13th, which I hope isn't a bad augur for an event I'm doing at Burgh House, a beautiful Queen Anne house which is the home of the Hampstead Museum, and just around the corner from Cannon Hall, where Daphne du Maurier grew up. It also happens to be the place where my wedding celebrations took place, many years ago, so I feel very sentimentally attached to it. Anyway, I won't be telling wedding stories tomorrow, but I will be talking about 'Daphne', at what sounds like a very civilised literary lunch (please do come along if you can get to Hampstead by 1pm).
Then on Saturday I'm going to Northamptonshire, to speak at the Althorp Literary Festival.
Two unusually beautiful houses in the space of two days... I feel very privileged. In fact, the various talks and events that I've done in the last three months, since the publication of 'Daphne', have taken me all over the country, to a series of lovely places (Calcot Manor, the British Library, the Bronte Parsonage, Christ Church and St Anne's in Oxford, Ferryside, Port Eliot, amongst others). But it's not just been the settings that have made these events special -- I've had the chance to meet a great many interesting people, many of whom have shared my passion for du Maurier and the Brontes. They've told me new stories, and given me fresh impetus, and renewed enthusiasm. And what more could a writer ask for than that?
So thank you to everyone who has come to an event, and also to all of you who have posted on this blog -- I've been able to meet some of you already, but it's been equally good to get to know those of you who can talk in this arena, but live too far away to come to a literary festival. (Some as far away as Australia, Canada, and the United States). A blog may not be quite as grand a setting for a conversation as an English stately home, but it has its own charm, don't you think?

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Patrick Bronte

The Reverend Patrick Bronte -- who died on June 7th, 1861 -- is the subject of a new biography by Dudley Green. I just reviewed the book for the Times (it appeared yesterday, on the anniversary of his death), and here it is again, for anyone who might be interested:

What made Patrick Bronte the father of genius? It’s a question that has perplexed the biographers of his more famous daughters, from Mrs Gaskell onwards, but never fully answered. Dudley Green, a former chairman of the Bronte Society, is the most recent in a long line of biographers, though unusual in that his attention is fully focused on Patrick Bronte, the first to do so in over 40 years.
Green’s aim is explicit: to rehabilitate a man misunderstood and maligned by the Bronte myth since Mrs Gaskell published her ‘Life of Charlotte Bronte’ in 1857. But unlike Gaskell’s portrayal of Patrick as “a remote father given to eccentric behaviour and strange fits of passion”, Green believes him to have been a kindly and loving parent with “a keen interest in his children’s development and an able and faithful clergyman, who was ever sensitive to the pastoral needs of his parishioners.”
If this sounds worthy, verging on the dull, then the Patrick Bronte who emerges from the pages of Green’s biography is far more compelling. Born into a poor Irish farming family in County Down on 17th March 1777 (St Patrick’s Day), he was the eldest of ten children, and exceptionally intelligent, becoming a schoolteacher at 16, and then, with the support of his local vicar, entering St John’s College, Cambridge at the age of 25. He studied hard, winning academic prizes on his path to ordination, but also found time to serve under the future Lord Palmerston in the volunteer militia, during a period marked by fears of French invasion.
By the time of his marriage in December 1812 to Maria Branwell, Patrick was a Yorkshire curate, and already a published poet. Six children were born in rapid succession: Maria in 1814, Elizabeth in 1815, Charlotte in 1816, Branwell in 1817, Emily in 1818, and Anne in 1820. In April that year, the Bronte family moved to Haworth, where Patrick was appointed curate; his wife fell ill soon afterwards, and died of cancer in 1821.
According to Mrs Gaskell, the children’s life after their mother’s death was bleak, with some of the most vivid scenes of her book suggesting an upbringing as harsh as ‘Wuthering Heights’: “Mr Bronte wanted to make his children hardy, and indifferent to the pleasures of eating and dress… he went at his object with unsparing earnestness of purpose. Mrs Bronte’s nurse told me that one day when the children had been out on the moors, and rain had come on, she thought their feet would be wet, and accordingly she rummaged out some coloured boots which had been given them by a friend… These little pairs she ranged round the kitchen fire to warm; but, when the children came back, the boots were nowhere to be found; only a very strong odour of burnt leather was perceived. Mr Bronte had come in and seen them; they were too gay and luxurious for his children, and would foster a love of dress; so he had put them into the fire. He spared nothing that offended his antique sympathy.” Gaskell also has Patrick cutting up his wife’s silk dress, setting the hearthrug on fire and sawing up chairs in irrational fits of rage, reminiscent of Heathcliff.
Dudley Green is not the first to show this to be based on the gossip of a disgruntled servant dismissed from the Parsonage, but his rebuttal is scrupulously detailed, using the evidence of the children themselves. Whereas Mrs Gaskell told the tale that the Bronte children “had nothing but potatoes for their dinner”, Green quotes Emily and Anne’s diary on 24 November 1834: “We are going to have for Dinner Boiled Beef Turnips, potato’s and applepudding.”
None of which explains the origins of genius, but the details of Green’s biography are intriguing, nevertheless. We learn of Patrick Bronte’s encouragement of his children’s writing (he provided a wide variety of books for them to read – including volumes by Milton and Scott – along with newspapers that stimulated their avid interest in politics). Green also cites Charlotte’s school friend, Ellen Nussey, who first visited the Parsonage in 1833: “Mr Bronte at times would relate strange stories, which had been told to him by some of the oldest inhabitants of the parish, of the extraordinary lives and doings of people who had resided in far-off, out-of-the-way places… stories which made one shiver and shrink from hearing; but they were full of grim humour and interest to Mr Bronte and his children.” And while his own writing – including several published books of poetry and stories – is not of great literary merit, he nevertheless provided a clear example to his children of the pleasures and possibilities of authorship.
One might cast Patrick as a tragic figure – he survived long after his wife and his six children, all of whom died too young – yet Green’s portrait is of a stoic character, who never lost faith, serving his congregation in Haworth for forty years, successfully campaigning for their right to schooling and clean water. He died on June 7th 1861, at the age of 84, mourned by hundreds of local villagers, who knew him as far more than the father of Charlotte Bronte.
Dudley Green sees it as a measure of Patrick Bronte’s tolerance and forbearance that he had supported Gaskell in the writing of her biography, and defended her from critics afterwards, despite the inaccuracies in her account of him. Or perhaps this reveals Bronte’s own understanding of the complications of what it might mean to be a writer searching for the truth. According to Mrs Gaskell, he had encouraged Charlotte during her writing of ‘Villette’ to let the hero and heroine ‘marry and live happily ever after.’ But his own life has something of the singularity of his daughters’ fictional characters, evading conventional narratives or happy-ever-afters, expressing rage as well as piety, and seeming all the more vividly true as a result.

Thursday, 5 June 2008


I'm off to Chorleywood tomorrow, and you never know, perhaps I might meet some of you there?
Here are the details from the Chorleywood bookshop -- which looks like a lovely place, and like all independent booksellers, well worth supporting:
"Justine Picardie author and journalist, will appear at the Memorial Hall on Friday June 6th. Tickets are available now from the Chorleywood and Gerrards Cross Bookshops, price £5 each to include a glass of wine or juice.
Justine is the author of If the Spirit Moves You: Life and Love After Death, about the death of her sister Ruth from breast cancer. She has also written two novels, Wish I May and My Mother's Wedding Dress. She was formerly features editor of Vogue and is now a columnist for the Sunday Telegraph Magazine and also writes for Harper's Bazaar. She lives in London with her husband and two sons.
Justine will be discussing her new novel Daphne, a highly original novel about an event in the life of Daphne du Maurier.
On the night ticket holders will be able to buy the book for £9.99, representing £5 off the normal retail price."
As it happens, it's also very close to the place where the Llewelyn Davies family -- Arthur, Sylvia, and the five boys -- moved to, Egerton House in Berkhamsted, leaving behind London and Kensington Gardens and the (possibly overwhelming) J.M Barrie. There are wonderful manuscripts and pictures from this era that you can see on the J.M Barrie website, including the very moving letters that Arthur wrote to his sons when he was dying of cancer in 1907.

Bookhound in the basement...

It was too dark in the Port Eliot basement for anyone to take photographs of our 'haunting', but thanks to the Bookhound, here are some sketches. Sadly, I didn't get to meet the Bookhound last weekend, so he remains a man of mystery...
I did meet Michael Howells, however, which was a treat. He is a renowned designer -- at Ballet Rambert and Christian Dior, amongst others -- and he created the beautiful flower chandeliers at Port Eliot that you can see in the photographs from previous posts. As a du Maurier fan -- he can quote entire scenes from Rebecca (usually in a double-act with his colleague, Kitty Arden) -- he was the perfect companion at Port Eliot, with an intuitive understanding that the 'haunting' we wanted to evoke was partly imaginary; by which I mean, du Maurier's ghosts are often a reflection of inner spectres -- a summoning up of childhood fears and anxieties, or the wraith-like failures and disappointments of the past.
That said, Michael also staged a very spooky emanation of Mrs Danvers in the Port Eliot housekeeper's room, which made several people scream out loud.
Now, what shall we plan for next year?

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

In the Round Room at Port Eliot

As you can tell, I cannot get this house out of my head. This is the Round Room where we did the evening event on Saturday -- I was in conversation with Catherine St Germans, the current chateleine of Port Eliot, and Dr Jessica Gardner, the chief archivist of the du Maurier archive at Exeter University. Jessica brought some pieces from the archive with her, which were exhibited in the Round Room -- and very evocative they were too, including a haunting picture of Daphne with her father Gerald. She is on the cusp of womanhood, and gazing fixedly into middle distance, while he is staring at her, and clasping her hand, as if he were her lover, rather than her father. There were also wonderful pictures of the Lost Boys -- the five Llewelyn Davies brothers -- and the opening pages of the Rebecca manuscript, and Symington's letters to Daphne, which I draw on in my novel.
All of which inspired a conversation that ranged from ghosts to literary possession to the power of handwriting and ink to summon up the dead; appropriate subjects, given the backdrop, though backdrop isn't quite the right word to describe the powerfully striking murals of Robert Lenkiewicz, that fill the walls of the Round Room. His work took 20 years, and still remains uncompleted (though its unfinished white spaces seem to me to add to its eerie, uncanny quality). It depicts 'The Condition of Man', and the best person to describe it is Lord St Germans, who commissioned this vast piece: 'on one half of the wall (the wall opposite the fireplace, the west wall) there is a presentation of loneliness, unrequited love, corruption, insanity, death, decay, destruction and general mayhem. While on the east wall there is an interpretation of harmony, proportion, love, friendship, hope, passion, and Truth and Beauty. Slyly included over the entire painting are veiled references to deeper, darker and more dangerous obsessions, which further the conundrum of this work that Robert referred to as 'The Riddle Mural'."
Can you imagine anything more tantalisingly mysterious? And I'm certain that Daphne herself would have been intrigued by the riddle, and its suggestive hints...
All in all, the perfect room for a conversation about the dark side of du Maurier....

Monday, 2 June 2008

Port Eliot: a house of secrets and magic, and a very elegant dog...

I've always loved Oriel Malet's description of her visit to Menabilly -- which is why I used it as an epigraph to 'Daphne', and included it in the readings last weekend -- and it seems to me to be evocative of Port Eliot, as well:
"... one of those houses, in which layers of time seemed to have worn thin in places, so that the past now and then showed through. There were rooms in which a lot seemed to have been going on before you entered them, and would probably do so again once you, the intruder, had left... There, even at midday, one sometimes had the distinct impression of being watched. In winter, I always tried to spend as little time as possible getting ready for bed, although the watchers were in no sense malevolent; they were just there."
But there is a difference between Menabilly and Port Eliot, in that the latter feels a more benign place. True, one feels the veil between the living and the dead to be gossamer-fine in Port Eliot, and you cannot walk along its many corridors or staircases without sensing all those who have walked there before. But it is a kindly house; and as its current chatelaine, Catherine St Germans, said to me at the weekend, 'it always seems to offer its help whenever I need it'. Listening to Catherine and her husband, Lord St Germans, talk about Port Eliot, I was reminded of Daphne du Maurier's description of her first encounter with Menabilly:
"... she had a grace and charm that made me hers upon the instant. She was, or so it seemed to me, bathed in a strange mystery. She held a secret -- not one, not two, but many -- that she withheld from most people but would give to one who loved her well.
One family only had lived within her walls. One family who had given her life. They had been born there, they had loved, they had quarreled, they had suffered, they had died. And out of these emotions she had woven a personality for herself, she had become what their thoughts and desires had made her.
And now the story was ended. She lay there in her last sleep..."
But of course, just as Menabilly's story had not ended -- for du Maurier brought her to life again, and it is a house now inhabited by a new generation of the Rashleigh family -- Port Eliot is entirely alive. It welcomes visitors, as well as the family who have always lived there, and remains a home, rather than a airless museum. Thus its current inhabitants include Roo (who you can see in the picture above), a whippet who trots through the rooms and out into the gardens, and down to the estuary, gathering speed, breaking into a run, swifter than the passage of the years...

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Wellies at Port Eliot

As you might have guessed there was sunshine and showers at Port Eliot this weekend -- and the rain on Saturday was sufficiently torrential to demand wellie-wearing in the afternoon. Thanks to dovegreyreader for the photo of the 'Daphne' event in the Orangery -- there I am in my wellies with Ann Willmore from Bookends of Fowey. Ann and David packed up shop for the day and came to Port Eliot to sell copies of 'Daphne', along with other books by and about du Maurier -- which was incredibly kind of them.
Fortunately, the clouds cleared just in time for tea, so we were able to leave the (by now gently steaming, though very elegant) Orangery to eat delicious scones and cakes and sandwiches in the walled garden.
Now, I've got to unpack my bags, and cook some food for my husband and sons (abandoned in London this weekend while I was in Cornwall), and hug the dog, and load the dishwasher, and empty the washing machine, and tackle the hillock of dirty clothes that eerily sprang up in the house in my absence.
Oh, to be back in Port Eliot, amidst the Reynolds paintings and the vases of scented roses, and tea and toast by the fire. I have felt the magic, and I'm longing to escape there again...