Justine Picardie, Daphne. Bloomsbury 2008. 399 pp. Available at River City Books.
In the author photograph on the back of her 1969 novel, The House on the Strand, Daphne du Maurier sits at a desk, her face turned toward the camera but her eyes shifted to the left, avoiding the camera's direct gaze, looking at something hidden to the rest of us. Her mouth seems pinched and hard, as if she's holding back either anger or tears. On the desk, at her left elbow, is another of her books, Vanishing Cornwall.
Daphne du Maurier, 1969. Photograph by Tom Blau. From the dust jacket of The House on the Strand.
The House on the Strand has an odd premise: the protagonist, living on the Cornish coast with his family, experiments with hallucinogenic drugs that allow him to travel back in time to 14th century Cornwall. As the novel progresses, his medieval life becomes more real to him than his life in the present. The presence of the past—the way in which the present sometimes seems to wear thin, allowing the past to bleed through—is a recurring theme in du Maurier's fiction. In her most famous novel, Rebecca, the title character is dead before the novel begins, but her palpable absence dominates the novel. "The past is still too close to us," the narrator says, in a passage that Justine Picardie uses as one of the epigraphs at the beginning of Daphne, her complex and ambitious new novel about Daphne du Maurier.
Daphne opens in 1957, as du Maurier is preparing to write a book about Branwell Brontë, the Brontë sisters' ne'er-do-well older brother. The novel shifts back and forth between this time frame and the present, in which a young graduate student becomes obsessed with reconstructing du Maurier's Brontë research—in particular, du Maurier's dealings with a shadowy Brontë scholar named J. Alexander Symington, who becomes one of the novel's most compelling characters.
All of the characters are haunted by the past, and pulled toward the unknowable voids of other lives. All of the characters feel the gravitational pull of fictional worlds, a pull that is both compelling and destructive. Branwell Brontë was never able to escape Angria, the fictional world that he created as a child with his more talented sisters. Symington destroys his eyesight and his career obsessing over Branwell's microscopic handwriting. Daphne's cousin, Peter Llewelyn Davies, seems fatally haunted by the fiction that his Uncle Jim (J.M. Barrie) created around his childhood: the story of Peter Pan. The characters traverse real landscapes—the Brontës' Haworth, du Maurier's Cornwall and London—but find themselves stepping off into the Neverland of the imagination: a step that can be both liberating and destructive.
The novel is a literary echo chamber, a hall of mirrors: the plots mirror and echo each other, gloss each other, haunt each other like ghosts. The novel is about the influence on our real lives, for good and bad, of reading and of immersing ourselves in fictional worlds. "The thing about her novels," says the young graduate student, on a visit to du Maurier's Cornwall, " is that you begin to feel you inhabit the places she describes; she gives so much detail, it's like walking into the landscape of someone else's mind."
The problem, then, is finding your way out again, into the changing landscape of your own life
Having finished Justine Picardie's fine and thought-provoking novel, I went back to the photograph of Daphne du Maurier with Vanishing Cornwall at her elbow. We want to follow her gaze, to see whatever it is that she sees as she looks away from the camera. We can only imagine. Whatever it was, it has vanished.
My own review of du Maurier's The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë
Justine Picardie's blog
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