I picked up Margaret Forster’s 1993 biography of Daphne du Maurier looking for a little background on My Cousin Rachel, nothing more. I quickly discovered that you can’t just drop into the middle of Daphne’s life and then walk away. Or rather, when you look up 1949 you’re faced with a lot of statements that imply a mass of missed backstory.
Ellen was rightly worried by Daphne’s increasingly distorted view of her life and tried to console and put an alternative, more attractive hypothesis forward. But what saved her friend was what had always saved and rescued her: the very work she saw as fatal to her human relationships. In Florence, Daphne had felt the first faint stirrings of a novel about a woman, a widow like Ellen, who would have many of Ellen’s characteristics and even look like her: the point of the novel would be that this woman was the source of great torment to others.
I’m nosy. I found the simple answers I’d hoped for, but they carried with them a lot more questions. Who was Ellen? What kind of torment was she to du Maurier? What did ‘distorted view‘ mean?
Here was a writer who’d been on my shelves since my young teenage. I can still remember being gripped by, The Loving Spirit. She’d rarely let me down. I particularly liked the strand of Gothic that threaded it’s way through so much of her long and short fiction.
Some of her books carried her photo. It was a rather lovely, kindly, face, I thought. Other publicity, of her sailing with her husband, or playing with her children, left me with an impression of a sun-lit, sea-bound, model family. For years, if I imagined her life at all, it was one of endless summers.
I know, how impossible is that? Still, it didn’t necessarily follow that the alternative would be anything significant, or ground shaking, did it?
How wrong I was. The story of du Maurier, according to Forster, is a very modern one. It includes a dominant father, a strong but distant mother, and questions about gender identity and sexual freedom. All of this is played out in the early years of the twentieth century, largely in London.
A biography written by a novelist might be expected to explore character, to look for the motivations and inciting incidents that lead to a career as a successful and prolific writer. I found myself caring about Daphne in the same way I cared about Rachel and Philip in, My Cousin Rachel.
There were moments when I pulled back from the biography and reminded myself that du Maurier was a real woman. Then I began to ask myself questions about her right to privacy.
Like any other narrator, Forster had chosen which scenes we would see, which fragment of diary or letter to share. If I was questioning the narrator in My Cousin Rachel, shouldn’t I also question Forster?
When I look again at my first quote, I have a perfect example of where my discomfort comes from. It’s the occasional inclusion of a word, like ‘rightly‘. Take it away and I feel less pushed.
Ellen was worried by Daphne’s increasingly distorted view of her life and tried to console and put an alternative, more attractive hypothesis forward.
I probably seem niggly. This kind of direction is so slight, it’s questionable whether there is an intention to direct. But then there’s:
It was as though she…
The whole tone of her letters was one of outraged distress…
As in any biography, there are gaps in the evidence. Sometimes because du Maurier had written about the same event in contrasting ways, to different people, at others because nothing had been written at all, and yet other people had supplied details of actions.
This is the point at which hypothesis has to take over, however unsatisfactory…
I wish Forster had trusted me to draw my own conclusions. Worse, were the times when Forster insisted on summing up a situation after she’d presented the evidence.
If Daphne had been prepared to sacrifice Menabilly, she could have made a home in or near London for both of them, so that their marriage would have had a better chance of flourishing once more.
My favourite moment? It’s from a letter written by the senior editor to Victor Gollancz, about the manuscript of her novel, Rebecca.
…brilliantly creates a sense of atmosphere and suspense… I don’t know another author who imagines so hard all the time. …the spelling is quite incredible.
I take heart any time I find an author who has struggled with spelling, aside from the typos, mine seems to get worse and werse.
*Photo on header, of Fowey, Cornwall, by Alan Hearn