Daphne du Maurier: truth and fiction.

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…

Or even:

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

Telling stories…

Where do I start? If only my ideas were straightforward.  Instead, here I am scratching my head and trying to unravel too many different lines of thought.

‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on until you come to the end: then stop.’

Chapter XII, Alice in Wonderland

That seems like sound advice.  It’s certainly simple.

From, Emily Gertrude Thomson adaption of Alice In Wonderland.

From, Emily Gertrude Thomson’s adaption of Alice In Wonderland.

So, perhaps I’ll start with the source of my inspiration for this week’s ramble.  Aptly enough (says she, with wide eyed disingenuous simplicity) it was the opening lines of a novel, Behind the Scenes at The Museum, by Kate Atkinson.

I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall.  The clock once belonged to my great-grandmother (a woman called Alice) and its tired chime counts me into the world.  I’m begun on the first stroke and finished on the last when my father rolls off my mother and is plunged into dreamless sleep, thanks to the five pints of John Smith’s Best Bitter he has drunk in the Punch Bowl with his friends, Walter and Bernard Belling.

Who exists?  Why Ruby Lennox, a narrator who has such an all-seeing god-like view of events that from the moment her life begins, she knows everything about her family.  I’m not just talking about her great-grandmother’s clock here, look at what Ruby knows about her father’s movements prior to this conception:  what he drank, where he was and who he was with.  To top that off, she also knows that his sleep is dreamless. If you’ve ever wondered what an omniscient narrator can do, here’s a good example.

Trouble is, Ruby’s not exactly a standard example of omniscience, because she’s a central character in the story.  In fact she’s also a first person narrator, recounting the events of her life, like Tristram Shandy:

‘I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, minded what they were about when they begot me.

and David Copperfield (‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life…’) .

Far from god-like, Ruby’s as fallible as the rest of us, with opinions, prejudices, likes and dislikes that colour the way she sees and recalls her life.

“‘Bunty’ doesn’t seem like a very grown-up name to me – would I be better off with a mother with a different name?”

So, engaging as her story is, there’s always room for a little bit of doubt about what we’re reading.  We want to trust her.  After all, the narrator’s role is to show us the way in the story.  That role of route-master can include everything from placing only relevant story scenes in front of us, to directing what angle we view them from and even, making sure we read it as the narrator wishes us to.  It’s easy to forget how much manipulation is taking place when we’re speeding our way down the page.

Okay, this is fiction, and in the world of fantasy, especially this kind of magical-realist text, anything can happen.  We could just accept and enjoy it as comic exaggeration.  But this story’s also littered with misdirection.  Our narrator seems to suggest that fictional characters existed in the same way as historical figures, ‘Robinson Crusoe, that other great hero, is also a native son of this city.’  She’s also under the impression that her birth is so important an event that ,’outside the window, a dawn chorus is heralding my own arrival.’

You could call that ego, perhaps.  She wouldn’t be the only one to believe the world revolves around herself.  The thing is, once we see that, shouldn’t we be a bit wary of taking her at face value?