Sunday, May 16, 2010

Daphne and Branwell Bronte

Daphne is about Daphne du Maurier during the time in her life when she was writing a biography of Branwell Bronte - trawling through the Brontes' lives and manuscripts to try and resurrect the reputation of the dissolute brother of the famous three. A popular 'lady' novelist - and not considered 'serious' because of it, Du Maurier has a complicated marriage, is a cousin to the boys who inspired JM Barrie's Peter Pan, and lives in the rambling Cornish home that inspired Rebecca - a place thronged with ghosts.

Knitted into this, is the story of a man called Symington who has a similar fascination with Branwell, and once stole Bronte manuscripts and notebooks, hoarding them against a time when he hopes to write a biography of Branwell himself. He is also on the fringes of alleged forgeries of signatures on Bronte manuscripts that muddy their provenance.

Symington's getting older and more confused ... and leads Daphne a merry dance as he tries to share what he has while keeping the best for himself. A third strand in the narrative follows a young woman in present day London who is studying Du Maurier, while battling to make her marriage work to a man who is still 'haunted' by his first wife... remind you of something?

A fourth strand is that the novel itself clearly represents the author's own obsession with Du Maurier and the Brontes and how the two overlap. This serves to make the novel feel highly authentic - and fascinates for that reason - but at the same time the author obsession makes the novel less engaging because it keeps reminding the reader that it is a story.

Daphne also feels too much like non-fiction writing at times as Picardie lays the ground work and then builds on it with back-story and current action, often repeating herself to be sure the reader has understood. The three stories and their similarities and coincidences feel a bit laboured - again, like the author is pointing and saying 'look at this and this and this' - and the language is too 'nuts and bolts' to really get us inside her characters' skins.

Having said that, the real stories Picardie has drawn on are fascinating for a Bronte fan with a Du Maurier bent, and I admire the trail she's followed to bring this material out into the world. Her novel adds rather wonderfully to The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan that I read earlier this year - a novel that fictionalises the lives of the Brontes and made me see them properly for the first time. Now I am inspired to go and read more of the Brontes and more Du Maurier.

In a lovely coincidence that Picardie would revel in, my daughter's in the middle of reading Jane Eyre. I keep saying, 'where are you up to?' And she answers in single sentences to fend me off. The last one was: 'she's bored with the house.'

1 comment:

Rachel Fenton said...

Your daughter's obviously absorbing Eyre to be able to put into her own words so succinctly where she's at - rather than quoting a line from the page!

I usually love books which blend fact with fiction - writing one - but what I like most is the artifice in the device - the convincing of the reader that all of what they are reading is possible in truth - that's the fun of fiction for me.