Understanding du Maurier
Aradhika Sharma

by Justine Picardie.
Pages 405. Rs 350.

THE book opens with the 50-year-old Daphne du Maurier, whose life seems sad and dreary at that point. Her husband, Tommy Browning, is recovering from a breakdown, brought on by drink and a long-term affair with another woman, whom Daphne christened the ‘snow queen’. We find Daphne at Menabilly, her Cornish home. Daphne is full of regret and desolation, and haunted by the eerie presence of her own fictional creation, Rebecca.

"She looked at herself, briefly, in the mirror of her dressing table and shuddered, very slightly. The woman who looked back at her was still beautiful at 50; but Daphne feared what she might see in the looking glass, not what she saw now—that, she could bear, the fine lines and wrinkles, the slackening flesh and greying hair, the shadows under her eyes —what she glimpsed in her dreams. Rebecca, she dreamt she saw Rebecca gazing back at her, eyes narrowed, lips smiling, a ghost in the mirror, the story come to life; the other woman in the bedroom last night.

To shake herself out of this grey mood, Daphne is determined to research and pursue the book she is herself trying to write. The book is a biography of Branwell Bronte, the brother of Charlotte and Emily Bronte. This book would establish her as an author of note among the intelligentsia whereas up to now, although her fiction has made her a rich woman, she is still dismissed by her peers and a writer of pulp fiction.

In fact, she had actually dedicated her book to the scholar J.A. Symington, with whom she had exchanged a lot of correspondence and who also sold her several manuscripts, some of which were those of the Bronte sisters’. Symington himself had held the post of curator and librarian of the Bronte Parsonage Museum and the Brotherton Collection. But in 1930, Symington left the Bronte Society in some disgrace, after it was discovered that assorted valued items were missing from the museum.

In the late 1950s, a century after the era of the Brontes, du Maurier began writing a biographical study of Branwell Bronte, the reprobate brother of the two famous sister, and in1960, Daphne du Maurier published The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte, a biography in which she sought to bring "some measure of understanding for a figure long maligned, neglected and despised". She set out to prove "that Charlotte’s signature had been forged on many of Branwell’s youthful manuscripts, and that some of Branwell’s most accomplished poems had been wilfully misattributed to Emily, so that they could be sold for a far higher price to collectors who were interested only in the famous sisters rather than their disappointing brother."

Du Maurier thus wanted to establish that Branwell who had gone down in history as the drunken failure of the family, was in fact, an author of true genius and his talent was as respect worthy as his sisters’. His genius had, in fact, been belittled by the admirers of his famous sisters’ works.

The greatest stumbling block in the novel is a sub-plot of a young woman doing research into the Brontes for a PhD. This woman’s personal circumstances are very similar to those of echo those of Rebecca, du Maurier’s most famous heroine. As is du Maurier’s, her marriage is also facing tough times; the young woman becomes interested in the author’s quest into the lives and works of the Brontes and finds herself withdrawing from her husband. Picardie’s has done a remarkable amount of research for her novel. She has used Margaret Forster’s 1993 biography of Daphne du Maurier, and by some other biographical writing about du Maurier which has come about after her death in 1989 and which revived interest in the author and her work. Unfortunately, her hand at fiction is heavy and she would have been better served, if she had written a factual account instead of a novel.