Daphne by Justine Picardie
A few weeks ago, I received a question, through our Daphne du Maurier Website Facebook page, about the novel Daphne and its author Justine Picardie. Daphne was published in 2008 by Bloomsbury in the UK and the US. I have such happy memories of this novel, Justine writing it and her visits to Fowey during that time, but I had not read the book for several years. The question prompted me to pick it up again, and re-reading it, I was not disappointed; it still holds all the magic that I remembered.
The UK and US first editions of Daphne by Justine Picardie
Daphne is a novel that weaves fact into fiction and is narrated by three voices, two real people and one fictional character. Of course, Daphne du Maurier is the title character. The story opens to find her at Menabilly in 1957. She is at an exceedingly difficult time in her life when personal problems are overwhelming her. As a distraction, she had set herself the task of writing a biography about Branwell Brontė, the almost totally ignored brother of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne.
She seeks the support of the second real person in the novel, a Brontė scholar, living in Yorkshire, called Alex Symington. As we read, we discover that he is a somewhat more complex person than we initially expect, with a vast knowledge of Branwell and his sisters, but many problems, which he would perhaps prefer to hide away from us.
Our third narrator is living in the present, a fictional young woman (now what is she called?!), a solitary figure, unsure of herself and newly married to a man much older than herself. Her guilty pleasure is her love of Daphne du Maurier's writing. She is supposed to be working on a PhD relating to the Brontė's, but she is distracted by Daphne and Branwell's connection. She is, perhaps losing herself in Daphne du Maurier's world.
Justine Picardie is a novelist, biographer, and fashion writer, having variously been features editor for British Vogue, editor of the Observer Magazine and editor in chief of Harper's Bazaar and Town and Country. Her first solo publication was the memoir If the Spirt Moves You. This was followed by the novel Wish I May. Then came My Mothers Wedding Dress, a book of essays covering literature, family memoir and fashion. When Virago became the new publishers for Daphne du Maurier's works, in the early 2000s, Justine was asked to write the introduction to the Virago editions of The King's General and The Infernal World of Branwell Brontė. This brought Justine back to her earlier love of Daphne's work (her guilty secret while studying at Cambridge) and prompted her to write the novel, Daphne. Since then, she has written a biography of Coco Chanel called Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life and she is currently writing Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture, due to be published in September 2021.
Justine carries out extensive research for all her books. While writing Daphne, she immersed herself in all things du Maurier. She talked to Daphne's children, her nephew Rupert, and many others including life-long friends Mary Fox and her sister, she also did lots of background reading, made visits to Haworth and the Brontė Parsonage, and spent a lot of time in Fowey.
During this time, we got to know Justine well. She often popped in to our book-shop, Bookends, or came for a cup of tea or something to eat in our flat above the book-shop. She would often leave with something du Maurier related that she needed to borrow, perhaps a book, but more often a picture or a letter or some other small thing that represented Daphne. She would surround herself with these things while she wrote.
Justine stayed in a flat, high up in a house, in the middle of the old town, which had one window overlooking Place and another overlooking the river. One afternoon, when there were dolphins in the harbour, plying their way back and forth with the Polruan ferry, she phoned me to come across and watch them from her window.
In the middle of the room was a large, solid, workmanlike table, with Justine's laptop in the middle, pages and pages of notes and all the little du Maurier-related trinkets surrounding her work. It was a fabulous moment to see a writer at her work, particularly one who was so totally absorbed in all things Brontė and du Maurier.
On the second page of chapter thirty of Daphne, Justine's fictional narrator's husband says:
'And of course you've read all of du Maurier's books',
and the narrator responds:
'Yes!' I said, so grateful that we could now acknowledge this, without him getting angry, 'I've read them over and over again, and the thing about her novels is that you begin to feel you inhabit the places that she describes; she gives so much detail, it's like walking into the landscape of someone else's mind.'
I love this small paragraph. I think it sums up Daphne du Maurier's writing beautifully, and describes something that many of us feel. It also shows just how deeply Daphne du Maurier had got under Justine's skin and into her head, and how well she understood her, as she settled down to write this beautiful novel.
Justine is a fine and very accomplished writer, and I do hope you enjoy reading Daphne.
© Ann Willmore 2021