Daphne du Maurier: Looking Inward by Teresa Petersen
I recently attended a zoom event given by the Pre-Raphaelite Society, at which Louise Chapman talked about the PhD on which she is working. It was about a collection or, more accurately, a gathering of clothes that belonged to a woman called Kate Elizabeth Bunce (1856-1927), an artist and poet associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. Kate had lived in Birmingham and had donated the clothes to the Birmingham School of Art. The value of these items must have been appreciated initially. The garments were all carefully stored in archive boxes before being put into a cupboard and forgotten for at least 30 years. Louise found the boxes when the contents of various rooms at the School were being moved. Having studied and worked with the garments for some time now, she has developed an empathy with the Kate Bunce, who it transpires, had been the wearer of the clothes. The talk was fascinating, but one comment, in particular, struck a chord with me. The need to remember that having found the gathering of clothes, Louise felt she had a responsibility to their original owner to be careful with them and show them the respect they deserved.
Reflecting on those words, with which I entirely agree, it struck me that it is not only an archive of a person's possessions, or indeed a single item, such as a letter or a book belonging to someone from the past, but also the person themselves about whom we need to be careful. This care should also apply to biographers, who research a person, now no longer able to speak for themselves. They might interview many people who knew the subject of the biography. They might read letters that the person wrote to friends, business contacts, or fans of their work. They then piece together the subject's life as they see it from the information they gather. They might discover or suspect difficult truths, and then they need to decide how to impart them. But all the time, they owe a debt of responsibility to the life they are writing about, and they should be careful.
Margaret Forster wrote what is considered to be the definitive biography about Daphne du Maurier. She worked tirelessly talking to people who knew Daphne, reading hundreds of her letters and researched thoroughly, building a picture of Daphne, and writing her biography. When her work was almost complete, Margaret gained access to Daphne's letters to Ellen Doubleday. Those letters changed Margaret's view. She altered the emphasis of the biography, labouring the point of Daphne and the 'boy in the box', her relationships with Ellen and with Gertrude Lawrence. This supposed new information was then written right through the text and used to explain the route that Daphne's literary career took. This was a dangerous thing to do, and Margaret did not necessarily get it right. She interpreted one cache of information in a way that put a spin on the whole biography. Margaret did not treat Daphne carefully.
Possibly, even with the identical information, she or another biographer would not write the book with the same emphasis today. But in publishing her book, Margaret changed the way the Daphne du Maurier was perceived, possibly forever.
Teresa is not alone in her theory of incest. On the weekend of Daphne du Maurier centenary on 13th May 2007, writer and journalist Michael Thornton wrote an article for the Daily Mail, entitled Daphne's Terrible Secret, on the same subject. He described himself as a regular visitor to Menabilly, and a friend of Daphne's, for some years. In his article, Michael referred to a particular lunch at Menabilly that he enjoyed with Daphne and his sister. He said Daphne started a conversation on to the subject of incest, which she was apparently completely comfortable with, despite knowing that others might be less so. According to Michael, his sister, who was meeting Daphne for the first time, was shocked. Michael suggested that over a period of time, conversations with Daphne on the subject of incest had uncovered, what he believed to be, an incestuous relationship with her father:
Indeed, during the years that I had known Daphne, it had become overwhelmingly obvious that incest was a subject that both obsessed and haunted her.
Gerald is said to have had an unnaturally close relationship with his middle daughter, and Michael sites that friends noticed how obviously tactile Gerald was with Daphne, to a point that was embarrassing to watch. According to both Daphne and her older sister Angela, Gerald was very jealous of their boyfriends and created terrible scenes because of this. Even when Daphne became engaged to Boy Browning, Gerald is said to have broken down weeping and saying:
It's not fair, it's not fair
Over and over again, because he couldn't face the idea of Daphne marrying.
Of course, Gerald was an actor, and all these implications of incest, jealousy and tantrums could be dismissed as play-acting.
Returning to Teresa, it is the role of an academic to closely read the various texts within a writer's canon and search for what the writer is really saying. This is mainly in opposition to the layperson who can be reading on many levels but often simply for pleasure. The interpretation of the academic, when compared to the layperson, will often be vastly different.
In an email correspondence with Teresa recently, in which we discussed reviewing Daphne du Maurier: Looking Inward on the Daphne du Maurier website, Teresa said:
I guess I've been keeping a low profile because I feel my book goes contrary to general criticism of du Maurier. I think she is just such a fabulous writer and storyteller, which is why I chose to engage with her work.
I appreciated this comment. I think Teresa disagrees with Margaret's inferences of lesbianism, and in moving to her views of incest, believes that she is dispelling the 'boy in the box' myth. I think that Teresa intended to treat Daphne carefully.
Most of us don't analyse the writers that we love. We simply enjoy their work. But there is no doubt that biography can set in stone ideas that may or may not have any real foundation.
No-one may ever be able to pin down 'the truth' about who Daphne du Maurier was. Even the people who were her closest friends, or who knew her through her work or for other reasons, have wildly varying views of who she was. Chameleon-like, Daphne showed different sides of herself to different people. She kept her friends in separate compartments so that they often did not know each other and certainly did not spend time in each other's company. When writing about the same event to two different people, Daphne could easily describe what happened entirely differently depending on who she was writing to. She was brought up in a theatrical household full of acting. She became a novelist who lived her storylines as she wrote them. She embargoed her diaries for fifty years after her death. Daphne did not want us to be sure of who she was, and we should remember that and treat her carefully.
Do read Daphne du Maurier: Looking Inward. It is a fascinating book and different to the other biographical works that have been written about Daphne du Maurier. When you have read it, get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know what you think.
Daphne du Maurier: Looking Inward by Teresa Petersen
© Ann Willmore 2021