Reviewed: Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters by Jane Dunn

Sister act.

Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters: the Hidden Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing
Jane Dunn
HarperPress, 304pp, £25

Daphne du Maurier was one of three sisters but the Brontës they weren’t, however much this book tries to present a picture of col - lective creative achievement. Daphne was famous, the author of bestselling novels including Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel. Several of her novels and stories became classic films: Rebecca and The Birds, both directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and Don’t Look Now by Nicolas Roeg.

Jane Dunn wants to bring out the different talents of Angela and Jeanne, Daphne’s elder and younger sisters, as well as to show the dynamics of sisterly relationships across three intersecting lifetimes. However, although Angela was a writer and Jeanne was an artist, there isn’t much to show for it. Jeanne got to study at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London and forged links with the St Ives group of painters after moving to Cornwall. She exhibited occasionally and some of her paintings are owned by the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol (but are not on display). Angela’s novels, it seems, were mainly published – when they were – because of her name. Daphne had reignited the du Maurier celebrity embodied by their father, Gerald, actor-manager of Wyndham’s Theatre in London; before that, their grandfather George was the author of Trilby, a defining novel of the 1890s.

Even if Angela and Jeanne did not have the success of their other sister, there might be a story to be written about their Cornish lives. It is striking that all three chose to move there from London, where they had grown up. Cornwall is central to Daphne’s fiction; for 20 years, she was able to lease a romantically secluded mansion like the one in Rebecca. Yet the regionally shared story of later decades works no better than the would-be rehabilitation of Angela’s and Jeanne’s creative work. There is a fundamental, practical discrepancy in narrative possibility, as Dunn acknowledges at the start of her book with reader-stopping honesty: “The search for Jeanne has been blocked since the beginning of my researches.” In the 1950s, Jeanne started living with a woman who has always been “adamantly set against any biography of the sisters”. “Now in her nineties” and still in “their exquisite house on Dartmoor”, this potent character is sitting on all the papers.

With Jeanne, then, Dunn has little to tell beyond the occasional summary or glimpse. In 1913, she was “still only a toddler”; thankfully, “Her life had not yet deepened into its later complexities.” In the 1940s, she is seen energetically cultivating a two-acre vegetable plot as part of the war effort. She was assisted by Angela; Daphne, meanwhile, was exempt from war work as a wife and mother, not that she was particularly active in emotional or other time-taking labour on either front.

Of the three, Daphne was the only one to marry or have children – though she did not enjoy babies until her third, a son, and nor had she meant to marry. All the sisters had love relationships with women, Angela having a penchant for a special type of older woman – a widow with a liking for tasteful foreign holidays and a castle of her own (there was one on the isle of Mull, then one close to home in Cornwall). Daphne, too, liked older women, attentive versions of the mother who had been distant to her and Angela (as Daphne was to her first two children, also daughters).

Angela’s love life was mainly lesbian, in her thirties quite flamboyantly; but her first love had been a man she called “X” (Dunn, regrettably, has no more exact name for him). He was apparently a prominent Labour candidate in the 1929 general election, when Angela was campaigning in Southwark on behalf of the Conservatives; through him, and through seeing social deprivation at first hand, she underwent a short-lived socialist awakening. “Her doomed love for this man was perhaps immortalised ten years later in her first published novel,” Dunn lyrically ventures. But since the novel is unread, this “perhaps” suggests less its likely source than Dunn’s ongoing difficulty in claiming historical importance for Angela’s work.

In a much repeated anecdote, we learn that a party guest who had been introduced to Miss du Maurier was heard to remark to her husband: “It’s only the sister.” It was Angela who first told the story, even making the line the title of a memoir that ruefully trades on its author’s second-place status. Dunn, after digging where she can, has failed to find belatedly starring roles for Daphne’s siblings or even a significant drama of sisterly relations. Like Angela, she has had to make the best of things.

 

Daphne du Maurier (l) with her sisters Jeanne (c) and Angela (r), circa 1917. Photograph: Claude Harris/National Portrait Gallery

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism