Reviewed: Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters by Jane Dunn

Sister act.

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

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.