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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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear