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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Moving on up: why Ira Sachs is king of the "Rightmovie"

Little Men reminds us that Sachs is the the cinematic poet laureate of the gentrification drama.

There’s a nauseating moment at the end of the 1986 film Stand By Me when the narrator reflects on his childhood. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12,” he sighs. “Jesus, does anyone?” That sort of retroactive idealism is a temptation for any coming-of-age movie, but the writer-director Ira Sachs resists it in Little Men. His film charts the blossoming friendship between two 13-year-old boys, Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri), without stooping to suggest that what they have is somehow purer than anything in the adult world. It isn’t – it’s just subject to different forces. Sachs captures the concentrated joy of youthful larks and loyalty but he is as wise as Fassbinder ever was to the impact of economic and social pressures on our emotional choices.

It’s clear that the film will be discreet from the way the cinematographer, Óscar Durán, shoots Jake and Tony from behind during their first meeting, as though permitting the boys a modicum of privacy away from our prying eyes. Sachs has a knack for finding those pockets of quiet in the hubbub. The opening shot puts the reserved, feminine-faced Jake at his school desk; he’s the still point in the midst of chaos. He takes whatever life – or, in this case, his classmates – can throw at him.

Then Jake gets a bombshell: his grand­father has died. His father, Brian (Greg Kinnear), and mother, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), move with him into the old man’s building in Brooklyn. Downstairs is a cluttered dress shop that was being leased to Tony’s mother, Leonor (Paulina García), at a cut-price rate that failed to take into account the property boom. Jake’s father considers himself a sensitive man – he is an actor – ­preparing for a production of The Seagull but his life has just become The Cherry Orchard. Family members advise him to jack up the rent or boot out Leonor.

Kinnear conveys the honest terror of a kind man staring into the depths of his conscience and not liking what he finds. García, the star of the superb Gloria, is brave enough to make her character actively disagreeable at times. In her most complex scene, she sacrifices the moral high ground and overplays her hand with a single rash remark.

Yet Little Men belongs to the little men. Sensing the tremors of discord between their families, Jake and Tony stick together. They skate through the streets in a blur as the camera struggles to keep sight of them behind trees and parked cars while the propulsive score by Dickon Hinchliffe of Tindersticks urges them on.

As Tony, Barbieri is the find of the film. He’s twitchy and gangly, his voice a scratchy drawl that belongs to a bourbon-soaked barfly. No one has swaggered through Brooklyn with such aplomb since John Travolta at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever. Then he’ll do something impulsive, such as hugging his sobbing mother by wrapping his long arms all the way around her and clutching her head to his chest, and suddenly he’s a baby again.

With this and Love Is Strange – about a middle-aged gay couple forced to live separately due to financial difficulties – Sachs has appointed himself the cinematic poet laureate of gentrification-based drama. (Call it the dawn of the Rightmovie.) But he isn’t a tub-thumper. He and his co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, show simply and plainly how money alters everything. Durán shoots the Brooklyn locations in a crisp, summery light that mirrors this straightforwardness. Any poetry springs from the everyday, such as the night-time shot in which blurred blobs of colour from streetlights and headlamps suggest dabs of paint on a palette.

Even the editing (by Mollie Goldstein) speaks volumes. The sudden cut from the gaudy clamour of a disco, where Tony wears a glow band around his neck like a fallen halo, to the chill calm of the subway platform evokes acutely that plunging feeling when the fun is over. As the boys wait for the train, their faces are framed in unsmiling repose in a shot that calls to mind Simon and Garfunkel on the cover of Bookends. And we all know what happened to them. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times