Daphne is about three people who feel they have something to prove. The nifty part is, one of these people is a fictionalized Daphne Du Maurier.
As many have pointed out, Du Maurier’s most famous work, Rebecca, borrows heavily from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. This makes sense if you know that in real life, Du Maurier was a passionate reader and researcher of the Brontës, in particular Branwell Brontë, the brother who died young and without having left behind any major contribution to the Brontë literary legacy. Daphne follows Du Maurier’s research of Branwell for about three years, starting when Du Maurier was fifty years old and living in the mansion that inspired Manderley. She wants to prove that Branwell was more of a literary talent than anyone realizes, perhaps by proving that he had a hand in Emily’s Wuthering Heights, or by finding a hitherto unknown work of genius. But it’s slow-going work, given that original documents are difficult to find, and Du Maurier begins to think she will never be able to finish her book, and by doing so, prove herself as well as Branwell to be of genuine literary merit. As she remarks to her agent, “I do fret when you advertise me as a best-selling author, it puts the critics off, because nowadays it’s something to be ashamed of, don’t you think?”
In alternate chapters, Brontë scholar Alex Symington hopes to galvanize his failing reputation by providing Du Maurier with information from his personal collection of Brontë documents. He is past his prime in years and in his career, and feels threatened by the famous Du Maurier at the same time he desperately hopes she will be a lifeline to renewed prominence in the literary sphere.
A third character, Jane (yeah, there’s a lot of significant- but self aware -naming in this book), is a modern woman working on her Ph.D, the subject of which is Daphne Du Maurier’s research on Branwell Brontë. Jane feels she needs to prove herself to her new and much-older husband, who is moody and preoccupied (sound familiar?), and dismissive of Jane’s obsession with Du Maurier, whom he considers a minor writer. The figurative presence of his ex-wife, Rachel (er… significant but self aware!) looms large in Jane’s mind.
This book was less romantic and less spookygloomy than I’d hoped it would be. Instead, it is curiously detached in the Du Maurier chapters, perhaps in an attempt to underscore Du Maurier’s supposed emotional state at this time. Because of the book’s subject matter, I’d anticipated more mystery, but Daphne is a fairly straightforward book. A dash of mystery might have made Jane’s chapters, especially, more compelling, since she is a modern character and not swathed in the veils of time as Daphne and Symington are. Forgive the flowery language. Jane is intended, of course, to be a modern-day version of the unnamed narrator in Rebecca, but as her hypothetical contemporary, I found myself just wanting to smack some sense into her as punishment for finding herself at such a loss over such mundane problems.
Oddly enough, it’s Symington who elicited the strongest emotional response from me, perhaps because his relative obscurity and failing health make him more pitiable, and his desperation easier to understand. There’s a scene in the last third of the book in which Symington is presented as so embarrassingly pathetic, even to himself, that it made me squeamish.
For me, the book’s real achievements were not in its plot elements, as I’d been hoping they would be, but in two incidentals: its inclusion of savory details about Du Maurier’s life, and its commentary on what is considered “real” literature. It’s no wonder Du Maurier was able to write such romantic and haunting stories; she led a truly dramatic life for a woman of her time. She was beautiful and wealthy, the granddaughter of a famous novelist, a tomboy who had at least one reputed homosexual relationship– with her father’s former lover– and one of the most famous authors in England while she was still alive. The book leads one to question whether Du Maurier’s Rebecca de Winter was, in fact, a shadow version of herself: beautiful, licentious, and on some level, unrepentant.
I also appreciated the book’s discussion, through Daphne and Jane’s stories, about what is considered intelligent literature. Jane’s husband expresses disdain for Du Maurier’s work because she is not considered canonically significant, and even Du Maurier’s character is dissatisfied with her position as one of the most famous and best-selling authors in England, because she is not taken seriously as an intellectual. There’s certainly an element of sexism at play here, especially when you take into account our society’s relegation of many female-focused, female-written novels to the “chick lit” category. Why are so many intelligent, enjoyable novels considered a niche genre simply because they focus on issues traditionally of interest to women? DuMaurier’s novels deal skillfully with mystery, sexuality, growing up, mental illness, and even the supernatural and psychological. They are atmospheric and written in beautiful prose. Though Daphne does not even come near Du Maurier in terms of… well, anything, it was a fun read that united many of my personal literary interests into one respectable and intelligent book.