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Why do some stories haunt us?
I have been on a reading jag lately, but the book which has possessed me -- and left the stickiest mental/emotional traces -- is Daphne, by Justine Picardie. It was the first novel that I read after returning to England from my Texas travels, and it was an apt choice -- dealing, as it does, with some of the most memorable characters and authors from the canon of English literature: Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca; Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre; J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. These fictional characters are embedded as deeply into the English cultural and emotional landscape as any physical features of the country.
After travelling, I always feel the need for a retreat into myself. The mood of this novel, so permeated by characters who are lonely and isolated, suited me well. There is a fine line between escapism and fictional obsession, and Picardie fills her novel with characters who cannot always tell the difference. What reader, longing for the relaxation to be found from 'losing oneself in a novel,' has not experienced something similar? Chores, obligations, family demands -- all of these cease to matter for a time. Real life exists inside of the novel's pages.
Picardie's novel is extremely ambitious in scope, for it interweaves the fictitious with the real, and does so in such a convincing way that these categories become blurred for the reader. She take three narrative voices -- the real writer Daphne du Maurier, the real Bronte scholar Alex Symington and a fictitious young woman who is a deliberate pastiche of the literary characters of Jane Eyre and the second wife in Rebecca -- and she creates a fictional mystery which is based on all sorts of historical (read real) connections. Picardie links these three central characters through a similar mental isolation and a shared literary quest: the excavation of the mysterious figure of Branwell Bronte. During a particularly difficult time during her life, when her husband was having a mental breakdown and she was perhaps hovering in that area herself, du Maurier did indeed devote herself to a biographical study of Branwell Bronte. The authorial voice supposes that "in proving him to be a lost genius, she would also prove herself" (p. 20). Overlooked and orphaned respectively, the characters of Mr. Symington and the young woman embark on scholarship with a similarly and personally redemptive bent.
Not only does Picardie braid together these three lives, but she also peoples the strands with characters real, fictional, and based in fiction. For instance, the real woman who inspires the fictional character of Rebecca appears in Daphne's narrative thread, as does Rebecca herself -- who seems equally, if not more, real to du Maurier. The fictitious character of the young woman is also haunted by her husband's first wife -- the beautiful and glamorous Rachel. The character of Rachel is an academic who specializes in du Maurier and Bronte writings. She has written a poem which is both homage and response to Emily Bronte's 'real' poem Self-Interrogation, which has in turn inspired the 'real' title of du Maurier's first novel The Loving Spirit. Equally obsessed by du Maurier's writings, and meeting her real-life Rebecca counterpart at every turn, the young woman is keenly aware of the fictional resonance in her 'real' life -- a life which is, of course, fiction. Confused? Perhaps I don't explain it well.
Picardie, however, juggles all of these stories and manages to make them seem like a coherent whole. Both du Maurier and Symington really did write about the tragic brother of the famous literary sisters, and Picardie obviously did a formidable amount of research to reconstruct their individual and yet connected stories. Piecing together their writings and letters, she imaginatively fills in the blanks -- and yet what so-called 'nonfiction' writing doesn't do the same, to some extent. Even autobiography is a work of reconstruction. There is another fascinating strand in the novel which touches on the life of Peter Llewelyn Davies, the orphaned boy who is adopted by J.M. Barrie and becomes the inspiration for the fictional character of Peter Pan. Peter Llewelyn Davies is also the real-life cousin of Daphne du Maurier, and his actual suicide is alluded to within the du Maurier strand. The twinned themes of madness and creativity run through the novel, and it is strongly suggested that the fictional Peter comes to haunt the real one. He cannot escape from his more famous, perhaps more real (and certainly more lasting), counterpart.
Although the character of the young woman is 'made-up', paradoxically she is the most real in some ways. She is the only contemporary character, and she helps piece together the story for the reader. In some ways, she takes the dusty relics from the past and throws some light on them. Her narrative strand, which is the only one to be told from the first-person point-of-view, encompasses aspects of all of the stories which still exert such a hold on our collective imaginations. In this way, she is a cipher for the various themes within the book. She is the orphan in all of us. She searches for an identity; she searches for love.
The young woman is also, in some ways, twinned with the author of this story. In the acknowledgements, Justine Picardie reveals that Bay Tree Lodge in Hampstead -- the childhood residence of her fictional character -- was also her own childhood residence. Picardie describes herself as being "utterly possessed by the story," and it is fascinating to discover that the du Mauriers and Llewelyn Davies were her neighborhood ghosts. Apparently, they are buried in Church Row in Hampstead.
In her own self-titled blog, Justine Picardie reveals that she will be discussing du Maurier's work at the upcoming Daphne du Maurier Festival in Fowey, Cornwall on May 10. I wish that I had my own twin, who could stay in Berkshire and take care of the children . . . while I followed Picardie down this literary trail.