Wednesday, 6 May 2009


Please visit Barrie Summy
for a full listing of
other May book review.

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.


Stacy Nyikos said...

What an interesting storyline. I've been looking for something new and British to read after finishing The Thirteenth Tale. This sounds like a good one. Very meaty.

Bee said...

Stacy - What did you think about The Thirteenth Tale? I've got it sitting on my to-read shelf. BTW, I've been right behind you for the past hour!

Beth said...

Sounds intriguing – a challenge and an escape. It’s been added to my Wish List.
A wonderful review.

(BTW, loved Capturing Paris.)

Tessa said...

Finally! I've stopped for a moment to catch up on your posts and, oh, what delights awaited me! Tulips and wisteria and a delicious butterscotch rice pudding. Then a visit to one of my favourite gardens (I wonder if you’ve been to any of the music festivals at Wisley?) and gentle moments watching the water and the emerald-headed ducks. A perfect place to sit for a while and mull over the future. (I loved every moment of our stay on Madeira over Christmas and New Year – blissfully unspoilt and a wonderful place to retire, I should think.)

A compelling assessment of Justine Picardie’s Daphne – thank you so much for that. I read the Kirkus review of the book a little while ago which rather put me off by declaring it to be, amongst other things, ‘inert and unwelcoming on every page’. However, your excellent and crisply perceptive appraisal has persuaded me to put it straight onto my reading list!

Sarah Laurence said...

I love how you choose your books to suit your environment and match your mood. I hadn’t heard of this book before – it sounds interesting. Famous authors as characters – it must have taken a lot of work to research. Getting lost in a novel is the best escape – thanks for bringing us along. Great review!

I have read the 13th Tale and really liked it but found the ending a bit stretched. The setting and characters were unforgettable, but the protagonist didn’t feel a real as the author and the people of her past. Worth reading still.

Bee said...

Beth - When I was in Houston, Katherine Davis visited the River Oaks Bookstore that I mentioned in my review! I didn't get to hear her, unfortunately, but my friend got me her new book East Hope. I don't think it is as strong as Capturing Paris, but I was completely absorbed in the protagonist's life and could not put it down!

Tessa - You are so kind.

I haven't actually been to Madeira -- but only like the sound of it. I must explore it, for real.

As for Daphne, like Ms. du Maurier's work, this namesake book has had some snarky reviews. I think that they are very unfair. I skimmed The Times review and thought that the reviewer had missed the point. Inert? Not at all. I found it very compelling, and I can't imagine anyone who is interested in du Maurier and the Brontes not being fascinated.

Sarah - this fictional device of blending fact with imaginative fancy seems very in vogue at the moment -- as does telling a story from multiple vantage points. I think that both devices work well in this book. (There is also a new book with Rupert Brooke as one of the central characters.)

Thanks for your feedback on the Thirteenth Tale as well.

Shauna said...

Your review makes me want o read *gulp* fiction! I'm adding this one to my list and I'll look for it. Thanks!

ArtSparker said...

Wow, this is a fine line . I love pastiche, I do pastiche myself, but there is the question always of making something new with something old - which is very hard to pull off, standing on the shoulders of giants can throw off an author's balance.

As for the thirteenth tale, didn't work for me. I don't recall if that was the one with more twins than you can shake a stick at, but I found it a bit of a shaggy dog story.

Elizabeth said...

This sounds a 'must read'. I will order it for my latest (son-given) gadget a 'kindle'.
Yes the English are utterly obsessed by writers and the past -or at least I am --and various of my friends.
A beautifully put together essay.
Have you read Trilby by Daphne du Maurier's father?

herhimnbryn said...

Oh Bee, thankyou for this. Looks like a trip to my favourite book shop is due!
What a great read and your eloquence has made me eager to get this book pronto!

♥ bfs~"Mimi" ♥ said...

What an amazing review!!! I must check in on that one. Thank you!

Sarahlynn said...

That sounds lovely and wonderful! But I feel like I need to do a bit of rereading (and reading) before I could enjoy it fully.

Have you read The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett? Like the Queen, I need exercise. I think I'll start with Jack Murnighan's new book and use it as a "To Read" list.

Bee said...

Shauna - I, on the other hand, need to read more nonfiction!

ArtSparker - Yes, the author did bite off quite a big challenge here. There has been criticism of the "young woman" character -- who just like the second wife in Rebecca -- is not given a name (until the very end of the story!). It worked for me, though.

Elizabeth - You have a kindle! Have you used it yet? I do hope that you read this book; it sounds like something right up your alley. As for Trilby, no I haven't read it. It is mentioned in the book, though. (I thought her grandfather wrote it? Apparently he was friends with Henry James, too. Picardie managed to insert all sorts of interesting literary trivia.)

herhimnbryn - It will be a great book for NZ autumn. Very atmospheric . . .

bfs Mimi - Thank you! Please let me know if you read it.

Sarahlynn - You don't really need to know any of the books to understand what is going on. Although it would be helpful to know the plots of Rebecca and Jane Eyre, I think. (I know these books very, very well so it was difficult to be objective.) I do have The Uncommon Reader, but I haven't read it yet. It's very short, though, so perhaps I will give it a go.

Reya Mellicker said...

The right book at the right time is just the thing, isn't it?

Some books I try to read and have to put down for awhile, but when the time is right I can savor them.

Fantastic Forrest said...

I need to get Daphne - it sounds fascinating. I looked up Peter Davies. What a terribly sad life. So tragic that his two older brothers died so young, and that his wife and sons all had Huntington's.

I wish I was there, Bee, so we could sweet talk a friend into watching the kids and then go to Cornwall together. Sounds like a great outing! Isn't there anyone you can ask to perform your motherly duties for a little while on the 10th?

The Prodigal Tourist said...

A fellow book lover--how wonderful! And just love your flower photos, like a breath of fresh air on the ether! It's been non-stop rain here, so our flowers are... well... withholding.

Bee said...

Reya - I've had that experience, too. Many times, in fact. Cold Mountain comes to mind.

FF - Did you see the movie Finding Neverland? It was based on the story of the L-D boys when they were young.

How I WISH that we could roadtrip to Cornwall together. Someday. Unfortunately, it is about 6 hours from here . . .

The Prodigal Tourist - Getting that rain to petal ratio just right is tricky. Thanks for visiting!

Fantastic Forrest said...

Yes, I loved Finding Neverland! There are many differences between the movie and reality, though. And although it's hard to believe with our boy Johnny playing him, J.M. Barrie appears to have been - ahem, uninitiated in the ways of love. Truly a Peter Pan.

rjnagle said...

Good review, and thanks for the links to Barrie Summy book review club. Look forward to keeping up with that. Justine Picardie has an interesting blog it seems.

Rebecca is one of my all time faves, and I never have really delved into du Maurier's background. It can be hard though to pull off these "fictionalizations". kundera did some things with mixing historical figures with fictional situations, but only in a minor way.

Bee said...

rjnagle - If you are at all interested in du Maurier, you should really read more about her. She was a very fascinating person, and well-connected with all sorts of literary Personage. (Her grandfather was an author, too, and her father was an actor -- the first to play the dual roles of Captain Hook/Mr. Darling in Peter Pan. Barrie was a close friend of the family.) btw, I haven't read any Kundera in ages. He reminds me so much of college days.

Lucy said...

This sounds very appealing, though I guess you have to be fairly cognizant of all the writers and their works she weaves into it. I think I might give it a go, you're always very persuasive in your reviews!

Do you know 'Rebecca's Tale' by Sally Beauman? That really develops the them well too.

I've long thought Rebecca was an archetype of Lilith...

Bee said...

Lucy - I don't know Beauman's book, but I shall look it up! I think that you would enjoy Daphne. Pick it up when you are feeling homesick for England . . . it has just that sort of dreariness that is nicer to read about than to experience.