Justine Picardie's new novel, Daphne, is a rum concoction which comes wrapped in one of the most attractive jacket designs, based on an illustration by Alison Lang, that I've seen in a long time. As the book opens, we encounter the writer Daphne du Maurier, 50 years old and at a particularly low point in her life. Her husband, Tommy "Moper" Browning, is recovering from a breakdown, brought on by drink and his affair with the woman Daphne calls "The Snow Queen". At Menabilly, her Cornish home, Daphne is consumed by regret, and haunted by the ghostly presence of her most famous fictional creation, Rebecca.
To combat her feelings of desolation, Daphne immerses herself in the book she is trying to write, a biography of Branwell Brontë. She enlists the scholarly help of J A Symington, an editor of the Brontës' writings and a collector of their manuscripts. But is Symington as trustworthy and respectable as his reputation suggests? And can Daphne rescue Branwell from the century of belittlement he has suffered at the hands of his sisters' admirers, and bring evidence of his true genius to the fore?
Picardie's novel is buttressed by an impressive amount of research, so much so that one sometimes wishes that she'd concentrated on a non-fictional treatment of her major themes. As background, she has been guided by Margaret Forster's 1993 biography of Daphne du Maurier, and by the host of other critical and biographical writing about du Maurier which has accompanied the swift revival of interest in her life and work since her death in 1989. She's also investigated the tangled web surrounding the dispersal of Brontë manuscripts, and the sale of some of Branwell's writings with forged signatures in Charlotte's or Emily's name to ensure a better price. Symington's involvement is murky here. In the 1920s, he was instrumental in shaping the Brontë collections at both the University of Leeds and at the new Brontë Parsonage Museum at Haworth. But in 1930, Symington left the Brontë Society under a cloud, after it was discovered that various prized items were missing from the museum.
Picardie creates a convincing portrait of Symington in the most assured sections of the novel. Like the other major Brontë collectors with whom he was involved, T J Wise and Clement Shorter, Symington was a self-made man, conscious of his humble beginnings, and prepared to stray into nefarious practices if a precious manuscript was in his reach. His relationship with du Maurier, she burdened by feelings of inadequacy but wanting to write something "serious", he in awe of her fame, but increasingly unable to separate the truth from the imaginary as he looks back over his past, is very nicely done.
Much less successful is a sub-plot, set in the present, in which a latter-day PhD student becomes absorbed in Daphne's 50-year-old quest for Branwell, partly as a defence against her husband's continuing obsession with his first wife, Rebecca. Here the plotline of secret meetings and stolen letters barely limps along, while the clunky parallels with du Maurier's Rebecca are wholly devoid of the light, transforming touch that they need.
Unfortunately, the novel can't help but end on an anti-climactic note. Despite all the effort that du Maurier put into her research, her resulting biography about Branwell Brontë hardly helped to restore his reputation, concluding that Branwell had exhausted all his literary talent by the time he reached 21. Picardie has Daphne fearing that she may have succeeded in killing off Branwell, smothering him within the pages of her book.