Harper Press, £25 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters: The Hidden Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing, By Jane Dunn

A captivating joint biography of the gifted, rivalrous siblings who sought freedom in fantasy

Biographies of artists ofen ignore the interaction with siblings in favour of parent-child bonds, although those parallel life-trajectories, success stories and rivalries can tell us much. Think Dorothy and William Wordsworth; Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë; Alice and Henry James; Margaret Drabble and AS Byatt.

"Families are the soil out of which character grows, and there is no richer compost than the relationship of sisters." Following Jane Dunn's account of the sisterly dynamics of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, this is the premise of her engaging study of the three du Maurier sisters – Angela, Daphne and Jeanne – who followed the creative paths of their renowned grandfather, the artist-novelist George, and their actor-manager father Gerald.

Privileged young women in the early years of the 20th century, educated at home and in Paris, they moved among a glamorous set of figures such as Rudolph Valentino, Ivor Novello, Gertrude Lawrence, Laurence Olivier and Nelly Melba. During turbulent political times, they gadded about between the Savoy Hotel and country houses, flitting to five-star hotels in Monte Carlo, Algiers and Switzerland. Enjoying protected lives, they were cared for by devoted governesses and given opportunities by their wealthy bohemian father. They might have become minor actresses and wives of famous men enjoying a comfortable metropolitan existence.

What they all did, however, was turn their backs on the parental theatrical world, move to Cornwall, and develop artistic careers. Angela wrote ten novels and two memoirs; Jeanne studied fine art and later became a modernist painter, part of the St Ives Society of Artists, alongside Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicolson. From an early age, the middle sister Daphne became an bestselling literary celebrity.

In her frank memoir, Angela du Maurier describes an encounter with a fellow guest at a fashionable hotel. The woman gushed all over her; Angela realised her mistake and said she was not Daphne. The guest turned to her husband and said, "It's ONLY the SISTER!" From the early success of Daphne's fiction, beginning with The Loving Spirit (1931) and sealed by the global triumph of the novel and film Rebecca (1938), older and younger sister became obscure planets orbiting the glorious sun that was their sibling.

Not only was Daphne acknowledged as the most beautiful, but she effortlessly attracted male and female admirers; achieved fame, long critical and popular success, and riches from a productive output of fiction and non-fiction. She married a prominent Army hero, Tommy Browning, with whom she produced three children. Neither Angela nor Jeanne married but travelled extensively and expressed themselves artistically. Each also enjoyed fulfilling friendships (some sexual) with a range of creative and resourceful women – Angela having a series of affairs but Jeanne settling on Dartmoor in a lifelong partnership with the poet Noël Welch.

Both admired and were in awe of their famous sister, though she had little time for their artistic production. Daphne's uneasy response to Angela's brave novel of love between women was to advise her to write short stories or a "funny book". Although Tommy Browning organised Jeanne's exhibition at London's Beaux Arts Gallery, visited by the Queen, Daphne did not bother to attend.

Daphne's life story has been told many times, in her memoir and by biographers such as (most authoritatively) Margaret Forster, feminist critics Alison Light, Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik, and novelists Sally Beauman and Justine Picardie. But this book's strength lies in its account of a trio of lives developing during a period of class and gender upheaval, and the sisters' response to social change.

Noël Welch once wrote, "Sisters? They should have been brothers. They would have made splendid boys." Forster makes much of Daphne's early adoption of a male identity as Eric Avon. As a result, there has been excessive emphasis on the male du Maurier line, with most writers neglecting the forbidding figure of the sisters' mother Muriel, and her role in their emotional confusions, sexual experimentation, secret lives and traumas.

Dunn's biography brings Muriel into the foreground, and suggests convincingly that Daphne's love of fantasy, her shyness and isolation "lay more at the door of her mother and the vacuum where her love should have been, than her father's possessive... control". Muriel's favouritism for Jeanne, like Gerald's for Daphne, caused tensions between the sisters. All three went on to seek mother figures as friends and lovers.

By interweaving these unorthodox sisters' lives, Dunn suggests how restrictive they found conventional gender roles. They fled cosmopolitan London for remote rural regions in order to find artistic independence and explore their sexuality and spirituality – with Angela becoming a High Anglican, Jeanne a Catholic, Daphne an eclectic thinker absorbed by animism and Jungian psychology.

Dunn's biography is most original on the neglected figure of Angela. With all her family's financial support and a dazzling array of contacts, she lived a hectic life of foreign travel, parties and long holidays on aristocrats' estates. Gliding through circles of powerful and female-focused women including actresses Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies and Marda Vanne, Scottish laird of Torosay Olive Guthrie, and Fowey landowner Anne Treffry, she found that life was often more seductive than writing – though she always envied her sister's success. But Angela did publish 14 books, including The Little Less, for its time a daring novel inspired by Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness and regarded as too risqué to publish until 1941. However, only three of Angela's books are available, reprinted by the Cornish press Truran.

Herself one of six sisters, Dunn understands well the close support, secret language (nicknames and euphemisms), conflicts and cruelties between sisters who chose courageous creative paths away from the expectations of their family and class. If the biography is in some ways unevenly balanced, it is because Jeanne's estate and reputation have been carefully guarded. All the sisters destroyed letters and papers revealing sexual and other adventures, while Daphne's remarkable work and life still fascinate readers in ways that eclipse those of her siblings.

Helen Taylor is the author-editor of 'The Daphne du Maurier Companion' (Virago); Jane Dunn will appear at the 'Independent' Bath Literature Festival on 7 March

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing