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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

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