BOOK REVIEW / Last night I dreamed of corduroy and rats: 'Daphne du Maurier' - Margaret Forster: Chatto & Windus, 17.99 pounds - Christina Hardyment on a well-researched but grudging biography of Daphne du Maurier

Christina Hardyment
Saturday 20 March 1993 00:02

THE OPENING lines of Margaret Forster's biography of the British queen of suspense, romance and place are certainly in keeping with their subject. 'Sheet-lightning split the sky over London on the evening of 12 May 1907 and thunder rumbled long into the night.' By the time Muriel du Maurier has given birth to a daughter at dawn we already know what shows were on in London that night, not least Brewster's Millions in which Daphne's father, matinee idol Gerald du Maurier, was acting as his wife toiled in labour.

Although the narrative reads like a breeze, this is the last of romantic 'weather' in the book, nor does that promising cultural backdrop persist. Inhibited, perhaps, by the slant of the many already published panegyrics on du Maurier, Forster shuns lavish evacuation of the Cornish countryside, and doesn't tell us much about her subject's mental bookshelves, her sure grasp of the craft of writing.

Instead she concentrates on lighting up the dark emotional shadows that lie at the core of all Daphne's best books. What interests her most, as we might expect from a novelist who has shown herself concerned above all else with the inter-negotiations of men and women, old and young, in the domestic sphere, is Daphne's place in the web of her family, her sexual relationships, and the influence of both these things on her work.

On this level the book is enthralling. Daphne emerges as a moody child, nervously conscious she wasn't the boy her father made no bones about wanting, but beautiful enough to make him more than a little in love with her. She evaded his affection skilfully enough by taking on a boyish role herself, but her first published story was a bitter tale of man the oppressor and woman the victim called And Now to God the Father.

She had, it seems, little comfort from her own mother, whom Forster sketches as jealous of her, already smarting from her husband's infidelities, and finding it easier to pet the older and younger sisters than this proudly, unconventional daughter who disappeared up a tree with a book whenever she possibly could.

After a crush on a French school mistress, a surrogate mother in effect, and a couple of defiant adolescent indiscretions (one old, one young), Daphne found a highly respectable Prince Charming in the shape of war hero Tommy Browning, who first entered her life when he motored across Fowey harbour in a white launch named Ygdrasil. Six months later they were married in a tiny Cornish church. The official canon has left it at that: a long and happy marriage divided between London and Menabilly, the romantic Cornish manor that Daphne confessed to loving as much as, if not more, than any person, three children and later grandchildren, worldwide fame and an impressive and varied list of novels, biographies and memoirs.

Forster digs deeper. Browning was nicknamed 'Boy', but he was 11 years older than his new wife, and from a background (Sandhurst, an Oxfordshire rectory and the Grenadier Guards) as different as could be from the Bohemian style of the Hampstead du Mauriers. Although he knew what he was in for - having come to Fowey in the first place curious to meet the feted young author of The Loving Spirit, he had no idea what kind of baggage-train of emotions his beautiful young bride was trailing behind her.

Nor did she grasp for some time that besides being tall, fair and handsome, an archangel of unimpeachable integrity who would exorcise her father's devil, 'Boy' was a stickler for discipline, immaculate dress and domestic order, and something of a nervous wreck after his traumatic experiences in the trenches. Pile on to that the discovery of a packet of love letters in her husband's desk from a former girlfriend who seemed far more confident of her sexuality than Daphne was at the time, and we begin to see where Rebecca came from.

Again and again in the course of this richly researched book, Forster adds an exciting new dimension to our reading of du Maurier's novels by revealing the degree to which Daphne's own experience, more or less heavily veiled, lay at the root of them. At times, though, she is unconvincing. She spends a good deal of time laying a trail of tomboyish tendencies towards her much-hyped theory that Daphne's preferred sexual identity was homosexual. But when the 'startling new evidence' we have all heard so much about emerges, the frank discussion of the respective pleasures of 'Venice' and 'Cairo', it is handled inconclusively.

The real interest of what seems to have been more experiment than fulfilment (two brief but intimate holidays with the actress Gertrude Lawrence in 1948, and a string of passionate letters to the woman who was in reality more of a mother figure than a lover, Ellen Doubleday) is surely not an indication of preference for mannishness, but the light it sheds on Daphne's capacity for empathising with both sexes, of her deep desire for passion and the sad fact that it was frustrated for so much of her life.

Both relationships are rather more satisfactorily set into Daphne's emotional landscape by the quite fascinating appendix, a long and brilliant analysis of the relationship between herself and her husband, complete with echoes from the past and re-echoes into the future, written by Daphne herself to a family friend in order to explain Tommy's breakdown in 1957. It shows that Daphne was well aware of the extent to which her romantic and macabre allegories were a means of working out her subconscious longings and terrors. She herself dismisses her 'obsessions - you can only call them that - for poor old Ellen D and Gertrude' as 'all part of a nervous breakdown going on inside myself', at a time of great strain, her appearance in court in New York to defend Rebecca against plagiarism. What quite evidently matters most to her is her relationship with Tommy, by then always nicknamed 'Moper', and with her children.

The appendix does more than this. By allowing Daphne to speak for herself at length, it also draws attention to the extent to which Forster has controlled her subject's utterance by quoting du Maurier's own exhilarating prose in phrases rather than paragraphs. To get an instant taste of what I mean, open any page of Oriel Malet's edition of the letters she received from Daphne over 40 years of friendship (Letters to Menabilly, Weidenfeld, pounds 18.99). It is a marvellous lucky dip of advice on writing, urgent reading enthusiasms, gossip about family and friends, and sheer intellectual exuberance.

Yet it seems that the democrat in Forster doesn't quite approve of this unwifely lady, with her nannies and her neglect of domestic niceties and spelling. 'Tommy was always what he seemed, Daphne never,' she writes. 'If Daphne had been prepared to sacrifice Menabilly, she could have made a home in or near London for both of them, so that their marriage would have had a better chance of flourishing once more.' She is even confident enough to declare: 'That (the trusts she provided for her children) might not necessarily be good for any of them never troubled her, though it troubled Tommy.'

All in all, Forster has succceeded, for good or for bad, in changing the image of one of the most passionate writers of the late 20th century, living in one of the most romantic houses in Britain, into that of a frustrated wife in corduroys struggling with crumbling plaster and rats. It is the portrait of a cavalier painted by a puritan.

(Photograph omitted)

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