Friday, 2 May 2008

Book Review: Daphne by Justine Picardie

A novel about Daphne du Maurier and the Brontë sisters? Sounds like the perfect book to curl up with on the sofa for an intriguing evening or two. And so it proved - with one or two reservations.

In 1957, Daphne du Maurier is a best-selling novelist living in her beloved Cornish hideaway. But as the story opens she discovers that her husband, a war hero and now treasurer to the Duke of Edinburgh, is having an affair. He's also having a nervous breakdown, which is why he's in a London nursing home. Daphne, who's had a few affairs herself, decides to make the best of things and to take her mind off it all, she embarks on research for a book she's had in mind for a while: a biography of that sad and neglected Brontë, Branwell, who died of drink and drugs, a failure in the shadow of his sisters.

Daphne's investigations bring her into epistolary contact with J. A. Symington, a scholar employed by the Brontë Society until he was booted out under suspicion of having stolen some original documents. This much is fact, and the resulting biography, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, was published in 1960. Most of Daphne happens in the (presumably made-up) letters Daphne exchanges with the embittered Symington, and in the private thoughts each has about the circumstances of their own lives. It's a tale of literary sleuthing (was Branwell the real author of some of Emily's poems and perhaps even of Wuthering Heights? What happened to Emily's handwritten notebook of her poems?), interwoven with ruminations on the past (Daphne's troubled relationship with her difficult, possessive father; Symington's fraught dealings with fellow-Brontë scholars).

There's also a parallel strand set in the present day: a young Cambridge graduate is doing a PhD on Daphne du Maurier and the Brontës. She, too, has a troubled past (her childhood) and an unhappy present, having recently married a much older academic divorced from a clever and beautiful wife, who haunts both him and his rather mousy new spouse.

The Daphne and Symington parts work very well, showing a mastery of pace and tension almost worthy of du Maurier herself. But the modern strand seems leaden and superfluous, the girl irritatingly wimpy and whiny and the parallels with Rebecca too clunkingly obvious to mean anything.

But the real fly in the ointment for me was the author's persistent habit of running sentences together with commas instead of separating them with full stops or even semi-colons. This happened once or twice on almost every page. Call me a pedant, but I found it annoyingly distracting: it interrupted the flow of the narrative and in some cases I had to re-read to get the sense. Aaargh.

On the other hand, the dust-jacket is a dream. That woodcut is so evocative of the 1950s. And I love the way Bloomsbury has provided not only head- and tail-bands on the spine of this book, but also a woven-in silk(y) bookmark. Bloomsbury seems to do this with many of its books and I wish other publishers would follow suit. Books are beautiful things and elegant touches like these make them a pleasure to handle as well as to read.

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