Daphne by Justine Picardie

Book summary from sleeve:

It is 1957. The author Daphne du Maurier, beautiful and famous, despairs as her marriage falls apart. Restlessly roaming through Menabilly, her remote mansion by the sea in Cornwall, she is haunted by regret and by her own creations — namely Rebecca, the heroine of her most famous novel. Seeking distraction from her misery, Daphne becomes passionately interested in Branwell, the reprobate brother of the Bronte sisters, and begins a correspondence with the enigmatic scholar Alex Symington as she researched a biography. But behind Symington’s respectable surface is a slippery character with much to hide, and soon truth and fiction have become indistinguishable.

In present-day London, a lonely young woman, newly married after a fleeting courtship with a man considerably older than her struggles with her PhD thesis on du Maurier and the Brontes. Her husband, still seemingly in thrall to his brilliant, charismatic first wife, is frequently distant and mysterious, and she can’t find a way to make the large, imposing house in Hampstead feel like her own. Retreating into the comfort of her library, she becomes absorbed in a fifty-year-old literary mystery….

I’m not quite sure what exactly drew me to this book. I have a feeling it had something to do with boxing day and being around the $5 mark. Justine Picardie is not a name that I recognized; however, Daphne du Maurier was. Although I did(do) not have extensive knowledge about her, her name had been coming up more often in my life which probably sparked my $5 purchase. It is no surprise that my knowledge of Daphne du Maurier was due to her relation to the Llewellyn Davies boys. Daphne was cousin to the famous boys who inspired J.M. Barrie’s story of Peter Pan. The story of the Llewellyn Davies boys is a sad one with much speculation, but mainly shrouded in mystery.

Daphne centers on the life of Daphne du Maurier while researching and attempting to write her biography “The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte”. Once she begins correspondence with J.A. Symington (an ex-librarian and bibliophile) the story jumps between the two. Their correspondence is included throughout the novel which helps to create a timeline. A third character is introduced to the story. Her name is Jane, although I don’t believe there is any mention of this until the end. I imagine there should be some significance to this but was entirely lost on me. Jane is a fictional projection of the author Justine Picardie. While Daphne is researching Branwell, Symington reveals that some of Branwell’s work had forged signatures of his more famous Bronte sisters in order to fetch a higher price. Many events and reasoning in Branwell’s life are unknown and the intriguing idea that some of the famous tales known to be written by Charlotte or Emily could very well have been written by Branwell. Branwell and his work are overlooked and he is seen as untalented and rather a pitiful fellow.

Jane’s story comes in as present day, attempting to do her own research and a PhD. She has always been a fan of du Maurier, and the idea of having a modern literary discovery regarding the Bronte’s is very tantalizing for her. While experiencing no support in a declining relationship with her older husband, her situation becomes even more odd when she secretly desires to be friends with his ex-wife.

Before reading Daphne, I had intended to read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier as I hoped it would give me more insight into the novel. There are many references to Rebecca and the characters in the story. There are also many references to characters from the Bronte stories. I have noticed that I seem to be a fan of historical fictions, mainly those that involve conspiracy theories and more thrilling twists than the actual facts. Daphne entices us with a theory such as this, but at times leaves us deflated. There are many delays and interruptions while the characters deal with their own personal problems and those of the characters around them. J.A. Symington seems to have all the answers, if only he had been more willing with du Maurier, things could have turned out drastically different. The situations are fictional but also based on fact, so Picardie could only twist things so much.

Daphne du Maurier had lived an odd and interesting life and we get a glimpse into her life through “Daphne”. J.A. Symington is the character who holds all our answers, but being in financial ruin and blinded by his jealousy, things do not turn out so well for him (or us). The character of Jane is very much a filler and not much is needed to be said on that account.

As mentioned, Daphne du Maurier had an interesting life which is the keystone of this story. I also enjoyed the addition of her relationship with Peter, but ultimately I am glad that I had only spent $5 on the novel and that it was a quick filler book that did not take up a considerable amount of my time. I suggest skipping this book entirely and focusing on a more direct biography on du Maurier and some of her other relations. Perhaps even reading “The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte” instead of sitting through the grueling process of writing it.

In the end I feel rather disappointed. We made no great literary discoveries, and almost put an end to any such thing happening. It would have been better to end on a more positive and mysterious note, which gives the reader time to think of all the different and exciting possibilities. We are also no more ahead than we were when we started. The same can be said for all three main characters. Despite all the efforts and hardships that all of us went through (the reader included), it is almost as if we start at square one, feeling cheated of an adventure as well as our time spent following the bread crumbs to nowhere.


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