Monday, October 28, 2013

Daphne: A Novel

Daphne du Maurier

Emily Brontë

Charlotte Bronrë

Daphne by Justine Picardie

This vastly underrated novel by Justine Picardie is a double delight: a fictionalized biography of 20th century British novelist Daphne du Maurier and a well-researched biographical treatment of the subjects of du Maurier’s research project, Charlotte and Emily Brontë and their brother Branwell.

Hard hit by a series of events culminating in a personal and creative crisis, the Daphne of the novel isolates herself at her country estate and immerses herself in Brontë scholarship and in a correspondence with Brontë researcher J.A. Symington.

Du Maurier’s purpose? To prove that Wuthering Heights was not written by Emily Brontë, but by her brother Branwell Brontë.

The Publisher’s Comments on the 2008 edition of Daphne read as follows:

“Drawing on Justine Picardie's own extensive research into Daphne du Maurier's obsession with the Brontës and the scandal that has haunted the Brontë estate, Daphne is a marvelous story of literary fascination and possession; of stolen manuscripts and forged signatures; of love lost and love found; of the way into imaginary worlds, and the way out again. Written in three entwined parts, the novel follows Daphne du Maurier herself, the beautiful, tomboyish, passionate author of the enormously popular Gothic novel Rebecca, at fifty and on the verge of madness; John Alexander Symington, eminent editor and curator of the Brontës' manuscripts, who by 1957 had been dismissed from the Brontë Parsonage Museum in disgrace, and who became Daphne's correspondent…”

Picardie brings this densely interwoven literary history vividly to life by making du Maurier’s scholarly detective work shape the consciousness of a nameless, contemporary narrator, a young Ph.D. student whose detective-like academic skills set her in pursuit of literary and personal truth, as well as involving her in a highly personal quest to establish du Maurier’s artistic merit.

“The Great Brontë Mystery,” as The Times calls it in a review of Picardie’s novel, began with a questioning of the legacy of Emily Brontë, as detailed in du Maurier’s 1960  publication: The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, a biography in which she tried to bring “some measure of understanding for a figure long maligned, neglected and despised.” (Daphne du Maurier)

Fiction and Fact

Below, Justine Picardie, author of the novel Daphne, explains why she decided to tell this story in the form of a fictionalized biography.

“I have chosen to tell this quest as a novel, in part inspired by du Maurier's own writing, for her fiction contains elements of truth, and her non-fiction - including the Branwell Brontë biography - reads like a novel. But the true story - if one can disentangle the truth from the tangled web of deceits spun by Symington … is as thrilling as any of du Maurier's fictional plots.” 

––Justine Picardie, The Times, February 29, 2008

Although Daphne is the primary subject of the nameless young woman’s quest, the Daphne chapters in Picardie’s novel are narrated in the third person. This raises the question of who the narrator is. To be sure, it is the author, Justine Picardie. But is it also to some extent the nameless, thesis-writing wife of an English professor; for she, like Picardie, is following the trail of Daphne du Maurier’s letters to Symington.

Who is this nameless narrator, who sometimes coincides with the author of the novel?

The nameless narrator is a young woman newly wed to an academic. A dedicated scholar, she is also utterly enthralled by du Maurier’ s work, has been ever since she was a girl, and now seeks to understand something about du Maurier on an adult level. Moreover, her interest in the author of Rebecca is not merely academic, for the young woman, like the heroine of du Maurier’s most famous romance, is an inexperienced second wife living very much in the shadow of the first. Her confession to the reader, and to her husband Paul, that “….I was just as interested in Daphne du Maurier as the Brontës” leads to  tension between herself and her husband, who considers du Maurier second-rate.

Why is the Daphne of the novel––why was the Daphne du Maurier of history– so impassioned for the cause of Branwell Brontë?

Establishing Branwell as the author of Wuthering Heights would have transformed his reputation from that of an unproductive writer and something of a reprobate, to that of a key figure in English literature. But why deprive Emily of the laurels she so richly deserved as one of the foundational writers of the Romance novel tradition? Indeed, the tradition of the English novel bifurcates at its origin between the ‘Great Tradition’ of Realism in the novel championed by F.R. Leavis, the foundational authors of which include Jane Austen and George Eliot, and the tradition of the Romance novel as epitomized by two iconic women authors: Brontë sisters Charotte, author of Jane Eyre, and Emily, author of Wuthering Heights.

What is the Romance novel, and who are its foremost practitioners?

Toward the beginning of the English language tradition are the Romance novels of the Brontës, derived or at the very least formally related to novellas and romances from antiquity and the middle ages that emphasized love, adventure, and suspense. Du Maurier’s novels Rebecca, Jamaica Inn and Frenchman’s Creek are among the most well-known romances of her time.

What is the Anxiety of Influence?

Critic Harold Bloom described patterns of behavior among writers, based on a Freudian prototype, in which sundry mechanisms of avoidance, denial, and most significantly–undervaluation––were used in the assessment of an earlier writer, disparaged because he was in fact the disparaging writer’s Great Original: primary source of inspiration, and object of unconscious imitation. Bloom’s literary case histories exhibiting Anxiety of Influence are exclusively the cases of male writers. It is worth inquiring then, in the instance of a woman writer whose Great Original is another woman writer, whether Anxiety of Influence manifests itself in a similar way, and whether the woman writer who is ‘under the influence’ is likely to resolve the conflict in the same way as would a male author.

In her novel about Daphne du Maurier and the Brontës, Picardie directly raises the question of literary influence.

In the ‘real’ word, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca has often been compared to Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë. In her novel, Picardie has the graduate student’s husband Paul say, “Rebecca is simply a shallow, melodramatic rehash of Jane Eyre…” (Daphne, p. 34).

But it is the stature and reputation of Emily Brontë that would be undermined by the confirmation of du Maurier’s theories about the literary contributions of Branwell Brontë.

Three facts are relevant here:

1.     Emily Brontë is the mother of the Gothic Romance.
2.     Daphne du Maurier is best known for her Gothic Romance, Rebecca.
3.     Du Maurier sought to disestablish Emily Brontë’s reputation.

 Was Emily Brontë (or were Emily and Charlotte) then, Daphne du Maurier’s Great Original(s)?

Bloom has described the dynamics of Anxiety of Influence as follows:

“Poetic influence – when it involves two strong, authentic poets – always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say the main tradition of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, willful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist.” (Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, 1973, p. 30)

Du Maurier is of course a writer of prose fiction, and it is for their Romance novels that the Brontë sisters are best known. In the world of fiction, as Daphne’s personal and creative crises approach resolution, the author must tacitly acknowledge her Great Originals.

Poets whose work has been interpreted by Harold Bloom as demonstrating anxiety of influence, all of them male, appear to require the mechanisms for undervaluation of the Great Original as a precondition of their creativity. By contrast, in this one suggestion of a dynamic that might typify a female paradigm of literary influence, undervaluation by the woman writer of her Great Originals is accompanied by creative stagnation, whereas acknowledgment of their primacy is attended by a creative breakthrough.

Thus by the time that the Daphne of the novel has concluded that Branwell was neither Emily nor Charlotte Brontë’s ghost writer, by implication acknowledging the Brontë sisters as autonomous creators, and as her Great Originals: her literary precursors––her own creative crisis is resolved.

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