A quest becomes obsession

2008-08-20 00:00

JUSTINE Picardie in her book Daphne explores a troubled three-year period, starting in 1957, in author Daphne du Maurier’s life. Daphne’s husband, Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Browning, known as Tommy, has a nervous breakdown brought on by excessive drinking and the stress of trying to hide an affair from his wife.

On the verge of a breakdown herself, Daphne, at that time Britain’s best-selling novelist, sets out to distract herself by writing a biography of Branwell Brontë, the reprobate brother of Emily and Charlotte. Determined to try to prove his competence as a writer and that he was the author, at least in part, of Wuthering Heights, she begins a correspondence with the former curator of the Brontë Museum in Haworth, John Alexander Symington. He appears to be a trustworthy Brontë researcher and biographer, with a collection of diaries and manuscripts that could help her in her research, but behind the respectable surface is a slippery, unstable character with much to hide.

Running parallel to Daphne’s story is that of an unhappy, lonely young student in present-day London. Jane’s husband is an academic, much older than she, who is scornful of her intention to write her doctoral thesis on Du Maurier and the Brontës. She finds solace in her research and becomes absorbed by a tale of obsession, stolen manuscripts and forged signatures, burrowing through library archives and second-hand bookshops to discover lost or forgotten letters.

Although this book is fiction, the Du Maurier sections are based on fact. Picardie was also obsessed by the paper trail of Brontë manuscripts and what passed between Daphne du Maurier and John Alexander Symington.

Daphne asks for a certain level of literary knowledge — Rebecca is a strongly felt presence at Menabilly, Du Maurier’s home in Cornwall; and there are references to Henry James and J. M. Barrie, among others — but that doesn’t stop it from being a very readable novel.

Diana Procter

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