Daphne by Justine Picardie

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Daphne by Justine Picardie

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Mongredien
Reviewed by Sue Mongredien
Summary: An intriguing idea for a novel involving Daphne du Maurier, Branwell Bronte, the curmudgeonly Mr Symington and even Peter Pan. An enjoyable if imperfect read, especially if you are a fan of Daphne du Maurier.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: March 2009
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing plc
ISBN: 978-0747596349

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The novel begins with a gripping scene where author Daphne du Maurier is told that her husband, Tommy, is suffering a nervous breakdown, and then, hours later, discovers that he has been unfaithful to her. Shocked and angry, she flees London for the refuge of Menabilly, her Cornish home (famously the basis for Manderley, the house in her novel Rebecca). There, Daphne tries to immerse herself in the new book she is writing, a biography of Branwell Bronte, and begins a correspondence with Alex Symington, a former librarian, in her quest to find out information about the enigmatic Bronte brother. Daphne hopes to prove that Branwell was every bit as talented as his sisters and that he made important contributions to their work – in particular some of Emily Bronte's poems and also Wuthering Heights.

Initially, Symington seems willing to help, hinting at an intriguing literary mystery and tempting her with his knowledge of Branwell, but it soon becomes clear that he has secrets he wishes to preserve, and he becomes gradually warier of Daphne's endeavours to find out the truth. Then, when Winifred Gerin, the highly acclaimed biographer of Anne Bronte, announces that Branwell is to be her next quarry, Daphne's quest for the truth takes a more urgent turn in the rush to beat her rival to publication, and Symington grows even more resistant, in his fear of being unmasked.

Picardie presents a sympathetic portrayal of Daphne who is increasingly haunted by the mocking voice of Rebecca, her most famous creation, and begins to suffer paranoid delusions about being followed and spied upon. I found the chapters from Daphne's point of view to be the strongest in the novel, particularly the descriptive passages about her beloved Menabilly and its surroundings, and I really believed in the anguish she experiences as her marriage becomes steadily more precarious, as well as her sensitivity at not being taken seriously in the literary world.

There are three main viewpoints throughout the novel. Daphne, of course, is one, but there are also chapters focussing on Symington which slowly reveal his bitterness, stubbornness and his disgraced career, as well as a third thread, set in the present-day. This strand features a rather bland female graduate, who is studying Daphne du Maurier and finds herself drawn into the Symington letters as part of her research. For me, these chapters are the novel's weak point.

This modern-day narrator is set up as a rather obvious parallel to the nameless heroine of Rebecca in that she is married to a much older, dominating man and feels in the shadow of his ex-wife, Rachel. (The narrator actually comments at one point on how she seems to be living in a mixture of du Maurier's novels Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, just in case the reader has somehow managed to miss the allusions.) Unfortunately, I never really empathised with the modern narrator in the way that I came to care about Daphne herself – I found her too 'quiet' a character, colourless and rather weak, lacking in personality.

Justine Picardie has clearly done a lot of research and knows a great deal about Daphne du Maurier's life and works, but at times, especially in the first third of this novel, I felt as if I was reading a non-fiction book as fact after fact was shoehorned in, often rather clunkily through stilted, unnatural-sounding dialogue. In later sections of the novel, I found some of the Bronte material, although interesting, impeded upon the actual story, and perhaps could have done with a slight edit.

This is not a page-turner by any means – not a huge amount happens throughout the book, and the pace is slow-moving. However, overall, I found the 'literary mystery' element of the novel very interesting and enjoyed reading this fictionalised account of a period of Daphne du Maurier's life.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If you enjoyed this, you might like to try Agatha Christie: An English Mystery by Laura Thompson – or, of course, any of Daphne du Maurier's novels. You might also enjoy Mutable Passions: Charlotte Bronte: A Disquieting Affair by Philip Dent.

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Buy Daphne by Justine Picardie at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Daphne by Justine Picardie at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Daphne by Justine Picardie at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Daphne by Justine Picardie at Amazon.com.


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