In the first of two special interviews for ‘Discovering Daphne’ I get to grill the lovely Justine Picardie about her novel ‘Daphne‘ and the wonderful woman who inspired it…
Before I opened the first page of ‘Daphne’ I did expect it just to be about Daphne Du Maurier, instead we have a tale of Daphne, Bramwell Bronte and an unnamed narrator, which reflects Rebecca. Was Daphne’s the story you wanted to tell in the main, or was it one of the other characters that started it all and Daphne suddenly popped in unannounced?
The origins of ‘Daphne’ are in one sense very simple — I’d loved reading her novels since childhood, and had a powerful attachment to the Cornish landscape that she describes — but as is often the case with writing, there was a far more complicated alchemy that formed a catalyst for the beginnings of my novel. I wrote an introduction for a Virago edition of ‘The King’s General’ in 2003, which prompted my return to the mysterious place that is Menabilly — Du Maurier’s beloved house near Fowey, an inherent element of ‘Rebecca’ and ‘The King’s General’, although uninhabited and close to ruin when she wrote ‘Rebecca’ (indeed, it was the huge success of this novel that allowed Du Maurier to lease Menabilly from the Rashleigh family, and finance its restoration). Two years later, I wrote a second introduction for Virago — this time for ‘The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte’ — and was fascinated by the book, and by Du Maurier’s dedication of her work to the Bronte scholar, Symington. Coincidentally — or perhaps this was one of those apparently magical instances of synchronicity — I was already intrigued by the mysterious Mr Symington, having already encountered him in my research while I was working on a chapter entitled ‘Charlotte Bronte’s Ring’ for my previous book, ‘My Mother’s Wedding Dress’. All of which probably sounds impossibly tanged a tale, but seemed to resonate for me.
Daphne was a very complex woman from what we read about her, how did you go about getting into her head? Being a fan of hers, which you clearly are, were you adding pressure on yourself that this had to be right? How did you find her narrative voice?
I read and read and read — every word that she had written — her novels, short stories, letters, notes, memoirs — and immersed myself in the Du Maurier archive at Exeter University, and other archival collections elsewhere. Perhaps I wasn’t in her head, but her voice was certainly in mine.
The research in the book is incredible, yet at no point did I think ‘oh Justine is just showing off now’ which can happen with some books that have a biographical and indeed historical element. How did you do the research for this book and how did you manage not to include every single fascinating fact you discovered along the way?
Thank you! Whenever and whatever I am writing — whether about the history of nineteenth psychical investigations in ‘If The Spirit Moves You’, or during the years of research for my most recent book, ‘Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life’ — I immerse myself in archives and museums and libraries, as well as doing hundreds of interviews with the relevant people who can provide insight, advice, and expert knowledge on the subject matter. Then I sift through it all, cross reference, obsess, analyse, dream, debate with myself and others — and finally start to write. As I write, the details of the research permeate my text, but don’t always appear — so the facts are very much in my mind, and between the lines, rather than being obviously inserted into the story.
I don’t know about you but I have fantasy dinner parties in my head, and I think, along with Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier would have to be one of the top guests I imagine I could invite every time. Getting to know her in the way you must have researching this book did you think you would like her?
She might not have been comfortable company, but I always like the person I’m writing about — actually, that’s an understatement — they become central to my thoughts.
Having read Daphne’s childhood memoirs ‘Growing Pains’, which I have since learnt has been republished as ‘Myself When Young’, I noticed the mention of ‘The Snow Queen’ in the form of her mother, there always seemed to be a Snow Queen in Daphne’s life, why do you think it was and why did she always give her that name?
Another excellent question! The Snow Queen was — and is — a powerful presence, for Daphne and the rest of us. The icy yet enticing woman in white — alluring and destroying and compelling, even as you fear her touch.
This is a toughie, but what do you think Daphne would have made of your fictional version of her life? Would you have written it if she was still alive?
I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, have written it when she was still alive. Who knows what she would have thought of it — but I hope she might have seen it as a tribute to her power and lasting influence on subsequent writers; just as she herself had been influenced by the Brontes, and immersed herself in ‘The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte’.
‘Rebecca’ is Daphne’s most famous novel of them all followed by ‘Jamaica Inn’ which other novels would you demand people following ‘Discovering Daphne’ go and read? Have you read all of her novels yet, or have you left some to savour?
I’ve read them all, and would recommend each and every one. ‘My Cousin Rachel’ is a particular favourite of mine — however many times I read it, I’m never sure of who is the villain and which is the victim — and I’m also a huge fan of her short stories. Just think of The Birds or Don’t Look Now — such dark tales that they have had an afterlife in two haunting films — and other, less well known but equally compelling stories in ‘The Breaking Point’. And don’t forget about ‘The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte’ — worth reading for what it tells you about Du Maurier herself, as well as the Brontes.
A huge thank you to Justine for taking the time to discuss ‘Daphne’ and Daphne Du Maurier with us, tomorrow the grilling continues with Polly over at Novel Insights.