Women in love

Daphne du Maurier and her Sisters: The Hidden Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing, by Jane Dunn, HarperPress, RRP£25, 423 pages

The relationships between Daphne du Maurier and her two sisters inspire this meticulous, perceptive, yet swollen book. Each rebelled against their upbringing. The eldest and least confident, Angela, romantic, emotional, given life-long to sudden fantasy-ridden “crushes”, was a writer overshadowed by her gifted middle sister Daphne – beautiful, observant, cynical and strong-willed. Jeanne, the youngest, was a painter. The empathy and rivalry between women marks many of Jane Dunn’s biographies.

It seems no accident that the girls’ father, actor-manager Gerald du Maurier, greedily played both Captain Hook and Mr Darling in the first production of Peter Pan, a work that obsessed his family: an inability to grow up was a du Maurier trait too. Gerald’s sister was Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, whose five doomed boys inspired JM Barrie’s play; and among those who came to watch Daphne and her sisters’s nursery performances of his “terrible masterpiece” was “Uncle Jim” Barrie himself.

The sisters shared group fantasies and in-jokes. Daphne du Maurier and her Sisters reveals an entire family indulging in luxurious make-believe: the surname and provenance were themselves concoctions.

Among the many distinguished theatrical friends visiting their grand Hampstead house were the Beerbohm Trees and later Rudolph Valentino, Gary Cooper, John Barrymore, Gertrude Lawrence and Ivor Novello. Gerald’s daughters got the minimum of formal schooling necessary to prepare them for the “good marriage” none of them in fact wanted.

Even among Edwardians, Gerald’s sexual hypocrisy was notable. He longed for a son, never got one and made each daughter in turn his victim. He confided in them (not his wife) details of his own serial affairs while acting horror-struck at theirs. Spoilt, narcissistic, shallow and mannered, he was pampered by his conventional wife Muriel, by his actress-mistresses and his three daughters.

And yet, after he died, Daphne – who refused to attend his funeral – quite literally wore his trousers for more than a decade. That seems emblematic. All his daughters were tomboys who invented heroic male alter egos. Each had affairs with women and only Daphne enjoyed successful long-term relationships with men as well. An interesting history of love between women is sketched. Dunn explores each daughter’s romantic entanglements in detail, demanding prodigious readerly patience.

The book comes to life when Frederick “Boy” Browning appears, demanding an introduction to Daphne on the strength of having read one of her novels. Here was a hero of the first world war, an ideal fantasy-figure. Daphne herself, after 10 weeks, proposed marriage. Dunn exposes the narcissistic illusions of each: he was deeply conventional and unimaginative; she self-willed and essentially a loner. They were strangely matched.

Daphne soon retreated into her work, neglecting the daughters whose painful births followed, and in 1938 published Rebecca, which she resented being called a romance. The novel was spawned out of her discovery that “Boy” had had an earlier lover who committed suicide.

Virginia Woolf once joked: “If any ... dares call me ‘middlebrow’ I will take my pen and stab him, dead.” It is a sign of Jane Dunn’s generous professionalism that she accords the du Maurier girls the same respect that she gave Bloomsbury’s high priestesses in her acclaimed study of Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell, A Very Close Conspiracy (1990). Yet though she is well placed to subject all the du Maurier works to rigorous criticism and measure their distance – for better and for worse – from (say) Woolf, such “placing” is scarcely attempted.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography awards 1,200 words only to Daphne’s life. Compare her grandfather George du Maurier – Punch cartoonist and author of one sensational bestseller, Trilby – who gets 3,000. Dunn complains that reviews of Daphne’s work were often “carping”. But if du Maurier is, indeed, today still shamefully under-rated, her biographer could surely help to explain why.

Peter J Conradi is author of ‘A Very English Hero: The Making of Frank Thompson’ (Bloomsbury)

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