Three sisters … From left: Daphne, Jeanne and Angela du Maurier in 1917. Photograph: HarperPress
Piers Dudgeon's contentious, aggressive but haunting study Captivatedoffers an account of what he finds to be the malign influence on the Du Maurier and Llewelyn Davies families of JM Barrie and the Peter Pan story. Jane Dunn – who rejects Dudgeon's findings – comes at the Du Maurier story from a different angle, but leaves us in no doubt that there was something seriously odd about them.
Daphne du Maurier and her Sisters: The Hidden Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing: The Hidden Lives of Daphne du Maurier and her Sisters
by Jane Dunn
Her book belongs to the growing genre of what might be called Sisterly Feelings; Paula Byrne's excellent recent The Real Jane Austen and Dunn's own A Very Close Conspiracy: Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolfare notable examples, though perhaps one of the greatest is Daphne du Maurier's own The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, in which the brother's tortured life vividly illuminates those of his three remarkable sisters. Unlike the Rev Brontë's girls, Gerald du Maurier's three daughters were not equally touched by genius, which sets a problem for biographer, compounded by the refusal of the surviving partner of the youngest, Jeanne, to allow the author access to her archive. Both she and the eldest sister, Angela, led fascinating lives, but Daphne was by far the most original of them, the most productive and, needless to say, the one best able to write about herself, which gives her an unfair advantage in terms of the reader's interest.
She was also the favourite of her father, an actor whose mercurial, alarming presence dominates the first half of the book. Here Dunn has been upstaged by Daphne, whose extraordinarily candid and superbly written biography Gerald, which appeared shortly after his death in 1934, unsparingly depicts him as the epitome of the popular view of actors – feckless, leaping from one emotion to another, one persona to another, charming, unreliable, bitchy, childish. She had already drawn on him in The Progress of Julius, the novel she wrote a year earlier, when Gerald was still alive, presenting a startled world with a portrait of a father-daughter relationship that was more like a love affair; she expanded this portrait 15 years later in The Parasites.
Dunn makes it clear that though Gerald made sure the whole household revolved around him, Daphne was able to hold her own. Her relationship with her mother, who idolised Gerald and deeply resented his fascination with their daughter, was cool, which, Daphne said, turned her into a "dreamer of dreams", suspicious of all adults: "You could never be quite sure of any of them, even relations." Muriel du Maurier evidently felt unthreatened by Jeanne, but was fairly indifferent to Angela, the least pretty, who felt unloved by either parent. All three daughters escaped into a fantasy world of their own, inventing male personas for themselves. "Sisters?" wrote Noël Welch, Jeanne's girlfriend. "They should have been brothers. They would have made splendid boys." Daphne was Eric Avon, a dashing captain of games, and derring-doer; Jeanne became David Dampier. Sometimes these later egos slipped into the real world: the actor Roland Pertwee, staying with the Du Mauriers, was surprised to find Jeanne in his room, having folded his trousers and put toothpaste on his brush: "I'm Dampier and I'm your fag. Shout if you want anything else."
The creation of this alternative reality is characteristic, not only of the girls, but of the Du Mauriers in general: "The Du Maurier character was volatile and charming," writes Dunn, "inflated with fantasy and pretence; characteristically, they hung their lives on a dream and found little solace in real life when the romance had gone." George du Maurier, Gerald's father, the famous Punch illustrator and author of the great 19th-century bestseller Trilby, wrote, in his debut novel Peter Ibbetson, a charter for the imaginative life, in which the hero formulates the notion of "dreaming true", a method by which everything the dreamer desires comes to him.
Pretty well everything Daphne desired came to her: a series of bestselling novels, a nobly handsome war hero husband and, above all, a house, Menabilly in Cornwall, which both obsessed and liberated her. But her relationship with reality was distant. The glory of Menabilly (a house no one could see the point of but her) was that living there, on that wild coast, was like living in a novel. Jeanne, too, dreamed true: a more modest dream of living as a painter, with a loyal partner at her side. Only Angela's dreams proved unreliable: she dreamed of a boyfriend and a husband, but instead she had a series of affairs with some remarkable women, the grandes horizontales sapphiques of her day. Dunn is excellent on the lesbian 1920s and 30s in London, with delicious detail – Lena Ramsden, for example, insisted that the perfect present for young women she was courting was a trouser press.
Angela wrote, rather badly, about her gay inclinations, and her novels in general are clumsily written and overwrought; she found her form as a memoirist. Jeanne wrote nothing, but the few letters Dunn has had access to express the ardour of her feelings for various women. Daphne never wrote about her sexual and emotional experiences with women, but in some remarkable letters written in her 40s to a woman she had a deep crush on – her American publisher's wife – she described how she did not see herself as lesbian. When she had loved women, as with her long first affair with the headmistress of her finishing school in Paris, it was not as herself, but as Eric Avon: "At 18 this half-breed fell in love, as a boy would do, with someone quite 12 years older than himself who was French and had all the understanding in the world and he loved her in every conceivable way up to the age of 23 or so. And in so doing he learned almost all there is to know about that complex thing, a woman's heart." And then, she continues, "the boy realised he had to grow up and not be a boy any longer, so he turned into a girl, and not an unattractive girl at that, and the boy was locked in a box and put away for ever." Except at Menabilly, where she "sometimes let the phantom who was neither girl nor boy but disembodied spirit dance in the evening when there was no one to see".
In fact, the boy-in-the-box, as she referred to him, had a few more outings in him, including a deep passionate tendresse for the actor Gertrude Lawrence, not coincidentally one of Gerald du Maurier's last co-stars (and lovers). But, as Daphne freely admitted, her relationship with her children and her war-shattered husband were cool; her inner life was the only one that really mattered. There is something faintly obscene about her detachment, as Dunn notes: "Fortified by the champagne and roses of life at Langley's End, Daphne could still watch a formation of 20 German bombers on their way to bomb Luton … and see the beauty of them rather than the deadly menace they embodied." Her passion for Menabilly is also bizarre, an almost spooky houseophilia. Her daughter Flavia once watched her kiss the stone wall: "When she turned, her slightly flushed face had a look close to ecstasy." She felt that "the house is in league with me against the world".
As Daphne dominated the lives of her sisters, she dominates Dunn's pages. Her sisters' lives, especially during the war – Jeanne nobly laboured on her vegetable patch, which almost destroyed her health, while Angela cleaned the cowsheds – cast a very interesting sidelight on what responsible middle- and upper-class women did for the war effort; indeed, they might each merit a book of their own. It is not clear that Dunn's sweeping contention that "in biography, families are the soil out of which character grows, and there is no richer compost than the relationship of sisters" is entirely proven. The problems of contrapuntal writing particular to group biography are not really solved; a paragraph about one sister just follows one about another. And the book is woefully underedited: Noël Coward, Signor Staccato himself, is described as "drawling", something he was constitutionally incapable of; we have Tormanova for Toumanova, Schofield for Scofield, non-representative art for non-representational, Lesley Hutchinson for Leslie, turning the most rabidly masculine of men into a girl.
But Daphne (and Gerald, it has to be said) constantly shine through. Towards the end of her life she became interested in the psychoanalyst Alfred Adler and his theory of power complexes. "It seems we all underlying want power over our fellow human beings, and our life-plan was settled at the age of five … mine was to be left alone, and not go down to the drawing-room. So it still holds good! But it is lonely, being alone."
“Sisters are,” author Jane Dunn tells us “special,” and with a backlist which includes the book, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, it’s easy to conclude that the author, Jane Dunn, is drawn to these “protean” relationships. Dunn admits in the intro to Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters: The Private Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bingto a fascination with the du Maurier sisters: Daphne, Angela and Jeanne. Not only does the author find it “psychologically interesting” that Daphne’s fame “so eclipse[d]“ her siblings, but she found it even more “intriguing” that the three entirely different sisters who led vastly dissimilar lives were so ”strongly imprinted with family values.” Before arriving at the book, I was unaware that Daphne du Maurier had any siblings at all, but then again, although I have read many of her novels, I knew very little about her private life other than a few facts about the fabulous du Maurier family and Daphne’s connection to the “lost boys” who inspired J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. For those who enjoy reading biography, Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters: The PrivateLives of Piffy, Bird and Bingcomes highly recommended especially for those who have a healthy appreciation of Daphne du Maurier’s work. Some readers, I’m aware, prefer not to know the details of the private lives of the authors they read and enjoy. With this book, Daphne du Maurier fans will gain an almost-blow-by-blow account of exactly how each of her books came to be created. I’ve read my fair share of biographies and yet I can’t remember one in which events in the author’s life so clearly morphed into a novel, and author Jane Dunn carefully fleshes out Daphne du Maurier’s life, the books and the themes that became signposts of the various events that took place as well as the places that inspired several of her better-known works.
But here I am allowing my description of the book to concentrate on the very talented Daphne du Maurier to the neglect of her siblings. As Jane Dunn explains, searching for information about Angela led to an “intriguing journey“ while the search for Jeanne has been “blocked” by her lifelong partner who retains all of Jeanne’s paintings and papers and is“adamantly set against” any biography of the sisters. This explains why a clear image of Angela emerges while the portrait of Jeanne remains somewhat murky.
Taking a chronological approach, the book opens with the unusual and privileged childhood of the three du Maurier girls–the last of the du Mauriers. Their father, Gerald, an actor and later a theatrical manager, wanted a son, and Daphne, the middle child became his clear favorite serving as a surrogate son while the youngest daughter, Jeanne became the favourite of the girls’ actress mother, Muriel. Gerald appears in these pages as a glamorous figure, dashing and gregarious, and yet at the same time there is a darker side. While the three girls were definitely brought up in a protected environment, conflicting values emerge in their upbringing. They were mainly taught at home, and their education sounds wildly erratic with a maid, at one point, “engaged in trying to teach six-year-old Jeanne to read.” While in some aspects of their lives, the girls were shielded, yet they also regularly attended the theatre and were given a great deal of freedom when it came to their creativity and their imagination. Beyond a doubt, for the eldest two girls, Angela and Daphne, Gerald, “the grand panjandrum of hisuniverse“ emerges as the most formative figure of their lives who “alternated between laxity and ridiculous strictness,” and was, according to Angela “an emotional bully“ capable of moments of cruelty. Gerald “hated and fearedhomosexuality,” an attitude that seems significant when considering the adult lives of his daughters. Gerald’s relationships with his daughters was problematic–he was domineering and possessive, and ”burst into tears and cried, ‘it isn’t fair’ ” when he heard the news of Daphne’s upcoming marriage. He also somewhat bizarrely confided his amorous adventures to his daughters:
Unusual for his generation, Gerald enjoyed his daughters’ company and this intimacy meant his influence on their growing minds was all the more powerful and potentially malign. Unusually for any generation, Gerald, confided his romantic entanglements with young actresses to Angela and Daphne and made an entertainment of it, inviting them to scoff at the young women’s naivety and misplaced hopes, and compromising the sisters’ natural loyalty to their mother, who was not included in these confidences. These young actresses were nicknamed ‘the stable’ by his daughters, who were encouraged to think of them as fillies in a race for the prize of their father’s attention. His daughters ‘would jeer, “And what’s the form this week? I’m not going to back [Miss X] much longer”,’ and they laughed as their father brilliantly mimicked the voices and mannerisms of the poor deluded girls.
What’s so fascinating is that even though these three girls had, arguably, the same childhood environment albeit tainted with “manipulative favouritism,” that could so easily have led to bitter rivalry, individual characteristics were quickly clearly apparent.
Already very unalike in character, both girls seemed to inhabit parallel universes, Angela’s emotional, connected to others and Daphne’s bounded only by her imagination and peopled with her own creations. With a macabre detachment she could dispassionately watch the gardener at Slyfield nail a live adder to a tree, declaring it would take all day to die, and return at intervals to watch it writhing in its desperate attempts to break free. Aunt Billy had given Daphne two doves in a cage and she found it tiresome to have to feed and care for them when she would rather be out doing interesting things. She was struck how Angela loved administering to her pair of canaries and sang while she cleared out their droppings and sprinkled fresh sand on the base of their cage. Daphne’s solution was to set her doves free and accept without complaint the scolding that would be forthcoming, for this was the price of her freedom from care.
These sorts of patterns of behaviour only became more reinforced as the girls grew older. Angela became a great lover of Pekinese, a careful, devoted owner while several of Daphne’s dogs seemed to meet a sticky end. All three sisters exhibited a tremendous emotional bond with the houses they lived in and which they imprinted in various ways. Jeanne settled in “an ancient house and remarkable symbolic garden in the heart of Dartmoor,” while both Daphne and Angela were deeply rooted in Cornwall, and of course, all Daphne fans know about Menabilly– –”the love of her life.” This love of the region naturally seeped through to Daphne du Maurier’s work, and the novels Jamaica Inn,the House on the Strand, Frenchman’s Creek, and The King’s General were inspired by places in Daphne’s beloved Cornwall.
The book charts the lives of the sisters through their relationships and creative careers. Angela was also a novelist, but unfortunately her novels were not as well-received as those of her sister, and now she’s almost completely forgotten. There’s a great moment recounted from Angela’s memoir, It’s Only the Sister in which Angela tells of an incident in which she was mistaken for Daphne and how a woman who seemed delighted to meet her, turned away, her disappointment blatant, with the utterance that became the book’s title. Daphne du Maurierand Her Sisters gives the sense that the three sisters were all fascinating, unique individuals, but also fascinatingly different. I came to the book with a deep appreciation for Daphne du Maurier’s work, and I left with a feeling that I would rather have liked Angela, one of the two forgotten sisters and also that it is a great shame that Jeanne remains in the shadows.