Something about her eyes

Patricia Beer

  • Daphne du Maurier by Margaret Forster
    Chatto, 455 pp, £17.99, March 1993, ISBN 0 7011 3699 5

If in doubt start with the weather. This is a piece of advice that has long been followed by biographers who have mixed feelings about the claims of their subjects to the extensive treatment they are about to apply: subjects, perhaps, whose rank or connections would certainly sell the book but who in any meritocracy would themselves have sunk without trace. Interestingly, the opening paragraph of Margaret Forster’s Daphne du Maurier makes good use of this particular technique: ‘Sheet-lightning split the sky over London on the evening of 12 May 1907 and thunder rumbled long into the night. All day it had been sultry, the trees in Regent’s Park barely moving and a heat haze obscuring the new growth of leaves.’ There is almost a Bethlehem feel about this: a new light in the sky and various portents. There is certainly a Hollywood feel: a star is born. In fact the star was not born till 5.20 the next afternoon, but the right note has been struck.

What exactly the star did, or was, to deserve such a full biography never becomes quite clear. It is strange that with so much material painstakingly assembled and capably organised this should be so. Du Maurier can hardly be convincingly presented as a great novelist. She was a great storyteller, certainly, as clever Victor Gollancz spotted when he picked her out for his list as a successor to A.J. Cronin. Having said that, one hears the sad voice of E.M. Forster: ‘Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story.’ He calls the story ‘a low atavistic form’ and envisages an audience of cave-persons ‘gaping round the camp-fire, fatigued with contending against the mammoth and the woolly rhinoceros’, asking no question except ‘and then? ... and then?’ and requiring no response but what that would evoke. He knows that on technical grounds a story, however mangled or concealed, is indispensable to a novel. But the novel, he maintains, has more to give than just a story and should give it. Du Maurier’s novels, it seems to me, do not.

Margaret Forster singles out Rebecca as one of du Maurier’s very best books, and it is probably the best-known, so it can fairly be taken as an example of her complete lack of concentration on anything other than the story. Though it was a bad sign that a determined writer should be so heedless of grammar, syntax and spelling as to be virtually illiterate, it did not matter for practical purposes: her editor at Gollancz could and did put that right, and the public knew nothing about it. There are other deficiencies, however, that cannot be ignored. The dialogue can be laughably banal, and the style undistinguished at best and cack-handed at worst. The hero, Maxim de Winter, and his wives, relatives and servants are caricatures; they deliver the immediate punch that the narrative requires but are not allowed any depth or development. What the author, being completely taken up with her story, concentrates on least is the moral; it wobbles disconcertingly. Rebecca is far from being an amoral book; we gather, for example, that sex before marriage, even in a Monte Carlo hotel, is strictly out of the question. (‘I don’t know what you mean.’) Nice people behave very nicely indeed. The second Mrs de Winter thinks that modesty has ‘something to do with minding meeting people in a passage on the way to the bathroom’. This may be a limited interpretation of one of the great Christian virtues but it is pointing in the right direction. Yet the same person, when she hears that her husband murdered his first wife, instead of deploring the crime, rejoices that he hated the woman enough to take such a step. Maxim has no anxieties connected with the sixth commandment either but devotes himself to making sure he is not found out. He obviously feels that if a man discovers that the woman he has married is ‘vicious, damnable, rotten through and through’ he is perfectly justified in shooting her (the film sensibly tones this bit down) even though he had inklings during their courtship. ‘I had seeds of doubt at the back of my mind. There was something about her eyes.’

All this, I dare say, is true to life, and I am not worried abut the de Winter morals; I am only saying that they are not consistent with the pervasively high-minded outlook of the novel. I understand that at one point du Maurier planned that some retribution should overtake the de Winters, similar to what happened to the erring Mr Rochester, but thought better of it. They end up idling in comparative luxury and contentment in the sun of Southern France. ‘He never complains,’ says the second Mrs de Winter, looking proudly at the ‘dear face’ of her murderous husband. I should think not indeed.

I have no wish to seem ungrateful about Rebecca. Like thousands and thousands of other cavepersons. I can testify to its being a very nice change from the woolly rhinoceros. But if at any time we need what E.M. Forster calls ‘the finer growths’ that a novel can provide, du Maurier will not be able to supply them. She could not even recognise them in the work of others. She scornfully dismissed Compton-Burnett as unreadable, was loftily puzzled that some people thought Iris Murdoch a better novelist than herself, and expressed a fear that she might ‘turn into a writer like James Joyce’; there was little danger.

In the flurry of chatter and prophecy that preceded the publication of Daphne du Maurier the main emphasis was on the novelist’s homosexuality. Chatto’s handout spoke delicately of ‘her highly significant friendship with Gertrude Lawrence’, but nobody else was anything like as refined. Du Maurier herself had avoided speaking openly about lesbians, referring to them with shudders as ‘the L people’, but now everybody was having a great time speaking about them very openly indeed. After publication a roar broke out, the happy roar of pantomime; people who normally sat quietly in their seats started shouting. ‘Oh yes, she was’, ‘Oh no, she wasn’t.’ The quality newspapers, though they printed a few fierce letters, remained cool – ‘Du Maurier affair true, says writer’ – and soon veered towards compassion: ‘Du Maurier book upsets family and friends’. But most people took sides. Things came to a head after a programme about du Maurier on TV, called The Loving Heart after one of her novels. It was unremarkable in itself but several of the participants got wound up into declaring afterwards that they hadn’t said she was, they’d specifically said she wasn’t, but that bit had been edited out. One of them added for good measure that in any case Gertrude Lawrence was practically a nymphomaniac.

In the book Forster keeps her head; her subject’s sexual preferences are not the driving force of her narrative. In her long list of star-spangled acknowledgments (Prince Philip, Lord Carrington ...) she apologises to du Maurier’s children for exposing ‘events in their mother’s life which were unknown to them and which have proved painful for them to discover’. The apology is seemly, but she must have had qualms when explaining that du Maurier had wished ‘all truth’ to be told after her death, for, as she has shown, the truth as it is commonly understood is the last thing that a fantasist and escapist like du Maurier would want. Margaret Forster’s treatment of the famous ‘events’ is calm, unlaboured and totally free from titillation; and in fact the relevant passages take up a comparatively small part of the book. They are vivid, however; du Maurier’s passion for Ellen Doubleday, wife of her American publisher, is particularly well presented. The kindness and diplomacy with which Mrs Doubleday tried to contain and even organise the clamorous love which she was unable to return show her to great advantage.

Over four hundred pages make a long biography, and du Maurier can be a wearisome character, but the description of her background as life goes on very seldom flags. No sooner has the weather turned cooler on the afternoon of the heroine’s birth, as related in the first paragraph, than we find ourselves in theatreland, where the audience who had stayed away because of the heat were back again. ‘Marie Tempest starred in The Truth at the Comedy, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree in Julius Caesar at Her Majesty’s, and at the Hicks Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue Gerald du Maurier was scoring an immense success, the night his new daughter was born, in a light comedy entitled Brewster’s Millions.’ And so the influences of Childhood and early youth are launched and we are well on our way to knowing all we need to know about Daphne’s heredity and environment: the over-possessive father and the over-detached mother, the fluctuations of Gerald’s career and the effect they had on his, and therefore the family’s, moods, the wealth and the total dependence on servants, the glamorous acquaintances. Perhaps most important of all for Daphne was the inadequacy of her schooling; she was not particularly intelligent but a good education would have helped disguise the fact.

Highly significant was the family’s use of nicknames and code words, in that they showed a complete lack of imagination. The only aim of those who coined them was, apparently, to be different from the rest, unless it was that they could not bear very much reality. ‘Wain’ meaning ‘embarrassing’, for example, ‘honky’ meaning ‘common’ or ‘ill-bred’, and ‘to nim’ meaning ‘to pee’, do not bring out the qualities of the words they conceal; in fact they provide the wrong associations. Every proper name that Daphne du Maurier invented for her friends and relatives in the course of her life was sillier and uglier than the one it replaced: Pooch, Boo and, for her pretty and good-natured daughter-in-law, Hacker. One of these nicknames was insensitive to the point of cruelty: her ageing husband, who was suffering badly from the strains and depressions of two wars, she re-christened Moper. She referred to her menstrual periods as Robert. In the future some intuitive biographer might put forward a connection with the footman at Manderley whom she also called Robert.

The fortunes of Moper, who at this stage had risen to be Major-General Sir Frederick Browning, in fact provide some of the most interesting parts of the book. (He had other nicknames, acquired before his marriage, but they were neither strained nor foolish: one was Boy, to distinguish him from his father who was also a soldier.) His gallant career is of real historical significance. In 1944, for example, he led the Airborne Division at the Battle of Arnhem, taking part in the attempt of Eisenhower and Montgomery to capture the northern bridges over the Rhine. He was the one who famously warned Montgomery: ‘We might be going a bridge too far, sir.’ They might and they did.

His exploits, though given due importance by his wife’s biographer, are skilfully used to direct light on to her. The film that Richard Attenborough made about the battle over twenty years later took the words ‘a bridge too far’ as its title. Daphne Browning had always felt unable to support her husband fully in his various postings, because they involved her in too much undesirable company. But now, after his death, from which moment he became the great love of her life, as indeed he had been in the very early years of their long marriage, she was voluble in any cause of his; and the film was one. She wrote violent letters to the director maintaining that he had portrayed her husband as a dandy who never came out of his headquarters and moreover that he had misused Boy’s best line. Attenborough did all he could to accommodate her views, to the extent of restoring the prestigious line; admittedly as a piece of hindsight rather than of prescience, which weakened it (‘I always thought we went a bridge too far’), but it was the conclusive line. Lady Browning was not satisfied, however; according to her, Dirk Bogarde, playing her husband, said it in a murmur.

On his retirement from the Army Boy was appointed Comptroller of Princess Elizabeth’s household and spent the rest of his working life at Court. Daphne Browning was now drawn in whether she liked it or not. Balmoral broke her snobbish spirit, and when the Queen and Prince Philip came to tea at Menabilly, her Cornish home, their visit, like hers to Balmoral, was ‘desperately wain’. She herself behaved in an unexpectedly honky manner, agonising about whether or not as hostess she should wear a hat and gloves and what the procedure would be if the royal guests wished to nim. Had they but known it they were in real danger of having rats scamper across their path and pieces of ceiling fall on their heads.

Lively and informative as it is, Margaret Forster’s account of Daphne du Maurier’s world is incidental to the main thrust of the biography, in the same way that the account of her subject’s bisexuality is slightly beside the point. The emphasis throughout is on du Maurier the writer. This of course is how du Maurier herself saw it; her perpetual insistence that writing was her life was literally true; when she stopped writing she died. It is as if her viewpoint infected her biographer, who otherwise, one feels, would hardly have devoted her skill and energy to so minor a talent. But yes, Daphne du Maurier is a literary biography; Forster said so herself in her Contribution to The Loving Heart and vigorously defended her belief that a close examination of the life was necessary to an understanding of the work. She sounded as though she was speaking of George Eliot or Proust.

Margaret Forster can distinguish, as well as anybody and better than some, between writing which is both great and popular (Charles Dickens) and the sort which is merely popular (Monica Dickens). Yet in the general course of the biography she bypasses ideas of better or worse. From time to time, it is true, she slips in, almost inadvertently, astute remarks quite sharply critical of her subject’s literary abilities; and this suggests that she is in two minds; which would account for the weather at the beginning. She may, as a matter of conviction, rather than with full commitment, be on the warpath against élitism. In due time we could have an extensive study of, say, Jeffrey Archer. In fact, as writers, Archer and du Maurier have a lot in common, apart from the side issue that both their spouses were once publicly commended for being personally fastidious and well-groomed.

One of the many and diverse sequels to the publication of Daphne du Maurier has been a letter from Chatto and Windus which appeared in the TLS and is highly relevant to this question of standards. In the course of describing how Daphne’s youthful relationship with Carol Reed came to an end, Margaret Forster quotes a poem on the not uncommon theme of separation, ‘when one heart flies / And the other is left in the empty hell of remembering.’ It had been found among du Maurier’s papers after her death. Her biographer is following the method she herself advocates: using the life to illuminate the work. Unfortunately the poem, which Forster presents with no critical comment, is not strong enough to bear such attention, and we now know that it was not intended to. It was frankly ‘prentice work, sent to du Maurier for her advice and criticism; being unsigned it was naturally taken to be by her. Chatto and Windus explain that the real author has stepped forward to claim it and they vow that the mistake will be rectified in future printings of the book. Impeccable behaviour, but the tone suggests that a scroll has been discovered revealing that it was actually St John the Baptist who fed the five thousand and that future versions of the Bible would be revised accordingly. There was, of course, no call for Chatto and Windus to proffer any evaluation in a letter of that kind but Margaret Forster could in her book have hinted that it was not a poem by which du Maurier – as she thought – or indeed anybody else should be assessed. It is characteristic of her non-judgmental approach (widely admired) that she chose not to do so; and perhaps a sign of the times.