A talented writer misses the real story at the heart of her novel
by Justine Picardie
Bloomsbury, 416pp, 14.99
JUSTINE PICARDIE HAS AN impressive track record: a former features editor at Vogue , she wrote a hugely compelling memoir of her sister, the journalist Ruth Picardie, before tackling the novel form in the acclaimed Wish I May.
She is an editor and co-writer of other books and a newspaper columnist, too. So when you find out she is tackling two popular subjects – Daphne du Maurier, as well as the Bronts – naturally expectations are high.
And rarely can such expectations have been so badly let down. In Picardie's hands, this should have been, at the very least, an intriguing and insightful tale. She begins in 1957 with du Maurier on the brink of a nervous breakdown almost as bad as the one her husband, Tommy Browning, is currently suffering. Du Maurier has discovered evidence of his affair with another woman and, struggling to keep her marriage going, she tries to pour her energies into a biography of Branwell Bront, a figure who has always appealed to her. She begins a correspondence with the former curator of the Bront Museum in Haworth, Alex Symington, who appears to promise, and then withhold, vital information for her biography.
Paralleled with this story is that of a young woman whose name we only discover is Jane towards the very end. Jane is a PhD student at Cambridge, just married to an academic much older than herself who disparages her enthusiasm for the work of du Maurier, with whom Jane is obsessed. As her marriage deteriorates, so her interest in du Maurier increases, as well as in her husband's much more beautiful, much more powerful first wife (the echoes of Rebecca here are deliberate but horribly clumsy), to the extent that she will even accompany said first wife on an excursion to the Bront museum in Haworth – yes, Jane's research has pulled her in the very direction that du Maurier is going, and the two narratives keep apace with each other, almost 50 years apart.
Drawn into this mix of literary lives are links between Henry James and du Maurier's grandfather, the author of Trilby, as well as the five Llewellyn-Davies boys that JM Barrie, a family friend of the du Mauriers, used as models for his Peter Pan books. At 400 pages long, there is ample room here in which to manoeuvre, but this still feels like one of the most needlessly crowded of literary tales, as though Picardie kept stumbling on reference after reference, and connection after connection, and didn't quite know what to make of it all.
But that's not the biggest problem with this novel – indeed, it's one of the least offending aspects of it. That a writer such as Picardie could produce such repetitive, clichd prose is truly shocking. If she was hoping such a style would insinuate some of the romance of du Maurier's writing then she was sadly mistaken. This is a world where "hope" turns to "dust", where the sky is "stretched tight like a drum", where darkness "falls" and rage "floods" through you, where telephones ring out shrilly: the list goes on. Tautology was something du Maurier's editor had to excise from her work, too – oh, that someone had done that with Picardie's.
What's also highly problematic is the lack of psychological depth to a story that just cries out for it. Picardie's young female academic doesn't ever really ponder what's going wrong in her marriage except to blame it on her youth and the lack of intellectual appeal her PhD thesis has for her husband. (Hasn't Picardie heard of Women's Studies? They've been reclaiming women writers for the academy for the past 30 years. Unless this woman's husband is about 80, he'd know his wife's best chance of a job is a PhD on a writer just like du Maurier.)
Similarly, the sections on du Maurier's marriage are so melodramatic and clichd that they can't even begin to delve deeply into what's wrong with her relationship.
Picardie gives thanks to du Maurier's daughters at the end of this novel, and that acknowledgement gives the clue to why, with so much promise, this has turned out to be such a bad piece of writing. Novelists need that sliver of ice in the heart, they need to be ruthless; in dallying with du Maurier's family, Picardie has, as I fear she would probably put it, "sealed her own fate" – she has been far too respectful, far too unwilling to get down and dirty with her subject, even in novelised form.
Du Maurier was a fascinating woman who wrote absorbing books, and she has always struck me as immensely troubled – and incredibly manipulative too. Her dark side was always going to be the really interesting story here, but Picardie has either refused to tell that , or simply hasn't got it at all. What a disappointment.