Book review: Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters by Jane Dunn

“AS a writer, I have found my name as big a handicap as ever it was a help.” It wasn’t the famous author Daphne du Maurier who said this, but her older sister, Angela, the one who wrote novels that nobody read.

Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters: The Hidden Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing

by Jane Dunn

Harper Press, 448pp, £25

Their father, Gerald du Maurier, was the most popular actor of his day, and their grandfather, George du Maurier, wrote the novel Trilby, and through it was responsible for the word “Svengali” becoming common usage. No wonder the sisters baulked a little at their famous surname.

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Literary or artistic siblings exert a particular kind of fascination over us, possibly because there is always an element of hierarchy or competition – at least one of them is bound to suffer in comparison. Possibly even more so when they are all-female siblings. It happened to the Brontë sisters, where Anne’s name was overshadowed by Emily’s and Charlotte’s; it happened to the pony-book writing Pullein-Thompson sisters, where Diana’s success rather obscured that of siblings Christine and Josephine. We can’t help but wonder about those sisterly rivalries, about how they really felt about each other’s successes and failures.

Daphne du Maurier’s success eclipsed not just her sisters but her father and grandfather, too. Many of her works were international bestsellers, made into hugely successful films (Rebecca, The Birds, My Cousin Rachel and Don’t Look Now), and she is still read in great numbers today. Everybody knows the first line of Rebecca, “last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, one of the most famous openings ever, and that she based her mythic Manderley on a real place, Menabilly, in Cornwall.

Several biographies over the years, by Margaret Forster, Nina Auerbach, Piers Dudgeon and others, have informed us of her family connections to the likes of JM Barrie, in whose great stage play, Peter Pan, their own father would regularly star; her bisexuality which caused problems in her marriage to the war-wounded Tommy Browning and which sparked passionate affairs with women; and the utter dedication to her writing life that often led her to shut out her children.

Last year, a small Cornish publisher produced a memoir of the three sisters by Michael Williams, using the same cover image that Dunn has used for her biography. She divulges Angela’s unhappiness with her portrait, which she felt made her look fat and plain, in comparison to the dynamic Daphne, standing in a Joan of Arc pose, and the pretty Jeanne, who went on to be a moderately successful artist, sitting in the centre.

If Dunn’s book is about anybody, it is about Angela, the plain, eldest sister who felt forever overshadowed by her siblings. Because there’s already so much on Daphne and so little on Jeanne (whose partner refused Dunn access to Jeanne’s private papers), the floor finally belongs to Angela.

Is she worth the attention? What does a focus on Angela tell us? It is interesting to note that all three du Maurier sisters were sexually attracted to, and became involved with, women, throughout their lives.

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Their controlling, possessive father (whose relationship with his favourite daughter, Daphne, bordered on the incestuous) had a horror of them growing up and becoming involved with men, and deliberately kept them sexually ignorant. Angela, passionate and sentimental, spent the bulk of her early life conceiving crushes on both men and women, whilst her younger sister fashioned an alternative identity for herself as a boy.

But while Daphne was the immediate commercial literary success, Angela was the one who dared something more dangerous.

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Possibly inspired by Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, she wrote a semi-autobiographical novel about an unrequited lesbian love affair, called A Little Less, when she was only in her mid-twenties. In 1931, she sent it to a series of publishers who, nervous of prosecution, all rejected it. Crushed, Angela didn’t write again for ten years. Dunn shows a nervous, sensitive woman who nevertheless had the bravery to confront a difficult subject at a difficult time.

The problem is that, even though Angela did subsequently write and publish novels, her work was essentially mediocre. Both Daphne and Jeanne managed to make a living out of their art; Angela lived off her parents’ money, and as a young woman her allowance was over £22,000 a year (over £95,000 if compared to average earnings of the time).

It’s hard not to think of working-class geniuses like DH Lawrence who would have benefited hugely from that kind of income and the space such money would have given them to write, and the privilege and luxury of Angela’s lifestyle, coupled with her average talents, can make it hard for us to sympathise with her. She partied for most of her life; by her own admittance, her existence was made up of relationships and holidays. Her non-conformity lay in her love affairs with women, and in that respect, the emotional support the sisters showed for one another is important.

However, Dunn does reveal that while Angela supported Daphne’s work, Daphne rarely returned the favour. Jeanne seems to have exchanged little with her sisters in the matter of art, either – there are few letters where these three artistic women hammer out their theories or ideas. This speaks to a creative self-sufficiency that is perhaps one of the most notable things about the sisters.

They were brought up to be du Mauriers first, and as Dunn’s intriguing and revelatory biography shows, that meant loyalty to a name. For all three women, that made for complex and contradictory lives.