Book Review: Daphne by Justine Picardie

Updated on January 23, 2019
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Adele Cosgrove-Bray is a writer, poet, and artist who lives on the Wirral peninsula in England.

3 stars for Daphne by Justine Picardie

What's It About?

A young woman is adjusting to life as the second wife of an older man. Paul is a self-assured lecturer in English who considers his new wife's interest in Daphne du Maurier's novels to be low-brow, and consequently is dismissive of his wife's intention to base her PhD thesis on this popular author.

Stepping back in time, Daphne du Maurier is intent on uncovering how great a contribution to his more successful sisters' writings may have made by Bramwell Brontë. She suspects some poems and texts allegedly by Emily or Charlotte were actually written by Bramwell, the womens' signatures having been forged later on in order to increase the market value of their manuscripts and notebooks.

Into the story comes Alex Symington, an avid collector of all things Brontë. Du Maurier exchanges a series of letters with him in the hope of gaining more information for her book which she later titled The Infernal World of Bramwell Brontë. Symington's reputation is tarnished with accusations of theft from several Brontë collections, but this is unknown to du Maurier as she trustingly funds his research on her behalf, and she purchases a few items of Bramwell's works from Symington's own collection.

While du Maurier is struggling to cope with her difficult marriage to an unfaithful husband who is recovering from a nervous breakdown, the present-day PhD student is struggling to deal with her own increasingly remote husband who now seems to regret having married a younger version of his first wife who also was fascinated by Daphne du Maurier's novels.

Gradually, the two separate threads of Picardie's Daphne are brought together in a satisfying conclusion.

About the Author

Justine Picardie is Editor-In-Chief of the British editions of Harper’s Bazaar and Town & Country magazines. She writes fashion articles for these magazines, and has written five books including a biography of Coco Chanel, a book about fashion and fashion designers, and a book which recounts her experience of grief following her sister's death.

She is married to Philip Astor, a barrister, who is her second husband, and has sons from her first marriage to musician Neil MacColl.

What's to Like?

A reader need not be familiar with the lives of either Daphne du Maurier and her well-connected family, or with the tragic Bramwell Brontë and his more accomplished sisters to appreciate Picardie's novel, which is supposed to be partially based on actual events.

Daphne weaves together a pleasingly complex web of plot lines, and spans two time-frames with ease. I've enjoyed reading du Maurier's novels for years, and so a work of fiction based on her life had immediate appeal.

Exactly where fact merges with fiction is unclear, as some of this novel is allegedly based on historical events, but as this is a clearly marketed as a novel this is unimportant, though the author has clearly gone to great lengths to study the history of the real-life du Maurier and Brontë families.

Several ghosts of du Maurier's Rebecca pleasingly haunt the plot. After all, Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca owes much to Emily Brontë's Jane Eyre, and many of the characters seem to haunt each other throughout this engagingly tangled story.

I very much liked the PhD student's position by the novel's end, when she truly begins to flex her wings at last.

What's Not to Like?

A huge amount of research has gone into Daphne, so much so that the author might have chosen to write a non-fiction book if she had desired to do so. A novel's primary task, however, is to entertain and in places this novel's pace and prose becomes too weighed down with academic information to allow it to really shine as a work of fiction.

I have to wonder why the fictionalised du Maurier took Symington at face value, when his correspondence was so laden with procrastination and obvious excuses. Why would she have relied on him as her sole source of information about Bramwell Brontë when she could have approached the Brontë Society and Lord Brotherton, who was president of that society, directly?

The name of the PhD student who narrates her part of the story was not revealed. I would have liked the PhD student's character to be more well-rounded, as the reader learns little of her life outside of her misguided marriage and her PhD studies.

Also, I find it unlikely that anyone would agree to drive off on a day trip with their husband's ex-wife, never mind be an accomplice in that ex-wife's crime.

Sources

The biographical and bibliographical information in this article came from:

  1. https://www.harpersbazaar.com/uk/author/14740/justine-picardie/
  2. https://thestand.investec.co.uk/life-less-ordinary-justine-picardie/
  3. Amazon UK

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© 2019 Adele Cosgrove-Bray

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