FICTION

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Reviewed by Nicholas Delbanco
Sunday, August 10, 2008

DAPHNE

By Justine Picardie

Bloomsbury. 405 pp. $25.99

The Daphne of this novel's title is a novelist herself, Daphne du Maurier, the bestselling author of Rebecca (1938). Among her other books is a speculative biography, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë (1960), for which she's less well known. Yet du Maurier was haunted by the figure of the Brontë brother, that hard-to-decipher and troubled boy who chronicled the world of Angria, an imaginary kingdom he and his sisters could shape. In minuscule script, he dreamed of adventure and conquest, calling himself the Earl of Northangerland; he may have furnished a template for Emily's Heathcliff or Charlotte's Mr. Rochester. When Branwell died at 31, in 1848, he left behind both thwarted ambition and -- with reference to who wrote what -- some mysteries unsolved. Was he an important talent or an artist subject to delusion; which manuscripts are genuine, which forged and when, for what reason, by whom?

Justine Picardie's Daphne is a complicated tale-within-a-tale about literary detective work, the tangled web we weave when trying to make sense of earlier deception. The novel begins in 1957. Du Maurier is famous, 50 years old, unhappily married to an ex-soldier and anxious to prove her intellectual credentials to those who scorn her as merely successful. Compelled by the world of the Brontës, she makes contact with a reclusive editor of their work, buying (on her part, innocently) purloined memorabilia and seeking his advice. In real life, du Maurier did dedicate The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë to John Alexander Symington, a "now-forgotten Brontë scholar" to whom she wrote letters and from whom she received epistolary suggestions; their actual letters are reproduced here. In this fictional treatment of their encounter, the portrait of Symington is deftly drawn, and Picardie evokes the world of scholarship and how it can edge up to self-destructive obsession.

Du Maurier herself came from a family more bohemian than Gothic. Her grandfather was a close friend of Henry James; her father was a friend of J.M. Barrie and played both Captain Hook and Mr. Darling in the first production of Barrie's "Peter Pan." In this novel's accomplished retelling, Picardie moves with ease from Daphne's memories of Barrie ("Uncle Jim) and Gertrude ("Gertie") Lawrence to her attempt to unravel the question of authorship of the Brontë siblings' poems and even, perhaps, the great prose.

Most of this sleuthing is performed by a contemporary narrator, a young woman living in London (near the du Maurier home and burial ground), as haunted by du Maurier as du Maurier was by Brontë. Orphaned, old-fashioned and working ineffectually on a Ph.D., she travels to Yorkshire and visits the Brontë manse, Haworth, then gets lost in the woods of Menabilly, du Maurier's retreat in Cornwall. Near action's end, she explains her compulsion: "I feel alive when I think of Daphne du Maurier; I feel that her life contains all kinds of clues and messages that might help me make sense of mine."

Less successful as a character is the narrator's husband Paul, a "Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester and Maxim de Winter" out of central casting. He may look the part of a romantic hero, but he's a middle-aged scholar of Henry James who still yearns for his first wife, Rachel. As the narrator observes, "I must say, there's nothing like being lectured on Henry James by one's husband to put you off both of them." Rachel, a seductive poet also fascinated by du Maurier and the Brontës, gets equally embroiled in the hunt for lost texts; there's a kind of Keystone Kop scramble for who will find which notebook first. Unfortunately, Picardie's mirroring stories grow not so much illuminating as repetitive, and we care less than do her characters about who first wrote what.

The narrator spells out the problem: "What right do I have to try to make connections between [du Maurier's] books and her life? It's dangerous territory -- like all those dated, sentimental Brontë biographies, spinning the myth about saintly Charlotte and spiritual Emily and bad Branwell and gentle Anne. Those kinds of books make me feel uncomfortable; it's the literary equivalent of catching butterflies, and then killing them, in order to pin them down and display them in a box."

But the reader need not be a devotée of Branwell Brontë or Daphne du Maurier or even the Gothic genre to take pleasure in this novel; the butterflies are brightly colored and the display well-lit. ·

Nicholas Delbanco is the author, most recently, of the novel "The Count of Concord."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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