People are often dismissive of librarians and libraries – as if the words are synonymous with boredom or timidity. But isn’t that where the best stories are kept? Hidden away on the library bookshelves, lost and forgotten, waiting, waiting, until someone like me comes along, and wants to borrow them.
In her fifties and about to celebrate her silver wedding anniversary in a week’s time, famous author Daphne du Maurier is called to London from her beloved country-house, Menabilly, as her husband has suffered a nervous collapse and been admitted to a hospital. In the hospital, Daphne encounters not her dashing, steely-eyed soldier- husband, Sir Frederick Browning, but a shrunken old man, Tommy, liable to burst into tears at any time and pathetically asking for ‘his boys’ i.e. his teddy-bear. Shocked to see this change in her husband, Daphne suffers another jolt when a woman rings her up in the night to inform her that Tommy’s condition is because of her, i.e. Daphne, and that Tommy is in love with the woman who has called. Daphne names this woman the Snow-Queen and unable to face her husband’s betrayal returns to Menabilly . However sympathy for Daphne as the victim of her husband’s infidelity disappears even before one has quite grasped the situation because it seems Daphne has been unfaithful to her husband right from the time of their marriage (And indeed the kind of incestuous relationships in the extended du Maurier family that the author hints at is liable to leave one aghast).
In order to get over the trauma, Daphne starts working on her book on Branwell Bronte, that ill-fated brother of the Bronte sisters. Daphne believes that Branwell was a genius who has been unkindly relegated to the shadows. For her research, she contacts Alex Symington, one time secretary of the Bronte Literary Society. The novel than shifts to Symington, an old man now, who had been removed from his post because the Society suspected that he had stolen some valuable manuscripts from the library. Symington, however, doesn’t see it as stealing but rather as safe-keeping. He also knows ugly secrets of his contemporaries who had forged the signatures of Emily and Charlotte on manuscripts written by Branwell so as to make a neat packet (collectors are very keen to have anything by the two sisters). Symington feels very strongly for Branwell (Yay!) and still hopes of writing a book on him. When he receives the letter by Daphne, he is in turns co-operative and uncooperative, even as he sells part of his library to Daphne.
The third narrator of the novel is a young researcher in contemporary times who wants to write a thesis on the Brontes-du Maurier connection. Recently married to the much older, Paul, she now feels alienated from her husband who has notions of High Literature, is always going on about Henry James and is dismissive of Daphne du Maurier who according to him was just a writer of Romances. He also seems to be still in love with his former wife, famed poetess and academician, Rachel.
The novel shifts between these three. At first, I enjoyed the contemporary narrator but soon that whiny self-pitying woman got on my nerves, especially when she too felt drawn to Rachel. Daphne’s narrative was interesting in so far as I got to know about her father, her aunt Sylvia, and the five boys of Sylvia (‘the lost boys’), Daphne’s cousins, who were looked after by J.M. Barrie when they became orphans early in their lives and were the inspiration for his Peter Pan. The author also saddles Daphne with the ghostly presence of a woman whom Daphne calls Rebecca but other than adding a gothic touch, this doesn’t go anywhere. In fact, the entire novel doesn’t go anywhere.
Of the three, I found the parts dealing with Symington the most interesting as we have the portrait of a complex man. The aspect of the novel that deals with the obsessive nature of research: looking for ‘lost’ material; searching in dusty archives; trying to make connections was riveting but there was not enough of that to save the novel.
Also rather unpardonably, the author reveals the endings of a few du Maurier’s novels and stories so be warned to have your readings spoiled.
The book seems well-researched (though I am no authority on du Maurier) but my time would have been better spent reading a book by Daphne du Maurier.
Opening Lines: Menabilly, Cornwall, July 1957
To begin. Where to begin? To begin at the beginning, wherever that might be.
Publication Details: London: Bloomsbury, 2009
First Published: 2008
Other books read of the same author: None
Read for the Daphne du Maurier reading week organised @ Heavenali