“Sisters are,” author Jane Dunn tells us “special,” and with a backlist which includes the book, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, it’s easy to conclude that the author, Jane Dunn, is drawn to these “protean” relationships. Dunn admits in the intro to Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters: The Private Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing to a fascination with the du Maurier sisters: Daphne, Angela and Jeanne. Not only does the author find it “psychologically interesting” that Daphne’s fame “so eclipse[d]“ her siblings, but she found it even more “intriguing” that the three entirely different sisters who led vastly dissimilar lives were so “strongly imprinted with family values.” Before arriving at the book, I was unaware that Daphne du Maurier had any siblings at all, but then again, although I have read many of her novels, I knew very little about her private life other than a few facts about the fabulous du Maurier family and Daphne’s connection to the “lost boys” who inspired J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. For those who enjoy reading biography, Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters: The Private Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing comes highly recommended especially for those who have a healthy appreciation of Daphne du Maurier’s work. Some readers, I’m aware, prefer not to know the details of the private lives of the authors they read and enjoy. With this book, Daphne du Maurier fans will gain an almost-blow-by-blow account of exactly how each of her books came to be created. I’ve read my fair share of biographies and yet I can’t remember one in which events in the author’s life so clearly morphed into a novel, and author Jane Dunn carefully fleshes out Daphne du Maurier’s life, the books and the themes that became signposts of the various events that took place as well as the places that inspired several of her better-known works.
But here I am allowing my description of the book to concentrate on the very talented Daphne du Maurier to the neglect of her siblings. As Jane Dunn explains, searching for information about Angela led to an “intriguing journey” while the search for Jeanne has been “blocked” by her lifelong partner who retains all of Jeanne’s paintings and papers and is “adamantly set against” any biography of the sisters. This explains why a clear image of Angela emerges while the portrait of Jeanne remains somewhat murky.
Taking a chronological approach, the book opens with the unusual and privileged childhood of the three du Maurier girls–the last of the du Mauriers. Their father, Gerald, an actor and later a theatrical manager, wanted a son, and Daphne, the middle child became his clear favorite serving as a surrogate son while the youngest daughter, Jeanne became the favourite of the girls’ actress mother, Muriel. Gerald appears in these pages as a glamorous figure, dashing and gregarious, and yet at the same time there is a darker side. While the three girls were definitely brought up in a protected environment, conflicting values emerge in their upbringing. They were mainly taught at home, and their education sounds wildly erratic with a maid, at one point, “engaged in trying to teach six-year-old Jeanne to read.” While in some aspects of their lives, the girls were shielded, yet they also regularly attended the theatre and were given a great deal of freedom when it came to their creativity and their imagination. Beyond a doubt, for the eldest two girls, Angela and Daphne, Gerald, “the grand panjandrum of his universe” emerges as the most formative figure of their lives who “alternated between laxity and ridiculous strictness,” and was, according to Angela “an emotional bully” capable of moments of cruelty. Gerald “hated and feared homosexuality,” an attitude that seems significant when considering the adult lives of his daughters. Gerald’s relationships with his daughters was problematic–he was domineering and possessive, and “burst into tears and cried, ‘it isn’t fair’ ” when he heard the news of Daphne’s upcoming marriage. He also somewhat bizarrely confided his amorous adventures to his daughters:
Unusual for his generation, Gerald enjoyed his daughters’ company and this intimacy meant his influence on their growing minds was all the more powerful and potentially malign. Unusually for any generation, Gerald, confided his romantic entanglements with young actresses to Angela and Daphne and made an entertainment of it, inviting them to scoff at the young women’s naivety and misplaced hopes, and compromising the sisters’ natural loyalty to their mother, who was not included in these confidences. These young actresses were nicknamed ‘the stable’ by his daughters, who were encouraged to think of them as fillies in a race for the prize of their father’s attention. His daughters ‘would jeer, “And what’s the form this week? I’m not going to back [Miss X] much longer”,’ and they laughed as their father brilliantly mimicked the voices and mannerisms of the poor deluded girls.
What’s so fascinating is that even though these three girls had, arguably, the same childhood environment albeit tainted with “manipulative favouritism,” that could so easily have led to bitter rivalry, individual characteristics were quickly clearly apparent.
Already very unalike in character, both girls seemed to inhabit parallel universes, Angela’s emotional, connected to others and Daphne’s bounded only by her imagination and peopled with her own creations. With a macabre detachment she could dispassionately watch the gardener at Slyfield nail a live adder to a tree, declaring it would take all day to die, and return at intervals to watch it writhing in its desperate attempts to break free. Aunt Billy had given Daphne two doves in a cage and she found it tiresome to have to feed and care for them when she would rather be out doing interesting things. She was struck how Angela loved administering to her pair of canaries and sang while she cleared out their droppings and sprinkled fresh sand on the base of their cage. Daphne’s solution was to set her doves free and accept without complaint the scolding that would be forthcoming, for this was the price of her freedom from care.
These sorts of patterns of behaviour only became more reinforced as the girls grew older. Angela became a great lover of Pekinese, a careful, devoted owner while several of Daphne’s dogs seemed to meet a sticky end. All three sisters exhibited a tremendous emotional bond with the houses they lived in and which they imprinted in various ways. Jeanne settled in “an ancient house and remarkable symbolic garden in the heart of Dartmoor,” while both Daphne and Angela were deeply rooted in Cornwall, and of course, all Daphne fans know about Menabilly– –”the love of her life.” This love of the region naturally seeped through to Daphne du Maurier’s work, and the novels Jamaica Inn, the House on the Strand, Frenchman’s Creek, and The King’s General were inspired by places in Daphne’s beloved Cornwall.
The book charts the lives of the sisters through their relationships and creative careers. Angela was also a novelist, but unfortunately her novels were not as well-received as those of her sister, and now she’s almost completely forgotten. There’s a great moment recounted from Angela’s memoir, It’s Only the Sister in which Angela tells of an incident in which she was mistaken for Daphne and how a woman who seemed delighted to meet her, turned away, her disappointment blatant, with the utterance that became the book’s title. Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters gives the sense that the three sisters were all fascinating, unique individuals, but also fascinatingly different. I came to the book with a deep appreciation for Daphne du Maurier’s work, and I left with a feeling that I would rather have liked Angela, one of the two forgotten sisters and also that it is a great shame that Jeanne remains in the shadows.