Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 14, 2016

Daphne (2008), by Justine Picardie

daphneI can’t pretend to be disappointed by this one… I bought Justine Picardie’s Daphne so long ago that I had forgotten all about it, and indeed only took it off the shelf because the P shelf was at capacity and I thought that if I read it (404 pages) it would make room for at least two more books.

But I was expecting it to be better than it was.  I must have bought it because it’s a reimagining of the latter years of Daphne du Maurier (tick) when she was writing a biography of Branwell Brontë (tick) tied together by a PhD student researching du Maurier and the Brontës (tick).   Three different eras linked together by literary figures, a kind of literary pilgrimage on the page (tick).

Well, it could have worked a whole lot better than it did. But it is an awful muddle, endlessly repetitive and much too long for itself.

Du Maurier, who holds the book together by virtue of her name as title, has for reasons inadequately explained, chosen not to write splendidly mysterious novels set on the Cornish coast but a biography of Branwell Brontë instead.  (Wikipedia says it’s because she wanted to be taken seriously as an author, rather than be known as a ‘romantic novelist’ but why she picked Branwell as a subject, and eventually published The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë seems bizarre.)  As everyone knows, Branwell, unlike his famous sisters Charlotte, (Jane Eyre) Emily (Wuthering Heights) and Anne (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), was a loser who drank too much and never wrote anything remotely interesting to anybody.  But Picardie’s Daphne hopes to resurrect him, find some hitherto unknown manuscript that shows that he too was a literary genius, and she enlists the help of a pathetic old wannabe champion for Branwell called Alex Symington because he has some dubiously acquired papers (and even a long-lost book of poems by Emily Brontë in her own handwriting though Daphne (like everyone else) does not know it).  This part of the story is conducted by third person narrations from the PoV of Daphne, and of Symington, punctuated by correspondence between them.

Alas, Picardie’s Daphne is a tormented woman.  Her husband Tommy has had a nervous breakdown, but it is Daphne who is wrestling with demons from long ago and reliving her life as a kind of reincarnated Rebecca.  There is a lot of this, overwritten in case the hapless reader forgets any of it, and it is beyond tedious.  If I had read Margaret Forster’s biography of Du Maurier I would have known whether some or any of Picardie’s account of things are true, but the effect of Picardie’s novel is to make me put reading the bio on the backburner because I do not want to read another word about this favourite author of mine for a good long while.

Symington on the other hand is quite interesting in a British eccentric kind of way.  Penniless because (for good reasons) he’s been sacked from his work as a librarian of Brontë documents in the various museums that we all like to visit, and harassed by a long-suffering wife called Beatrice, he lives in a decaying house surrounded by boxes of pilfered papers which are going mouldy.  His fantasies about restoring his name by restoring Branwell’s are pathetic, but few readers will fail to feel a bit sorry for him.

And then, oh dear, there is the PhD student, Jane.  Her characterisation is cobbled together from the fictional worlds that Picardie has obviously been inhabiting for too long, and lest the reader be too dim to realise this, her first person narration laboriously meanders through a rewrite of Rebecca which includes her angst about her failing marriage and a still-living ex-wife called Rebecca.

The irritating thing about this book is that some bits of it are quite interesting, interesting enough for me to persist with it.  But having finished it, I know that I wasted my time. Oh well…

Author: Justine Picardie
Title: Daphne
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2008
ISBN: 9780747590668
Source: Personal library, no idea where I bought it from.

Probably long out of print, and no wonder…


  1. Post-modernism has a lot to answer for. Authors get so bound up in trickery and meta-fiction – conflating fact and fiction, switching backwards and forwards between the book you’re reading and the book being written in the book you’re reading, not to forget referencing books you may or may not have also read – that they forget that what they see as clever we see mainly as confusing. I can see how Daphne may have been interesting. A shame that it wasn’t.


    • Yes, agreed. It could have worked in the hands of a more skilled writer IMO.
      Never mind, we move on, eh?


  2. I’m always interested in reviews that help me winnow out the titles NOT to read. And I laughed out loud at your reason for choosing this book from your shelf: sounds familiar to me!


    • LOL Pleased to be of assistance!
      (And yes, the shelves, I really must tackle the Ms again, they are oout of control….)


  3. […] Opinions: ANZlitlovers; She Reads […]


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