Daphne du Maurier’s letters to Oriel Malet

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have been following the Month of Letters February challenge for the past few years, I think since its first year. I missed last year, but I am back on course for 2018. In honour of Month of Letters, I usually try to write a letter themed post at this time, and so here is this February’s offering. I also hope to give an update on my letter writing progress too as the month goes on.

Letters from MenabillyMy letter themed post this time features one of my all-time favourite writers, Daphne du Maurier in correspondence with a fellow writer, Oriel Malet. The collection, edited by Oriel Malet is entitled Letters from Menabilly: Portrait of a Friendship (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1993). I have had this collection for some while and I don’t think I have ever got around to reading it properly. It was published in the same years as Margaret Forster’s biography of Daphne du Maurier, whom Oriel Malet credits in her acknowledgments. I bought the biography the same year it came out, but I think Letters from Menabilly came to me some years later as a second-hand bargain. The letters interspersed with Malet’s commentary chart the course of a thirty-year friendship between the women and their families beginning with their chance meeting in the mid-1950s.

Oriel Malet begins the book by talking about how, when and where she and Daphne du Maurier first met and how their relationship developed. She was still a young writer at this point whereas du Maurier was very successful and well-known. Malet at this point had heard of du Maurier but not read any of her books. They shared an American publisher, Doubleday, and first met at a London party hosted by the publisher’s wife Ellen Doubleday. They had shared a mutual dislike of social gatherings and being forced to meet new people, but when they found themselves waiting outside the Doubleday hotel suite for the hostess to arrive, they struck up an unforced conversation. Neither woman introduced herself and it wasn’t until the party began that Oriel Malet realised to whom she had been speaking. She described Daphne rather poetically thus, ‘she reminded me of a figurehead at the prow of a ship; alert, poised, looking into the distance yet perhaps laughing inwardly and no more at ease in so worldly as setting than I was myself’. If you look at this photo from the book you can see what she meant. They sneaked away from the party together and talked while Daphne packed for her return to trip to Cornwall. And the rest as they say, was history. The letters cover many topics and events in the women’s lives, but I just want to focus on one of the conversational threads for this blog post.Portrait of Daphne du Maurier

Literary advice

I was particularly interested in Daphne du Maurier’s generosity in giving advice to the younger writer. Over the course of the years the two women discussed writers (both of them were Katherine Mansfield fans) and writing in both general and specific terms. In one of the early letters in the collection, du Maurier gives Malet advice on a book that she is working on, saying ‘You don’t have to have a ‘plot’; it sounds like Guy Fawkes in his old cloak, creeping with a lantern’. The imagery is amusing but she goes on to explain her point, elaborating thus, ‘You don’t even have to have action  (think of Proust). But you must have a real reason for it all, a reason for the things you want to say’. Eminently sensible advice from a seasoned professional. In a later letter after reading a draft of a short story, du Maurier urges Malet to consider its potential as a novel,

I read your story going up in the train, and was absorbed by it. I love the way you write, and the things you write about, but my criticism would be that this atmosphere and story are wasted on a short story – you should develop it into a novel … I think you have the potential material here for a lovely long and interesting book.

The letters and Oriel Malet’s memories of her visits to Menabilly also weave in the progress of du Maurier’s own work. On one such visit, Malet recalls crossing a field and being afraid of a resident bull. Du Maurier was however more concerned with a flock of seagulls, remarking how frightening it would be ‘if all the birds in the world were to gang up together and attack us…..They could you know’. She was proved right in the disturbing short story ‘The Birds’ (from The Appletree, Gollancz, 1952) which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963.

I was also intrigued by the importance of the Brontës’ early writing about the fictional world of Angria and Gondal. In du Maurier-speak, ‘to Gondal’ meant to pretend or to make-believe and the expression crops up several times during the course of the correspondence. In August 1963, Daphne wrote to Oriel,

If I pass a place I once lived (like at Hampstead), I often do a Gondal, whereby I go into it just as if it were still mine, and take my coat off, and somehow settle down, and then try to imagine the amaze surprise of the new owner coming in, and how one would behave in the Gondal just as if they were not there, and one was still in possession.  …

Another thing I Gondal about, is supposing one suddenly went and rang at a person’s house, who was a Fan- …

Du Maurier was fascinated by Branwell Brontë and the book she wrote about him, the Infernal World of Branwell Brontë appears to have been simmering in the background for many years. She was very knowledgeable about the Brontë family and visited Haworth with Oriel after being asked to write a preface for a new edition of Wuthering Heights in 1954.  Oriel later received a letter in which Daphne says the Macdonald Classics editor claimed that ‘he had never read anything before that gave him such a vivid and convincing impression of her [Emily’s] work and personality’. I was amused to note that the literary tone of this letter finished on a prosaic note however, mentioning a friend’s assertion that the Channel boats would go on strike as they were owned by British Railways. Daphne anxiously enquires of Oriel, ‘Do you think this is true?’ Clearly even best-selling writers have to be practical.

A note on the ‘in’ language in the letters

The first thing a reader notices in reading any collection of letters such as this, is that a private world is laid open for perusal. I would recommend not neglecting to read Oriel Malet’s helpful glossary of the du Maurier family’s expressions and nicknames before you start the letters, or you will be forever dodging back and forth to clarify the meaning of sentences, especially Malet took on some of these expressions and uses them in her reminisces. I found it strange to be grappling with family language because it did at times make me feel that I was an unwanted intruder into a private world. There is also the disconcerting feeling that it is all a bit childish for adults to be using what sometimes seemed like nursery language. For instance, Du Maurier refers to having a period as having a ‘Robert’ and ‘to wax’ meaning sex. On the other hand, her term ‘brewing’ for working on a story or plot makes perfect sense and conjures up a sense of the author intently and productively mulling over her characters and their actions.

Having said all of that, I found much to enjoy in the letters and the accompanying contextual passages. In fact, I am struggling to suppress an urge to re-read all of the Daphne du Maurier books I have ever read and to catch up on those I have mysteriously missed out reading to date. Another blog series methinks. Now on my mental TBR pile are books by Oriel Malet, as I must confess that I have never read any of her books.

I have also come across a post about Daphne and Oriel on a blog called Something Rhymed, which looks at female literary friendships.

Do drop me a line if you are a Du Maurier fan too!



Reading Somerset Maugham on Emily Brontë

Ten NovelsI have been reading some of the literary criticism essays in Somerset Maugham’s book (mentioned in a recent post), beginning obviously enough with those about books that I have read. First, I turned to the essay on Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights for the simple reason that I read Wuthering Heights so many years ago that it is probably due for a re-read. This essay seemed like a good way to begin to re-acquaint myself with both the book and the author. It also inspired me to dig out my copy of the Brontë family biography by Juliet Barker (1994).

Several writers have presented their views of the Brontë family since Somerset Maugham wrote his essay (1954), but Juliet Barker’s book, simply called The Brontës (1994) promises to be the definitive account. I somehow managed to miss a revised edition that came out in 2012. Perhaps I will give myself a very late Christmas present (I still have a voucher to spend) and upgrade my original copy. Meanwhile, it was interesting to see what Maugham made of Emily Brontë’s personality from the available sources. He did point out that to be able to talk about Emily; he needed to go back to her father’s origins and to approach Emily through her family, as she is difficult to know. Maugham’s portrayal of Patrick Brontë is much more negative than Barker’s image. She has painstakingly reconstructed hers from evidence culled from newspaper and church archives about Patrick’s political activities and presented a less one sided view.

It might seem obvious but the main fact to bear in mind when reading biographies about authors (or indeed any historical person) is that time and fresh documentary evidence often reveals a different picture. In some respects, that is not strictly true of Emily Brontë since she left very little personal testimony and apparently had no friends so there is a lack of social correspondence. Apart from her poetry, juvenilia and her only novel, evidence is indirect. However, over the years a much clearer picture of the whole family has emerged due in particular to Juliet Barker’s diligent archive research, which illuminates Emily’s character as far as it is possible to do so.

Here is a description of the fifteen-year-old Emily taken from Maugham’s essay, quoted here in full, as it seemed a shame to cut it short. Though he does not give the full reference, it was taken from the earliest biography of Emily by Mary Robinson, which was published by W.H. Allen in 1883 (I found this reference in Barker’s sources).

a tall, long-armed girl, full grown, elastic as to tread; with a slight figure that looked queenly in her best dresses, but loose and boyish when she slouched over the moors, whistling the dogs, and taking long strides over the rough earth. A tall, thin, loose-jointed girl – not ugly, but with irregular features and a pallid thick complexion. Her dark hair was naturally beautiful, and in later days looked well, loosely fastened with a tall comb at the back of her head; but in 1833 she wore it in an unbecoming tight curl and frizz. She had beautiful eyes of a hazel colour.

She was clearly an active girl, who loved the outdoors, perhaps one who would have been impatient with the restricted life of a well brought up lady. Physically she must have been what is often termed handsome, rather than conventionally pretty. Clearly, she ‘scrubbed up well’ as the saying goes. Emily was apparently painfully shy with anyone outside the family circle and Maugham quotes from Charlotte Brontë’s letters to show that the sisters at times had a difficult relationship. After learning from Juliet Barker that few writers have quoted from Charlotte’s original letters, using instead unreliable published ones, I am sceptical of Maugham’s conclusion, “One is inclined to think that Charlotte never knew her sister”.

It is illuminating to consider the different approaches to studying the Brontë family and Emily in particular. Due to the lack of straightforward biographical evidence, many writers have tried to find the real Emily through her writing. On the other hand, Juliet Barker considers it misguided to use literary criticism. As she says in her introduction, “Trawling through the Brontës fiction in search of some deeply hidden and autobiographical truth is a subjective and almost invariably pointless exercise”. She also rather scathingly refers to “theories of varying degrees of sanity” earlier in her introduction. I assume that she places in that category the theory, to which Maugham and other literary critics subscribe, that Emily Bronte was a lesbian. As far as I can recall, as it’s been twenty years since I read Barker’s biography, she doesn’t suggest this possibility from her study of contemporary sources.

One of the biggest myths that grew up around the Brontës was that they lived very harsh and isolated lives in a lonely moorland house. Maugham doesn’t perpetuate this idea, as after he visited Haworth, he described the house as situated at the top of a hill, “down which the village straggled”. However, he does mention that there was a graveyard on both sides of the parsonage, which some folks (but not perhaps curates) may have considered being a gloomy location. He also pointed out that the mood of the moorland varied with season and would not always have been wild and bleak. Indeed, he described his visit thus,

The countryside was bathed in a haze of silver-grey so that the distance, its outlines dim, was mysterious. The leafless trees had the elegance of trees in a wintry scene in a Japanese print, and the hawthorn hedges by the roadside glistened white with hoar frost. Emily’s poems and Wuthering Heights tell you how thrilling the spring was on the moor, and how rich in beauty and how sensuous in summer.

I didn’t find the location particularly bleak either when I was there a few years ago, and the house was solid and pleasant looking, though of course it would have been cold in winter without central heating. However, the Brontë sisters’ lives would have been no harsher than for any other country curate’s family in the nineteenth century. They could obviously afford a servant (Tabby Ackroyd) to help around the house. Emily helped with domestic chores, and I liked the image of her kneading bread with a book propped up in front of her as she worked. Industrious yet slightly impractical: (turning pages with a floury hand?)

The fact that Maugham included Wuthering Heights in his ten most important novels, despite asserting that it is very badly written, intrigued me. Maugham is critical of the construction of the novel (fitting two sets of events and characters into a unit) and the unrealistic dialogue that Emily gives Nellie Dean to say. However, his verdict is that, “It is a very bad novel. It is a very good one. It is ugly. It has beauty. It is a terrible, an agonizing, a powerful and a passionate book.” He discusses the unevenness of the novel and the reasons why Emily might have chosen to tell the story in the way she did, instead of perhaps choosing a first person narrative. He felt that she wanted to distance herself from events, in effect to in hide her from the passion. His reasons? Somerset Maugham’s theory located Emily as both Cathy and Heathcliff, “I think she found Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw in the depths of her own soul. I think she was herself Heathcliff, I think she was herself Catherine Earnshaw”.

Now I do really need to read it again…let me know what you think! Drop a line in the comment box.

Maugham on Fiction: An Inspiration for an Essay Reading Challenge

Maugham early in his career

An early career author picture

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been reading some of William Somerset Maugham’s essays from Ten Novels and their Authors (1954, 1978). I skipped through the book to pick out authors that I have read so far for The Landing TBR project. The collection has also reminded me (as if I needed it), that I have many books on the shelves that I have not yet tackled. Perhaps this essay collection will give me the impetus to explore writers, such as Balzac and Dostoyevsky that remain on the TBR Pile. Maugham includes Tolstoy and War and Peace in his Ten Novels selection and attentive Landing readers will recall that I finally got around to reading War and Peace last year. Reading Dostoyevsky would enable me to continue the Russian literature theme that developed after my reading of Tolstoy’s novel. Maugham also writes about Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights, which caused me to want to re-read that novel, as well as to dig out the Juliet Barker biography of the Bronte family from the back bedroom stash to check a few facts.

What I do have in mind for this year however, is to begin a new Landing Challenge to explore some of the essay collections scattered around the house (not all of them live on The Landing). I was thinking of dipping into a few collections rather than solidly reading all of them. Some collections belong to me (and I am more likely to have read some of these) but the ones belonging to He Who Put The Shelves Up are largely still on my mental ‘to read sometime’ list. My plan would be to tackle a few of the essay collections spaced out over the year, in between reading other books. I might set out to cover (no pun intended) some literary essays first, since chance led me to the Maugham collection.

Ten Novels

A bargain at 90p!

I have been trying to read up a little on Maugham’s life and career but have found several apparent contradictions in online sources so I won’t give you more than brief biographical details here. I am however intrigued enough to attempt to track down a definitive account so when I do, I will post up about it. Somerset Maugham was born in the British Embassy in Paris in 1874 and died in Nice in 1965. His father Robert was a lawyer and his mother Edith Snell was a writer. Orphaned by the age of ten, an aunt and uncle in England brought him up. Maugham was a homosexual at a time when it was still illegal and therefore dangerous to admit publicly, though his orientation was accepted in the literary circles he frequented. He did however enter into what proved to be a short-lived marriage with interior designer Syrie Barnardo and had a daughter, Liza. But more of Maugham’s life and times when I have researched further.

Of the subjects in Maugham’s collection, I have read Pride and Prejudice, David Copperfield, Wuthering Heights and War and Peace, so I will read his essays on these books and talk about them in my next blog post.

And then there’s the remaining five novels that he discuses…..back to the TBR Pile!