A weaver of imaginary tales
"All autobiography is self-indulgent"; so said Daphne du Maurier, whose books so many of us have read and loved. Who can forget "Rebecca", "My Cousin Rachel", "The Loving Spirit", "Frenchman's Creek", to name just a few of her novels? Hence, an opportunity to read about this writer in her own words in a book she calls "Myself When Young. The Shaping of A Writer", is not something lovers of English literature can let pass.
Autobiography is also a mirror reflecting the writer's mind, soul and spirit. This book, published as a memoir to celebrate du Maurier's seventieth birthday, was not one she was happy about writing. It is the first volume of an autobiography that never got completed. Yet it helps us understand the complex, elusive Daphne du Maurier to quite an extent.
"Myself When Young" includes a very enlightening introduction by Helena Taylor, a very succinct, modest and honest "Author's Note" (in keeping with her character), and of course, du Maurier's account of her life from the age of three to twenty five (most of which is information gleaned from the diaries she kept from the age of twelve to twenty five). It is a record of her "thoughts, impressions and actions". She admits that there is nothing profound or wise in it. However, this 195-page memoir is replete with observations and quotes which are food for thought. She feels that if this book (originally named "Growing Pains: The Shaping of a Writer") causes her contemporaries to recall their own memories and encourages young writers, her writing will have been worthwhile.
Du Maurier was a loner from childhood and became a recluse in her old age. A reading of the book shows how she longed for, and was happy with, her own company, the countryside and most notable, the sea. She valued "freedom from all ties" (even at the tender age of twenty two), and sought tranquility above everything. She loved sailing deeply and whole-heartedly, saying that she felt completely at peace and pure when she was at sea, and that everything seemed, "beautiful and eternal". Her idea for her first novel, "The Loving Spirit", came from a schooner "Jane Slade', and its title from a poem by Emily Bronte. Quite a few of her works centre around the sea. She also loved to explore the woods and even get lost in it. The seeds of many of her stories were sown when she was out in nature.
This writer had an intriguing personality. She writes frankly about her shortcomings (both in her character and her writing), and makes no excuses for them. Her attachment to her parents was never intense and her relationship with her two sisters was close and companionable, despite the fact that she was so different from them. She writes, "Angela and Jeanne were content with their lives. Why did I have to be different?.....They had no desire to break away as I did.". She did have feelings for a married, 36-year-old cousin, Geoffrey (whose holding her hand under the rug when she was fourteen, had first awakened an instinct in her), a lot of affection for Carol Reed, a "tall, slim-hipped" 22-year -old director, an attraction for Fernandes, her French teacher, and an enduring friendship with Adams, a sailor.
The du Maurier family frequently changed houses; these houses served as sources for some of her stories which were of succeeding generations; each had its own identity and linked the past with the present: "We are all ghosts of yesterday". People and things pass away, but not places". Family history was delved into and represented. Abstract concepts of family, generation and continuity played important parts in her fiction as well as biography.
She says she "hated being obvious in any form or fashion". She believed that, regardless of what anyone said, there had to be "Truth, no striving after cleverness, nor cheap and ready-made wit. Sincerity beauty purity". There was an underlying depression in all her themes which she realized full well, but couldn't get rid of. She also wondered why she felt so sad thinking of a past she had never known and why this past had such a strong hold over her. It was always the past, "just out of reach, waiting to be captured". She also wonders if " happiness will always elude her, lying just ahead round the corner". Other features present in her stories were discontent and a desire to escape, and because many writers look for an "elsewhere" to feel at home, and women readers have a deep craving to be somebody else, somewhere, they could cater to these needs.
This book, considered an autobiographical romance, sketches the writer's development into "creative freedom and independence". Reading it has made me want to read her novels again, this time with a clearer and wider perception. It is really very interesting to know about how she was feeling as she was growing up, and the confusions, anxieties and aspirations she faced on the way. Her comments about herself and her writing process, are analytical and revelatory.
Du Maurier always played heroic manly roles in childhood games and from an early age identified with male heroes. She had invented a male alter ego for herself, Eric Avon, who disappeared for a while, but resurfaced as the male narrator of five of her novels. Acting was in her genes and Eric was part of a dramatic role she was only too happy to play. She identified closely with male mentors. Finding her grandfather's old diary, she was charmed by his changing moods and realized how much like him she was. All these things bring out the gender confusion and bisexual feelings (in her words "Victorian tendencies"), and her impatience with feminine roles and responsibilities. She was concerned about the "constraints and sheer dullness of orthodox femininity in early to mid-twentieth century fiction". She was influenced mainly by women writers who were of the same opinions. She pays a huge tribute to Emily Bronte and acknowledges a big debt to all the Bronte sisters and Katherine Mansfield.
Daphne du Maurier refers to herself as "a spinner of webs, a weaver of imaginary tales". Her memoir concludes with her sailing away down the Helford River and Frenchman's Creek with her just-wedded husband, Major Browning. This may be taken as a symbol of her always trying to get away from reality through her fancies. It also marks the end of one phase of her life, and the beginning of another.