Sunday, 7 October 2012

Penguin no. 662: The du Mauriers
by Daphne du Maurier

How many minute, invisible, intangible threads go to the making of a single human being, and what a strange jumble of hereditary impulses must have been this young Kicky and young Gyggy. Was Gyggy a charming waster all his life because his grandmother had been a wanton? Was he a rebel because his mother had not wished him born? Was Kicky a meticulous draughtsman in maturity because of Louis-Mathurin's scientific exactitude, and because Ellen had talent in her fingers? Did that longing to escape from his surroundings, that almost unbearable nostalgia for the past, exist in him because his father's father, Robert Mathurin Busson, had been denied his country and lived in exile for over twenty years?

I wonder if there was a particular interest in the heritability of personal traits in the years just before the Second World War, as this seems to be a particular focus in Daphne du Maurier's book, which traces the lives of some of her antecedents.

There was certainly a lot of interest in some closely related topics, such as genetics, during those years. When you study the early history of statistics you cannot help but be aware that the ideas underpinning Darwin's Origin of Species had something of a beguiling influence on intellectual thought in the first half of the 20th Century. (For example, when I read of people, now dead, being accused of being eugenicists I wonder if there is an awareness of how widespread and conventional such ideas were before their pernicious nature was revealed through the actions of the Nazis. Such beliefs were so unremarkable that there was a Chair in Eugenics at University College, and scientific research could be published in the Annals of Eugenics, which still exists, though under a different name.) There are no arguments about eugenics in this book, however, but there is plenty of speculation on the nature of heredity.

The hero of Daphne du Maurier's story is her grandfather George du Maurier, known affectionately as Kicky. It is little wonder that she reveres him, for he seems to have been the person who singlehandedly changed the fortunes of the du Maurier family. Before him generations of du Mauriers and Clarkes lived lives of poverty and struggle; after him, she suggests, they all benefited from the wealth he managed to accumulate.

George du Maurier's life wasn't completely blessed: his early careers as scientist and painter came to nothing, and a detached retina in his left eye left him with diminished eyesight in early adulthood. There was a time when he even entertained thoughts of suicide, perceiving himself as worthless, and an unnecessary burden on an already struggling family. His hard work and dedication eventually paid off, however, when he found employment as a cartoonist with the satirical magazine Punch in London, and with it fame and fortune. In later life he also became a successful author, publishing three novels of which Trilby is the most well-known.

Daphne du Maurier speculates that the best characteristics from the two sides of the family were united in George, facilitating all he achieved (with 'best' in this context being defined in terms of effectiveness). George's father Louis-Mathurin lived his entire life certain that success was waiting just around the corner, and he spent his years enthusiastically embracing new plans; his faith in the future only failed him right at the end. But Louis-Mathurin was a happy-go-lucky dreamer, lacking money-sense, along with tenacity and application. Perhaps George du Maurier inherited these necessary qualities from his remarkable grand-mother on his mother's side.

Mary Anne Clarke had been born in humble circumstances, but by the age of 26 she was the mistress of the Duke of York, brother of George IV and Commander-in-Chief of the British Army. She lived the high life for a few years, and when she was inevitably discarded she took her revenge, testifying against Prince Frederick and eventually publishing her memoirs. But even in her revenge her primary thought seems to have been for her own future, and for that of her two children. She negotiated for an annuity which the Crown continued to pay until her daughter's death.

The annuity supported more than just the mother and daughter in the end, and I wondered if at least some of Louis-Mathurin's failure could be traced to the safety-net it provided. He could afford to be impractical and indulge his fantasies, for his family would always be fed, and he could always apply to his wife for a loan. George du Maurier had no such option, for the annuity was going to end when his mother died, and if wanted marriage and independence, he needed to succeed on his own.

I would have preferred the book to have been written more like a biography and less like a novel. Even though Daphne du Maurier quotes extensively from their diaries and letters, she still imagines the thoughts, deeds, and words of the real people whose lives she recreates for her story. And so there is always this suspicion as to whether she has been selective in the story she tells. 


  1. Thanks for the review Karyn. I have this on the tbr shelves & it's interesting to see that DDM has written it almost as a fictionalised biography. She did write a novel based on Mary Anne but she also wrote straight biographies too, of Branwell Bronte & the Bacon brothers.

    1. Thanks Lyn,

      The biographies of Branwell Bronte and the Bacon brothers clearly weren't published as vintage Penguins, but I have Mary Anne, and I wish I had read it recently instead of I'll Never Be Young Again, because her story sounds interesting. The du Mauriers is a fictionalised biography, but she spends a lot of time speculating on why things happened as they did. I was glad I read it, especially as I so disliked her second novel, though as I said in my final paragraph I was always suspicious that her dedication either to her narrative or her theorising may have influenced the way she told the story.

    2. The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte (Gollancz 1960; Penguin 1972, ISBN 01400 34013) would fall just outside your cutoff, but it's well worth reading. I've kept it, whereas most of her novels (apart from this one, for its vintage value) I've read and passed on, or else just passed over.

  2. Trilby's so full of anti-semitism and class prejudice I'm not sure I want to know much more about ghastly George, especially if DDM's novelised the whole biography to fit her views.

    1. How interesting, Alex. Your single sentence creates such a different picture to the idealised portrait suggested by Daphne du Maurier. I've noticed that it is not all that uncommon to encounter anti-semitism and class prejudice in books written at least up to the 1920s, and perhaps even later. The ideas about eugenics I refer to are based on similar assumptions, in that they tended to focus on the idea that the recognisably intelligent should try to out-breed those from the lower classes. I think such attitudes must have been very widespread at the time, and may reflect more on contemporary thinking than on the individual writers.



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