The Rebecca Notebook: and Other Memories by Daphne du Maurier – #DDMReadingWeek

When a novel can affect the human heart in such a way it seems to mean one thing only: not that the tale is exceptional in itself, but that the writer has so projected his personality on to the printed page that the reader either identifies with that personality or becomes fascinated by it, and in a near sense hypnotised.

Here Daphne du Maurier is talking about her grandfather, George du Maurier, author of the popular 1894 novel Trilby, but I think this quote could just as easily apply to Daphne herself. The more I read about her and about her background and family, the more I can see how her own personality and experiences found their way into the writing of her famous novels and short stories. I’ve now read all of those novels and stories (and looked back at my favourites in this post from last year) and am now working through her non-fiction. The Rebecca Notebook: and Other Memories, first published in 1981, was my choice for this year’s Daphne du Maurier Reading Week hosted by Heavenali.

The first part of the book consists of du Maurier’s notes and drafts relating to the writing of Rebecca – in fact, her notes were used as evidence when she had to defend herself against plagiarism allegations in the 1940s. It’s fascinating to see the similarities and differences between the early outline of her novel and the finished version (did you know that Maxim de Winter was originally called Henry, for example?) and her chapter summaries get longer and more detailed as the story takes shape and the characters develop. The original epilogue – which eventually became the prologue – is included in full and in another piece of writing, The House of Secrets, du Maurier describes her discovery of Menabilly, the house in Cornwall that was the inspiration for Manderley in Rebecca and later became Daphne’s home.

The rest of the book collects together some of the essays and poetry written by du Maurier, including the piece about her grandfather, George du Maurier, which I quoted from above, and other biographical accounts of her father, who was the famous actor-manager Gerald du Maurier, and her cousins, the Llewelyn Davies children, who inspired JM Barrie’s Peter Pan. Having previously read Daphne’s autobiography Myself When Young, I was already familiar with some of this information but was happy to read it again, from a slightly different perspective.

In her other essays, du Maurier discusses subjects such as Shakespeare, her views on romantic love and her feelings on becoming a widow. She talks a lot about fame and what it’s like to live life in the public eye; coming from what we would now consider a ‘celebrity family’ and being a private person herself, it’s understandable that this topic would be of particular relevance to her.

Tip the scales, and the hands that acclaim the artist become the hands that tear him to pieces. The wreath of laurel is the crown of thorns. The actor and the writer are especially vulnerable today, when worldwide publicity through press and television makes them into that treacherous thing, a ‘personality’.

None of these pieces are very long – the whole book is under 200 pages long – but I found most of them interesting and insightful. They don’t really need to be read in any particular order either, so it’s the sort of book you can easily dip in and out of and come back to later. Most people who pick up this collection will probably do so because of the Rebecca connection, but be aware that only a relatively short section of the book is devoted to Rebecca; however, if you’re interested in du Maurier as a person as well as a writer and would like to try some of her non-fiction, this is a good place to start.

The Dark Queens by Shelley Puhak (non-fiction)

Their ghosts are everywhere; we just need to know where to look.

This is a fascinating dual biography of two little-known medieval queens, Brunhild and Fredegund, who belonged to the Merovingian dynasty and ruled over large swathes of the lands we now know as France and Germany. I don’t often find myself drawn to non-fiction, but this book was a great choice for me as it’s both educational and entertaining – and every bit as readable as fiction.

Most people today have probably never heard of Brunhild and Fredegund and it seems there’s a good reason for that: as Shelley Puhak explains, following the deaths of the two queens, their stories were rewritten – and some of their achievements erased altogether – by the rulers who came after them, including their own son and nephew Clothar II, and later by Charlemagne’s Carolingian dynasty. And yet the influence of these two Merovingian women lived on, in legends and fairy tales, in the naming of roads, and in the character of Brunhild the Valkyrie from Wagner’s opera Der Ring des Nibelungen. Most intriguingly, a battle strategy of Fredegund’s appears to have inspired, whether directly or indirectly, the ‘Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane’ episode of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

The two queens came from very different backgrounds. Brunhild was a princess from Visigothic Spain who was married off to King Sigibert of Austrasia in 567 as part of a political alliance. Austrasia was the north-eastern territory of the Kingdom of the Franks; Neustria to the west and Burgundy to the south were ruled by Sigibert’s brothers, Chilperic I and Guntram, respectively. Fredegund, a former slave, rose to power when she married Chilperic of Neustria following the death of his wife under suspicious circumstances. This was only the first of many murders with which Fredegund would be connected; she went on to be associated with a whole series of poisonings, tortures and political assassinations. Brunhild is portrayed as a much more sympathetic character, but the prejudices of the sources do need to be considered!

After the deaths of their husbands, both Brunhild and Fredegund reigned as regents on behalf of their young sons and grandsons. Their kingdoms of Austrasia and Neustria were engaged in war for many years, fuelled by a rivalry between the two queens, which originated in Fredegund allegedly being responsible for the murders of both Galswintha, Brunhild’s sister, and King Sigibert, Brunhild’s husband. However, they were willing to work together where necessary and both queens proved themselves to be strong, intelligent, politically astute women in a world dominated by men.

The Dark Queens is not a particularly academic book. It’s written in the style of narrative non-fiction, drawing on the available primary sources such as the writings of Gregory of Tours and Venantius Fortunatus but sometimes finding it necessary to speculate in order to fill in the gaps. Despite this, it’s clear that Shelley Puhak has carried out a huge amount of research in writing this book and she does include a list of all of her sources, both primary and secondary, at the end, along with a comprehensive section of notes and references. Although The Dark Queens may not satisfy readers who are looking for something more scholarly, I thoroughly enjoyed it and am so pleased I’ve had the chance to get to know Brunhild and Fredegund. I’m surprised they haven’t been written about more widely; they would be wonderful subjects for historical fiction and would make a nice change from the Tudors!

Thanks to Head of Zeus for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Myself When Young by Daphne du Maurier – #DDMReadingWeek

This is my second contribution to Ali’s Daphne du Maurier Reading Week. As I mentioned in my first post, I have now read all of du Maurier’s novels and short story collections, but still have plenty of her non-fiction books to read. This one, originally published in 1977 as Growing Pains: The Shaping of a Writer, was written towards the end of her career but based on diaries kept throughout her childhood and into her twenties. A lot of the information in this book was already familiar to me through a biography I read a few years ago, Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters: The Hidden Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing by Jane Dunn, but it was still interesting to read it again in du Maurier’s own words this time.

Daphne and her two sisters, Angela and Jeanne, were part of a famous theatrical and artistic family – both of their parents, Gerald du Maurier and Muriel Beaumont, were actors and their grandfather, George du Maurier was a cartoonist and author, best known for creating the character Svengali in his 1894 novel Trilby. Daphne undoubtedly had a privileged childhood, being educated privately by governesses before being sent to finishing school in France, but it’s clear that she didn’t always feel very comfortable with the sort of lifestyle into which she’d been born. As a shy and solitary child – the book begins with a vivid description of four-year-old Daphne being ushered into the drawing room with a group of ladies who had come to visit baby Jeanne and being frightened and overwhelmed by the noise – she retreated into a world of imagination, spending her time reading, writing and performing in plays with her sisters. From an early age, Daphne found herself drawn to male roles, eventually creating her own alter ego, Eric Avon, a character whom she said would emerge again later (in different forms) as the male narrator of five of her novels – I’ll Never Be Young Again, My Cousin Rachel, The Scapegoat, The Flight of the Falcon and The House on the Strand.

She talks a lot about her childhood homes in London – Cumberland Terrace, Regent’s Park and Cannon Hall, Hampstead – and the influence they had on her early life:

Who can ever affirm, or deny that the houses which have sheltered us as children, or as adults, and our predecessors too, do not have embedded in their walls, one with the dust and cobwebs, one with the overlay of fresh wallpaper and paint, the imprint of what-has-been, the suffering, the joy? We are all ghosts of yesterday, and the phantom of tomorrow awaits us alike in sunshine or in shadow, dimly perceived at times, never entirely lost.

Later, of course, when the family bought a holiday home in Cornwall, she would fall in love with that part of the country, and in this book she describes her first sight of Menabilly, the house that would appear in The King’s General and as Manderley in Rebecca, and her first trip to Bodmin Moor, where she discovered the old coaching inn that would inspire yet another of her famous novels, Jamaica Inn.

As well as places, she writes about the people who had important roles to play in her life; her adoration of her charismatic father comes through strongly, although her feelings for her mother are less clear, while she also devotes a lot of time to discussing her various love affairs, including her flirtations with her much older married cousin Geoffrey, a brief romance with the film director Carol Reed, and her very close relationship with Fernande Yvon, one of the teachers at her Paris finishing school. Right at the end of the book, she meets her future husband, Tommy ‘Boy’ Browning, who had read her novel The Loving Spirit and sailed to Fowey in Cornwall in search of its author. A few months later they get married but this is where the book ends and as there is no sequel, we aren’t given the opportunity to read her thoughts on her married life.

I enjoyed Myself When Young, particularly the first half where she writes about her childhood, the houses she lived in, the games she played with her sisters and her thoughts on the books she read. I wasn’t quite as interested in the later chapters, apart from where we were given some insights into the writing of her early novels and short stories – such as the difficulties she had in writing Parts Three and Four of The Loving Spirit or where she was when the character of Julius popped into her head. I would have liked more of this, but I suppose it wasn’t really the purpose of the book. Still, it was lovely to learn more about one of my favourite authors and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of her non-fiction.

The Killer of the Princes in the Tower by MJ Trow

The fate of the Princes in the Tower – Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York – remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of all time. Reportedly last seen in the grounds of the Tower of London in the summer of 1483, the disappearance of the two boys has divided historians ever since. Their uncle, Richard III, is the man most often accused of being responsible for their deaths, while the names of Henry VII and Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham have also been suggested as possible culprits. In all three cases there is a logical political motive: to remove rival claimants to the throne. But what if the murder (assuming that it was actually murder) was not politically motivated at all? What if the princes were killed for an entirely different reason, by someone completely unexpected?

MJ Trow’s new book, The Killer of the Princes in the Tower, is subtitled A New Suspect Revealed, and I have to admit, when I first started reading, I was very sceptical about this. The Wars of the Roses and Richard III’s reign in particular is a period of history I’m very interested in and I’ve read a lot of books over the years, both fiction and non-fiction, that deal with the subject of the Princes in the Tower. Could Trow really come up with a ‘new suspect’? Well, yes he does – or at least, one that I can’t remember being suggested in any of the other books I’ve read.

If you have any prior knowledge of the period and the controversy surrounding the princes, it will probably be helpful, but if not Trow does provide plenty of background information, describing the whole sequence of events following the death of the boys’ father, Edward IV, and explaining how Richard III came to take the throne before the young Edward V could be crowned. He spends some time discussing the idea that the princes could have been secretly released from the Tower and not murdered at all – a theory some people believe is supported by the appearance a few years later of a ‘pretender’, Perkin Warbeck, claiming to be the younger of the princes, Richard of York – but (sensibly, in my opinion), he doesn’t consider this as a serious possibility. He then looks at all of the potential suspects one by one, presenting the evidence for each one being the murderer and then dismissing it, until only one name is left…

Trow approaches the mystery like a modern day police investigation, believing that no stone should be left unturned and looking for motive, means and opportunity. Beginning with the three most obvious suspects, he moves on to consider their supporters, servants and family members; even Richard III’s wife, Anne Neville, and the princes’ own mother, Elizabeth Woodville, are discussed – because, as Trow says, they would certainly have been interviewed by the police if the boys had disappeared today. He also examines the reliability of the various sources and what we can learn from them.

The revelation of the new suspect did take me by surprise because it’s not someone who would ever have occurred to me. It’s true that this person certainly had the means and the opportunity, but I wasn’t at all convinced about the motive, even though Trow devotes a whole chapter to drawing comparisons with other people throughout history who have killed for similar reasons. Although what Trow suggests is not impossible, I don’t think it’s very likely either and as far as I’m concerned the mystery remains unsolved! Still, it’s good to read a theory that is neither pro-Ricardian nor anti-Ricardian and that looks at the whole subject from a very different angle. I found this book almost as gripping as fiction, so despite not agreeing with the conclusion I still really enjoyed reading it.

Thanks to Pen & Sword for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Live Alone and Like It by Marjorie Hillis – #1936Club

This week Karen and Simon are hosting another of their clubs where we all read and write about books published in the same year – and I think this particular year, 1936, is one of the best so far. I’ve already read a lot of great 1936 books and there are many more that I considered reading for the club.

Live Alone and Like It by Vogue editor Marjorie Hillis, is a self-help book for single women who, either intentionally or unintentionally, find themselves living alone. I’m not someone who normally reads self-help books, but I thought it might be fun to read one published in 1936 and, as I do live alone, to see if Hillis has any good advice for me!

As nice, perhaps, as any other way of living, and infinitely nicer than living with too many people (often meaning two or more others) or with the wrong single individual. You can live alone gaily, graciously, ostentatiously, dully, stolidly. Or you can just exist in sullen loneliness, feeling sorry for yourself and arousing no feeling whatever in anybody else.

As you can probably tell from the quote above, Hillis has very little patience with women who indulge in self-pity and sit around complaining about their living arrangements. Her view is that single women can easily become a burden to other people and should avoid doing so at all costs: ‘Remember that nothing is so damaging to self-esteem as waiting for a telephone or door-bell that doesn’t ring.’ Instead, in her brisk, no-nonsense style she urges us to take control of our own lives and raise our self-esteem by giving ourselves little treats, cooking nice meals, wearing new clothes, and not telling ourselves that it ‘doesn’t matter because nobody sees you’.

There are some amusing question and answer sections, with questions like ‘How late is it proper for a woman living alone to entertain a man friend, and how can she get him to go at the correct time?’ and each chapter ends with a selection of case studies, showing how some women have perfectly mastered the art of successfully living alone while others unfortunately haven’t. She devotes a whole chapter to the pleasures of sleeping in a single bed, pointing out that ‘most people have more fun in bed than anywhere else, and we are not being vulgar’ and another takes us step-by-step through the correct preparation, cooking and serving of meals for one person:

Very well, then, have your orange juice and black coffee and toast…Our plea is merely for plenty of orange juice, coffee and toast; really good orange juice, coffee and toast; and orange juice, coffee and toast attractively served.

There’s no doubt that Hillis’ target audience were women of a certain class; she seems to take it for granted that you will probably have a maid – and if you don’t, you’re very unfortunate as you’ll have to do everything yourself – and she provides lots of tips on hosting the perfect cocktail party or bridge night. There’s also an assumption that you will be living in a large city like New York with plenty of clubs, theatres and exhibitions to go to; women who live alone in a small town or in the countryside aren’t given as much attention, except in a few of the case studies. However, a lot of her advice is still relevant today and to everyone, such as how to meet people and make new friends. I will leave you with a quote that I think applies to all of us live-aloners, whatever our personal circumstances:

Living alone, you can – within your own walls – do as you like. The trick is to arrange your life so that you really do like it.

The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale

I’ve had mixed experiences with Kate Summerscale’s books so far: I loved The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, liked The Wicked Boy and gave up on Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace after a few chapters. I didn’t know what to expect from The Haunting of Alma Fielding, then, but I hoped it would be another good one!

Like Summerscale’s others, this is a non-fiction book based on a true story, in this case the story of an ordinary thirty-four-year-old woman, Alma Fielding, who becomes the centre of paranormal activity in her London home. The book follows Nandor Fodor of the International Institute for Psychical Research as he investigates Alma’s claims, desperately hoping that this time – after being disappointed by a long line of frauds – he has finally come across a genuine haunting.

At first, having witnessed for himself the smashed glasses, spinning teacups, moving furniture and broken eggs, Fodor is convinced that a poltergeist is at work in the Fielding household. The more he learns about Alma’s abilities, which include producing live animals out of thin air and transporting herself from one area of London to another, the more intrigued he becomes…until, eventually, he begins to have doubts. Is this a real paranormal phenomenon he is investigating or is Alma haunted by something very different?

I found some parts of this book fascinating. Although I was sure Alma must have been involved in some sort of elaborate hoax and that there must have been logical explanations for the things she claimed were happening to her, I didn’t know exactly what she was doing or how she was doing it. I was amazed to see the lengths Alma went to in her efforts to prove that her psychic abilities were real and the lengths Fodor and the other ghost hunters went to in their efforts to verify them. Some of the methods they used to investigate Alma’s claims were quite harmless, such as conducting word association tests, but others were intrusive and cruel, and although I didn’t like Alma it made me uncomfortable to read about the way she was treated – particularly as Fodor believed that her powers were the products of various traumas she had suffered earlier in life.

At times, Summerscale widens the scope of the book to put Alma’s story into historical context, to discuss the influence of novels and films of that period, and to look at some of the other things going on in society at that time. The ‘haunting’ and the investigation took place in 1938, when the world was on the brink of war and Summerscale suggests that people were turning to spiritualism as a distraction:

The ghosts of Britain, meanwhile, were livelier than ever. Almost a thousand people had written to the Pictorial to describe their encounters with wraiths and revenants, while other papers reported on a spirit vandalising a house in Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides, and on a white-draped figure seen gliding through the Hawker aircraft factory in Kingston upon Thames. The nation’s phantoms were distractions from anxiety, expressions of anxiety, symptoms of a nervous age.

However, although I found plenty of things to interest me in this book, I did have some problems with it. I felt that it became very repetitive, with endless descriptions of Alma’s various manifestations and detailed accounts of the researchers’ experiments. I thought Summerscale also devoted too much time to anecdotes about other alleged psychics and spiritualists, which didn’t really have much to do with Alma. It seemed that Alma’s story on its own wasn’t really enough to fill a whole book, so a lot of padding was needed.

I didn’t like this book as much as Mr Whicher or The Wicked Boy, but Kate Summerscale does pick intriguing topics and I’ll look forward to seeing what she writes about next.

The Fall of the House of Byron by Emily Brand

The poet Lord Byron was famously described by Lady Caroline Lamb as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. This recent biography by Emily Brand shows that he is not the only member of his family to whom this description could apply! Subtitled Scandal and Seduction in Georgian England, the book takes the Byron ancestral home, Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire, as its starting point and shows how this once grand house falls into ruin over the years, mirroring the downfall of the Byron family.

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, the Romantic poet, is obviously the best known Byron; a lot has already been written about his life and work, so he is not really the focus of this book. He does appear from time to time, but the majority of the book is devoted to the stories of his parents and grandparents, great-aunts, great-uncles and their children. As was common in that era, the same names tended to be passed down from father to son and mother to daughter, so there are lots of Johns, Williams and Georges, Isabellas, Elizabeths and Sophias. The family tree at the beginning of the book is useful, but it’s still easy to get confused! However, some of the family members are given more attention than others and these include:

* William Byron, 5th Baron Byron – Known as ‘the Wicked Lord’, William Byron is rumoured to have tried to abduct an actress at the same time as negotiating his marriage to an heiress. He is also tried for murder after killing a friend in a duel. In later life (after his son elopes with his own cousin), William finds himself in financial difficulties, selling off parts of the family estates and unable to keep Newstead Abbey in good repair.

* Vice Admiral John Byron – Nicknamed ‘Foul-Weather Jack’, John Byron is a Royal Navy officer and explorer. The book describes his adventures at sea, including a shipwreck off the coast of Chile, his role in claiming the Falkland Islands for Britain, and the battles he fought in during the American Revolution. Towards the end of a career which had once seemed so impressive, John returns home under the shadow of failure and suffering from ill health.

* Isabella Howard, Countess of Carlisle – William and John’s sister marries the Earl of Carlisle and lives with him at his estate of Castle Howard in Yorkshire until she is widowed in 1758. Her second marriage, to a much younger man, makes her the subject of gossip, and after separating from him several years later, she travels Europe in the company of a German soldier, writing poetry, throwing parties and falling into debt.

* Captain John Byron – Later known as ‘Mad Jack Byron’, he is Foul-Weather Jack’s son and George Gordon’s father. In 1785, he marries a Scottish heiress, Catherine Gordon, for her money and proceeds to waste her fortune on ‘gambling, pretty women, thoughtless spending on clothes, alcohol and horses’.

Although all of these people were individually fascinating to read about (I was most interested in Isabella, an independent and unconventional woman who is often unfairly judged by the standards of the time), I found the structure of the book quite disjointed and difficult to follow at times. In the first half of the book, each of the main characters has a chapter devoted mainly to them, but by the second half their stories overlap so much that I was struggling to keep them all straight in my mind. Having said that, I’m not sure how else the book could have been structured as the actions of one family member obviously have an impact on the lives of all of the others and it would have probably been impossible to continue writing about each of them separately.

As well as exploring the downfall of the Byron family, the book also offers lots of interesting insights into Georgian life; I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the fashionable society of Bath and the friendship between Sophia Byron (Mad Jack’s mother) and the authors Fanny Burney and Hester Thrale. Emily Brand has obviously carried out a huge amount of research for this book; I can’t comment on the accuracy as I’ve never read any other non-fiction about the Byrons, but she does quote from a large number of primary sources and everything is clearly referenced at the end of the book. Although at times I found it all slightly overwhelming and felt that I was being given so much information I couldn’t digest it all properly, I still very much enjoyed reading this book and getting to know the members of this scandalous family!