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.