Jane Dunn is an acclaimed biographer who has chronicled the lives of many famous, influential and mesmerising women, among them Virginia Woolf and Queen Elizabeth I. In her latest book, she turns her attention to the three Du Maurier sisters – Daphne, Angela and Jeanne, children of a prominent and artistic family.
Daphne Du Maurier, the charismatic and glamorous author, successful at an early age, always makes a thrilling subject. and it is perhaps unsurprising that she dominates this book.
In Daphne du Maurier and her Sisters, however, Dunn stakes her claim to all the Du Maurier sisters. In doing so, she doesn’t shy away from dealing with their relationship as family members, as well as individuals in their own right.
Angela, the eldest sister and far lesser-known author, is here seen as sensitive and in need of encouragement, aware of her own limitations and of being overshadowed by her brilliant younger sister without any apparent resentment.
Jeanne, the younger sister and the artist of the family, is mentioned the least of the three, and appears as an independent and practical soul, helping the war effort by working the land on a Cornish farm.
Daphne comes across as cold and disconnected: she is often described by Dunn as being unable to empathise with others, and spends as much of her time as she can in their beloved holiday home in Cornwall, at her happiest when writing – and alone.
Dunn paints a vivid picture of the glamorous high society into which the Du Maurier children were born: the fabulous dinners with their famous guests; Daphne’s place as one of the ‘Bright Young Things’ so obsessed over by the British press in the 1930s.
As she follows the arc of their lives, Dunn documents the tumultuous political landscape heralding the approach of the second world war, and their very different reactions when it arrived – Angela escaping for long periods of time to a remote Scottish Island; Jeanne putting her painting on hold to support the war effort and Daphne at times seemingly completely oblivious.
Dunn's subjects appear warts and all, taking us backstage at our own risk. Dunn’s approach to the Du Maurier women’s sexuality is fascinating: always relevant, sensitive and illuminating. Angela’s work in particular was highly influenced by her emotions, from her personal disgust on discovering the truth about sex (and the punishment meted out by her parents when they found out that she had done so) to falling in love repeatedly and with devastating effect throughout her life.
All three sisters had romantic relationships with women, and their love affairs were documented in their artistic works – one particularly beautiful poem of Daphne’s reminisces about a sunny day in the company of her female lover, while Angela’s novel The Little Less is about a lesbian relationship.
The success of Dunn’s works rests on her ability to draw you into the lives of the people she so thoughtfully chronicles. Her subjects appear warts and all, taking us backstage at our own risk.
She is a writer who works hard to conjure up the real people behind the events she catalogues. Slightly over-long in places and perhaps in need of more judicious editing, Daphne du Maurier and her Sisters nonetheless remains a compelling and insightful read.
Daphne Du Maurier and her Sisters was published by HarperPress on 28th February and is available in hardback from Foyles, Amazon and your local independent bookshop, priced at £25. An ebook edition is also available, priced at £10.
Recommended for: Those who are interested in learning about the Du Mauriers as a family unit, as there is little new material on Daphne herself.
Other recommended reading: Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh, Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation 1918-1940 by D J Taylor, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, The Little Less by Angela Du Maurier.