Authors: Justine Picardie
Tags: #Biographical, #Women authors; English, #Biographical fiction, #Fiction, #Forgery of manuscripts, #Woman authorship; English, #General, #Biography
'Clever and original' Nina Bawden,
'Skilfully weaving her recreation of du Maurier's life with a beguiling present-day tale, Picardie's novel has as many twists as one of her heroine's own' Alex Clark,
'Anyone who loves du Maurier's
will be enthralled by this novel . . .This is a true page-turner'
'Picardie manages to brilliantly fictionalise real-life novelist Daphne du Maurier's obsession with Branwell, the mad, bad and incredibly dangerous brother of the Brontë sisters. A truly delightful read for old-school romantic fiction fans and a genuinely engaging historical account'
'Blurring fact with fiction, this is brave and compelling storytelling'
is a compulsively readable novel. It merges fact and fiction, the present and the past, in a near-flawless construct . . . It is a clever and satisfying literary adventure that serves its real-life heroine well . . .
takes the reader on a journey that is one of undiluted pleasure'
'Picardie weaves an intriguing tale . . . well-paced and enjoyable'
'An engrossing and absorbing read . . . superbly evoked. [Picardie] has lived, breathed, eaten and drunk her heroine, absorbed her, analyzed her, understood her, then managed to invest her portrait with an authenticity that is breathtaking' LA
'A superb literary thriller.. . it is constructed with a dazzling simplicity and draws you in uncontrollably.. .a deeply involving and emotional story that beautifully conjures up the atmosphere of Daphne du Maurier's paranoia and her discomfort with family history'
'Deftly drawn . . . The reader need not be a devotee of Branwell Brontë or Daphne du Maurier or even the Gothic genre to take pleasure in this novel; the butterflies are brightly colored and the display well-lit'
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
If The Spirit Moves You
Wish I May
My Mother's Wedding Dress
First published 2008
This paperback edition published 2009
Copyright © 2008 by Justine Picardie
The moral right of the author has been asserted
Letters from Menabilly: Portrait of a Friendship
Ed. Oriel Malet © Oriel Malet 1993, reprinted by permission of Weidenfeld & Nicolson, an imprint of the Orion Publishing Group, London and of Scott Ferris Associates
Bloomsbury Publishing Plc,
36 Soho Square,
London WID 3QY
A CIP catalogue record for this book
is available from the British Library
Typeset by Hewer Text UK Ltd, Edinburgh
Printed by Clays Ltd, St Ives plc
The paper this book is printed on is certified independently in accordance with the rules of the FSC. It is ancient-forest friendly. The printer holds chain of custody
For my father, Michael Picardie
'We can never go back again, that much is certain. The past is still too close to us. The things we have tried to forget and put behind us would stir again, and that sense of fear, of furtive unrest, struggling at length to blind unreasoning panic - now mercifully stilled, thank God - might in some manner unforeseen become a living companion, as it had been before.'
Daphne du Maurier,
'Menabilly was one of these houses, in which layers of time seemed to have worn thin in places, so that the past now and then showed through. There were rooms in which a lot seemed to have been going on before you entered them, and would probably do so again once you, the intruder, had left . . . There, even at midday, one sometimes had the distinct impression of being watched. In winter, I always tried to spend as little time as possible getting ready for bed, although the watchers were in no sense malevolent; they were just there.'
Daphne du Maurier Letters from Menabilly
'It is impossible, with the Brontës, as with many other writers, to say when fiction ceases and fact begins, or how often the imagination will project an imaginary image upon a living personality . . .'
Daphne du Maurier, 'Second Thoughts
on Branwell', Brontë Society Transactions
Menabilly, Cornwall, July 1957
To begin. Where to begin? To begin at the beginning, wherever that might be. Daphne woke, too early, just before dawn, when the sky had not yet come alight, but was as dark-grey as the Cornish sea. The beginning of another day; another day, how to bear another day? She heard the rats running behind the walls and in the attics; she felt the weight of last night's dreams upon her chest; the nightmares hung over her, heavier than the sky.
Daphne considered, for a moment, the idea of staying in bed, pulling the covers over her head, taking another sleeping pill, and another; letting the white roses on the faded wallpaper blur into a mist. But she made herself sit up, get out of bed, put on her clothes. There was a crisis, and she must face it. She must be brave.
She looked at herself, briefly, in the mirror of her dressing table, and shuddered, very slightly. The woman who looked back at her was still beautiful at fifty; but Daphne feared what she might see in the looking glass, not of what she saw now - that, she could bear, the fine lines and wrinkles, the slackening flesh and greying hair, the shadows under her eyes - but of what she glimpsed in her dreams. Rebecca, she dreamt she saw Rebecca gazing back at her, eyes narrowed, lips smiling, a ghost in the mirror, the story come to life; the other woman in the bedroom last night.
'Pull yourself together,' Daphne said to herself, just under her breath, and she turned to her dog, Mouse, a West Highland terrier that was by her side, always; her companion when the family were gone, when the house was empty, though not silent; Menabilly was never silent, there were voices that whispered from its walls. 'The worst is over,' she murmured, like a prayer; for today could not be worse than yesterday, when she left Tommy in the nursing home in London. And the day before yesterday, today could not be more terrible than that; though its scenes kept spooling through her head, over and over again, she could not rid herself of what she saw then, when she arrived at the nursing home, having been summoned there from Menabilly.
'Sir Frederick is unwell,' his secretary had said to Daphne on the telephone, 'it seems to be his tummy playing up, and his nerves.' Her voice was blandly reassuring, so perhaps Tommy had managed to hide the worst from her, and from the rest of his staff at Buckingham Palace; he was such a stickler for protocol, for maintaining a polished and immaculate facade.
But when Daphne arrived at the nursing home, an expensively discreet redbrick Victorian townhouse just off Harley Street, she could not control her own anxiety, it seeped in with her, like the traffic fumes, creeping through the mahog-any doors and up the dark burgundy carpeted stairs. A nurse directed her to Tommy's room on the top floor, and as Daphne climbed the stairs, her blood pulsed so loudly in her ears that she thought everyone would hear her, even though the thick carpets deadened her footsteps. She paused on the highest landing, and looked out of the window overlooking the mean backyards of Marylebone; all of them too small, thought Daphne, as she glanced down, to support those tall, proud-looking houses that rose up from the pavements; surely their foundations could not be sufficiently substantial to keep everything standing? Surely it would not take much to bring all of it crashing down? She forced herself away from the window, trying to look purposeful, steadfast, though she felt dizzy as she went up the final flight of stairs and into Tommy's room. The floor seemed to be tilting, it was like stepping on to a boat; nothing was stable or firm beneath her, as she walked over to the hospital bed. 'Tommy,' she said to the body lying there, and as he opened his eyes, they filled with tears, her husband was weeping, he would not stop, and his hands were shaking, like her voice. She asked him if he could explain what was wrong, and he did not answer, until at last he whispered, 'I cannot ready myself . . .' She did not understand what he meant, and then he said, 'I can't go on, I can't do this, I'd be better off dead . . .'
As he spoke, tears trickled down his face; this man who Daphne had never before seen cry, Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Browning, Treasurer to the Duke of Edinburgh, but the titles seemed to mean nothing. It was her husband, Tommy, yet he was almost unrecognisable; suddenly become pitiful and weak and shrunken, his hair lank, his face like yellowing parchment against the starched white sheets. She sat with him for a little while, but he did not stop weeping, and eventually, she went to find a doctor, to ask him to explain what was wrong. The doctor was a young man, not the chap in charge, but he seemed confident enough. 'Your husband has suffered a very serious mental breakdown,' he said to Daphne, and she nodded, as if she was a woman strong enough to hear such news without crumpling, but her head was spinning again; no, not spinning, it was compressed, as if there were too much pressure within it, as if the outside and the inside were misaligned. She tried to follow what the doctor was telling her; it was something to do with nervous exhaustion, the after-effects of Tommy's army career in two world wars, and the pressure of his responsibility for the Royal Family, and he'd been drinking far too much, and must stop. His liver was damaged, but the main problem was . . . the problem was . . . How was she to deal with this problem?
Of course, the doctor didn't know everything, and nor did Daphne, not then in the stuffy, airless rooms of the nursing home, not until she got back to the flat, Tommy's flat; his London lair, even though Daphne paid for it, just like she paid for everything. The telephone started ringing as soon as she put the key in the front door, as if it had been waiting for her, as if someone was watching and waiting, waiting for her arrival: an ambush, of sorts. It took her a minute or two to get the key to turn in the lock, but the telephone carried on ringing, insistent, shrill, and so Daphne picked it up as soon as she'd got into the hall, without even switching the lamp on, caught unawares in the twilight. 'Hello?' she said, not wanting to give her name, not knowing which title to use here on this unfamiliar territory.
'Is that Lady Browning?' said a woman's voice.
Daphne said yes, though she felt uncertain as she spoke, as if this woman might accuse her of being an impostor, an intruder in Tommy's flat. The voice sounded familiar, but it was somehow surprising to hear the woman speak out loud, as if she were a character in one of Daphne's books, suddenly brought to life, yet disembodied at the end of a phone line. Daphne recognised the woman's name, though she didn't really know her, not properly; they'd met once at the ballet, in Covent Garden, a year or so ago, when she had been a blurred face from Tommy's London life. But Daphne sensed some danger, even then, after that single encounter, for in her mind she'd christened her the Snow Queen, like one of the ballerinas they watched on the stage that evening; irresistibly beautiful and bewitching to those under her spell, yet cold at heart, turning everything to ice around her. Not that Daphne said this to Tommy at the time, nor to anyone else, it would have sounded so childish, though the woman made her feel like a child, albeit a suspicious one, and she'd marked her down as one to watch, for she knew her kind.
The woman's tone was clipped, rather patronising, a little like her mother when she had been angry with her for reasons that Daphne, as a child, did not fully understand. 'We've reached a crisis,' she said to Daphne on the telephone, 'a breaking point.' Those were her words, and as she said them, they stuck in Daphne's head, and she wanted to say, 'you've broken everything, it's your fault,' but she stayed silent, and tried to concentrate on what the woman was saying, on her relentless stream of words. 'We need to talk,' the woman said, but she was doing all the talking, she was having an affair with Tommy, they were lovers, she said the words out loud. 'We are lovers,' she said, 'and we have been lovers for well over a year. I love him, you must understand this, I've left my husband for Tommy, this is not a passing fling.'
Daphne put her hand to her mouth to choke a sob, and felt her throat constrict. 'I must tell you,' the woman went on, her voice low and urgent, 'that it's clear to me that Tommy's increasing anxiety - his intolerable anxiety - is largely due to the stress of keeping our relationship a secret from you, of leading a double life. And that's also why he's drinking too much: it's his way of trying to cope with you.'
At first, Daphne was shocked, almost too shocked to breathe, she was holding her breath, as if she'd slipped into a pool of icy water. And then a hot flood of rage came pumping through her veins, her heart was thudding, and she wanted to say, 'How dare you, how dare you say these things to me, how dare you talk of yourself as my husband's lover?' But she couldn't lash out at this woman, this interloper that had invaded her life. Daphne didn't want the Snow Queen's voice in Tommy's flat, nor in her head; she didn't want any sort of prolonged conversation, it was too humiliating, she couldn't allow herself to rage at this woman, or to plead or be abject.
'What truly matters now,' she said to the woman, keeping her voice smooth, mouthing the lies, joining in with their duplicity, making it hers, as well, 'is Tommy. We both know that he's terribly ill, and somehow we must rise to the occasion, the two of us together, we must rise above our embarrassment and discomfort, for his sake.'
'You've been very sensible,' said the woman, at the end of the telephone call. But Daphne did not feel sensible. She felt . . . she felt she did not know where to begin.
Afterwards, she thought about ringing her daughters, and confiding in them. But what, exactly, was she to say to them? They were both still so young, Tessa an army wife at nineteen, and now her hands were full with two babies, and Flavia was also just a newly-wed, married to another soldier, a captain in the Coldstream Guards; and it wasn't fair to expect the girls to deal with problems that were not of their own making. Daphne glanced over to her daughters' wedding photographs on the sideboard, she and Tommy looking like proud parents, such a charming couple, everyone said. But it was all a sham, because he was already betraying her when he stood beside her in the church while Flavia and Alistair were saying their wedding vows this time last year, and yet she was so foolishly oblivious then, blind to Tommy's treachery; she suspected nothing as he smiled at her, all the while a traitor to their own wedding vows.
And now the entire family was supposed to be gathering for a party at Menabilly in less than a fortnight's time, that was the hell of it, to celebrate her and Tommy's twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. The invitations had already been sent out, everyone was expected: Tessa and her husband Peter and their children; Flavia and Alistair, and Daphne's beloved youngest son, her only son, her boy Kits, home from Eton. And Daphne's mother, of course, and her two sisters, and her cousins, the Llewelyn Davies - the entire clan were invited to Menabilly. But Daphne knew she must find the strength to tell all of them that there was to be no party, and an acceptable excuse must be found, as well, for she could not tell them the truth; the truth was too terrible to be told.
The phone calls to the girls would have to wait until tomorrow, though; she was too exhausted to speak, let alone come up with reasonable explanations. She drew the dusty curtains in the flat, ran a bath and sat in the tepid water, allowing herself to cry, turning on the taps to hide the sound of her sobbing, and then she let the dirty water drain away, and she felt drained as well, and empty, there was nothing left, she didn't want to feel anything, she couldn't bear the feeling to come back again. She dried herself on one of the threadbare towels, wondering why the flat was so comfortless; and was it part of the problem, her fault, another of her faults, for she'd not been constant, she failed to be a good wife at Tommy's side; and was that why he sought comfort elsewhere? She started shivering, her legs trembling, the numbness ebbing away; so she swallowed two sleeping pills, to blot everything out, to be shrouded in blessed nothingness, just for a few hours.
And then in the morning, she took a taxi back to the nursing home through the dusty London streets, beneath an opaque city sky, stretched tight like the skin of a drum, enclosing everyone within it, sealing them in, so that there could be no escape for any of them. 'We are all in this together,' she whispered to herself, as she went into the nursing home, yet she did not want to be seen there, she did not want to see anyone, so she hurried out of the taxi, head down, furtive, like a woman with a guilty secret.
It would be so much easier to turn a corner and vanish into the city, but she forced herself up the stairs again, and through the door into Tommy's room, closing it quietly behind her. There he lay, like yesterday, dishevelled and unkempt, as if he had left his impeccably dressed public self back in Buckingham Palace, abandoning it as easily as a snake sheds its skin. She sat on a chair by his bed, and reached for his left hand, held it in both of hers, so that she could feel his wedding ring as she spoke, keeping her own hands from shaking, keeping her voice gentle and calm against the muffled, churning background of the London traffic on the other side of the locked window.
'I had a phone call last night,' said Daphne, 'and now I know everything about the affair, more or less.'
Tommy looked at her, saying nothing, but his eyes widened in fear, and she said, 'Don't worry, darling, I don't want a divorce, and I hope that you don't, either. We just need to straighten things out between us, don't we?'
And still he was silent, so she kept spooning out banalities, in a soothing voice she barely recognised as her own. 'We've had to lead such separate lives,' she said to him, 'almost from the beginning, haven't we? There was your army career, right from the start, and all those long years when you were posted abroad during the war, you doing your duty, and me writing away all the while, keeping the home fires burning, and then you got your grand job at Buckingham Palace, which was such an honour, darling, I know that, I truly do, and I'm so proud of you, I've always been proud. But that's kept you in London during the week, and you know I can't work there, it's too noisy and busy for me to think straight, I have to be in Cornwall to write, I must be in Menabilly, or the books will dry up, and so will the money. But we've been so happy together, and we can be happy again.'