Magazine article The Spectator

In Never Land

Magazine article The Spectator

In Never Land

Article excerpt

Victoria Glendinning lifts the curtain on the drama of three sisters

Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters:

The Hidden Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing by Jane Dunn Harper Press, £25, pp. 423, ISBN 9780007347089 Jane Dunn is something of a specialist on sisterhood. She has - we learn from the dedication - five sisters of her own; she has already written a book about the sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, and another about the cousins Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. Now the du Maurier sisters are in line to capture the public imagination like the Brontes or the Mitfords, their group celebrity fortified by genuine claims to fame.

The fascination for readers is the different character and destiny of each sister, plus their relationships with one another and with the dynamics of the family romance - and few family romances have been more potent than that of the du Mauriers.

The popular, successful actor and theatre manager Sir Gerald du Maurier had three daughters. The middle one was the famous writer Daphne du Maurier, born in 1907.

She has already attracted much biographical attention, unlike the eldest, Angela, or the youngest, Jeanne.

Their childhood was dominated by their exciting and emotionally demanding father, 'the shining sun in his young daughters' lives'. On stage he played both Mr Darling and Captain Hook in Peter Pan, and in the nursery, where J.M. Barrie was a frequent visitor, Peter Pan was enacted by the girls: Daphne was always Peter, the 'ageless seductive boy', with whom she identified.

Angela was always Wendy - she played her professionally, as a young woman - and Jeanne was whoever Daphne told her to be.

Their father, something of a Peter Pan himself, did not want anyone to grow up.

Angela was 12 before she learned that Father Christmas did not exist. Daphne, in spite of flirtations which involved kisses, did not know the facts of life until she was 18.

The atmosphere at opulent Cannon Hall in Hampstead was overwhelmingly histrionic, everyone dressing up and pretending to be someone else, the girls conditioned to be equally theatrical in their responses to the everyday. Shyness or holding back was 'bad manners'.

Small wonder, given their father's flamboyantly narcissistic personality and his weakness for young actresses, that their mother was cool, withdrawn and undemonstrative - as Daphne, the only one of the three to marry, was to be with her own two daughters, though not with her son. Daphne was the beauty, the brilliant one, her father's favourite.

Group biographies are tricky to stagemanage. The author has to play catch-up, giving each subject her due, especially as Daphne's fame and career, with her bestselling novels and the ensuing films, were so much more dramatic than her sisters'.

She made masses of money, and helped her siblings out. Angela too wrote books - 11 of them, and some of the novels would be worth reissuing. But in life she was doomed to be 'only the sister'; It's Only the Sister is the title of one of her two autobiographical volumes.

Angela was also the most extrovert of the three and would have married, if a willing man had come along. As it was, 'her ecstatic, worshipful nature turned her reflective powers on women instead'. Both she and Jeanne worked on the land during the second world war, digging potato fields and cleaning out cowsheds. Jeanne went to art school and found her metier after the war as a painter, exhibiting at the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon, and was a distinguished member of the St Ives Society of Artists; one purpose of this book is to restore Jeanne's once considerable reputation. …

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