Daphne was a bit of a surprise and a bit of a letdown for me. I picked it up because I’m a huge fan of Rebecca and was excited to read a historical fiction piece on its author. It’s entirely my fault that I didn’t reading the abstract before I checked it out of my library, because if I had I would have known that the story was less about Rebecca and more about Daphne’s twilight years as she struggled through a turbulent marriage and an equally turbulent biography of Branwell Bronte. Daphne begins a correspondence with J. Alexander Symington, a once highly regarded Bronte scholar who, unbeknownst to her, has been in disgrace for many years because he used his position as curator to steal various manuscripts from the Bronte Parsonage House Museum and the Leeds University Library. Symington is as protective of Branwell’s manuscripts as a lioness is of her young cub, but he also wants Branwell to finally achieve some much deserved recognition, so he agrees to part with some of his material. Daphne, meanwhile, encounters a variety of difficulties as she attempts to tell Branwell’s story, both mental and physical, and she is afraid that writing this book will eventually consume her.
Meanwhile, in the present day, a young scholar is looking for an escape from a hasty marriage that is quickly evolving into a real life version of Rebecca. She lights upon the relationship between Daphne du Maurier and Symington, and her journey takes her down a similar path to her subjects. Will her research consumer her as well?
At first, the whole concept of Daphne was very interesting to me, and I enjoyed reading the back and forth between Daphne and Symington as she searched for some obscure manuscript that would vindicate Branwell, but I started to lose interest as things continued to drag on and the characters’ neuroses began to dominate the plot. The three part narrative also got old after a while; I literally groaned when I turned the page to find that it was Symington’s turn to take up the thread, and there were times when I wanted to smack our modern heroine. I didn’t need these other narrators! I liked Daphne just fine!
However, Picardie scores two major points in the writing of this novel. The first is that she has clearly done her research well, and each chapter is rich in detail, most of which is factually correct. Those parts of the book were a particular pleasure to read. The second is that, despite how annoyed I became with some of the narrators’ antics, it was all clearly a commentary on the process of researching and writing a book and how, much like in Black Swan, it can take over your life and make you crazy.
I agree that fans of Daphne du Maurier and the Brontes should definitely give this book a shot. As for me, I’m going straight back to my library to check out a Daphne biography.