Original date of publication: 1937
My edition: 2004 (Virago)
Why I decided to read: it’s on the list of Virago Modern Classics
How I acquired my copy: Amazon UK, January 2011
The Du Mauriers is the biography Daphne Du Maurier wrote about her family in the 19th century. The novel more or less starts where Mary Anne leaves off. Mary Anne Clarke’s daughter, Ellen, is the focus of the first half of the novel. Ellen marries Louis-Mathurin Busson du Maurier. Of their three children, their oldest son George (“Kicky”) is the focus of the second half of the biography, and covers the beginning of his career as a cartoonist. In this way, the book covers roughly 50 years of the du Maurier family history—and a very interesting history it is, too.
This book is truly written as though it’s fiction—the author puts herself in the position of Ellen and George, writing as though she was witness to her ancestors’ lives (for reference, Ellen and Louis were Daphne Du Maurier’s great-grandparents and George was her grandfather. Daphne was also cousin to the Llewellyn-Davies boys, who inspired Peter Pan). Daphne used her ancestors’ letters to depict their thoughts and feelings and the motives behind their actions. I was a little disappointed that the author chose not to focus on George’s whole life, but I enjoyed reading about the start of his famous career with Punch magazine, his blindness, and his romance with Emma. Daphne relates some very interesting anecdotes about her family members. Mention is also made of the inspiration behind George’s Trilby, one of the bestselling novels of the late 19th century. Daphne portrays her family in a very rosy light, though Mary Anne mostly gets a heavy beating. I especially loved what the author has to say about her ancestors, most dead before she was even born:
So they pass out of memory and out of these pages, the figures of fifty, of a hundred years ago. Some of them were comic, and some a little tragic, and all of them had faults, but once they were living, breathing men and women like the rest of us, possing the world that we posses today.
Whether immortality is true, or is a theory invented by man as a sop to his natural fear, none of us will ever know; but it is consoling and rather tender to imagine that when we die we leave something of ourselves, like the wake of a vessel, as a reminder that we once passed this way.
At the time of writing this book, Daphne had written Jamaica Inn and was about to write Rebecca; so she was more or less at the height of her career. It’s interesting to analyze that last paragraph in light of her own success as an author! The Du Mauriers is a very readable biography of one extraordinary family. Daphne also wrote a biography of her father, Gerald, the famous actor and stage manager, which might be seen as a continuation of this book (though it was written first).