Biography Corner: Here come the Brits (Jane Dunn, Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters; Selena Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham; Charlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley)

Short takes on three more biographies, this time on British writers.

du_maurier_cover_2495239aJane Dunn, Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters 

The daughters of the theatrical manager and actor Gerald du Maurier (and granddaughters of George du Maurier, author of Trilby), Angela, Daphne, and Jeanne grew up in the shadow of his histrionic personality and a “thundering homophob[ia],” as Nicholas Shakespeare puts it in The Telegraph, which did not deter the sisters from preferring lesbian relationships.  Daphne, author of Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, and other novels, is the subject of the most compelling sections; it was difficult to keep track of the other sisters’ lives and pursuits (painting, travel) when the most interesting parts were about Daphne’s writing.

Back when I first read Rebecca, the most memorable scene was the one where the narrator, “I,” goes into the morning room and lists every kind of stationery possible all ready for writing. Rebecca is a story of love (for a house), of desire (for Rebecca, on the part of “I” and Mrs. Danvers), and of loss; Du Maurier beautifully captures all three.  Based on this biography, you might not want Du Maurier for a friend or family member, but you’re glad she wrote engaging fiction.

Who would be in your “Glad They Wrote but Happy Not to Have Met Them” Hall of Fame?

Here’s a dismissive review from The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/mar/03/daphne-du-maurier-sisters-jane-dunn-review and a more positive one from The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/9899554/Review-Daphne-du-Maurier-and-Her-Sisters-by-Jane-Dunn.html

maughamSelena Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham

Full disclosure: I went through a serious Somerset Maugham period around my senior year in high school and read everything I could find: Of Human Bondage (read several times), Cakes and Ale (ditto, and I didn’t even know that Hardy was supposed to be the basis), The Moon and Sixpence (I did know about Paul Gauguin), The Painted Veil, The Razor’s Edge; much later, I read Liza of Lambeth. I didn’t know until later that Maugham is supposed to be “at the very front row of the second rate,” as he put it.

The “secret lives” part sounds like something the publisher put in to boost sales, but this is a deeply researched biography and an engaging one to read. Maugham’s bisexuality is apparently the “secret” but doesn’t seem to have been terribly secret back in the day, and it seems even less so now. What I hadn’t known about was his successful career as a playwright, his espionage activities, since I’d never read the Ashenden stories, his later travels in the South Seas, and his later life more generally. Along the way Hastings uncovers blackmail payments, possible sexual abuse, and some very frank letters. Maugham seems to have kept a compartmentalized and well-ordered life but then chosen partners that would blow it up with lots of drama–his wife, Syrie, the decorator; and his partner, Gerald Haxton. Here’s David Leavitt’s NYTimes review: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/25/books/review/Leavitt-t.html

To put it in Hollywood terms: if you’re picturing the urbane but kindly Maugham figure portrayed by Herbert Marshall in a couple of movies, you’d be disappointed. Clifton Webb in Laura and just about everything else is much nearer the mark.

outlawsCharlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

I had the good fortune to hear Charlotte Gordon’s presentation about this book at The Mount in August 2016. A dual biography would seem to be a natural fit for Wollstonecraft and Shelley, yet no one had done it, and the result is a much more satisfying reading of both their lives. Wherever there was trouble, Wollstonecraft traveled into the midst of it (Paris in the 1790s), wrote about it, and made her own way; her daughter, after a daring elopement with Shelley, seems instead to have been dragged all over Europe by him. Despite their (intermittent?) love for one another and her writing of Frankenstein and other novels, one senses her exhaustion by incessant childbearing and child deaths as well as by trying to get Shelley to focus on their family for more than a few minutes at a time.

Gordon’s method is to switch between the Marys in alternating chapters. While generally engaging, it has an effect something like this: “Oh, look at how happy Fanny Imlay seems to be as a child.” Next chapter: “Oh, no.” Do read it, though.

Here’s Christina Nehring’s NYTimes review (click on picture).

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