- - Wednesday, October 1, 2014


By Jane Dunn
HarperCollins, $15.99, 423 pages, illustrated

This study of the three du Maurier sisters is part of a trend that involves suggesting, with varying degrees of subtlety, that the lesser-known siblings of superstars are the equals, or in some respect even the superior, in talent. This trend was slyly mocked by the witty Oxford novelist Barbara Trapido, who titled her debut “Brother of the More Famous Jack,” upending the relative renown of artist John Butler Yeats and his infinitely more famous brother the poet William Butler Yeats.

In the three decades since Mrs. Trapido had her targeted laugh about this phenomenon, we have heard a great deal about Vanessa Bell being at least as worthy as her sister Virginia Woolf, to say nothing of William Michael versus Dante Gabriel Rossetti or the ancestresses of this whole enterprise, Anne rather than Charlotte or Emily Bronte. Author of a dual life of Bell and Woolf and a study of the royal cousins Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, British biographer Jane Dunn readily concedes that “a bevy of sisters is more than the sum of its parts, and it is to this protean relationship that I, as a biographer, like to turn.”

It’s no accident that the three Bronte sisters crop up early in Miss Dunn’s interesting if flawed study of Angela, Jeanne and Daphne du Maurier. For one thing, Daphne du Maurier, as Miss Dunn writes, “was fascinated by the Bronte siblings and identified with them all, but she jokingly hoped that she and her sisters might emulate Charlotte, Emily and Anne one day, if only she could get her artist sister to write, too.” By artist, she means painter and thus her younger sister Jeanne, whose portrait of Daphne reproduced in this book reveals her to have been talented if not overly burdened with originality of style.

Older sister Angela was a novelist, whose earliest effort, “The Little Less,” seems to have been written in the footsteps of Radclyffe Hall’s controversial lesbian novel “The Well of Loneliness.” Even Miss Dunn, advocate as she is for Angela’s talent, can make no great claims for it (it was rejected by publishers) while deploring that her conventional background and churchgoing life made her reluctant to develop her talent. Although Miss Dunn writes that Angela’s “tentative flame of independence was snuffed out, and she was left demoralized, perhaps even ashamed” by this early exposure , she did, after a decade-long furlough turn back to writing novels and short stories that did see the light of day.

Miss Dunn makes considerable claims for these, but, in the end, it is quite easy to see why Daphne achieved such enduring and well-deserved fame, and she did not. After all, publishers loved nothing more than using a famous name to sell books, and the fact that they did not make hay with Angela’s indicates that the comparison would not be advantageous.

Obviously, all three sisters inherited a set of genes loaded with artistic talent — father Gerald was the matinee-idol actor of his day and his father George invented the iconic character of Svengali — and shared an unusual upbringing by Gerald, as much a character offstage as on. Even in a gene-dominated universe, there is such a thing as a sport of nature, an offshoot unpredictable and undetermined by heritage. Daphne, so unlike any other writer, most definitely was this. Similarly, although siblings may well share effects from a similar upbringing, individuals respond differently. It seems clear that Daphne was at once the most shaped by her father, yet the one who, notably in her marriage to a very senior military man who became both a general and a royal equerry, roamed farther afield in her life than either Angela or Jeanne.

Then there’s her imagination, as formidable as any writer’s, her artistic fearlessness and fierce independence that gave her writing a power and an originality that few of her contemporaries — and certainly not either of her sisters — could approach. In this, she is the equal of Emily Bronte or Mary Shelley, except that, unlike them, she did not produce just one masterpiece like “Wuthering Heights” or “Frankenstein.” In novels like “Rebecca” or “Jamaica Inn” or “Frenchman’s Creek” or in the best of her short stories, she goes where no one before or since has been able to. Her individual talent dwarfs those of her sisters, and there’s no denying it. In fact, despite Miss Dunn’s attention to the neglected sisters, her book reinforces Daphne’s superiority both as a writer and in her capacity to fascinate as a person.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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