The reclusive Daphne de Maurier spends her days ensconced in Menabilly, her remote mansion by the sea, the setting for her novel
Rebecca and for much of what follows in this multi-layered and formidable tale. Perhaps lulled into a false sense of security, Daphne works in her shabby hut, an old-looking woman surrounded by the dark woods, lost in the wilderness of her thoughts and determined to complete her biography,
The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte.
As the character of Rebecca appears like “a ghost in the mirror,” her story rapidly coming to life, Daphne tries to retreat from the frustrations and disillusions of her marriage to Sir Tommy Browning. Tranquility, however, proves to be a mere temporary fix when Tommy, almost unrecognizable, suddenly pitiful and weak and shrunken, comes home after his stay in a nursing home in London.
Although Daphne cherishes her isolation at Menabilly, she cannot seem to keep at bay the nagging anxieties of Tommy’s bitterness and his infidelities with a young woman called the Snow Queen. Rather than tend to Tommy’s needs, Daphne finds herself ever more preoccupied with Branwell Bronte and tormented by the knowledge of the boy’s unfulfilled promise. Daphne is positive that he will be her next subject. She once visited the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth and was haunted by Branwell’s sense that he had achieved nothing great or good in his life.
With the specter of Branwell’s unwritten masterpieces hanging over her, she begins writing to librarian and academic J. Alex Symington, the correspondence between them rapidly becoming a series of elaborate circumlocutions. But Symington’s language is as guarded and as fenced and as hedged as the Menabilly estate, and it forces Daphne to read between the lines. The letters are as infuriating as they are intriguing, hinting at a previous deception and the trail of a remarkable literary scandal involving a series of forgeries, perhaps by the culprit T.J. Wise, Symington’s
As Daphne tries to get to the heart of the intriguing mystery, the possibility grows ever more real that Emily and Charlotte’s signatures could have been forged on Branwell’s manuscripts. Determined to get to the truth, Daphne cannot stop herself feeling anxious for her Tommy, who always seems to be on the edge of tears, of anger, of irritation and of frustration. Yet it is the ghost of Branwell that Daphne is ultimately drawn to; it’s almost as though he’s a guest in the house, a disreputable yet intriguing figure continually drawing her attention away from Tommy.
An unnamed narrator, a twenty-something girl, lives in Hamstead, just across the road from Daphne’s childhood home, similarly enthralled and frightened by the imaginary worlds of the Brontes and with Daphne De Maurier. Lost in fog of marital uncertainty, the girl becomes blindly intrigued by Daphne’s letters to Symington and by his replies to her. Her husband, Paul, a serious academic of Henry James, is absolutely horrified that that his wife would take the works of Daphne de Maurier so seriously.
In this tale of literary ambition and Victorian coincidence, Justine
Picardie gradually interlocks the lives of the girl, Daphne, and Symington. While the girl questions her life and her marriage to Paul, she falls into an uncertain friendship with Rachel, Paul’s ex-wife, who also happens to be interested in Daphne de Maurier. Daphne, determined to hide away in Menabilly,
becomes a paranoid prisoner to her cunning plots and brooding characters, desperate to finish her biography of Branwell but also distrustful of the world around her, as inextricably linked to Branwell as she is to Tommy.
Symington also is driven by his own literary ambitions, a sickly figure constantly hounded by his nagging wife, Beatrice, who worries about their rapidly shrinking financial status. Locked up with his remaining manuscripts, Symington enters into a limbo of his own making, his only company the “papery ghosts” and shadows in the corner of his study where Branwell
and he seem to be inseparable, “entwined together like vines.”
Elusive, mocking, but always engaging, with the action constantly shifting from Menabilly in Cornwall to Horsforth, Leeds and then onto Hamstead, London, each character is driven by literary passion and the desire to get to the truth. Daphne is certainly the centerpiece in her recollections of her family and of her past, and also the characters from her books that seem to “scud across the sky” above her in ghostly forms. There’s also this strange sense of Daphne being wedded to Branwell: “they were in this together, in the shadow lands for better, for worse,” which adds much to the gothic qualities that repeatedly permeate this dark, mysterious and compelling tale.