In [b:The Uncommon Reader|1096390|The Uncommon Reader|Alan Bennett|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1317064291s/1096390.jpg|1792422], Alan Bennett has his main character, Queen Elizabeth II, reflect that authors are "probably best met within the pages of their novels" and are "as much creatures of the reader's imagination as the characters in their books". There’s wisdom in that attitude. It’s quite possible that I’d be disappointed if I encountered one of my favourite novelists at a dinner party and that experience might colour how I react to their writing in the future. And yet, I still find myself drawn to literary biographies. When I really love a novelist’s writing, I can’t help wanting to know more about the novelist.
Forster has done an excellent job exploring du Maurier’s life, covering her privileged childhood as the second daughter of actor Gerald du Maurier, her first love affair with a teacher from her French finishing school, her troubled marriage to Boy Browning, her extra-marital affairs (including with actress Gertrude Lawrence), her relationship with her children, the development of her writing career and her long association with Cornwall. Forster’s prose is easy to read, her research is thorough and she engages in very little speculation.
What emerges about du Maurier is interesting, perplexing and ultimately very sad. Du Maurier’s sexual ambiguity – “the boy in the box” as she referred to that part of her which was attracted to women – was clearly an important feature of her psychological make-up. Another important feature was du Maurier’s relationship with her father. While Forster is careful not to draw conclusions - I suspect because she wished to avoid distressing du Maurier’s children - it is at least possible that du Maurier’s father sexually abused her. If so, this would explain a lot about du Maurier’s adult sexual relationships and her fraught relationship with her daughters.
I’m reasonably sure that I wouldn’t have liked du Maurier. She was painfully shy, reclusive, judgmental and very difficult to live with. However, Forster’s work has increased my admiration for du Maurier as a writer. She was passionate about her work, mining every experience for ideas. For du Maurier, writing was breathing. When, as an elderly woman, the ability to write evaporated, she lost the will to live. This was devastating to read about, but a testament to the strength of the creative impulse and evidence that writers are born and not made.
I enjoyed the experience of reading this biography with my friend Jemidar and I’m looking forward to reading more of du Maurier’s work. It will be interesting to see how my increased knowledge of her life affects my response to her writing.