Saturday 15 November 2008

(Results) - Letters from Menabilly

What a nail-biter the Dickens vs. Hardy match was - and the final result was... a tie! 9 votes each, and 3 going for neither. And, what was even more interesting, most voters seemed not to have to hesitate for a moment. I wasn't sure which way it would swing, but didn't expect it to be so close as to be identical. Which, I suppose, means that my vote will be the decider... and I choose Dickens. Something unique in his writing, so witty but grotesque, a world which is unmistakably his. I admire Hardy a lot, but... Charles wins it.

Onto a wholly different topic, I f
inished Letters From Menabilly today. These are letters from Daphne du Maurier to Oriel Malet (Persephone author; I read the introduction ages ago, so can't remember the reasoning behind excluding Oriel's letters. Perhaps they weren't saved?) Bought it in the midst of my *intended* du Maurier spree, which ended up being just The Flight of the Falcon and My Cousin Rachel, and now this. Somehow it hasn't worked out exactly as I'd hoped... instead of building on my deep love of Rebecca, and hopeful adoration of Daphne du Maurier, she has rather faded in my estimation, both as a writer and a person. I shouldn't have expected her to be able to match Rebecca, but I found The Flight of the Falcon fairly tedious at times, though My Cousin Rachel was rather good. It was more on the personal front...

Others have read Letters from Menabilly and loved Daphne as a result. Lynne aka dovegreyreader rather liked it, I think Becca Oxford Reader was also a fan. I enjoyed reading it, but found Daphne to be rather cold-hearted, a little selfish, and not altogether charming. I think opinion shifted irredeemably when she wrote this to Oriel Malet: "If I had never married, and hadn't had financial success with my books, I think I'd have lived the same life you do". I paraphrase a little, because I can't find the quotation, but that's more or less it. How insensitive! Yes, perhaps I can't judge the friendship from outside, but so many of these letters seem to gloss over Oriel's concerns and talk about Daphne's own.

And then the in-jokes and funny neologisms. We know, from reading the Mitford letters, that these can be adorable or witty - I just found them "tarsome", as Georgie would say, in Daphne's letters. Tell-him and crumb and a shilling and beeding and waine and pegging and Doom... incomprehensible without a glossary and so often used, and without any noticeable charm. Am I being contrary? Perhaps. But 'Tell-Him' (used to describe more or less anything Daphne found dull or lecturey, to the slightest degree) was a label for almost everything she encountered, and seemed a bit cruel.

There was one exciting bit, which I'd already read about in Lynne's review - when she writes about Frank Baker, the author of my beloved book Miss Hargreaves. He sent Daphne du Maurier a copy of his novel The Birds, which predates her short story which Alfred Hitchcock adapted so memorably - Daphne writes, 'So I began his, rather smiling derisively, thinking it would be nonsense, and it's frightfully good! Much more psychological politics than mine, and going into great Deep Thoughts, I was quite absorbed!' I have The Birds but have yet to read it...

One final thing I must say - Oriel Malet comes across as a lovely, lovely person. Not only the recipient of the letters, so intersperses letters every now and then with prose for context. Usually explaining where they both were at the stage of their lives when writing, but also with such interest and charm and I looked forward to these sections the most. Her experiences living on a houseboat are especially delightful. So, though Daphne comes across as no fairy godmother, the book is worth seeking out - and I shall be turning my Daphne-fest into an Oriel hunt.


  1. I have this on my bookshelf and have been meaning to read it for ages. I am a huge Daphne fan but I read the Margaret Forster biography and disliked her slightly; maybe I should leave it on my shelf a bit longer!

  2. I do agree about Daphne, I adored 'Frenchman's Creek' and "Rebecca', when I was a teenager, but after reading "Daphne', I found myself not wanting to have her 'voice' in my head any longer. I won't be reading 'Letters.....'for the same reason. Too many 'voices' that I do like to have in my head out there, to bother with the unkind ones. C.B.

  3. Simon, is there a subtle literary pun in the title of this post or is it just a combination of Manderley and Menabilly? Sorry for being so dense!

    Dark Puss

  4. Oh dear, no - it was a typo, and I hadn't even noticed! I think I wrote 'Mansabilly' because I'd spent all day writing things about Katherine Mansfield...

  5. I really like Daphne's work--though you're right that Rebecca does really stand out head and shoulders above the others. She's an excellent short story writer, have you given any stories a try? I think she was a tremendously complicated person and she does come off as being somewhat cold (and the Forster bio really concentrated on the darker side of her), but it's hard to know what she would have been like in person. I'd still like to make my way through her work (eventually)--I've read a smattering, but there's still many I've not yet gotten around to.


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