I have wanted to read Flavia Leng’s memoir of her mother for such a long time, and thought that my du Maurier December project afforded a very good reason indeed to do so. Leng’s ‘moving and revealing’ memoir was first published in 1994, and presents many of her childhood memories alongside the facts of du Maurier’s life.
The introduction of Daphne du Maurier: A Daughter’s Memoir is vivid from its very first sentence: ‘I dream often that my mother is still alive… In my dreams I see her as she was, a long time ago, before the start of the illness and depression that were to mar the last years of her life’. She goes on to set out the ancestry of her family, focusing particularly – as one might expect – upon her parents.
Leng demonstrates how du Maurier’s beloved Menabilly in Cornwall was the perfect place for the du Maurier-Browning family to make their home: ‘She gave Tessa, Kits and me a magical environment in which to grow up. It was a lovely haven for my father on his return from the stresses of the Second World War’. She also talks of the great divide which the idyllic setting sometimes held against her mother’s character, and the way in which the latter’s writing built a barrier between herself and her children: ‘There were times when my mother was busy with her writing that I felt we were intruding on her life… She would be in a world of her own where we were not welcome. Her need for space, for freedom, was greater than her need for us’. Leng goes on to say, ‘We would wait, biding our time until that magic moment when suddenly she was with us once more. Her faraway look gone, her lovely face alive with joy and laughter, and we would all frget in a trice that feeling of abandonment and rejection’.
Leng writes beautifully, and often with such fondness: ‘We would shiver with delight as she [du Maurier] recalled
for us the sound of the owls hooting in the depth of the woods as dusk fell upon the darkening house’. Whilst her childhood appears idyllic on the surface, Leng portrays an often lonely childhood: ‘We knew no other families, Bing [du Maurier] thinking it quite unnecessary to encourage tiresome folk from beyond the park gates’. She is also rather candid when her memories warrant her to be: ‘Rebecca and I were conceived about the same time in 1936, but whereas the novel was very much planned and thought-out, I was unquestionably a mistake’.
She lets the disappointment which her parents felt of having another daughter, when both so clearly longed for a son – one they had already named – be known. When her younger brother, Christian, arrives, she tells of the lavish affection bestowed upon him, which was starkly missing from her and her older sister Tessa’s upbringings: ‘We would watch him lying gurling in her arms, her face buried in his tiny neck, and we would slip from the room, uncomfortable, knowing we were not welcome there’. The lack of relationship forged with her largely absent military father is described – ‘I did not miss him because I did not know him, but I missed the presence of “a daddy” – as is the way in which du Maurier hated fame and would ‘shun it as much as she could’.
Throughout Daphne du Maurier: A Daughter’s Memoir, we meet both famous characters – the ‘great Cornish writer’ Arthur Quiller-Couch and Noel Coward, for example – and those who made an impact upon young Flavia’s life. Leng herself comes across marvellously, and one can only feel such sympathy for the ways in which she was teased, both by her elder sister and some of the adults who encountered her. She is one of those marvellous people who sees the joy in just about everything. She rejoices, for example, at the moments she recalls in which du Maurier – or ‘Bing’, as her children affectionately called her – would spend time with them, even if it led to troubles: ‘Bing often made fun of people behind their backs. She would mock them, making us giggle, say things about them, give them strange make-believe lives – which at times made it very difficult for us children to have respect for our elders’.
Daphne du Maurier: A Daughter’s Memoir is often sad, but overall, Leng has crafted a charming biography, which provides rather a fascinating glimpse into du Maurier’s behaviour and relationships with her husband, staff and children. Leng’s memoir is a marvellous read for anyone interested in the woman behind the books.