The new Virago reprint of Daphne du Maurier’s The Winding Star: Francis Bacon, His Rise and Fall, which was first published in 1976, features an introduction by novelist Francis King. The book’s title is derived from one of Bacon’s quotes: ‘All rising to great place is by a winding stair’.
King writes that as well as du Maurier’s admiration for Bacon’s essays, she may well have been driven to write The Winding Stair about him by way of the ‘rumours, current even in their lifetimes, that the two Bacon brothers had, as members of the intimate circle of Robert Devereux Earl of Essex, been involved in homosexual intrigues and even activities. Throughout her life, the subject of homosexuality fascinated du Maurier’. Whilst King’s introduction is well written and informative, it does seem to end rather abruptly, which is a shame.
In introducing her own work, du Maurier writes: ‘Many accounts of the life of Sir Francis Bacon have been written for scholars, but du Maurier’s aim in this biography was to paint a vivid portrait of this remarkable man for the common reader, and to explore his considerable achievements: as a writer, philosopher, scientist and politician, he was truly a Renaissance man’. A timeline of Bacon’s life has been included – a useful tool, particularly given the lack of chronological structure within the biography itself. In true du Maurier style, The Winding Stair does not begin with Bacon’s birth; rather, she has chosen a pivotal moment in his life – the death of his brother, Anthony – as her starting point.
Whilst The Winding Stair is a very informative book, parts of it do tend to feel a little dry and stodgy, particularly in comparison to du Maurier’s other biographical works. Elements of her scholarly research are strong, however; the political and social situation throughout Bacon’s life has been well realised, and the historical detail which has been woven in – from King James I’s coronation to the oubreak of the plague in the city of London – does help to set the scene well. Quotes have been included, both from Bacon’s own work and from other sources.
Du Maurier has focused upon the bigger issues in Bacon’s life – becoming Solicitor-General under King James I when he was forty five, for example – as well as those which are certainly more trivial, such as the history of his handwriting, and how it altered over time: ‘From the hurried Saxon hand full of large sweeping curves and with letters imperfectly formed and connected, which he wrote in Elizabeth’s time, to a small, neat, light and compact one, formed more upon the Italian model which was then coming into fashion’.
My personal interest in The Winding Stair was piqued the most in those sections which mentioned Shakespeare. As a figure, I feel that he came to life far more than Bacon did throughout the biography. Whilst I found the beginning of the book rather too stale, it did become more readable as it went on. Considered in its entirety and in comparison to du Maurier’s other biographies, however, this is on a par with Gerald: A Portrait; in no way does it reach the compelling heights as her work on Branwell Bronte.