I began to wonder why Man had evolved at all

letters-from-menabillyLetters from Menabilly: Portrait of a Friendship
by Daphne du Maurier and Oriel Malet

I bought this book while we were on holiday in Fowey back in July. It’s described on the cover as written by Daphne du Maurier, edited by Oriel Malet, but Malet’s contribution is far more than editing du Maurier’s letters.

Malet was in some ways du Maurier’s opposite: a fellow writer, she was critically lauded but never sold well; where du Maurier was such a homebody she even resisted trips to London to do research, Malet moved to Paris to live out the dream of being a true artist. They first met at a publishing party in the early 1950s, when du Maurier was in her 40s and Malet in her 20s. Du Maurier took the younger author under her wing, inviting her to stay at Menabilly when she became unwell and needed to get out of London.

The book opens with a glossary of Daphne du Maurier “codewords” and the letters are indeed riddled with them, from “Tell-Him” for a long boring story, to “Silly Values” for anything selfish, superficial or materialistic, and most notably “Peg” for a person in real life who inspires a fictional character. Malet provides a fairly lengthy introduction to their friendship, including a detailed description of her first visit to Menabilly, but that isn’t her only interjection.

“Yesterday was gloriously fine, so I went off by myself all day on the moors, and it was bliss, for Deep Thoughts and psycho-politics…I munched a pasty in an old earth-dwelling on the top of a tor, and mused upon an aeroplane far above me, thousands of feet up, perhaps flying to America, and then a rock-pippet soaring his little nuptial flight and parachuting, as they do, into the heather – definitely ‘to the glory of God’, if you know what I mean. I began to wonder why Man had evolved at all. The earth was surely more lovely before they did – nothing very glorious about the businessmen with despatch cases flying to America, yet the plane itself was lovely, like a bird and a crucifix in one.”

Between every few letters (all from Daphne to Oriel, not the other way round) Malet writes a little background to both their lives at that time. Some of this is necessary information to understanding the letters, some is interesting background to the life of a writer, some seemed entirely superfluous, or at least far lengthier than was necessary to understand du Maurier and the letters.

But for the most part this is a fascinating insight into both women’s lives – into their homes, their craft, their intellectual interests and of course their developing friendship. As with any real set of letters, there’s quite a lot of discussion of friends and family. Some of this is dull, but it’s also an important part of who both women are. Du Maurier’s problems in her marriage are heavily coded and yet her sorrow and strain seep through, even as she is insisting that she doesn’t get melancholic.

“It is rather interesting that you feel in [The Scapegoat] I got into characters, because as far as I can realize, though I’m still a bit too close to it to judge, they are completely imaginary, and not one Peg, or even tiny bits of real people. And when you say [My Cousin Rachel] was not real to you, it was just the opposite. Rachel was so Pegged, i.e. so much of what I felt about Ellen [Doubleday] at the time…I would have to say it was the most emotionally felt book I had ever written. After it, I felt dead! And part of me did die, with it.”

As the women get older, reflections on ageing become central to du Maurier’s letters. She sees a real change in her work post-menopause (one of many fascinating insights into her approach to writing) and starts caring for various elderly relatives who moved to Cornwall to be near Daphne and her sister Angela (who lived at the old family home Ferryside).

I found the end of the book pretty hard to read. Du Maurier and Malet were close friends right up to Daphne’s death, but Daphne’s declining health meant she struggled to write in her last decade and most of their conversations were held by phone. Malet recounts the end sensitively and briefly, not lingering on detail but bringing the story to its conclusion. Despite having read this book pretty slowly over a couple of months, I still felt close enough to both women that I was genuinely upset for them both and inevitably reminded of my own fears about old age and death.

But after some time hopefully it will be the earlier, more hopeful, intellectually creative part of the book that will stay with me. I do think if you’re at all a fan of Daphne, this is worth a read. It’s also made me want to read all her books again, now that I have insights into their creation.

First published 1992 by Orion Publishing.

Source: Enjoy! Fowey – a tourist information/bookshop in Fowey, Cornwall.