He would wave to me from the golf-course, a special wave that D did not see, and after lunch, when we all lay out on the lawn like corpses to catch the sun, rugs over our knees, Geoffrey would come and lie down beside me, and feel for my hand under the rug and hold it. Nothing, in a life of seventy years, has ever surpassed that first awakening of an instinct within myself. The touch of that hand on mine. And the instinctive knowledge that nobody must know.
Not many today are likely to remember the writer Daphne du Maurier. I first read her novels when my aunt stayed with us in Calcutta for a few months for her confinement, bringing with her a number of novels. They were mostly by Daphne du Maurier and Monica Dickens. Inveterate reader that I was, I polished off Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, and perhaps The Scapegoat. Monica Dickens’ novels proved to be too heavily female oriented for my schoolboy tastes. It was, of course, the dizzying success of Rebecca that made Daphne du Maurier (DDM from now on) a household name. My memories from school of reading DDM induced me to bring her memoir, Myself When Young: The Shaping of a Writer, from the library.
DDM was born to one of the leading actors of the London stage, Gerald du Maurier (D in the book), towards the beginning of the 20th century; her mother was an actress. Her upbringing was privileged, and her description of their family life reminded me of Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster stories: the same indolent ease of the English upper classes, the maids and butlers, holidays in Europe, sprawling country houses, opulent lunches, famous house guests (Edgar Wallace, for example, was a close friend of her father), etc. Her older sister Angela slipped easily into this undemanding lifestyle, but DDM was cut from a different cloth. From an early age, she tended to be a loner, a voracious reader, and last but not least, a writer. Right from her teens she had begun maintaining a journal, which she often quotes from in the book.
Her memories of her early childhood, with which the book opens, are extraordinarily vivid. Adolescence, she says, is easier for boys than for girls. Here is her eloquent (and funny in places) account of how her mother educated her about menstruation, and every woman reader will, I’m sure be reminded of her own “initiation” on reading this account. Also, even in these short passages, one can admire her ear for dialogue.
It was, and still is, I maintain, always easier for boys. Puberty comes more slowly, the body’s needs somehow satisfied by the body’s growth, and at fourteen a trial of strength and prowess between companions is nothing to be ashamed of, is, indeed, a matter for mutual congratulation. It is very different for girls. Even today, the sudden onslaught of menstruation to a child of eleven or twelve can come as a profound shock, and in 1920, when it came to me, all such subjects were taboo, never to be mentioned except in a hushed voice behind closed doors, the victim, understanding imperfectly, left to face uncertainty alone. So, for the mother of the 1970s, who is still shy, in our enlightened age, and has an imaginative daughter equally naive, let what follows be a warning on how not to prepare her for what must follow. Amusing, perhaps, in retrospect, not at the time.
One day, when I was twelve-and-a-half, M [DDM’s mother] called me into her morning-room at Cannon Hall and told me to shut the door. She was sitting in her armchair, knitting.
“Daphne, darling,” she said gravely, “I want to speak to you.”
Already my heart thumped. It must be serious, when she had that voice. What had I done wrong? Had I broken something or been rude to someone?
“Now that you’re twelve,” she went on, “you musn’t be surprised if something not very nice happens to you in a few weeks. You have had backaches recently, and this may be a sign.”
“I haven’t a backache now,” I said quickly, momentarily relieved.
“No, perhaps not. But what I have to tell you is this. All girls once they have turned twelve begin to bleed for a few days every month. It can’t be stopped. It’s just something that happens. And it goes on happening every month, until they are middle-aged, and then it stops.”
I stared at her, dazed. To bleed, all my life, until I was old? Was it the same as that illness the poor little Tsarevitch Alexis had before he was murdered in a cellar with his parents and sisters?
She must have seen the expression on my face, for she continued, “It’s all right, it’s not an illness, and it’s not even like a cut. It doesn’t hurt. But you can have tummyache or backache; I myself have bad headaches all the time.”
I remembered now. M often had headaches, and was generally rather cross when she had them.
“Does Angela bleed?” I asked, still unbelieving.
“Yes, but I’ve told her never to talk about it, and you must promise me never to tell Jeanne [her younger sister].”
Perhaps this was the reason Angela so often did not want to join in our games. She must have been bleeding at the time. Poor Angela …
“Now run along, darling, and don’t say anything about this to anyone. You will soon know when it happens to you.”
I was dismissed. I left the morning-room, closing the door behind me. Perhaps it would never happen. Perhaps I would yet turn into a boy. Lucky things, they only bled when they cut themselves or if they were like the Tsarevitch.
I soon forgot the whole business. In one ear and out the other, they used to say.
However, the reminder came soon enough:
One morning, when I raced round the garden after breakfast, before lessons, and was feeling rather tired, the maid who shared the bedroom with us, Alice, came to me with a solemn face and called me up to the night-nursery.
“It’s come,” she said gloomily.
“What’s come?” I asked.
“What your mother told you about, some weeks ago,” she answered, and picking up my pyjamas from the bed, where I had thrown them, she showed me a curious stain. “Come with me,” she said, in a voice of doom, “and I will fit you up with something to wear. Tell no one what has happened.”
Yet everyone knew. Todd looked at me with sympathy when I walked stiffly into the schoolroom. Angela stared. M wore her “pas devant les enfant” expression at lunch. Only Jeanne, my constant companion and buddy, was her usual self. But deception, never before practiced on her, must begin. Why, I asked myself, why? And must this continue, for ever and ever? And M had been right. My back ached. I also felt sick. Nothing would ever be the same again. I no longer wanted to run around the garden, to kick a football, to play cricket. It was like having a temperature, it was like having ‘flu. So what was I to do? I felt the corners of my mouth turn down.
“I don’t feel very well,” I faltered.
“I think you had better go to bed,” said M firmly, “with a nice hot water-bottle.”
If this was what growing up meant, I wanted no part of it. Kindness and understanding from adults was no consolation.
Jeanne’s look of surprise round the bedroom door was a hit below the belt [another hit below the belt? :-)].
“Are you starting a cold?” she asked.
“Yes,” I lied.
So it began. The deceit, the subterfuges, of the grown-up world, destroying for ever more the age of innocence.
Another scene she describes reminded me sharply of a similar incident from my boyhood. At lunch, everybody was discussing developments in the war (WW1), which was then under way. The telephone rang, someone went to answer it, and returned with the news that the Germans had attacked Russia. Everybody began talking all at once. DDM was a young girl at the time, perhaps eight or nine.
One thing was plain. Everybody round the dinner-table hated, loathed the Germans, whoever they were. It was time someone spoke in their defence. I waited for a momentary pause in the torrent of conversation, and seized my chance.
“I like the Germans,” I said. “I’d like to have a German to tea with me here today.”
Everyone stared. Perhaps this had been my real motive. Then M, from the head of the table, rounded upon me, her color high.
“You stupid little girl,” she said, “how dare you talk about things you don’t understand?”
I was instantly silent. People looked away, and began to talk about something else. Instinctively, I knew that what I had said was foolish, ignorant, and I felt ashamed, and yet …there was a sense of secret satisfaction that I had somehow scored against the grown-up world.
In my case, I was older, maybe 13 or 14, and my maternal grandfather was holding forth about WW2 at the dinner table, especially about the Japanese theater of operations. I threw in a stray comment about the inhumanity of dropping the atom bomb on a civilian population. My grandfather turned purple. “They deserved it,” he said sharply in a tone that terminated all discussion. I was chastened. Of course, I knew he (and his family, which naturally included my mother) had had a hard time in Malaya during WW2, but I didn’t think I deserved the rap on the knuckles.
Back to the book. As DDM grew up, she became increasingly unhappy in the family home in London, and escaped whenever she could, to Paris, where she stayed with Fernande, a teacher who had taught her at the French boarding school she had studied in, with whom she had struck what proved to be a deep, lifelong friendship (until Fernande died of cancer). Another refuge was a seaside house (called Merryside) in the countryside, in Cornwall, that her father bought, where she would stay happily alone for months on end, writing and boating. Nearby, in sprawling grounds overgrown with trees and bushes was an abandoned house, Menabilly, which fascinated her (“The place called to me”). The famous Hitchcock horror movie, The Birds, was based on a DDM short story of the same name. It’s not hard to see where the inspiration for the occult elements in her work comes from; she was naturally drawn to strange locations — such as Menabilly — that exuded atmosphere, mystery, and history. Menabilly dated back to the sixteenth century, and whatever she learned about its history fired her imagination. She decided to explore the grounds with her sister Angela:
“‘The drive is nearly three miles long and overgrown’, we were told. I for one was not to be deterred. The autumn colours had me bewitched from the start. So early one afternoon, we set forth, Angela more reluctant, with her panting pekinese held by a leash. We came to the lodge at Four Turnings, as we had been instructed, and opened the creaking iron gates with the bluff and false courage common to the trespasser. The lodge was deserted. No one peered at us from the windows. We slunk down the drive, and were soon hidden by the shrubs and thick undergrowth.
The trees grew taller and more menacing. Yet still the drive led on and never a house at the end of it. Suddenly Angela said, “It’s after four … and the sun’s gone.” The pekinese watched her, pink tongue lolling. And then he stared into the brushes, pricking his ears at nothing. The first owl hooted …
“I don’t like it,” said Angela firmly. “Let’s go back.”
“But the house,” I said with longing. “We haven’t seen the house.”
She hesitated, but I dragged her on. But in an instant the day was gone from us. The drive had become a muddied path, leading to nowhere, and the shrubs, green no longer but a shrouding black, turned to fantastic shapes and sizes. I knew then that I was beaten. For that night only.”
Those seven words “green no longer but a shrouding black” send a shiver down my spine. I no longer wondered that DDM wrote that terrifying short story “The Birds.” (Some critics feel her short stories are much better than her novels.) Many years later, she took Menabilly on lease from its owners, raised her three children in it, and wrote Rebecca there. Thus was fulfilled in adulthood a youthful fascination with an old historical house with an aura whose emanations she had tuned into; yes, DDM was both willful and strong-willed. She doesn’t say so explicitly in the book, but it seems that DDM’s imaginings about Menabilly and its past inhabitants and the surrounding village life came to life in the pages of the novels she would write much later.
DDM was a striking, unusual, enigmatic beauty, and it comes as no surprise that she auditioned for a film. However, she was not interested in acting as it would have meant sacrificing her independence. Besides, it was writing that was on her mind. The book is subtitled “The Shaping of a Writer,” and though she does mention her writing projects, there’s no detailed description of her thoughts on writing, techniques, etc. In fact, there’s much more about her reading than about her writing. The book describes her youthful flirtations — and affairs. The flirtations were just that — frivolous amusement, a test of one’s ability to captivate the opposite sex — but the two men in her life before she met the man she would eventually marry are described in great detail. The first man in her life was an unlikely candidate: he was her cousin, older than her by about twenty years, and twice-married. I will quote from her memories of this relationship extensively, because it’s a fascinating story. Here is how it began — when DDM was all of fourteen:
So how was it that on a summer holiday at Thurlestone, in the midst of paddling and shrimping, I glanced up one day to see my thirty-six-year-old cousin Geoffrey, who had divorced his first wife and was staying with us in company with his second wife, whom he had lately married, look across the beach at me and smile? My heart missed a beat. I smiled back. But why? Where was the difference? I had known cousin Geoffrey all my life, he was fun, he was amusing, D [DDM’s father] and he were the greatest of friends and companions, for there were only twelve years between them. So, why, why that particular smile?
I knew, instinctively, that we shared a secret. The smile was ours. As the August holiday progressed so did the understanding, and this was something that must not be told to others. He would wave to me from the golf-course, a special wave that D did not see, and after lunch, when we all lay out on the lawn like corpses to catch the sun, rugs over our knees, Geoffrey would come and lie down beside me, and feel for my hand under the rug and hold it. Nothing, in a life of seventy years, has ever surpassed that first awakening of an instinct within myself. The touch of that hand on mine. And the instinctive knowledge that nobody must know.
“I think Daph is old enough to come and dance at the Links Hotel,” he said one evening, and we all went, Angela, Jeanne, Geoffrey’s wife, and possibly M, and as the hit-tune of the day, “Whispering,” filled the dance-room Geoffrey smiled again and held out his arms. Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph had not yet been written, but this was it. And I another Tessa. Never any more than this. The dancing, from time to time, and the holding of hands under the rug. No whispers. No kisses. No fumblings in the dark.
The holiday came to an end, and the morning he left he said, “Come and have a last look at the sea.” I followed him. We did not speak. Then suddenly he turned to me. “I’m going to miss you terribly, Daph,” he said. I nodded. Then he looked up at the cliff above, and we saw D staring down at us. “There’s Uncle Gerald, spying, he laughed, “we’d better go.” By mid-morning he had left, catching the train to London, and all the diary tells me, on Monday, August 20th, is “It’s a lovely day. Geoffrey goes. I feel terribly depressed. We bathe and play tennis. I read also.”
This was no casual one-summer-of-madness episode, as DDM now makes clear. That summer marked the beginning of an enduring bond between the two cousins, who were separated in age by 22 years.
Nothing could ever be quite the same again. I had become aware, through my own experience and not by observing others, or by watching actors and actresses upon the stage, that a glance, a smile, a touch, could bring warmth and a sort of magic between two persons of the opposite sex which they had not known before; and if, for the light-hearted though genuinely endearing twice-married cousin of thirty-six, it had been fun to awaken the dormant emotion of a fourteen-year-old-girl, the effect on both of us was enduring. No kisses. No hint of the sexual impulse he undoubtedly felt and indeed admitted, when, years later and myself adult, we talked and laughed about that summer with a true cousinly affection which remained constant until the end of his life — he was even best man at my wedding; but instead, on my part at least, a reaching out for a relationship that was curiously akin to what I felt for D, but which stirred me more and was also exciting because I felt it to be wrong.
In retrospect, how sensible he was to leave me ignorant, guessing, perhaps, at the naivety within. So much so, in truth, that when I did eventually hear “the facts of life” at eighteen from a schoolfriend, I stared in astonishment and disbelief. Was that what all the love stories I had read been about? What an extraordinary thing for people to want to do!
However you slice it, this was a remarkable relationship. The suspicious D now gives Geoffrey a part in one of his stage productions that is set to tour America. Over to DDM:
Was it a move to get Geoffrey out of the country? I have never known or asked. But on October 18th the diary reads, “Geoffrey sails for America. We see him off. Oh, I’m terribly miserable. When shall I see him again?” And on the pink blotting-paper opposite, the quotations from Browning’s Parting at Morning was surely, perhaps for the first time, in keeping with the mood within:
“Round the cape of a sudden came the sea,
And the sun looked over the mountain’s rim;
And straight was a path of gold for him,
And the need of a world of men for me.”
If this was first love, and I believe it was, it found its way into no novel of after-years, though writers are said to draw on their own experiences.
DDM was twenty when Geoffrey re-entered her life:
Then joy, oh joy! What fun! Cousin Geoffrey, Lewis Dodd to my fourteen-year-old Constant Nymph self at Thurlestone, whom I’d barely seen since, was back in England, staying in Plymouth with his naval brother Guy. Could he come over and spend the day? He could indeed!
I met him at Fowey station forty-two years ago, as gay and debonair as ever, with the same come-hither look in his blue eyes, which now, with all the experience of my own twenty years, I recognized and accepted for what it was, just himself.
We flung ourselves down on the slipway at Ferryside, not to hold hands under the rug but to talk and laugh, happy and contented, our moods matching. It was like finding a long-lost brother about whom one would always feel more than a little bit incestuous.
“Why can’t you stay?”
“I daren’t. Brother Guy would be suspicious.”
“Come again, then. Soon.”
“I will. After Whit Monday.”
Which indeed he did, on the Tuesday, and we spent another happy day together, going on one of my tremendous walks. But what amused him most was when I told him that after he had left, on the Saturday evening, D had telephoned from London, probing, suspicious.
“Has Geoffrey been over to see you?”
“Yes, great fun.”
“What did you do?”
“Do? Nothing much. Just lolled about.”
My wicked cousin threw back his head and laughed, the most infectious laugh I have ever known.
“Bless his heart,” he said. “He’s on the warpath again. We’ll pull his leg when you come back to London, and let him imagine the worst.”
When I taxed him about being irresponsible he became suddenly serious and told me he had always been irresponsible, and always would be.
“You know what it is?” he said. “It’s our cursed French blood.”
I smiled and thought of Grandpa [the Punch cartoonist George du Maurier] working away in his studio, faithful to Granny throughout his thirty years of married life. And Fernande, with her strict Normandy upbringing. French blood my eye, I thought; qui s’excuse s’ accuse …
Geoffrey caught the five-thirty train to Plymouth, and I had no telephone call from D that evening.
The story now moves to the du Maurier establishment in London, Cannon Hall. Geoffrey was also staying there, in the garage-room. The love-struck pair now up the ante. The text in quotes is verbatim from her diary:
“When the others go to bed I let him kiss me in the drawing room. Funny, my first experience. I suppose I oughtn’t to let him, but it was nice and pleasant. I wish he could have been more light-hearted about it, though, and then I would have no compunction. But men are so odd. It would be awful if he got properly keyed-up.”
Meg, Geoffrey’s wife, was out of the nursing-home and convalescing at Brighton. Probably his excess of emotion was a symptom of relief. I did not enquire, and the kisses — never any more than that — continued. “It seems so natural to kiss him now, and he is very sweet and lovable. The strange thing is that it’s so like kissing D. There is hardly any difference between them. Perhaps this family is the same as the Borgias. D is Pope Alexander, Geoffrey is Cesare, and I am Lucretia. A sort of incest. Except that kissing Geoffrey is more exciting, and it’s fun creeping down late in my pyjamas, and him too, saying goodnight.”
… Always an avid listener to adult confidences, I enjoyed hearing Geoffrey recount past love affairs — just as D did after Sunday supper — but, whereas D must be listened to without criticism, I would shake my head at Geoffrey and reprove him for bad behavior and weakness of character. “The thing is, I can think so clearly about him. I can see him through and through. One of these days I must talk straight to him and make him promise to tell the truth, instead of always evading it, as he does to other people. I think I should have made a good sister, even if I do foolish things myself.”
The straight talk turned into a straight letter, which I left for him to read, and the next day we lunched together in London, and as the saying goes, ‘had it out’.
“The first glance at his face was enough. He’d understood every word of what I’d written. He told me it was absolutely uncanny how I knew him, every fault, every weakness I had got right. He said it was so wonderful it would never leave him, and it was going to help him tremendously. This was what I wanted, and I felt so glad. We really talked seriously, without any silly business. I believe he is going to pull himself together. I make him promise not to keep on being indefinite, not to be weak, not to take the easy way out, and above all not to lie, to me, to Meg, to anyone.”
The reason for my insistence was that the following day Geoffrey was to sail for Australia, and it might be a year before I should see him again. My Borgia brother … what a strange relationship. And I would miss him. One of the last things he told me before he sailed was that D had questioned him about his feelings for me, inevitably in the dining room after Sunday supper.
“Are you in love with Daph?”
“I’ve been in love with her for seven years.”
“Nothing can come of it, you realize that?”
“I know, uncle, I know.”
End of conversation? It was the only report he gave me, but knowing how much D and Geoffrey were alike, in so many ways, I wondered whether they perhaps exchanged confidences of their young days with mutual understanding. As for myself, I was secretly relieved nothing “could ever come of it,” for a Borgia brother was one thing, a suitor, already married, quite another. No entanglements for me.
With Geoffrey away in Australia, DDM began a relationship with a young man called Carol who worked in her father’s theater company. They’d get together in the evenings, drive around, watch films, saunter in parks and gardens, etc., with the result that DDM would often get back home late, sometimes well after midnight. Her parents chided her about this, which DDM was unhappy about. She tried her best to return home before midnight. An unhappy letter came from Geoffrey which saddened her: he was unwell in Australia, Meg had left him, he was unemployed. He returned to England, a shadow of his former self. In any case, DDM was by then heavily involved with Carol.
DDM eventually married, after a whirlwind ten-week romance, a soldier called Tommy who had read her book The Loving Spirit and wanted to meet the author. This is dealt with in the closing three pages of the book. When it became clear to DDM that she would marry Tommy, Carol was disposed of with nine words: “I also had to break the news to Carol.” We are not told how Carol took the “news.” It must have been very hard on him because “the news” would have come out of the blue, with no foreshadowing clouds. Theirs had been a serious relationship; they had been committed to each other.
There is no doubt that DDM was strong-willed and dominating; she was the decisive type. Once she had decided on a course of action, that was it. Hence, “I also had to break the news to Carol,” almost as though Carol had overnight been reduced to an afterthought. Geoff, on the other hand, was weak and indecisive. In fact, it was the young girl who was the dominant partner in her relationship with the middle-aged Geoff. She decided what the physical limits of their relationship were, and she was the one who advised him on how he should live his life. There is a photograph of Carol in the book, but curiously, none of Geoff. Here is how she approaches her impending marriage to Tommy: “A fuller life … Yes. For henceforth I would come to know what it was to love a man who was my husband, not a son, not a brother.” The “son” is a reference to Carol, toward whom she says she had strong maternal feelings; the brother is her Borgia brother, Geoffrey.
DDM the girl and DDM the young woman come alive on the pages of Myself When Young. Thanks to DDM’s habit of maintaining a diary right from her teens, she’s able to evoke her early life vividly for the reader. After finishing the book, the first thing I did was to Google “Daphne du Maurier.” The Wikipedia article was informative, and even better was this review of a book on DDM and her sisters: Women in Love: The Fantastical World of the du Mauriers. It’s a good thing I didn’t consult the Net before finishing the book, for that would’ve have broken the spell of the book. In a way, what I learned from the FT book review was shocking. The following excerpts are from the FT review unless otherwise indicated
Even among Edwardians, Gerald’s sexual hypocrisy was notable. He longed for a son, never got one and made each daughter in turn his victim. He confided in them (not his wife) details of his own serial affairs while acting horror-struck at theirs. Spoilt, narcissistic, shallow and mannered, he was pampered by his conventional wife Muriel, by his actress-mistresses and his three daughters.
DDM was very fond of her father, and yes, she does mention, though without giving details, her father holding forth about past affairs. Yes, he did act horror-struck at DDM’s affair with Carol.
And yet, after he died, Daphne — who refused to attend his funeral — quite literally wore his trousers for more than a decade. That seems emblematic. All his daughters were tomboys who invented heroic male alter egos. Each had affairs with women and only Daphne enjoyed successful long-term relationships with men as well. An interesting history of love between women is sketched. Dunn explores each daughter’s romantic entanglements in detail, demanding prodigious readerly patience.
I wonder why DDM did not attend her father’s funeral; she seemed fond enough of him, from my reading of Myself When Young. Each had affairs with women? DDM is understandably silent about this, though I now wonder about her deep friendship with Fernande, she of the “slanting green eyes,” with she often stayed in Paris. There’s more in Myself When Young:
A smile from Mle Yvon [Fernande], and I was in heaven. To be ignored, when she was obviously preoccupied, was hell. Then, on an expedition to Paris, I bought a bottle of scent and anointed the handkerchief; and later, in the salon du fond, presented it to her with all the gallantry of Sir Walter Raleigh spreading his cloak in the mud for Queen Elizabeth. The smile, and the inevitable glint of amusement in those green eyes, kept me going for days. Less harmful, maybe, but as insidious as a drug to an adolescent of the 1960s, the approval of my idol became necessity. I was well and truly hooked.
Did they become lovers? I’ll have to read the reviewed book to find out. 🙂
And, yes, DDM did invent heroic boy alter egos as a young girl (Eric Avon), for instance, and even began a story about a young boy called Maurice.
The book comes to life when Frederick “Boy” Browning appears, demanding an introduction to Daphne on the strength of having read one of her novels. Here was a hero of the first world war, an ideal fantasy-figure. Daphne herself, after 10 weeks, proposed marriage. Dunn exposes the narcissistic illusions of each: he was deeply conventional and unimaginative; she self-willed and essentially a loner. They were strangely matched.
This is Tommy, the man she married. With the hopes and dreams of the closing pages of My Life When Young fresh in my mind, this judgment of their marriage sounded cruel, though it has the ring of objective truth.
And how was DDM as a mother?:
Daphne soon retreated into her work, neglecting the daughters whose painful births followed, and in 1938 published Rebecca, which she resented being called a romance [just as many women writers today resent the label “chick lit”?]. The novel was spawned out of her discovery that “Boy” had had an earlier lover who committed suicide.
She neglected her daughters? A constant refrain in Myself When Young is the aloofness between DDM and her mother:
A mutual shyness between mother and daughter which would endure until after D died five years later, when, hearing the news by telephone, I hurried home and found her lying in bed, crying, and she put her arms around me, and said, “He was so fond of you,” and I held her close, for the first time, and tried to comfort her. Twenty-five years too late …
Why would she treat her daughters in the same thoughtless way her mother had treated her? But I believe this is a recurring pattern that psychologists have identified: those who were abused as children are likely to become abusers themselves, those who were bullied as children become bullies as adults, etc. Human beings are perverse creatures, and even novelists (or perhaps that should be “especially novelists”), who animate their fictional characters with admirable skill and psychological insight, often lack insight into themselves and remain blissfully oblivious to the suffering of people close to them. And this is true even of giants like Tolstoy. Ask his wife, whom he treated abominably. Yes, she’s dead, but she lives on in her diaries, which are available in the form of a book (see Of Spousal Wars and Literary Criticism).
For me, the best part of the book was her frank recounting of her love affair with Geoff. DDM’s affection for her cousin shines throughout the book. It’s a strange relationship: A 14-year-old girl and a 36-year-old man (her cousin, twice-married) fall in love. They hold hands and kiss, but nothing beyond that, which is rather hard to swallow, but we’ll have to take her word for it. How would such a relationship be viewed today, when we are so sensitive to child sexual abuse? DDM was in her sixties when she wrote Myself When Young, and her memories of Geoffrey are happy memories. She clearly doesn’t think she was taken advantage of, or if she does, she’s positive about the outcome. Indeed, she says that for her it was “first love.” So who are we to find fault with them if the two protagonists themselves found joy in each other, even if one of them was just a chit of a 14-year-old girl and the other a twice-married 36-year-old man? If they had had sex, I wonder if it would have spoilt everything. I think it would have, but who can tell for certain? And is such innocence possible in today’s overheated hyper-sexual environment?
For me at least, the moral of the story is that when love rules, there are no rules (and especially no rules dictated by social propriety).