Mary AnneDaphne Du Maurier
Daphne du Maurier
Foreword by Lisa Hilton
Table of Contents
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Mary Anne Clarke, the notorious mistress of the Duke of York, had much in common with her descendant, Daphne du Maurier. Both women wrote bestsellers, both combined lucrative careers with motherhood, both saw themselves, accurately, as the principal breadwinners in their families. It seems natural that du Maurier would have found a sympathetic subject for a biographical novel in her scandalous ancestress, in particular because she believed the defining characteristic of Mary Anne’s personality to be one she herself shared, that of a woman alone and embattled in a world of men. In 1954, before the feminist explosion of the sixties and seventies, du Maurier interpreted the life of Mary Anne with a surprising prescience, an identification of the issues surrounding male and female power that were to galvanize the next generation of women writers. Du Maurier was no more a purely “feminist” writer than she was a “romantic” one, and she expressed contempt for such lazy and, in her eyes, dismissive categorizations. But just as Mary Anne is self-declaredly an unromantic book, it might be said that it is du Maurier’s most overtly feminist work, in its suggestion that the world that elevates and eventually crushes the heroine might not, in two centuries, have changed a great deal.
Mary Anne was written at a very troubled time in Daphne du Maurier’s life, and it seems clear that the concerns of the biographer often inform her interpretation of her subject. Eight years after his return from the war, Daphne had still not managed to repair her partial estrangement from her husband, “Tommy” Browning, and though outwardly they appeared an ideal couple, their separate careers, he in London, and she in her beloved Cornwall, and the absence of a sexual relationship between them, were a source of great private strain. It is possible that the problems in Daphne’s marriage were heightened by the fact that she had become intensely involved with two very different women. Ellen Doubleday, the wife of her American publisher, was a great unrequited passion. After meeting on Daphne’s first voyage to America in 1947, they began a torrid epistolary relationship, but Ellen made it quite clear that her love for Daphne contained nothing physical, a rejection that infuriated Daphne at the same time as she denied fervently that she had any lesbian tendencies. She explored her feelings for Ellen in her successful play, September Tide, which starred Gertrude Lawrence, with whom Daphne quickly began a relationship of the sort that Ellen refused to countenance. When Gertrude died in 1952, aged only fifty-four, Daphne suffered from a profound and agonizingly private grief. She had discussed the relationship between herself and Gertrude with Ellen, but none of her family understood why she suffered so dreadfully at the death of a woman whom she had, after all, known only four years. Daphne had enjoyed great success with her novel My Cousin Rachel in 1951, and she knew that the way to recover was to write herself out of her depression. It is unsurprising, though, that Mary Anne proved a difficult book. With Gertrude, Daphne had discussed the possibility of turning Mary Anne Clarke’s life into a play for Gertrude to star in. The story was to have been a lover’s gift; yet two years later, lonely, ill and in mourning, Daphne shut herself up in her freezing garden hut in Cornwall to turn what had been intended as a tribute to her friend’s dauntless exuberance into a form of elegy.
Mary Anne Clarke is a furiously ambitious woman, who learns early that the only way to drag herself away from her mother’s lot of dreary drudgery is to beat men at their own game. She despises men as “a race to be subjected,” while recognizing that the world is run on their terms, and that the alternative to attempted equality is her mother’s passive, craven weakness. This ambition is at once intensely feminine, concerned with protecting her family at all costs, and inappropriately masculine, determined upon power and a place in the world beyond the dreary kitchen of her childhood in Bowling Inn Alley. If Mary Anne is to prostitute herself, it will be on her own terms, and she refuses the pimping service offered by “Uncle Tom,” to maintain, at least, a determined independence in her choice of lovers. Her audacity is both her success and her ruin. She learns that it pays to deceive, to be cunning, to beat men’s injustice by matching it, yet eventually this idée fixe destroys her judgment and her wit, and she is brutally punished by a masculine culture that is “antagonistic because they knew her worth.”
Men, thinks Mary Anne, are all little boys, who need to be cosseted and protected from their own irresponsibility. Time and again, the men in her life upset her careful plans, from her drunken husband Joseph—whom she successfully leaves, only to have him reappear and destroy, with unbearable stupidity, her relationship with the Duke of York—to her whingeing, lazy brother Charley, whose adolescent pomposity du Maurier brilliantly captures in his proud use of military acronyms, and whose arrogance is such that he dares to criticize his sister, who has fed, clothed and kept him, for losing the Duke on the grounds that “You were only a woman, his mistress, but we were men.” Even the Duke, the all-powerful Prince, the great commander, is weak and indecisive, easily swayed by his acolytes, and with an aristocratic disdain for money (initially imitated by Joseph Clarke) that forces Mary Anne into surreptitious commission-broking in order to maintain the vast, expensive household he so casually demands.
It is interesting that some time before the theories of psychosexual linguistics became fashionable in academia, du Maurier located Mary Anne’s awareness of gender difference in language. The young Mary Anne teaches herself to read from printers’ proofs, observing that the vowels are like women, and the consonants the men who depend on them. Since society conceals this dependence, it is a masculine language that Mary Anne must learn, a language of politics and newspapers and legal terms. It is crucial that du Maurier places such emphasis on Mary Anne as a writer, first of scurrilous pamphlets and then her own salacious memoirs, since the anonymity of print is the one place a woman can be seen, or unseen, as an equal. The compatibility of writing and femininity was always a treacherous issue for du Maurier herself, who often said that she wished she had been born a boy, a wish her father Gerald confessed to sharing in a poem he wrote for her as a child. Daphne felt ambivalent about her roles as a woman and a writer, an ambivalence that was reinforced in later life by her sexual feelings for Ellen and Gertrude. The first time she met Ellen, Daphne confessed that she felt “a boy of eighteen again with her nervous hands and a beating heart.” “Again” is the telling word. As a child, Daphne had apparently convinced herself that she was a boy, and her biographer Margaret Forster comments on the devastating psychological consequences of puberty on this belief.
In the novel, Mary Anne makes her first error of judgment by falling in love with Joseph, impelled like Mary Yellan at the conclusion of the earlier novel, Jamaica Inn, by an irresistible sexual urge that represses her intuition. In Jamaica Inn, Mary abandons the prospect of a secure life to follow her wild lover Jem without fully understanding why; “because I want to, because I must,” and it is this weakness in women that Mary Anne initially despises, only to succumb to it in adolescence. Daphne du Maurier famously compared the masculine side of her personality to a jack-in-the-box, whom she would release, when alone, to caper through the silent rooms of the night, and one wonders whether sh
e saw this image as being her writer’s self, unhampered by gender. “It’s people like me,” she wrote, “who have careers, who have really bitched up the old relationship between men and women. Women ought to be soft and gentle and dependent. Disembodied spirits like me are all wrong.” Mary Anne is another career woman, another disembodied spirit, and her frustration at the limitations of her femininity recall Daphne’s own continued and complex dialogue between what she perceived as her own sexes.
Much of the vividness of Mary Anne’s story is due to the fact that du Maurier was able to bring practical, as well as emotional experiences to bear on the book. Her portrait of the Duke of York—bluff, boisterous, a whirlwind of energy in the quietness of a feminine household—might owe something to the return of her own soldier husband to Cornwall after the war. As Tommy worked in the household of Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth, du Maurier also had first-hand experience of royalty off duty, enabling her to convey not only a confident sense of a royal prince as a human being, but also Mary Anne’s disappointment at what she is surprised to find are the Duke’s rather bourgeois tastes. Similarly, du Maurier could draw on personal knowledge for the courtroom scenes in which Mary Anne is a witness in the Duke of York’s trial at the House of Commons for military broking. In 1947, on the same trip during which she met Ellen, Daphne had been forced to answer charges that she had plagiarized forty-six episodes in her bestseller Rebecca from a 1927 novel called Blind Windows. The charges were a farce, but Daphne found the experience of discussing her writing in public “degrading.” “When I got up on that bloody stand,” she wrote, “I wasn’t just fighting a foolish charge for plagiarism, I was fighting all the evil that has ever been, all the cruelty in myself.” Her image of Mary Anne on the witness stand, pathetic and vulnerable yet self-consciously culpable, highlights the way in which the law can make victims of women while being too unsophisticated to determine questions of personal morality. Mary Anne has connived at corruption, but she sees herself as having no option in a world in which the men who make the rules are also those who consistently betray her.
Du Maurier is also concerned in Mary Anne with the correlation between the physical and the psychological constructions of the feminine self. Mary Anne’s ambition is her downfall, and her punishment is made physically manifest on the means by which she has achieved that ambition: her body. She is cheerfully untroubled by selling sex, a transaction which for her has nothing to do with love. The snores of a peer, she observes, are less grating than those of a mason, and she is practical in estimating the amount of time it will cost her to satisfy her lovers. Poor Lord Folkestone has to make do with a skimpy half hour. The hypocrisy of the men who condemn her in the House of Commons while still trying to buy her favors is highlighted by Joseph, who infects her while she is still his faithful wife with the venereal disease that causes her two miscarriages and, du Maurier suggests, leaves her infertile. Mary Anne’s rebellious body is ultimately punished in prison, where her daughter recalls her mother’s condition as “horror beyond description, someone white and wan who could not stand, whose eyes were glazed, who stared without recognition when carried out of hell into the world.” Mary Anne has indeed climbed high, and the proof of her achievement of equality is the necessity of her destruction.
Daphne du Maurier herself did not much care for Mary Anne. “The whole thing,” she wrote, “is lacking in human interest and reads like a newspaper report.” Indeed, much of the latter part of the novel, meticulously researched from old court documents and articles, does read this way; yet while it lacks the tight, gripping plot beloved of du Maurier fans then and now, the novel never quite manages to achieve the dullness its creator so harshly claimed for it. Daphne consoled herself with the thought that whatever else the book’s shortcomings, it was definitely not “romantic,” a word which had already begun to plague her by the time of Mary Anne’s publication in 1954, and which has dogged serious appreciation of her work ever since. There never was a less romantic, even, one might say, downright unappealing heroine as Mary Anne Clarke, a quality which perhaps contributed to Mary Anne being the least commercially successful of her books in the first year of its publication.
Why, then, amid such a distinguished oeuvre as du Maurier’s, is it worth reviving? Perhaps because, like its heroine, the book is possessed of such unforgettably vivid charm that one is seduced, despite oneself, into forgiving its faults. Du Maurier compared the change in her style in this novel to “a lush painter turning abstract.” While Mary Anne does not attempt to form an historical composite, a portrait of an age, Daphne never makes the common historical writer’s mistake of describing as surprising details that would have been commonplace to contemporaries, and we see always, with marvelous economy, through Mary Anne’s cynical but lively eyes. The prose has a sense of eagerness, of rush, the clauses tumbling impressionistically over one another, so that in the most successful sections we inhabit the heroine’s thrilling, rackety existence with the urgency and excitement of Mary Anne herself. Mary Anne may have been almost finished by her attempts to get even with the world of men, but, as du Maurier points out, she has the last laugh on her lover, as a raffish middle-aged Cockney woman cheerfully picnicking by his grave. The men in her life are agreed only on the enchantment of her smile and that gay insouciance with which she flips her champagne flute over her shoulder to toast the future in splinters. Daphne du Maurier has collected the shards, and though there are cracks in her portrait, it still scintillates, a captured prism of words that joyously illuminate another world.
MARY ANNE CLARKE
my great-great-grandmother died Boulogne, June 21st 1852 and to
who was to have acted the part on the stage died New York, September 6th 1952 in memory of both
My grateful thanks to Sir Walter Peacock for his notes on Mary Anne Clarke, which gave me much valuable information; to Oriel Malet for long hours spent at the British Museum and the Public Record Office; and above all to Derek Pepys Whiteley for his tireless research through books, papers and documents of the period, and his most helpful advice on the necessary works to be consulted.
Years later, when she had gone and was no longer part of their lives, the thing they remembered about her was her smile. Coloring and features were indistinct, hazy in memory. The eyes, surely, were blue—but they could have been green or gray. And the hair, knotted in Grecian fashion or piled high on top of the head in curls, might have been chestnut or light brown. The nose was anything but Grecian—that was a certainty, for it pointed to heaven; and the actual shape of the mouth had never seemed important—not at the time, or now.
The essence of what had been lay in the smile. It began in the left corner of the mouth and hovered momentarily, mocking without discrimination those she loved most—including her own family—and those she despised. And while they waited uneasily, expecting a blast of sarcasm or the snub direct, the smile spread to the eyes, transfiguring the whole face, lighting it to gaiety. Reprieved, they basked in the warmth and shared the folly, and there was no intellectual pose in the laugh that followed, ribald, riotous, cockney, straight from the belly.
This was what they remembered in after years. The rest was forgotten. Forgotten the lies, the deceit, the sudden bursts of temper. Forgotten the wild extravagance, the absurd generosity, the vitriolic tongue. Only the warmth remained, and the love of living.
They remembered it one by one as they sat alone at different times, figures shadowy and indistinct to each other. And though the paths of some of them had crossed, there was no friendship between them; the link binding them together was involuntary.
The strange thing was that the three she had loved most all went within a year of one another, while the fourth did not lag far behind; and each remembered the smile before he died. They heard the laugh, clear and strong,
with nothing ghostly about it, ring in some sound-box in the brain; and memory, like a sudden hemorrhage, flooded the mind.
Her brother, Charles Thompson, was the first to go, and this was because he lacked patience, and always had done, ever since he was a little boy and had stretched up his hands to her, saying, “Take me with you, don’t leave me behind!” He had thereby entrusted himself into her care forever, so that never, then or in his adult years, was he free of her or she of him, which had brought them both to disaster.
It happened, the end of things for him, after a tavern brawl, when he had been talking big as usual—about himself in the old days, the most promising company commander in the regiment, due for promotion. Out came the old story once again; his ill-health, the spite of his colonel, the animosity of his brother officers, the manifest unfairness of the court martial, and—to crown all—the petty revenge of the Commander-in-Chief, who, by disgracing the brother, sought to revenge himself upon the sister.
He looked around him, expecting sympathy, but nobody cared very much or bothered to listen, and anyway it had all happened so long ago, what did it matter? They turned their backs upon him and began to fill their glasses, and Charles Thompson rapped his upon the table, an angry spot mounting to his cheek, and said, “Listen to me, damn you! I can tell you things about the royal family you wouldn’t credit. If you knew, you’d heave the whole House of Brunswick across the Channel.”
And then somebody among them, who could remember back sixteen years or so, softly whispered a crude verse that had been sung about that time in the streets of London, unflattering to Charles’s sister. The fellow intended no harm, he meant to be funny. Charles Thompson thought otherwise. He stood up and hit the man on the mouth, and the table fell over, and Charles hit somebody else, and all was clatter and confusion, noise and blasphemy, until he found himself out in the street, with the blood pouring down his cheek and the derisive laughter of his late companions ringing in his ears.