Originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol. IV
When one thinks of groups of sisters throughout history, it is often their social lives that come under scrutiny, and then their literary output. It is as though they were half expected to write a novel or a volume of memoirs to compensate for their celebrity status, whether they were talented or not. Fortunately it was the former with the du Mauriers, and both Angela and Daphne (though to a larger extent) would write books. As with Nancy Mitford’s novels, predominantly The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, the du Mauriers books were largely inspired by not only their childhood and events in their lives, but of the landscape in which they lived and had visited.
Like the Mitfords, Angela (1904), Daphne (1907), and Jeanne (1911) had an unusual childhood not in the depths of the countryside but largely spent at Cannon Hall, in Hampstead, where fascinating guests filled the home, and their father Gerald dominated the girls, for better or worse. Except for a few terms at Miss Tulloch’s school, their education was confined to a governess as Gerald did not wish for his daughters to be exposed to the wicked world. The Mitfords would also be kept at home, but for different reasons: their father did not want them to develop thick calves from playing hockey. However, unlike the Mitfords, the du Maurier girls were exposed to the arts on the domestic front and there was nothing unseemly about a trip to the theatre, or harbouring an ambition to go on the stage. Whereas Farve went up to London once a year to see a play, taking his daughters with him, and often critiquing it on the journey home – ‘That foolish boy, Romeo…. and that damned nurse, bloody bitch. She was probably an RC!’ Gerald du Maurier was an actor-theatre manager, and he also had a brand of cigarettes named after himself. Their aunt Sylvia Llewelyn Davies was the mother of the five boys who inspired J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, and this fed the girls’ imagination. They identified themselves as a tribe, in the vein of Barrie’s Lost Boys, and Daphne and Jeanne thought of themselves as boys, whereas Angela was happy to be a girl, even if she did think herself unattractive. And, as with the Mitfords, theirs was a feral upbringing of secret societies, schoolroom antics and silly nicknames. Angela, the eldest, was Piffy; Daphne, the middle girl, was Bing; and Jeanne, the youngest was Bird. Their mother, Muriel, was a vague presence in their lives; a former actress, she was beautiful and aloof, and did not pander to her children except when critiquing them. The same was true for the Mitfords, as their mother, as well as their beloved nanny, often told the six beauties that nobody was looking at them (especially Diana, the most beautiful). Muriel was often exasperated by her daughters’ appearance, especially Angela’s heavy build and lack of fashion sense – she was once mistaken for the nanny when she accompanied her sisters to a birthday party.
Angela’s innocence lasted all of her life, and she believed in the mythical figure of Father Christmas long into adolescence. Unlike the Mitfords who were quite cynical as children and when they were taken to see Peter Pan they would yell ‘No!’ when the cast called out, ‘Do you believe in fairies?’ Angela herself did believe in fairies and, after a well-meaning servant placed ‘fairy circles’ in the garden to enchant the children, it was her younger sister Daphne who discredited the stunt and said there was no such thing. Angela however dissolved into tears and accused her of speaking ill of the fairies. She was the only one out of her sisters who believed in the afterlife and often spoke of being reunited with spirits on a supernatural realm. Daphne, as imaginative as she was, scoffed at her ideas. Despite her inability to keep up with the quick wit of her family, her childhood home represented security and a barrier against growing up. Something the Mitfords could not relate to, for each girl, with the exception of Pamela and Debo, was aching to break free. ‘The finish of security. Doubt lies ahead. Adieu les jours heureux,’ Angela wrote in her diary. In a way, she would always retain a childlike enthusiasm, and throughout her life, as in the nursery, she was seldom without an idol to worship.
The ‘business of growing older’, as she referred to it, represented more than double figures to Angela, and she was apprehensive about swapping her childhood clothes for a grown-up trousseau; ‘one was a fish out of water, too young to listen to sophisticated conversation, at the same time not wishing to play cricket on the lawn with younger sisters and their friends’. She was sent to finishing school in Paris but she was stifled by homesickness and it was to be a miserable experience. Like Pamela Mitford, Angela was the scapegoat for her sisters teasing and the other girls’ antics, and she had no ambition to be a bright star on the horizon. Her spirits were momentarily lifted when her parents and sisters arrived to take her on holiday to the south of France and then on to Algiers. Daphne thought it a great adventure and was spellbound by the architecture, Jeanne was too young to appreciate it, and Angela, having read The Garden of Allah, was determined to fall in love. The object of her affection was Roland Pertwee, a married man whose wife had left him, and he took up with Angela and Daphne, acting as a tour guide and chaperone. But Angela’s idea of a chaste romance fizzled out when Pertwee decided she was an unsophisticated schoolgirl and, after accompanying her to Paris, he dropped her at her finishing school and vanished.
When Angela returned home she became interested in politics, having met Peter Macdonald, an MP for the Isle of Wight, and she became a Young Conservative. Throwing herself into the political campaign, she travelled to darkest Southwark but was appalled at the poverty she was subjected to, and she began to question her Tory ideals. Many doors were slammed in her face. A man shouted that he ‘voted for Labour and always would’, Angela’s only response was to sigh and say, ‘Yes, so should I.’ Thereupon, she became a converted socialist and argued with Macdonald, with whom she thought she was in love despite the fact he was married. She proposed a deal to him: if the Tories won all would be well with them, and if Labour won they would go their separate ways. This was reminiscent of Unity and Decca Mitford, albeit through a sisterly bond, they agreed to disagree when it came to politics, but each one agreed to shoot the other if they had to for the sake of their ideological cause. To Angela’s dismay Labour won the 1929 General Election and Macdonald was no longer the focus of her thoughts, but it marked a watershed in her romantic life. Around this period she began to branch out from her family, as painful as it was, and to visit friends at their country houses. On such a visit to Lady Cynthia Asquith’s home, where a group of young people were staying, Angela, who was aged nineteen, was kissed by Lord Dunglass. It had taken place in her bedroom, and she was convinced she would become pregnant. Harbouring this secret, she wrote to her aunt who reassured her that she could not.
Although she held a romantic ideal of love and dreamt of having children, she was appalled by sex – this was prompted by an acquaintance telling her about reproduction and she felt sickened by the biological facts at play. ‘My father would never do such a thing,’ she said. Then, when she absorbed the information told to her, she felt ‘betrayed’ by her parents ‘because the truth was so HORRIBLE that they couldn’t bear to tell it to me’. When her mother found out she ‘harangued’ her for having learned the truth and said she could never trust her daughter again. Adding to this wretchedness, when she was twelve-years-old and walking in the woods, a German soldier whom she saw was wounded and went to help him had exposed himself to her. After this, she felt confused and distressed, and ashamed of what had happened but she knew she must keep it a secret. By her own admission it had stunted her social development.
Furthermore, Gerald had always confided his infidelities to Angela and Daphne, telling them of the young actresses whom he was stringing along, and he invited them to mock the women’s naivety, thus dividing their loyalties to their mother who knew nothing of these chats. This added to Angela’s mistrust of men, and the view that all men, once they had caught a young woman, would move on to someone else. Yet, despite their talk of his affairs, and the girls’ referring to the young women as ‘the stable’ (as in fillies vying to win a race), Gerald was pathologically jealous of his daughters’ coming into contact with young men, especially Angela who was not as loyal to him as Daphne. She recalled him watching from an upstairs window as she returned from a party, and cross examining her whenever she walked through the door. He wanted to know if anyone had kissed her, or had made a pass, or indeed if she found a young man attractive. And he warned that she would ‘lose her bloom’ if she had done so, for a man’s attention would somehow tarnish her looks and everyone would know she had been corrupted. Soon after her coming out in society, he began to call her a whore, and when she complained of pains in her stomach he accused her of being pregnant – it turned out to be appendicitis. The Mitfords father, too, could be frightening when his daughters sought love matches with men he disapproved of, and during their youth he was forever calling their male friends ‘sewers’ and threatening to horsewhip them but he did not cross the threshold of causing psychological harm.
As a debutante she attended dances in London and found a friend in a young Cecil Beaton who, despite his waspish nature, was charmed by her wholesomeness. It was the Jazz Age, and the young ladies of her generation were dressed in the height of 1920s fashion, but Angela was to suffer in the stays from her childhood corsets and flouncy dresses. She failed to become engaged, or to even find a suitor, but she developed a crush on Gwen Farrar, an actress on the West End stage who was notorious for her lesbian pursuits. Her parents, regardless of their theatrical backgrounds, did not approve of the friendship with Gwen, and they put a stop to it. Angela was heartbroken, and in many ways she shared a childish vision of romance with Nancy Mitford, her contemporary. Nancy herself pined for an unsuitable man who was not only gay but treated her badly, and yet she loved him and thought they would marry. This innocence has been attributed to the sheltered upbringing of girls of their generation. Daphne, although younger, believed life as well as love was ‘no fun unless there’s a spark of danger in it’. I think Diana and Decca Mitford certainly agreed with her sentiment.
In an attempt to distract Angela from the business of politics and her ‘unsuitable’ friendship with Gwen Farrar, Gerald suggested she play Wendy Darling in the annual Christmas and New Year performance of Peter Pan at the Adelphi theatre. Nancy would also experience a helping hand on the career ladder when she was given a job at her grandfather’s magazine, The Lady. Angela was undaunted by the task ahead, and although she was an untrained actress the play was so familiar to her that she was word perfect. Gladys Cooper was cast as Peter, and the social world of the theatre appeared to be the tonic she needed. There were rehearsals every day, and parties every night, and Angela was once again in love, this time with Ian Hunter who had been cast as Mr Darling. But the director’s vision of the play did not match Angela’s childhood memories of the story and she clashed with him. After weeks of preparation, she felt nervous and uncertain of herself in the part, and her lisp was intensified and she spoke quickly and forgot her lines. The nepotism on Gerald’s behalf in casting his daughter ahead of classical actresses proved disastrous when, on opening night, she struggled with her wire and flew into the orchestra pit. She was battered and bruised, and embarrassed by the spectacle but, regardless of her personal feelings, she carried on with the show. Although she would never make it as an actress, Angela had somewhat fallen prey to theatrical types and she was conned by a photographer in to posing nude. She was ashamed and upset by the results of her modelling.
As was her wont, Angela retreated back to the family home and into her childhood world. At the age of almost thirty she appeared content to stay at home and write in her diary, and she lived off her yearly allowance of £150. It was the era of the celebrity debutante and her fellow debs, who were now young wives and prominent London hostesses, were serving as muses for painters and photographers alike. Nancy Mitford, too, had succumbed to the alter and married an entirely unsuitable man, but at least she had finally married. Angela had no such luck, or interest. But she played the part of a jolly upper-class girl and Cecil Beaton asked Angela and Daphne to sit for him, and he photographed their blonde heads peering out from behind wineglasses. The surreal composition, though artificial to the untrained and perhaps modern eye, was thought of by Angela as the most flattering portrait ever taken of her.
It would be wrong to portray Angela as a loner, for she had a collection of close female friends whose company she sought. There was a ‘romantic adventure’ with her best friend, Angela Shaw, and her Pekinese, Wendy. They motored in Angela’s MG Midget on their way to the west coast of Scotland and the Isles of Mull and Skye, but this was cut short by a collision in Yorkshire. The car, hurled into a ditch, was so badly damaged it was possible the women and dog survived because of its open top and they were thrown clear. Angela suffered a head injury and was badly concussed, and the rescuers at first thought she was dead. Her first words, when she came to, was to ask about Wendy. Shaw, though conscious, and in agony from a smashed collarbone, resented Angela’s concern for the dog. They were taken to Ripon Cottage Hospital, where they convalesced in a children’s ward, and Wendy was placed in a cot by Angela’s bed. Shaw, high on morphine, cried out that she was at the ‘end of her tether’.
Perhaps a bitter blow to Angela’s confidence was the progression of Daphne. Like Nancy Mitford, her younger sister Diana had triumphed in many areas where she herself had not. Angela was not a natural writer, but she showed a creative flare, and she wrote her first novel A Little Less, which was rejected by publishers. Around this time, Daphne’s debut novel, The Loving Spirit, was published and her great literary career began. With the publication of Daphne’s fourth novel, Jamaica Inn, Angela’s second attempt at fiction, The Perplexed Heart, was accepted by publishers hoping to cash in on the du Maurier name. Eventually her first attempt was published a decade after it was written and it provoked parental outrage when they discovered its theme of a young woman’s love for another. How could sheltered Angela have known of such things? her parents wondered. The publishers’ rejection letters matched the sentiments of the du Mauriers: the lesbian theme was ‘too unpleasant’. And on the romance front Daphne had excelled where Angela did not. She married Sir Frederick Arthur Montague Browning, known as Tommy, and would have three children. Likewise Jeanne became a talented painter, and as with Angela, she did not marry but lived for the rest of her life with a woman. Pamela Mitford would do the same, leading to speculation as to the nature of the relationship with such companions. As with Pamela and her volatile marriage to Derek Jackson, an alpha male, Angela and Jeanne’s difficult dynamic with their father had disillusioned them towards the male sex. Angela’s case was far more complex, she was neither of her parents’ favourite – Daphne was her father’s golden child, and Jeanne, the easy-going baby of the family, was her mother’s pet – and so she was constantly searching for affection and a place to belong.
As she grew older, Angela’s debilitating homesickness left her and she travelled around continental Europe, staying in luxurious hotels. It has also been said that Gerald’s death in 1934, although a great loss for Daphne, had liberated Angela from his put-downs and teasing. She would live with her mother until Muriel’s death in 1957, and be a constant presence in Daphne’s life. The sisters, including Jeanne, might not have been as candid with one another, as say the Mitfords, but they were prolific letter writers. In her later years her common sense and strength of character made Angela the sister they could all rely on. She would outlive both Daphne and Jeanne, dying at the age of ninety-eight in 2002. The landscape of the places she visited, most especially western Ireland, had become embedded in her imagination and in her work. She continued to write, whether her novels were well received or not, and in her lifetime she published eleven works of fiction and two autobiographies. Friends warned her to censor her life, thinking she was (surprisingly) too advanced for the modern reader. She heeded their warning, and censor it she did though it was far from dull. Having plucked up the courage to live the life she dreamed of in the nursery, Angela would never entirely shed the insecurities of her youth, but she bravely took the reigns of her destiny. Her best-known book, an autobiography, was inspired by those who diminished her work in favour of Daphne’s. Its title, Only the Sister, verifies just that. But she was so much more…