Daphne du Maurier and her Sisters: The Hidden Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing by Jane Dunn

Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters I don’t read a lot of biographies but I was pleased to have the opportunity to read this one as Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite authors. Jane Dunn has previously written a book on Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell and another about Elizabeth I’s relationship with Mary Queen of Scots, but this is the first time I’ve read any of her work.

Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters, as the title suggests, tells the story of not just Daphne, but also her two sisters, Angela and Jeanne – or Piffy, Bird and Bing as they were nicknamed. Rather than looking at each of the sisters’ lives separately, Dunn blends their three stories together and shows us the different ways they reacted to the same experiences and the influence they had on each other both as people and as writers or artists.

The three girls were born into a family of celebrities at the turn of the 20th century. Their father, Gerald, was a famous actor and theatre manager and their mother, Muriel Beaumont, was also an actress, while their grandfather, George du Maurier, was a successful writer. Angela (Piffy), Daphne (Bing) and Jeanne (Bird) had a rich and privileged childhood, but not always a very happy one. With a mother who could often be very distant, it was the flamboyant, theatrical Gerald who was the biggest influence on his daughters’ lives – sometimes in a good way and sometimes bad. He was a popular, charismatic man but also a selfish and spoiled one who liked to be the centre of attention and Daphne, who was less outgoing than her sisters, soon grew to resent the non-stop parties and socialising.

As Daphne is by far the most famous of the du Maurier sisters, it’s natural that most people who pick up this book will do so because they want to learn more about Daphne’s life. Having read Justine Picardie’s novel, Daphne, I already knew some of the basic facts – her difficult marriage to the soldier, Tommy ‘Boy’ Browning; her obsession with Menabilly, the house in Cornwall that became the model for Manderley in Rebecca – but I was keen to find out more about the author whose books I love so much. As a fan of Daphne’s novels I was hoping there would be more information on her work, so I was slightly disappointed that Dunn devotes no more than one or two pages to most of her novels, although it was enough to show me how Daphne’s writing related to various aspects of her life and I can now see how autobiographical many of her books were, particularly The Parasites and I’ll Never Be Young Again.

Yet despite my interest in Daphne, of the three du Maurier sisters the one I found I really liked and sympathised with was Angela. Dunn portrays Angela as a passionate, romantic and naïve girl who was eager to please but often felt inadequate and inferior, aware that she was not as pretty as Daphne and not her parents’ favourite. After a failed acting career, Angela wrote several novels but again found herself overshadowed by the success of her younger sister. Whenever she was mistaken for Daphne and asked if she was the novelist she would reply “I’m only the sister” which even became the title of her autobiography. The youngest sister, Jeanne, is not given as much attention in this book as Daphne and Angela, though this is understandable as less is known about her. Daphne and Angela both left behind a legacy of written work which Dunn is able to quote from, but in Jeanne’s case there is less material to work with especially as her life-long partner, the poet Noël Welch, chose not to cooperate.

I was completely gripped by the first few chapters of this book. I loved reading about the du Mauriers’ early years and meeting these three creative, imaginative little girls who enjoyed re-enacting their favourite scenes from Peter Pan and creating their own games and fantasy worlds. The descriptions of life after World War I – the Jazz Age of the 1920s and the lifestyles of the ‘Bright Young Things’ – were also fascinating. But as the sisters grew older and Dunn began to focus on constant holidays to France and Italy, and an endless cycle of friendships and love affairs, I thought the book started to become more repetitive and less interesting.

While I didn’t find this book as enthralling as the first few chapters led me to expect, I did still enjoy getting to know Piffy, Bird and Bing and have been left wanting to read the remaining Daphne du Maurier novels I still haven’t read, as well as maybe trying to find one of Angela’s.

I received a copy of this book for review via Netgalley

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18 thoughts on “Daphne du Maurier and her Sisters: The Hidden Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing by Jane Dunn

  1. Elena says:

    It is interesting how even when we know a little about a writer’s life, we never stop to question what it’d be like to be related to them. I’m sorry for Angela, I’m sure she was a valid individual as well, but outer pressure can completely destroy one’s dreams, expecatations and even self-steem.

    • Helen says:

      I felt sorry for Angela too. I wonder if her books would have been more successful if they hadn’t always been being compared to Daphne’s.

  2. Alex says:

    Having enjoyed ‘Daphne’ I thought I might get hold of a copy of this, but perhaps not. Is there much about the girls relationship with their cousins, the boys who inspired ‘Peter Pan’?

    • Helen says:

      The Llewelyn Davies brothers are mentioned a few times, but not as much as I had expected. We are really only given the basic facts about them – there’s no in-depth exploration of their relationship with the Du Maurier girls.

    • Helen says:

      There are not many biographies that have managed to hold my attention right to the end. This one was so promising at the beginning but I started to lose interest halfway through.

    • Helen says:

      It was fun, especially at the beginning. I suppose I just found the girls’ childhoods and teenage years more interesting to read about than their adult lives.

  3. Elizabeth Bailey says:

    I’m so glad to have this as I’ve got the book on my wish list. You’ve made me want to read it. I was convinced The Parasites was autobiographical, though I found them horrible people when I read the book! As another fan of Du Maurier, I’m very interested in her own story, and I hadn’t heard of the other biography. I might check that out too. Thanks for the review.

    • Helen says:

      It’s definitely worth reading if you’re a du Maurier fan. I hope you get a chance to read it. And I agree with you about the horrible characters in The Parasites!

    • Helen says:

      Apparently Angela wrote eleven books including her autobiography. I would love to try one of them, but they all seem to be out of print and difficult to find. Jeanne had some success as a painter – I just realised I hadn’t mentioned that in my review!

  4. Charlie says:

    That quote from Angela is quite sad, just from that you can see she felt inferior. Now I’ve read she wrote, too, I’ll have to look up her work. It does seem strange to only have a page or two on Daphne’s books, but then I suppose she wrote a lot of them and if the focus is on all three sisters, there’s already enough about her in other books. I think I’m more interested in this for the sisters, knowing there’s not so much known about them!

    • Helen says:

      The focus is definitely more on the sisters’ personal lives and the relationships between the three of them. I was surprised to find that I liked Angela a lot more than I liked Daphne!

  5. Miss Bibliophile says:

    This sounds interesting, a little reminiscent of some of the biographies I’ve read of the Mitford sisters. I’ll have to give this a try (or at least the first few chapters!).

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