Reviews of the Week
The Fortunes of 64 Kicky "
IF George du Maurier, like his friends Millais and Keene, had been accorded a conventional " Life and Letters " soon after his death, then no doubt many of these delightful letters, now first published, would have been buried in some great lump of a book and have long been lost to view among the remoter library shelves. But posterity, more by luck than judgement perhaps, proved kind to that gay, loyal, laughing genius of his and never presumed to shut up his mercurial spirit in a comprehensive monument. Instead, his biography has been written warmly, nostalgically, haphazardly, in his own three autobiographical novels, in the affectionate but frag- mentary recollections of his friends Thomas Armstrong, Felix Moscheles and Charles Hoyer Millar, in. two books by his gifted grand-daughter Daphne du Maurier, and more recently in an excel- lent little volume by Derek Pepys Whiteley which did justice to his early work as an illustrator. That, despite all this, du Maurier himself-55 years after his death—should have the last and most telling word, was hardly to be expected. But so it has turned out. I think that this new book of his private letters to his mother, his best friend, and the girl he loved, charmingly illustrated by his own spontaneous sketches, is the best book that du Maurier ever wrote —exposing, as it doeS; all unconsciously and unaffectedly, the ups- and-downs of his Anglo-French artistic temperament, the quick engaging sympathy of the musician whose songs at the piano were a lasting memory of Bohemian London, and (as a binding force behind it all) the guiding principles that were fought for " not without dust and heat," the abiding faith in the ultimate rewards of family life.
Born and bred in Paris, du Maurier inherited his musical talent and much of his charm from his French father, unsuccessful as an inventor, but a remarkable singer whose musical ambitions had been discouraged by his parents. More charm, and probably wit and courage as well, came to him from his mother, and from his maternal grandmother, Mary Anne Clarke, notorious for her liaison with the Duke of York. He grew up showing unusual promise as artist, musician and writer, but was temporarily condemned to the uncongenial study of chemistry. He was 22 when his father died, in 1856, and he then persuaded his mother to let him leave London, where the family had established itself in Pentonville, and return to Paris to study art in the milieu which he recreated more than 30 years later in Trilby. Later " Kicky " (this was a childhood nickname that stuck) moved to Antwerp, to work under De Keyser and Van Lerius ; it was in the latter's studio that the girl's head he was drawing suddenly seemed " to dwindle to the size of a walnut." The sight of the left eye became irretrievably lost ; the right eye was saved. Du Maurier spent two depressing years consulting oculists in Belgium and at Dusseldorf before returning to London in 1860, determined to succeed as a free-lanceartist for the illustrated papers.
The letters now published tell, with unusual and satisfying com- pleteness, the story of " ICicky's " struggles and triumphs during the eventful seven years that followed. Most of them were written to his mother and sister at Dusseldorf, where they had settled down to eke out an existence on a very small income which it was du Maurier's -constant endeavour to supplement. Other letters were written to his great friend Tom Armstrong and to his sweetheart Emma Wightwick (" Pem "), who before the end of the book has become his wife and the mother of two children. The letters have been skilfully dovetailed to form a running narrative, and are inter- spersed by many of the drawings contained in them, with some from other sources. Miss Daphne du Maurier contributes an adequate introdtietion and Mr. Derek Pepys Whiteley some useful notes.
Sir Bernard Partridge said that du Maurier was the only really bi-lingual person he had ever met, often beginning a sentence in English and finishing in French. His letters owe much of their attraction to the way in which French expressions keep bubbling up. "Tu vois que je suis en veine of luck," he writes, and, after men- tioning his achievements, adds: "Pourvu qu'va dure, quoi 1" Else- where we find: " Tu vois mon cher that I'm not yet in the saddle " ; "Punch and I un petit peu en froid, but I don't think it will last " ; " Miladi made the most charming overtures to intimate friendship, mail je doute de sa sincerite. . . ." Yet, though the English and French elements in du Maurier's character blended so happily in his talk or his letters, he often felt them seriously at odds within himself. During his long engagement to " Pem " he wrote a dia- logue between " the two voices " for Tom Armstrong. His English self cries: " Why do you torment me till sleep forsakes my pillow, you foul, French. . . ." And his French self replies: " Tiens! pourquoi m'empeches to d'baiser tout le monde, vertueux fits d'Alb. . ." Then the English voice rather piteously exclaims: "If she knew of your existence she would despise and loathe me ! "- to be answered with "Pas d'danger, va ! tine lois qu'tu seras mane, c'est pas moi qui viendrai edit-anger !" (And so it proved, for it was a very happy marriage.)
I like this the best of du Maurier's books not only because it gives, in the most natural way possible, a very attractive impression of a sympathetic personality, but also because the sketches show how much grace and poetry existed in this young artist—qualities obscured, alas, by the long series of stylised Society pictures which he subsequently contributed to Punch. In the long run, his black- and-white work was overshadowed by the greater achievement of Charles Keene, but there are touches in these early sketches that hint at lost potentialities in his art. No doubt he had too many talents to go right to the top in any of his three departments. His novels were marred by diffuseness and by the extravagances of his plots—faults which I found insurmountable in Peter Ibbetson, though the fantastic hypnotism idea in Trilby is so well worked out, and so pleasantly set off by his student recollections, that that wildly successful book (his best novel, I think) is still worth discovering and persevering with in the changed literary atmosphere of today. But the truth, as these letters suggest, seems to be that du Maurier was so much alive as a person, and gave himself so freely and warmly to his family and friends, that his best creation was, simply —himself. If he had been less agreeable, more single-minded, something formidable might have emerged ; but I doubt if any reader of these letters would wish him at all altered. (One would be glad, incidentally, of a gramophone record of his singing voice.) Aside from what I should consider its chief- value—the fresh insight that it affords into du Maurier's character—this is an important book for anyone interested in the artistic history of the eighteen-sixties. Whistler, Millais, Leech, Keene, Swinburne, Rossetti, Watts, Burne-Jones—all these and many more come vividly into " Kicky's " crowded pages. It is a warm-hearted chronicle, with the running refrain: " What dear fellows artists are ! "—although Whistler, who is " the grandest genius I ever met " on page 11, has become " spiteful and cynical et pas amusant du tout" on page 227. Safer by far to rely on such a friend as Charles Keene—" unchange- ably jolly and mild sunshine as ever "—and such a sweetheart as the adorable and adoring " Pem." Oh, yes, despite liver attacks, and passing phases of depression, and troublesome " in-laws," it was a good thing to be young George du Maurier in the 'sixties. And some of us in the cold impoverished present may not yet be too frozen to feel a glow of warmth from his enthusiasm, or take, a lesson in living from the days when men were men, and women were women, and artists " such stunning fellows."